Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy (?) Columbus Day

Salvador Dali's "The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus"
Today, we Americans observe "Columbus Day". As Catholics, we remember this important discoverer whose name is given to the Catholic men's organization, "The Knights of Columbus". However, the day is also reviled by some as a paean to human bondage and racial destruction. Sadly, both voices are strong in the Catholic Church.
While it seems to be the mode of the day to put a face on our grievances, Christopher Columbus himself was a pious and religious man with an incredible genius. He was one of the first to question the "flat earth" theory and to pursue his findings. He also faithfully served the missionary spirit of his day in bringing Christ to the pagans. He is credited with writing about the "Indians" of the New World:

"As I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force, I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted and became wonderfully attached to us... I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion." 

In today's religious climate which has become rather secularized, Columbus' piety in some degree may appear to be simplistic. Columbus can be cartooned as some sort of puppet by an evil Spanish regime. And protests against him and his discovery can be viewed as revolt against the oppressor. Anything American or English can be suspect in some quarters (oddly enough, the language of the "oppressor", if the argument is carried out, would be Spanish but I digress).

This intriguing article published a while back, puts an interesting "middle path" to the divisive debate:

Columbus Day: Celebrating a Truly New World By Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo
Columbus Day is now "contested" - as current terminology would have it. Some view with joy the anniversary of the navigator's historic landing in part of the Bahamas. Others see October 12 as a day to mark the beginning of oppression, enslavement and genocide. Both sides claim Catholic America as their home.

As a Latino Catholic, I prefer a third option -- a Latin American version of Columbus Day as Día de la Raza, a day we celebrate the beginning of a "new breed" within the human family. José Vasconcelos, the Mexican philosopher, called it the Cosmic Breed.
The conflicting approaches to Columbus Day is not a trivial matter to be dismissed with a footnote that Columbus did not actually DISCOVER America, inasmuch as people had been there for centuries. This is a fight over control of the symbols of what constitutes America. Did the Western Hemisphere's continents become a "New World" because of Christopher Columbus or in spite of him? And is there another perspective?

Some hold up this Genovese sailor as the far-sighted free thinker who brought science to a benighted age that didn't even realize the world is round. He carried Western civilization to the red-skinned savages scattered about in un-Christian and unproductive societies. In a Protestant 19th-Century United States, Columbus was extolled for having transcended Catholic Spain and Europe when he had placed enterprise and science at the centerpiece of his vision. Thus, it was argued, he constituted the noble "first" American, because the United States alone has followed in his legacy. Towns were named after him in celebration of such achievements. Not to be outdone in this generally Protestant enthusiasm, the Catholic answer to Masonic Lodges named themselves "the Knights of Columbus," emphasizing his Catholicity.

Admittedly, the contrasting view of Columbus has emerged more recently. The Americas already were populated by peoples happily living in harmony with nature, it is said. Columbus brought genocidal epidemics, disastrous wars of conquest and continuing oppression by creating colonial societies that based superiority on racial whiteness. The deaths of tens of millions of Native Americans and the senseless attacks of their cultures and religions were the fault of Christopher Columbus. Rather than a day of rejoicing and parades, October 12th should be observed with mourning and funeral marches.

If you have an Italian Catholic as a friend, you can get a fuller explanation of the first vision of Columbus first hand; if you know a Latino or Latina, turn to them for chapter and verse on the second interpretation of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. If you have a half-Italian-half-Puerto Rican in your family, as I do, prepare for bewilderment.

History does not provide much solution to this confusion. Columbus was an enigmatic character, both skilled at the helm of his ships and inept as a governor of his discoveries. Moreover, suffering what appears to have been a nervous breakdown when his hair turned completely white almost overnight, his last writings add to the mystery. Was he a nut case with wildly distorted understandings or a saintly mystic of deep piety? At any rate, the debate is about Columbus as a symbol, not as a historical figure.

I rest with the Latin American version of Columbus Day: Día de la Raza. We celebrate not so much the event as its result:-- a "new breed" within the human family. ("Raza" doesn't mean "race" in quite the same way as in English.) Whatever Columbus' intentions or mistakes, Latin America under Spain began to tolerate, legalize and eventually encourage racial intermarriage. Centuries later, the Mexican philosopher, José Vasconcelos, described us as "La Raza Cósmica" (The Cosmic Breed), because we have virtually all of the world's skin colors in our demographic rainbow: white, black, red and yellow.

Racial mixture is what we Latinos and Latinas celebrate on October 12th. As the Puerto Rican patriot Pedro Albizu Campos proclaimed, there is a distinctive Catholic pride in this holiday. Unlike so much of Protestant North America where racial mixing was looked down upon, Catholic Latin America officially recognized the equality of races at the dawn of modern history. I am happy to celebrate Columbus Day by thanking God for my Puerto Rican-Italian nephews and nieces. Let's make October 12 a day for the living, not for the dead.