Holidays are an important way that cultures reflect their values. They serve as a means of commemorating something that is mutually recognized as important by a society. But when not everyone shares the values being honored – as is often the case – controversy is produced.
The terms “merry Christmas” and “happy holidays” are not just simple greetings, but reflect a person’s personal beliefs about the significance of Christmas. Many are uncomfortable with the celebration of Halloween, which can often seem to glorify the morbid and the evil.
Another good example – and one that has only become more and more contentious in recent years – is Columbus Day. This commemoration of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas has, according to an article by Lakshmi Gandhi for NPR, been celebrated as a federal holiday every year on Oct. 12 in the United States since 1936. This historic occurrence marked the arrival of the European colonizers in the New World, from the French in Quebec and Haiti, to the British in Anglo-America and the Caribbean, to the Portuguese in Brazil, to the Spanish in all of Spanish-speaking Latin America. This is a phenomenon that many feel is not worth honoring.
For example, Eric Kasum, writing for the Huffington Post, argues that “if Christopher Columbus were alive today, he would be put on trial for crimes against humanity. Columbus’ brutal treatment of peaceful Native Americans was so horrific, maybe we should hide the truth about Columbus until our kids reach at least high school age. Let’s teach it to them about the same time we tell them about the Nazi death camps.”
Such is the extreme opposition that the holiday faces today. Within the past two years, the cities of both Saint Paul and Minneapolis, following a larger national trend, have replaced Columbus Day with the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, according to an article for RT.com.
What’s the big deal about such a minor holiday? Why bring it up now if it’s not celebrated for another half a year or so?
The real issue isn’t Columbus Day itself. Columbus Day is just one manifestation of the controversy over the European conquest of the Americas, a controversy that is relevant year-round.
I’ve been thinking about this more and more during my semester abroad here in Ecuador, a South American country that has maintained a strong indigenous presence. What this country is today is a direct result of Spanish colonization. That leaves me – and anyone who ponders the issue – with a tricky conundrum. The Spanish conquest, or “conquista,” was, in many ways, a brutal tirade of exploitation. But at the same time, it must be conceded that none of this beautiful culture I see around me here in Ecuador (or anywhere in Spanish Latin America, for that matter) would exist if the conquista never taken place. How should these two facts be reconciled?
The fact that the Spanish conquistadors and the colonial leaders that succeeded them perpetrated countless unspeakable crimes against the indigenous peoples they encountered is undebatable. No one denies this and no one supports this. One needs only read the accounts of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, a bishop who worked tirelessly to protect the rights and dignity of the indigenous peoples, to understand the horrors the indigenous people experienced from the very beginning. In “Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies” he recounts the brutal tortures and killings of innocent natives, oftentimes committed by the conquistadors out of sport. I’ve learned more and more reading “Resumen de Historia del Ecuador” in my history class here in Ecuador, but the details can be found in any history textbook. Entire civilizations of people were subjected to centuries of systematic exploitation.
Considering this, it is tempting to make a blanket condemnation of the conquista. What could possibly worth celebrating in such a tragedy? I believe the appropriate response, however, is more nuanced.
There is a key distinction to be made between what can be considered the “conquest” and what can be considered the “encounter.” In other words, the brutal subjugation and exploitation of the indigenous peoples vs. the meeting of the vastly different civilizations.
The conquest can be condemned outright. When the Spaniards arrived in the New World, they had no right to enslave, torture, and murder the natives and they had no right to steal their land and resources. That statement should not be at all controversial.
But the encounter is not the conquest. The encounter consists of the interaction between the Old World and the New World, the sharing of cultures and the creation of a beautiful new culture in the process.
In principle, there was nothing wrong with the Spaniards introducing their cultural customs, the Spanish language, the Catholic religion, and unique European resources and knowledge. Unfortunately, these were not always introduced in an innocent, friendly manner, but rather imposed unjustly. But the value of the things the Spanish introduced is not influenced by the way they were introduced. Modern Hispanic-American culture is a direct result of the contact between the Spanish and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. We can celebrate and honor that beautiful culture without being 100 percent in favor of what took place to bring it about. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that civilizations are often, if not always, formed through conquest. History provides numerous well-known examples. Our own American culture was brought about through the colonization of the British. Much of the culture found on the Indian subcontinent is the result of the arrival of the Aryans in ancient times. The New World was no stranger to conquest when the Spaniards arrived – great empires such as the Incas and Aztecs had come to dominate large expanses of territory. Even the Spanish themselves owe their roots to the Roman and Moorish conquests of the Iberian Peninsula. This doesn’t in any way justify such power-hungry conquests, but it doesn’t mean we can’t recognize the value of or have pride in these cultures either.
This is the key distinction: cultures can be honored for their beauty and goodness despite the fact that they owe their roots to violent and unjust periods of domination. We can and should value this new Latin American culture that was the result of the meeting of the Old and New Worlds (a.k.a. the encounter) without supporting the often depressing details of how that meeting played out (a.k.a. the conquest).
It’s a shame that the meeting of the two worlds had to turn out the way it did. Humanity had such a precious opportunity in its hands and it was tainted by the greed and arrogance of too many individuals involved in the Spanish conquista. Imagine if the Spaniards had decided to make peaceful contact with the native peoples, trading rather than taking, appreciating rather than disrespecting. We would surely look back on it now as one of the greatest triumphs in history.
Apart from the domination and exploitation, it can be said that the encounter truly was a positive historic event. It is quite incredible that two halves of the world developed separately from one another without interaction for thousands of years. The meeting of the two, in the long term, advanced the human race as a whole. First of all, it allowed for an unprecedented exchange of knowledge and resources.
Also, while it might be controversial to say so, some cultural practices are intrinsically wrong; no culture is perfect. The Spanish conquista brought an end, for instance, to the Aztecs’ barbaric ritual of human sacrifice. It also created the beautiful gem that is modern Hispanic-American culture. We can praise the positive effects without at the same time praising the negative effects.
Some may argue that the very fact that contact with the Spanish altered the indigenous cultures of the Americas is wrong in itself. Was not enough of the original indigenous culture preserved? Perhaps. It must also be realized, however, that culture is never static, but rather in a constant process of change. There is no such thing as a “pure” culture. Any given culture is the product of a host of external influences and this is very natural.
After so many words, my ultimate argument is this. The conquest of the New World by the Spanish, with all of its killings, cruel exploits, and other human rights abuses was awful. But the fact that the two worlds encountered one another and produced, above all, a culture full of beauty, vibrancy, and complexity was wonderful. Those two statements are not incompatible. To deplore the Spanish conquista, we don’t need to feel as if we have to compromise our love for Hispanic-American culture. To celebrate Hispanic American culture we don’t need to try to defend the Spanish conquistadors and colonizers. Rather than wishing the Spaniards had never set sail for the Americas, wish that they had all come with the intent of making a friendly exchange between civilizations rather than a desire for personal gain through whatever means necessary. We can’t change the past, of course. We can, however, look to it, learn from the good and the bad, and act accordingly in the future.
In the future, rather than celebrating a figure like Columbus who represents the conquest, hopefully we will celebrate a hero who exemplifies the good of the encounter or perhaps – as many cities in the United States have already done – we will celebrate the original inhabitants of the American continents.
Photo: “New York 2008 – Columbus Day” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Jorbasa Muwa