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October 12th:  A Day To Celebrate? 

By Victor Montoya* 

The white man’s myth 

10/08/07 "ICH" -- -- I remember when, as a child and uneducated, I thought that October 12th was the Day of the People of the U.S.,[1] and that Christopher Columbus, the white-skinned character in that silk jerkin, was a kind of Indiana Jones. But doubt overcame me when my classmates began changing their names, when Mamani turned into Maisman, Quispe into Quisbert, and Condori into Condorset.  And so I began searching for the cause of this strange metamorphosis, until I found the answer in my textbooks.  The Admiral of the Oceanic Sea, Viceroy of the lands of the New World, Naval Explorer and Governor, who was neither from Genoa nor Portugal, but not from Spain, either, appeared in an illustration on his knees, his gaze fixed on the wide heavens, as if thanking God that he was still alive after a long and difficult crossing.  Although wearing neither helmet nor armor, he bore in one hand the royal colors and in the other a sword with protective hilt and cross-guards. Behind him could be seen the three caravels floating between heaven and sea, while from the coast of Guanahani, which looked like a paradise without snakes or sins, emerged indigenous people with copper skin, naked torsos, and looks of astonishment and terror.  

My teacher, who had an aquiline nose and the prominent cheekbones of an Inca princess, was the first to share with us the conquerors’ official story.  She explained to us that Christopher Columbus represented civilized man, whose physical and mental skills had led him to discover the ocean’s mysteries and to discover peoples living in backwardness and ignorance.  I believed her as the faithful believe a priest, without knowing that we were being taught the white man’s myth, and that my teacher, indigenous on all four sides, had spoken with a voice borrowed from those men who thirsted for blood and riches, as what she called “Day of the Race” was, in reality, the day against the race–against her own race–, apart from the fact that in America, from Canada to Cape Horn, nothing remained the same after that fateful October 12, 1492. 

The two faces of the conquest 

Years later, reading a storybook, I learned that Hernan Cortes in the north and Francisco Pizarro in the south had set off to conquer the lands baptized with the name of Americo Vespuccio and not Christopher Columbus, who died in anonymity without ever knowing that he had opened the doors of an unknown continent where some thought they had found the earthly paradise, like the Jesuit Leon Pinelo, who, in the 18th Century, in a scholarly work, attempted to show that the Parana, the Orinoco, the Amazon, and the San Francisco were the four sacred rivers whose sources, according  to holy scripture, were in Paradise. 

The conquest was an inevitable fact–our teacher told us–because it meant the victory of civilization over barbarity.  The white men were bringing progress with them: the Bible, gunpowder, firearms, navigational instruments, the mercantilist economy, iron, the wheel and other things, while the Indians were still garbed in feather headdresses and professing barbarous religions.  But what the teacher failed to mention was the cultural and scientific flowering of the pre-Colombian civilizations, such as the fact that the Mayas had put together a much more exact calendar than the Western one, that they employed the base-twenty system for math, and that they used a writing similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs; that the Inca empire built terraces and canals for farming, practiced cranial trepanation, and had a social system that respected the earth’s collective community and in which all community members collaborated in the construction of public works.  In brief, the teacher did not speak of what the pre-Columbian peoples had achieved, but rather about what they had not achieved. 

Every October 12th, as the “Day of the Race” was celebrated in a civic event, the school principal would remind us that on Christopher Columbus’ ships and in the conquerors’ saddlebags came “political pluralism, freedom and the protection abundantly bestowed upon the Indians”.  But no one reminded us that on those same ships arrived deathly diseases, and that with those same saddlebags, in which had come the holy Inquisition, crime and terror, were stolen the gold and silver that ended up in the coffers of businessmen in Genoa and Antwerp, and that financed in Europe the Baroque splendor of the monarchies and the decisive take-off of Western mercantilism. 

More than five hundred years of discrimination and racism 

The principal spoke to us admiringly of Christopher Columbus’ deeds and of the Christian faith which the conquerors taught us, but no one said a word about the predatory and devastating genocide of the indigenous peoples; about the new beliefs and customs imposed by blood and fire; and, what is most important, about the social and racial marginalization of the indigenous and black peoples in the new colonies, where the Creoles became lords and masters of the conquered lands, with the right to enjoy social and economic advantages and privileges but also the right to become the ruling class; a sort of white man’s supremacy that, from October 12, 1492 on, is reflected in the latent racism that inhabits the collective subconscious of America, where not a few indigenous and black people change their identity: they change their language, their name, and their clothing, though the black person dressed in silk is still black, and the indigenous person, even with a medical degree and European last name, is still indigenous to the marrow. 

When I finished school, I understood that the truth or falsity of the same history depended on whose voice was telling it, because when I began to read the version of the conquered, of those at the bottom, I realized that the arrival in the Americas of the Europeans was a bloody event, and that the Christian religion, born as an instrument of struggle on behalf of the oppressed, had become an instrument of oppression during the conquest, that the so-called “discovery by Columbus” meant the annihilation of vast civilizations, and that October 12th was not a date to celebrate, but rather to reflect upon. 

All in all, my teacher taught us to despise ourselves, as if teaching how to tell black from white, because in her lessons she spoke in negative tones of the Indigenous–perhaps with more cruelty than Pizarro and Cortes, and with less compassion than Bartolome de Las Cases and Vitoria–and because the knowledge she passed on to us from the official history books did not correspond to the version of the conquered, but rather to that of the conquerors. 

Many years have passed since then. I ceased being a child, and she ceased to exist.  But I can no longer accept that October 12th is still celebrated as “Day of the Race”, despite the fact that we, the mestizos of America, though we may look at ourselves in the mirrors of Europe, will not cease to be the bastard children of the conquest, of the plundering and the rape, just as were the children of La Malinche in Mexico and the daughters of Atahuallpa in Peru. 

Still, if we can still blush from embarrassment, let us have the courage to recognize that the only thing we have inherited in over five hundred years of plunder and colonization is the shame of being what we are, that social pyramid where the dark is at the base and the light at the peak, where skin color and last name continue to be among the factors that in America determine a person’s status, both social and economic. 

Translated by Sally Hanlon and Luis Rumbaut 

* Bolivian writer residing in Sweden. Victor Montoya, writer, cultural journalist, and pedagogue. He was born in La Paz, Bolivia, on June 21, 1958. From early childhood he lived in the mining towns of Siglo XX and Llallagua, in northern Potosí department, where he learned of human suffering and took part in the struggle of the workers of the underground.

In 1976, as a result of his political activities, he was persecuted, tortured, and jailed by the military dictatorship of Hugo Banzer Suárez. While imprisoned in the National Panopticon of San Pedro and in the top-security jail of Chonchocoro-Viacha, he wrote his eyewitness book, “Strike and Repression.”
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[1] Translators’ note:  The original phrase in Spanish is “Día de la Raza”– literally, the “Day of the Race”– a broad concept referring to the cultures of  Spain and Latin America and meaning “Day of the People.”  It has roots in celebrations, beginning in the early 1900s, in Argentina and Spain, substituting Fiesta de la Raza and Día de la Raza for Día de Colón.  In the US, it is called Columbus Day.

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