Columbus Day’s many meanings

My husband and I laughed last October when we learned that our daughter, who was living outside Madrid, would also be having a holiday on Columbus Day. It had not occurred to our rather ethnocentric selves that the country who launched the infamous explorer would take the occasion to mark this anniversary, which we Americans consider a birthday of sorts. Perhaps the clue should be in noticing that Americans include the enormous land mass that runs nearly pole to pole and includes dozens of countries. In fact, a number of countries mark this occasion with varying emphases.

In Spain it is called Hispanic Day, or National Day. Until 1987, it was in reference to Spain’s connection with countries of Hispanic origin. Today it is marked with a flag raising ceremony and military parade. This was to accommodate the Conservatives, who wanted to emphasize heritage and the Republicans, who wanted to highlight democracy. The Bahamas, where it was generally believed that Columbus first made contact, entitle their holiday Discovery Day, while Costa Rica celebrates Day of the Cultures.

We begin to encounter more controversy as we move to other countries. Argentina calls it Day of Race, with some trying to rename as Respect for Cultural Diversity. In Chile and Mexico, it is called the Day of Indigenous Resistance, more pointedly accentuating the fact that while the “discovery” of the Americas brought contact and exchange with Europe, it also brought tremendous conquest, colonization and suffering for many of the indigenous peoples, from which many have yet to recover. In Bolivia, the day is called pointedly, Day of Mourning for the Misery, Diseases and Hunger Brought by the European Invasion of America. Diseases were in fact the major cause of genocide because the indigenous people were not immune to what was carried in. Different countries have waged campaigns to change the name of the holiday to varying success.

Columbus could not have known what was to follow his urge to cross the vast sea to the west. Said he, “For the voyage to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps. Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.” Although he thought it was China, it was established as a distinct land mass the year after his death. Columbus brought foods, horses and tyranny along with diseases to the New World, a mixed bag by anyone’s count.

Nothing is all forward motion. There are prices to be paid with any effort to stretch boundaries and push beyond the status quo. I like to think of Columbus Day as a tribute to the notion that we can look beyond where we are. It is always a gain to consider what we can learn from outside the box, because from there we are afforded an expanded view of what rests within. To do so responsibly, it is important to be aware of where we tread, and what the impact of our exploration might be. So many natural parks demand that we leave no trace, and take out what we bring in.

I think of the prime directive of the Star Trek explorers not to change the natural order of wherever they encounter. While this is not possible one hundred percent, it does give shape to the exchange, while maintaining respect for the beings they meet. I hope to hold this kind of vision while I push my own boundaries, and appreciate that Christopher Columbus played a major role in shining a light on these Americas, where I have to privilege to reside.

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About Meg

Meg is a licensed independent clinical social worker with over thirty-five years clinical experience. She holds a Master’s Degree from the Boston University School of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts from the State University of New York at Binghamton.