Día de la Raza

Día de la Raza (Columbus Day)

day of the raza  October 12

A Holiday Without Celebration: Dia de La Raza

by Tara A. Spears

“On the tree of humanity, there are many leaves and flowers, but our trunk will always be indigenous…”            Cuban patriot Jose Marti

In some parts of North and South America October 12 pays tribute to the controversial explorer and conqueror, Columbus. But in Mexico, the holiday is called Dia de la Raza and focuses on honoring the ethnic diversity of its people rather than the expansion of European civilization through the efforts of the Spanish crown. As early as 1836 Oaxacan historian Don Maria de Bustamente termed the October 12, 1492 event as “the most villainous day there could ever be in America; the day its slavery was established.”

On October 12, 1946, José Vasconcelos, who was the Mexican Secretary of Education and is credited with molding its present educational system, made a speech celebrating the arrival of Columbus because it “transformed and enlarged the world”. His philosophy, which he called “aesthetic monism,” attempted to deal with the world as a cosmic unity. In his many writings on the subject, he called for a synthesis of Mexican life based upon indigenous culture, which he believed transcended what he saw as the narrow limits of Western culture. He called this the Cosmic Race, La Raza Cósmica.                                                     

day of the raza1In 1985, Miguel León Portilla, the eminent historian of pre-Hispanic Mexico published an article called “The Encounter of Two Worlds”. In it, he explains that this was a reciprocal encounter on physical and conceptual levels; his theories sparked a great controversy. On the one hand, Columbus is viewed as hero of the new republic, finding a way to escape Old World tyranny. Columbus was the solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea, survived the dangers of a wilderness frontier. That because of Columbus’ vision and audacity, there was now a land free from kings, a vast continent for new beginnings. Biographies were published praising him as the model of modern man. On the other hand, ethnic groups, historians, sociologists, defenders of human rights and many others all over the world have since seriously questioned the prevailing views of yesterday. Current assessment labels Columbus as avaricious, cruel, and paving the way for the enslavement of the native people by the conquistadors- a far cry from hero. It would seem that everyone has forgotten that his voyage and claiming of the new continent were an accident; his exploration done in the name of the Queen of Spain; and his purpose was intended to discover a shorter trade route, not a New World.

Since 1928, October 12th has been a national holiday, celebrated in Mexico and much of Central America as Dia de la Raza, or Day of the People. Dia de la Raza celebrates the Meztizo people, the melding of European culture with that of the New World. It is the European and indigenous Native American bloodlines that produced an identifiable “Raza,” or stock of people, that has survived through 511 years of cultural development. Unlike in North America, where colonists systematically exterminated the native population, Mexico assimilated the conquerors, their language, religion, and government, while keeping to their own traditions. Cristobal Colon, paved the way for the devastating exploitation and plunder of the New World’s resources and its people, destruction of the Inca and Aztec civilizations, bringing slavery, disease, and 300 years of Spanish occupation.

So, what do countries like Mexico, Peru, and Central America have to celebrate? They can focus on the conquistador’s’ heirs–or rather–the product of the conquest of the Americas, the mestizos. The Americas can heal its racial wounds when mestizos not only stop hating Indians, but stop hating themselves. Part of the healing requires that we all start to view mestizos as one group, with multiple identities, cultures and histories, albeit begotten of war and conquest. Perhaps a better term for mestizos is bridge people who, because of their unique experience of coming to terms with the conflict that created their culture, can be bridges over the walls of prejudice.

day of the raza2While the controversy is not over, it has produced some positive results. One of them is that it has brought attention to the plight of the indigenous populations of America. Mexico is involved in a broad range of efforts to improve the living conditions of its indigenous groups. Legislation to that effect is pending before Congress and there is a new wave of respect for the myriad native people heritage and contributions to the mainstream society.

In the words of former Mexican President Zedillo: “Mexico’s cultural strength, which is recognized and admired the world over, is the result of the very rich cultural diversity of our states and regions. Our task of greatest importance is to recognize and celebrate that diversity, encouraging its strengths and disseminating it.”

Now, 500 plus years later, whether one believes that the chance event was a blessing or a curse, we celebrate the actions and influences of all the people who came after Columbus, who melded their European culture with the indigenous cultures and, with difficulty, blood and years of battle, misunderstandings and treachery, have created the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society we now celebrate with the Día de la Raza- Day of the People.

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