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When I spent my first Columbus Day in Mexico, my first reaction was “Mexico celebrates Columbus Day?” It is embarrassing to recall now, but I think after years of elementary school training, I was conditioned to think “Columbus discovered America” and, in typical egotistical fashion, I assumed “America” referred to the United States. Somehow, even knowing that Columbus landed in the Caribbean and never saw the U.S. didn’t alter my narrow-minded thinking. My teacher said “Columbus discovered America” and my young brain left it at that.<br /
It took just a nanosecond to realize my surprise was illogical. October 12th is a date of enormous significance for the Spanish-speaking world. Before dawn on that day in 1492, Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) and his crew first spied land from the decks of the Pinta and later that day dropped anchor off the shore of a Bahaman island. By December he had also explored Cuba and the island of Hispañola (today the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The “discovery” was made in the name of the Spanish crown, the voyage’s financier. Within fifty years of Columbus’ first voyage, nearly all of Central and South America had been colonized by the Spanish
Given the importance of October 12th in Spanish history, perhaps it is surprising that Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1866 by the Italians of New York City, in honor of Columbus’ Italian heritage. It wasn’t until 1913 that the day was made an official celebration in Spain (and soon after in Latin America), as a way to commemorate the union of Spain with the peoples of the Americas, the forging of a new pan-Hispanic identity, and the spreading of the Spanish language. Generally, October 12th is considered a positive celebration of the mixing of peoples and cultures. As in the United States, the day is also viewed with skepticism and anger by some, who view Columbus’ arrival to the Americas as the beginning of the violent destruction of native peoples.
Columbus Day has a number of different names in the Spanish-speaking world. According to Wikipedia, in Spain and Ecuador it is currently known as El Día de la Hispanidad (Day of Spanishness), in Mexico as the Día de la Raza (Day of the Race), in Chile as El Día del Descubrimiento de Dos Mundos (The Day of the Discovery of Two Worlds), and in Uruguay as El Día de las Americas (The Day of the Americas). In Venezuela, the day has been known as El Día de la Resistencia Indígena (The Day of Indigenous Resistance) since 2002.