On conquest and culture, Columbus Day (2008)

Growing up, the Columbus Day holiday was always a bit of a mystery to me. I was torn between what I was learning in school and what I was hearing at home. In the classrooms of PS 299 in Brooklyn, we learned that, “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” We read about how he and his crew aboard the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria discovered the Americas, while trying to land in Asia. He was a hero according to my teacher, and so we sang songs and drew pictures celebrating his life and his discoveries.

At home, my mother told me about the forts that the Spaniards built on her island of Puerto Rico. Some of these forts were started as early as the 1540’s and were added to, for the next several centuries. While some Spaniards were building these strongholds in PR, others led by Coronado, for example, were marching across the southwest US in what is now New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, also discovering and claiming new lands for the monarchs overseas.

In our school books, Columbus was described as the discoverer of the New World; but then came the Conquistadors with names like Cortes, Pizarro, Balboa and even one Cabeza de Vaca (cow’s head). I found it easier to pronounce these names than my teachers did, but that didn’t help my understanding. The story I was learning now, was getting very confusing. These small bands of armed men were roaming around the American countryside discovering and renaming things the people they were conquering, had already discovered and named. Even today, the southwest and west of the US echoes in its names, the passage of this history in places like Colorado (reddish), Nevada (snow covered), Montana (Mountain), Los Angeles (the angels), Palo Alto (high pole), El Paso (the passage), and hundreds of others.

So what did Columbus have to do with US history? I didn’t get it. He was an Italian sailor, backed by the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. His voyage opened up a trail for other Spaniards looking to discover new riches and claim lands in the name of the Spanish throne. There did not seem to be a connection between Columbus and the United States, really. In his four trips to the New World, he never made it further north than Central America. But what Columbus did, was begin a great story about what happened when these two different worlds met. He began a narrative with heroes and villains, and set up a framework for our national mythos.

On my last visit to Puerto Rico in 1981, when I was fourteen, we visited one of the Spanish forts, Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, named after King Phillip II of Spain. I remember being impressed by its size and by the weight that the place seemed to express with every thing; the iron work, the bolts in the floors, the anchors for the cannons. We were able to explore several dark passages where there were holding cages for prisoners and traitors. My mother refused to venture in to see these rooms because as a little girl she was told that they also held slaves and natives in those rooms. From this fort and others like it, the Spanish held off the other powers of the old world and held el Puerto Rico (the rich port) for themselves for nearly four centuries.

What Columbus started in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, a small group of religious separatists were about to duplicate in the colder northern part of the Hemisphere. We learned in school the amazing story of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, and suffered, unprepared, through a harsh New England winter, I endure yearly now. What the textbooks didn’t say was that there had been nearly twenty other unsuccessful ventures that tried to establish a foothold in the north for the British monarchs. The books also fail to mention that the Mayflower’s passengers had obtained a deed to found their colony in Virginia, close to the already established Jamestown colony. Had the Mayflower not been blown off course, however, we wouldn’t have the first great chapter in our national story, that of Thanksgiving, and we’d have to invent some other heroic beginning. What began with Columbus’ landing, continued in the north with the establishment of the British colonies.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that our part of the country is called New England. Here too, the past echoes its roots in the names of places like Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford, Gloucester, New London, and hundreds of others. My father, after whom I’m named, was born in 1945 in Manta, Ecuador, far from this part of North America’s eastern seaboard. Even though no one in my father’s family spoke English, they understood the power of the language and the call of the American dream. They were given names like Walter, Edison, Daniel, and Gladys. My father’s name is Henry not Enrique, and his middle name which he passed on to all three of his sons, is Wilson. There was not a Jose or Manuel or Carlos in the bunch when they arrived in New York City in 1964 seeking their fortunes.

Like everyone since Columbus landed somewhere in the Caribbean, my parents came to the New World seeking fortune and opportunity. In the story of the US, the original settlers first had to combat the elements and the no-longer-so-friendly natives to pursue this cause. As I was learning about the establishment of our fledgling country, the heroic names of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and others replaced the stories of the conquistadors. Around this same time, I also discovered books that described the horrible encounters between those explorers I once viewed as heroic and the natives of my mother’s island and my father’s homeland. I was confused again about Columbus Day and why we celebrated it in the United States. I read the first hand accounts written by Bartolome de las Casas of the brutality inflicted upon the natives all over the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America by the Spaniards. During the course of this civilizing campaign, the Spaniards took with them overseas corn, potatoes, vanilla, tomatoes, papayas, bananas and whatever precious gems and metals they could.

In my home, I heard stories from my radical uncles about revolutionaries named Simon Bolivar, Antonio Jose de Sucre, Pancho Villa, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. These were men they told me, that led the charge for independence from their colonizing Spaniard masters. For too long, Spain had oppressed not the natives of these places, necessarily, for they were powerless, but the people who had learned enough about history to demand an equal station in the world. Likewise, in the thirteen colonies, the revolt against British rule came from a group of educated men who were prepared to demand recognition as a sovereign body, even as they shackled actual bodies in pursuit of wealth. I could no longer keep the story line straight in my little head.

In a fifth grade social studies report, I questioned whether Thomas Jefferson was really a hero, since my uncle Edison told me that he had slaves and a black girlfriend. I thought I was fair, having copied straight from the encyclopedia evidence that Jefferson’s genius extended to writing, architecture and statesmanship; but my teacher still disagreed with my final conclusion that he was not a hero, but just a man. Columbus too, I could no longer see as a hero. By the time I was in high school, I was reading books like the Autobiography of Malcolm X and a host of other writers that had come from the civil unrest of the 1960s. They reinforced my perspective that Columbus’ landing had started something that wasn’t solely worth celebrating … it wasn’t like he had landed on the moon, for example, where no one was conquered.

But the story of the United States, didn’t seem to me early on to be about conquest. The Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom. The colonists were defending their territories. The pioneers were looking for new opportunities. The narrative was clear, the heroes were defending the pursuit of freedom against the elements and the savages. I just wasn’t sure what side I was on.

In appearance I look to be a typical Caucasian male of some mixed background. I have been mistaken as Italian, Greek, French, Turkish, and even Japanese (only in Hawai’i). On my mother’s side I have family members who are dark skinned, but can’t trace their history on the island of PR very far. My father’s side, which comes from Ecuador is equally curious. I have relatives who claim to be descendents of the Inca, while other members, like my father’s father who had gray eyes and dirty blonde hair and was nicknamed by his American co-workers, Il Duce, obviously come from European stock.

Which leaves me being born in Brooklyn in 1967, to a brown-skinned, teenaged Puerto Rican mother, and a pale-skinned, twenty-something Ecuadorian father. We spoke Spanish at home as I learned English from television and the streets, before I started attending school in 1972. Public School 299, where I went until the fourth grade is in the middle of the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Today, just as it was when I was growing up, it is a predominantly black neighborhood with pockets of new immigrants still arriving from south and central America and the islands of the Caribbean. The landscape is dominated by three story tenements and the weaving metal course of the elevated train. Three hundred years before I was born, the Dutch named this area “Boswijk” meaning “heavy woods” or “town in the woods”. The British who took it over called it Bushwick Green. By the time my family arrived to the area, there were few trees to be found.

When we moved in 1977 to a different Brooklyn neighborhood on the border with Queens, our new home had a small backyard with a tree that produced nasty, green apples. Instead of renting an apartment, this time my parents bought their first home. A brick-faced, two-family row house with a finished basement in Cypress Hills. Like Bushwick, there weren’t many trees in my new neighborhood, except for the eponymous cemetery that seemed to stretch for miles when I saw it from the elevated train. But this neighborhood was different because here there were Italian-Americans who lived on my block. For these guys, Columbus was still a hero, and Columbus Day was a holiday worth celebrating.

But that wasn’t the most serious point of contention between us and the “white boys”. We didn’t argue politics or understand history. We just knew we were different because of how we dressed and our tastes in music and what we caught each other eating on the front steps of our houses. We made fun of their rock bands with long hair and screaming singers. They yelled back that what we were listening to wasn’t even real music. We accused them of being greasy, they accused us of being lazy. In the end, it was settled with a soccer match; in the streets, during weekdays, and on the local high school field on the weekends.

The Hispanic kids in my new neighborhood came from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, and El Salvador. Still, we bragged about Argentina’s and Brazil’s World Cup prowess. The “white boys” didn’t care so much for West Germany or England. Their soccer heroes were Italian, and the first back-to-back World Cup championships belonged to them only. When Italy won the World Cup in Spain, of all places, I was fifteen and the matches on our street, as well as the talk and braggadocio, got pretty heated. By the time Argentina reclaimed the title, four years later, most of the white families on my block were gone.

Christopher Columbus did not come up once in our arguments or disagreements, but I believe that he was part of why we were in conflict, and why they moved away. And why I’m still confused about what to do on Columbus Day.

© 2008 henry toromoreno