Since 1971, by the decision of then-President Johnson, Columbus Day has been celebrated on the second Monday of October. The latest Columbus Day was this Monday, but it was a decidedly different event from what had been celebrated before, a holiday which began in 1892 and finally rose to the rank of federal holiday with FDR. Celebrating the “discovery of America” is not only a North American event, but it is also found in the countries of Latin America, perhaps even more so.
In each of these nations, this occasion has a particular way of being named, a reflection of its own meaning, which has also been changing, to the point that it has recently taken on a sense that is quite the opposite from that of “discovery.” In Argentina, it was called Día de la Raza, the “day of the race”—the white race, of course. In 2002, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, changed its name completely, declaring it Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance).
President Kirchner’s Argentina also moved in this direction. Not only did she rename the October 12 anniversary the Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity), but, in 2013, she removed the Columbus monument in Buenos Aires, replacing it with one dedicated to the patriot Juana Azurduy, a work donated by Bolivian President Evo Morales. Over the past twenty years, in almost all Latin American countries and in Spain, the holiday has lost its sense of homage to the Genoese explorer, instead taking on the meaning of a tragic event for the native peoples, or, in the most optimistic versions, the sense of a meeting of civilizations that has produced the multiplicity and the cultural and ethnic diversity of Latin America, which is the distinctive feature of the continent.
Now it is the U.S. government’s turn. After many years, in cities like Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Phoenix, Washington or Boston, Columbus Day has been cancelled and replaced with Indigenous Peoples Day, and many statues of the Genoese explorer have been removed, torn down or smeared with paint. Biden will not go that far: he is not canceling Columbus Day, but he is celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same day.
It is a reparative act long awaited by Native Americans and by the many Americans who, in the last two decades, with more and more awareness and commitment, have taken up the fight for the rights of minorities who for too long have been oppressed and mistreated, or, in the case of the native populations, have been victims of genocide, never truly compensated. We don’t need to go into historical archives and libraries: it’s enough just to read the latest data on Covid-19. It says that native peoples, blacks and Latinos have been hit much harder than whites in terms of cases and deaths: two to four times more on average. And similar proportions can be found for serious diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular disorders.
Biden gave a hard-hitting rationale for his decision: “For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures. Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.” But the Democratic president bent over backwards trying to perform the impossible stunt of also celebrating on the same day the anniversary of Christopher Columbus, the most symbolic character for conquest recounted as “discovery,” an icon for Italian-Americans and—in full contrast to the rise of the claims of minorities—for white, Trumpist America. Which, turning the picture of reality upside down, is feeling like a minority, discriminated against, threatened.
Biden is the president and the head of a party supported by minorities who vote only in very small percentages for the Republican Party, which is more and more the party of whites, including in the now-open forms of white supremacism. At the same time, a substantial part of the Italian-American community is traditionally Democratic. The choice to celebrate together two events that stand in clear opposition is a non-decision, which could cost him dearly on both sides, and, in general, may be seen as evidence of his inability to lead, replaced by the ability of the old-school politician to find an impossible compromise. All this while the polls show an inexorable decline for him.
It should be recalled, however, that Columbus Day actually began as an act of reparation to the Italian-American community—after the lynching in 1892 of eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans—with the dedication of a holiday to a great Italian figure. On the shortlist were also Dante, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Galileo. Instead, the symbol of the awful idea of the annihilation of the “other” was chosen—the same idea which would later lead to episodes such as the lynching of the eleven immigrants, guilty only of having a dark complexion: “colored.” Like “Negroes,” like “Indians.”