Why I don’t celebrate Columbus Day


First off, my employer doesn’t give us the day off, so of course I’ll drag myself into the office on Monday like everyone else. But beyond that, there​’s the whole notion of celebrating the “discovery” of America, as if there wasn’t already a vibrant patchwork of indigenous cultures already thriving in that exact place. It would be more accurate to celebrate the day Europe arrived in earnest to invade the Americas, enslaving or executing those not annihilated by disease. How festive!

Now I know what you’re thinking: it’s my white liberal guilt talking. Granted, Casper the Friendly Ghost envies my pale complexion, but beneath this pampered pastiness is a pair of surprises to many: first, I’m three-quarters Puerto Rican. Second, thanks to the miracle of modern DNA testing, I apparently have about 10% Native American blood by way of Puerto Rico, in other words, Taíno. And the Taíno people have, let’s say, a very special relationship with Columbus.

When Cristoforo Colombo sailed the ocean blue and landed in the Bahamas, he was greeted by curious Taíno villagers, whom he described as

“a physically tall, well-proportioned people, with a noble and kind personality. They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will … they took great delight in pleasing us … They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal…Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people … They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.”

Translation: they were easily exploitable. By his second visit, Columbus began to exact tribute from his gentle hosts, often through violence. By the middle of the sixteenth century, most of those who had not died through brutal treatment or smallpox were the women whom their Spanish overlords took as wives. As a result, there is no surviving Taíno population, but rather traces of Taíno blood in most of those who consider themselves Puerto Rican. So no, I won’t be celebrating Columbus Day.

Not surprisingly, I see this same delusion of conquest in our current administration’s mishandling of the devastation that followed September 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Instead of offering the same level of assistance that followed Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, Puerto Rico was assailed for the poor finances and infrastructure that made such a disaster inevitable. What is often missed is how decades of colonial rule have rendered Puerto Rico without any of the safety nets afforded to fellow Americans in the mainland. Sure, the island doesn’t pay Federal income tax, but nor do Puerto Ricans have a voting member of Congress, or the ability to vote for President. I won’t speak for my Island counterparts, but I would certainly be willing to pay taxes to participate in decisions that have a direct impact on my life.

I could go on about the bombing ranges in Culebra and Vieques, the plundering of coffee and sugar plantations, or the frenzied investment of mainland dollars in lucrative island casinos, but I’ve only got one more day left this weekend, then it’s back to work on Monday…

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