In Mexico, October 12th is a national holiday known as Día de la Raza or Day of the Race. This date is honored in other countries as Columbus Day and under other names; but the event it commemorates and the way in which it is observed have become quite controversial.

In the fifteenth century, an obscure Italian seafarer named Christopher Columbus became convinced that it was possible to reach the East from Europe by sailing westward across the Atlantic and that this route would be shorter than traveling around Africa; he underestimated the size of the Earth and overestimated the size and eastward extension of Asia. After eight years of negotiations, he convinced Queen Isabella of Spain to support his enterprise. He finally set out in three small ships and, on October 12th, 1492, he landed on an island in the Bahamas inhabited by the Taino or Arawak tribe, thinking that it was India.

A map of the world published in Cosmographia by the
press of Lienhart Holle of Ulm, Germany, on July 6, 1482.

Although Christopher Columbus was perhaps not the first to discover America, as has so often been claimed, he was the one to bring about the first real contact and interaction between Renaissance Europe and the American continent with its various civilizations; and that has shaped and changed world history in countless ways. Over 500 years later, this date is still celebrated, lamented, and debated.

One of the main consequences of this contact, was the imminent conquest of the new world by the old. In writing of his discovery, Columbus noted how he and his men were greeted with gifts and said: "As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts". And, generally speaking, this was to characterize relations between the old world and the new: Europeans sought wealth and to impart (or impose) their culture. The indigenous people befriended them and were dominated by armies from abroad.

Less than 30 years later, in 1521, Hernán Cortés landed on the shores of Mexico. He too was received with gifts, and he proceeded to conquer the vast Mexica empire which is Mexico today. Relations between the indigenous population and the conquerors of Mexico during the 300 year colonial period were complex. Spain sought riches in the new land, but also converts for Catholicism. Missionaries traveled with the soldiers. Some of them were greatly impressed by native cultures and are responsible for the preservation of many codices and documents regarding the period.

National symbol, from Fray Diego Duran, Historia Antigua de la Nueva Espana
[19th century manuscript facsimile of the 1585 original)

The Spanish are perhaps unique among conquerors in their soul-searching ethical inquiry into the results of their actions throughout the 16th century. "Spain was constantly debating with itself: 'Am I right, am I wrong? What is it I'm doing with these peoples?'" notes Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes in "The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World" (which was published both in book form and as a television documentary to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus' landing by presenting the wealth of syncretic cultural manifestations to which it gave rise). Dominican Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas worked for 50 years to improve the way the Spanish treated the Indians; in 1552 he published "A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies". Bernal Díaz, a soldier in Cortés' army, also wrote a history of the conquest of Mexico, summing it up in this sentence: "We came here to serve God, and also to get rich."

Woodrow Borah of the University of California, Berkeley, points out that "The Spanish made a place for the Indians--as part of the lowest order, but at least they had a place", whereas, "North Americans in many cases simply exterminated the Indians." The native population of Mexico certainly decreased dramatically, but survived alongside the Spanish conquerors and mingled with them. According to Mexican poet Homero Aridjis, "The Spanish were conquered in turn by those they conquered".

When Mexico celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus' landing, in 1892, the country was ruled by Porfirio Díaz, who remained in power for over thirty years and was a great admirer of European culture, especially the French. At that time, the government prepared a celebration of "The communion of all peoples in sentiments of justice and admiration for the past, noble aspirations and glowing hopes for the future" for October 12, 1892. As in most of the world, this event praised Columbus for his skill as navigator, for his Discovery of America and for bringing European culture to this land, although all of these things have since been questioned and re-examined.

In 1918, philosopher Antonio Caso took October 12th as an opportunity to praise the "Mexican mestizo race", La Raza, the rich mixture of Spanish and indigenous cultures which characterizes us. He was perhaps the first to coin the term La Raza, which has now been adopted by Latinos from all across the continent. Ten years later, the Día de la Raza was declared an official national holiday by Congress, after only minor debate.

The Huejotzingo Codex of 1531 has the first known
depiction of the Virgin among indigenous glyphs

In the United States, after its Independence, Columbus was recreated as a hero who liberated the new world from the old. Historian Michael Kammen tells us that, "It is not hard to understand the appeal of Columbus as a totem for the new republic and the former subjects of George III. Columbus had found the way of escape from Old World tyranny. He was the solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea, as triumphant Americans contemplated the dangers and promise of their own wilderness a consequence of his 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 and everyone seemed to have forgotten that his voyage and claiming of the new continent were done in the name of the Queen of Spain, and were intended to discover a shorter trade route, not a New World.

However, ethnic groups, historians, sociologists, defenders of human rights and many others all over the world have since seriously questioned the prevailing views of yesterday. By the time of the quincentennial, debate had become so heated that the National Endowment for the Humanities offered these politically correct topics for projects participating in their program: "expansion of European civilization through the efforts of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns", "new societies and new forms of cultural expression that emerged from the encounters of native American, European and African peoples", and "the ideas - political, religious, philosophical, scientific, technological and aesthetic - that shaped the process of exploration, settlement and cultural conflict and transformation set into motion by Columbus' event of epic chance". Columbus' so-called Discovery of America had come to be seen as a chance event with impressive repercussions.

Mexico has long been involved in this controversy; as early as 1836, Oaxacan historian Don Carlos María de Bustamante began the "first vitriolic Mexican commentary on the Columbian event". For him, October 12, 1492 was "the most villainous day there could ever be in America; the day its slavery was established".

In 1941, Alfonso Reyes, one of Mexico's most distinguished scholars and men of letters, said that "America was the invention of poets, the charade of geographers, the boasting of adventurers, the greed of companies and, in short, an inexplicable appetite and an urge to transcend limits".

On October 12, 1946, José Vasconcelos, who was Secretary of Education during the early 20s and is credited with molding our 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.

In 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, which made possible a full understanding of the Earth. He presented these views to the National Commission for the Commemoration of the Quincentennial, thus giving rise to a great controversy.

Historian Edmundo O'Gorman, author of La invención de América, (The Invention of America, 1958), felt so passionately about the issue that he resigned as Director of the Mexican Academy of History in 1987, because of his objections to concepts such as the "discovery of America", "the encounter of two worlds" and "cultural fusion". To him, the appropriate terms for the historical phenomenon were "taking over" and "domination". The key to resolving the problem of the historical appearance of America, in his view, was to consider this event as the result of an invention of western thought, and not as a merely physical discovery, which occurred, in addition, by chance.

The controversy is far from over. However, it has produced some positive results. One of them is that it has brought attention to many of the issues still pending today, such as the plight of the indigenous populations of America. In 1992, partly in response to the commotion surrounding the quincentennial, the Latin American Fund for the Development of the Indigenous People of Latin America and the Caribbean was formed by all of the governments in the region, as well as Spain and Portugal. This is one of the many efforts being made to bring recognition and wellbeing to the native populations.

Mexico is involved in a broad range of efforts to improve the living conditions of its indigenous population. Legislation to that effect is pending before Congress and there is a new culture of respect for them.

In the words of 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. Recognizing that diversity, fomenting and disseminating it, is a task of the greatest importance."

Whether one believes that the chance event which took place five hundred and seven years ago was a blessing or a curse, October 12th is an excellent opportunity for us to consider the ramifications it has had on all of our lives.