October 12th is also known as Columbus Day because it was on this date in 1492 that the Spanish under his leadership landed on the Island of Guanahani in the Bahamas. This moment began a dynamic period that continues to change the world.
In the early 1990s, Governor Romer appointed me as Chair of the Colorado Quincentennial Commission to encourage state-wide activities to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery of America.” It was a thankless job full of acrimony and division associated with the deep wounds created by the European conquest that are yet to be healed.
Recently I have begun to see that there is an effort to replace Columbus as the discoverer of America with Leif Erickson who came some 490 earlier. Soon after the year 1000, Leif Erickson, son of Erick the Red of Greenland fame is documented to have traveled to a place he called Vinland in what is today Newfoundland and the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River.
Although Leif Erickson and other Vikings before him first interacted with America, the lasting effect of the European-American encounter is part of the Columbus legacy. Another significant part of that legacy is the appearance of the Mestizo that initially involved White and Indian communities but eventually expanded to include all four races recognized at the time.
This all-inclusive racial mixture created what Jose Vasconcelos called a “5th race” or “la raza cósmica,” the only “race” born in the Americas. So, historically and biologically, the term “raza” refers to that special community that has carried the psyche of the conqueror and the conquered as it navigated its way from a beginning as outcasts to becoming the face of an exciting new world.
Earlier this year, the National Council of la Raza (NCLR), the foremost advocacy organization for Latinos, inaugurated its new name UnidosUS. The change has been a source of major controversy between those that identify with the origins of the organization in the Southwest and those Latinos, mostly from the east coast, that are far removed in time and space from the Chicano Movement’s devotion to its Mexican cultural heritage.
The politicization of the term “raza” by the Chicano Movement and others is most likely at the root of east coast Latino leadership discontent. It is ironic however, that “El día de la Raza” that includes the term, is generally celebrated in Latin America on October 12th and officially recognized as a holiday in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela with some variance in title.
The Italian community has been especially interested in expanding the celebration of Columbus’ accomplishments beyond what it is now. I am sure that the people of Norwegian ancestry in the United States would also like to celebrate Leif Erickson for the same reason.
For Latinos, “la raza” is a cultural and racial statement that delineates a people’s “razón de ser”(identification) and constitutes a major ingredient that enriches American diversity. However, the political implications of the holiday as it stands today makes it difficult to express and celebrate that fact.
As it stands, it cannot be denied that the coming of Christopher Columbus to America represents a cultural and racial encounter the affects of which continue to resonate in the heart and soul that is the American psyche. Latinos, the most significant product of that encounter, are playing an expanding and existential role in the dynamics that represent the way to a vibrant future of our great country.