By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor
On Aug. 8, Councilman Joe Buscaino released a letter urging constituents to attend the Aug. 22 Los Angeles City Council meeting and oppose what he called a “misguided proposal” to replace references to Columbus Day in official city documents with Indigenous People’s Day.
In that letter, Buscaino chose to wrap Columbus in the value cloth of willful immigration and diversity. He even goes so far as to say, “Columbus, or Columbia, is no longer about a man … it is now a universal theme.”
As a first-generation Chicano of indigenous Mayan ancestry, I find Buscaino’s call for action deeply troubling.
Buscaino argues that Columbus Day “recognizes the beginning of a worldwide immigration to America.” Crediting Christopher Columbus with opening the door for Europeans to immigrate to the Americas isn’t unreasonable. But crediting him with the diversity of our country? That’s not only myopic, but irresponsible. Columbus Day does more than just celebrate immigrants coming to the Americas for a better life; it glorifies a legacy of tyranny, the greed of which brought death and cruelty to a continent. For people of indigenous ancestry, Columbus not only symbolizes the colonization that came from this encounter but also the injustice that still reverberates in the generational hearts of Native Americans.
After “discovering” the so-called “New World,” Columbus left 39 men there when he returned to Spain. They helped themselves to the local native women until Columbus returned with 1,200 more soldiers, who continued where the original 39 left off–raping, pillaging and torturing. The Spaniards found this (morally) easy to do because they considered the natives subhuman.
The mistreatment of indigenous people during Columbus’ voyages is well-documented in letters from passengers and crew members. The correspondence describes how native people were captured and pressed to work in gold mines to the point of exhaustion. Those who resisted or refused were tortured or gruesomely murdered. Failure to produce at least a thimble of gold every three months was punishable. The violators’ hands were cut off and tied around their necks, then left to bleed to death. Some 10,000 indigenous persons died during this time.
Columbus was significantly involved in setting up the slave trade that sold girls — as young as nine years old — for sex.
Letters and diaries of soldiers under Columbus’s command document the standard practice of feeding their attack dogs the body parts of indigenous people. Even the tossing of living babies to the dogs was documented.
If Columbus Day “is no longer about a man,” as Buscaino suggests, why not create a celebration about a people? Italian American heritage is something to be celebrated. Why equate Italian Americans with such a ruthless mercenary?
In the 241 years since the birth of the United States and almost 525 years since Columbus reached the Caribbean islands, thousands of Italians and Italian Americans have made their mark on American culture. Perhaps those Italian and Italian descendents would be of greater influence and relevance to Italian-American heritage and pride.
Buscaino said he believes that “recent news events highlight the need for racial and ethnic harmony.”
In the days following his letter, James Alex Fields, Jr., an avowed white nationalist, drove his car into a crowd of anti-white-supremacy demon- strators. The protest and counter-protest, a demonstration comprised of white fascists and the Ku Klux Klan, followed the decision to take down the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who has become an icon of the far right.
Thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer was killed and several people were injured.
What Christopher Columbus represents and what Gen. Robert E. Lee represents aren’t that far apart.
If Buscaino truly believes in the importance of teaching, “young people about the contributions of all cultures,” then let’s start with a reality check and look at the man he wants to celebrate. The impacts of colonization and Columbus are still felt by natives across the two American continents.
Indigenous people face mass incarceration, poverty, land stripping, exploitation of natural resources, violence against women and children, failed education, housing issues, inadequate health care, suicide, and culture and language death, among other issues.
It is easy for people of privilege to ignore history and the suffering inflicted by centuries of injustice, conveniently using fear about the dissolution of a culture to maintain the status quo.
It astounds me that a councilman — who was only able to give one instance of his accomplishments (a pool in South Los Angeles) during his State of the District — has decided to use his energy to urge constituents to counter the council’s progressive move, instead of focusing on authoring meaningful ordinances that would improve the quality of life for his district’s residents.
I urge the councilman to rethink his stance. I support his call for constituents to attend the Aug. 22 meeting, but in support of the proposal to eliminate the celebration of a historical monster. Also, the Los Angeles City Council is scheduled to discuss and vote on Indigenous People’s Day on Aug. 30. Continuing to celebrate Columbus Day is misguided. Ignoring the realities of our history is lazy, insensitive and privileged, and the refusal to remove these references that no longer reflect our values is problematic.