Columbus Day – called Día de la Hispanidad in Spain or Día de la Raza in most Latin American countries – is a celebration that started in the 19th century. It wasn’t an official celebration from the beginning; during the first years it was just a spontaneous way to commemorate the Hispanic cultural identity that resulted from the fusion and mixture of the Native American populations and the Spanish colonists. Nowadays, Columbus Day is an official public holiday in the calendar of almost every country where Spanish is spoken. However, as we will explain later on, in Latin American countries it has lost a great deal of its relevance.
There are many different terms to refer to this festivity depending on the country. In Spain, aside from Día de la Hispanidad (Hispanic Day), it’s also the Spanish National Day and coincides with the popular religious feast in honour of the Lady of the Pillar. In the United States it’s named after Christopher Columbus, the navigator that lead the expedition that resulted in the discovery of the Americas. In Latin America, the most common name is Día de la Raza (Day of the Race), although there are some countries that prefer to use an alternative name, which reflects the controversy that we will address later on. For example:
- Argentina: Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (Day of the Respect to the Cultural Diversity)
- Nicaragua and Venezuela: Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance)
- Chile: Día del Encuentro de Dos Mundos (Day of the Encounter of Two Worlds)
In this blog post we will explain the origins of this celebration, how it evolved over the years and how it’s celebrated today in the different Spanish-speaking countries.
Why do we celebrate Columbus Day on October 12th?
On August 3rd 1492 an expedition lead by captain Christopher Columbus departed from the port of Palos de la Frontera, in the south of Spain. The objective of this mission commanded by the Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon was finding an alternative route to reach the Indies, as the lands of South and Southeast Asia were called at the time. The terrestrial route that they knew implied crossing the whole European continent and the Middle East to get to India or China, something that was getting more and more complicated as the Ottoman Empire was getting stronger in the area.
After roughly two months of navigation, Columbus’s three ships reached dry land on October 12th 1492. However, the territory they arrived to was not part of the Asian continent. It was Guanahani, an island in the Bahamas – although we don’t know exactly which one it was. Without even realizing, this expedition has been responsible for the establishment of the first contact between the European and the American continent in history.
This mission was followed up by many other colonial expeditions under European imperialism that aimed to discover and colonize the new continent. The main actors where the following:
- Spanish Empire, the first to arrive, which took over most parts of South and Central America and the Caribbean.
- Portuguese Empire, which occupied the area that now belongs to Brazil.
- British Empire, whose advances in North America set the ground for the subsequent formation of the United States.
- French Empire, that conquered areas in North America, such as the Canadian province of Quebec; Caribbean islands, such as Guadeloupe and Martinique; and French Guiana in South America.
- Dutch Empire, that founded New Amsterdam, the current city of New York, and took over other territories such as Surinam or the Netherlands Antilles.
In 1913, five centuries after the arrival of Columbus to the Americas, the president of the Ibero-American Union at the time, Faustino Rodríguez-San Pedro, decided to create a celebration to commemorate the bonding of Spain and Latin America. To do so, he chose the date of October 12th, in honour of the first contact between both worlds. Years later this day was declared an official national holiday in all Spanish-speaking countries.
Controversy surrounding Columbus Day celebrations
There are quite a lot of voices that consider the Discovery of the Americas a polemic issue that has negative connotations. The reason behind this opposition lies in the fact that the European colonists executed what could be considered a “genocide”, as they suppressed and destroyed the pre-Columbian cultures to a great extent. The traditional position, nonetheless, emphasizes that not all the ways of colonization were the same and names as an example the 1512 decree by the Spanish Empire that prohibited mistreatment and indigenous slavery.
Either way, this is a latent debate that has dramatically affected the way in which the different countries celebrate Columbus Day. There are some nations, such as Argentina or Venezuela, that rather than celebrating the union of the Spanish and the Native American cultures – in other words, the Hispanic American culture -, prefer to defend the original cultures prior to the European colonialism and the respect to the different people.
How is Columbus Day celebrated in the different Spanish-speaking countries?
As we have mentioned before, this celebration takes place on October 12th and it’s a national holiday in almost all Spanish-speaking countries. The common objective of this Día de la Hispanidad is to highlight the value of the Hispanic American cultural patrimony and to strengthen the bond between these communities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. However, it’s celebrated differently in every country. Below we have listed the main ways:
|Spain||Military parade in the capital, Madrid, presided over by the Royal Family.|
|Mexico||Flower offering in honour of the fusion and coexistence of cultures.|
|Argentina||Festivities that defend the cultural patrimony of the native American populations against imperialism.|
|Colombia||School plays about the history and significance of this day.|
|Venezuela and Nicaragua||Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) that commemorates the arduous fight of the indigenous groups against the domination of the Spanish colonists.|
|Costa Rica||Carnivals. It is known as Día de las Culturas (Day of the Cultures) and honours the Spanish, Native American and Afro-Caribbean cultures.|
|United States||Columbus Day is celebrated in different ways depending on the State (for example, there is a big parade in New York) and Native American communities organize protest marches.|
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