Twelfth of October.
The Discovery of America, the Spanish National Feast. We celebrate that Christopher Columbus landed on an island which he called Hispaniola. Nowadays it is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
On that day in 1492, the Spanish empire started its expansion.
Columbus discovered America. He discovered a land full of rare plants and people. A treasure trove to be explored.
The natives discovered that they were heathens. They discovered that they were walking around naked. They discovered religion. They discovered that their language and culture were inferior. They discovered that they owed obedience to a Queen and King from across the sea, from another world. Their world and their gods were forbidden.
In 1918, this day was called ‘El Día de la Raza’, the Day of the Race in South America. In 1935, it started to be called the Day of Hispanity. In 1982, it was formally established as the National Feast in Spain. However, in countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua they celebrate ‘ Indian Resistance Day’.
In truth, this is a day that symbolizes the beginning of a bloody conquest that brought Spain gold and riches and gave the native population diseases for which they were not prepared, the concept of guilt and the end of their civilisation, as they knew it.
In time, a new culture was formed, the Creole culture, a mixture of European and indigenous habits and traditions. ‘Criollos’ were the descendants of Europeans born in America. The racially based caste system was in force throughout the Spanish colonies since the 16th.century. Most criollos were overlooked for major government positions and there was little chance of promotion. By the 19th.century, this discrimination and the example of the American Revolution, as well as the ideals of the Enlightenment led the Spanish American ‘ criollo’ elite to rebel against Spanish rule. Supported by the lower classes, they started the American wars of Independence (1810-1826) in an attempt to break up the Spanish empire in America, creating many different independent countries. The last Spanish colony in America, Cuba, became independent in 1898.
In Spain, once again, there is a division on such a day as today. Some Spaniards see it as a reason to be proud of the bravery of our explorers and watch the armed forces parade with bright eyes and a sense of accomplishment, as if they personally had something to do with it all.
Others, including myself ( a criolla, born in Cuba to Spanish parents) see it as an unfortunate choice of dates to celebrate a National Feast. It was the start not only of the expansion of the Spanish empire but of a new age of racial mixing and blending. It was, if you will, a multicultural experiment on a large scale.
If we want to, we can see the consequences of such an invasion. There remains today a certain discrimination of indigenous peoples and their millenary ways of life. Some tribes have been totally wiped out in recent history. Their territories have been taken from them by governments and oligarchies, under the pretence of ‘modernisation’ and progress. They were transferred to cities or other villages and promised a new life. For many, that new life never became a reality. They became outcasts in their own countries.
So my question is what do we Spaniards have to celebrate today? To ask that question is to be considered by some a traitor to my country.
I always remind people when they start getting in a righteous huff that I chose to be Spanish. I could have retained the nationality of my country of birth. However, I chose to be Spanish. I chose to honour my roots and the culture that my parents taught me. I think that accounts for something.
I honestly think we should reconsider this date as the National Feast. It does not celebrate unity but brutality and invasion. A much more coherent choice would be the 23rd.April, International Book Day and also the anniversary of Cervantes’ death. The greatest thing we gave the American colonies was our language, the third most spoken in the world. This is, above all, the greatest cultural link with that Brave New World where we discovered many treasures and also the depths of our own ambition to conquer.