Columbus Day reflects everything that is wrong with the education system, and I am not only referring to the education system in the United States.
I was still in Venezuela when I learned about Columbus Day — what to me was El Día de la Raza — and I vividly remember how it was taught in school. This holiday was about the “discovery of the Americas” by Christopher Columbus, which is, at best, inaccurate.
First of all, this dude got lost. They never tell you that. Teachers talk about Columbus as this fantastic, experienced, and intelligent explorer, who intentionally arrived in America (the continent — you’ll never catch me calling the U.S. “America,” but that’s another story). The truth is that he was awful at math and miscalculated a direct route from Europe to Asia.
Now, let’s talk about the use of the word “discovery.” That’s the second lie they tell you. He didn’t find anything new. People were living there already. That’s like if I were to go to Spain for the first time in my life and claim that I “discovered” it, only because it’s new to me. Wouldn’t you laugh at me? Then, why aren’t you laughing at him?
The biggest lie of them all has to be how teachers mask the violence perpetrated by Columbus and his fellow “explorers.” These colonizers enslaved indigenous and black people, raped indigenous and black women, forced the conversion of native people into Christianity, and brought new diseases to America.
According to Spanish historians’ documents in 2005, Columbus imposed iron discipline on what is now the Caribbean country of the Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people’s ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets, and selling them into slavery.
This man was a dictator, a brutally violent one. However, they sweep all of this information under the rug while educators teach you about La Pinta, La Niña, y La Santa María instead.
To be fair, the weight cannot be placed only on teachers’ shoulders. It cannot even be placed just on the people who make the academic curriculum. This is a systemic problem that goes way beyond the education system, where indigenous lives continue to be ignored and abused on a daily basis.
Before I emigrated from Venezuela, I also remember when dictator Hugo Chávez proclaimed October 12th to be “Indigenous Resistance Day.” This was a performative and superficial change that did not stop him and his party from violating indigenous people’s rights for the past two decades.
It’s because the issue is not a matter of terminology, either. Although language is indeed powerful, if an institution starts calling it Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but makes no changes to their oppressive policies and practices, does this really make a difference to indigenous people on the ground?
Theory means nothing without praxis.