At 2am on October 12th 1492, Christopher Columbus was woken by one of his sailors shouting ‘Tierra! Tierra!’
Although the crew of La Pinta didn’t realise it at the time, their arrival in the Caribbean was to change the face of the world forever.
Many years later, in 1913 Spanish Faustino Rodriguez-San Pedro, President of the Ibero-American Union created Dia de la Raza on October 12th.
Because Columbus has been blamed for introducing colonialism, slavery and the diseases of Europe to Latin America, this is a celebration which has always faced controversy.
However, the initial aim of the celebration was to highlight the cultural ties that united Spain with Latin American countries, and thus to create a common block against the hegemony of the other Western powers. This was a time when the Spanish speaking countries were leading the way in global culture.
Moreover, it did not really put forward Columbus the man, but rather the actions and influences of all the people who came after him, who melded their European culture with the indigenous cultures. Of course it took centuries of battle, misunderstandings and treachery, but a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society has been built in Latin America – that was the actual point.
Some also forget that the use of the term ‘raza’/’race’ had no intrinsically racist connotations. The Spanish the word ‘raza’ carries the meaning of an extended community bound by cultural ties in addition to that of a people belonging to the same stock and sharing similar physical traits.
Spanish American intellectuals used the word ‘raza’ in a clearly cultural sense. Sentences such as ‘el espiritu de la raza’ (the race’s spirit), ‘el alma de la raza’ (the race’s soul), or even ‘la raza española’ (the Spanish race) ‘ all were employed at the time in reference to a contended affinity between Spanish-speaking peoples on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
But since then, many ethnic groups, historians, sociologists, defenders of human rights all over the world have seriously questioned the prevailing views of yesteryear. Highlighting this event was the result of an invention of western thought.
In a bid to stress the rights of indigenous populations and showcase multiculturalism, Latin American countries have made great efforts to changing the official name of the festival. It is this more modern interpretation of the celebration which prevails now on October 12th in hispanic speaking countries (including the US).
Last year the United Nations declared October 12th ‘Spanish Language Day,’ a day to honour a language that unifies speakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
What’s great is that the name each country has chosen to use for the festival is quite reflective of a national stereotype, dare we say ‘cultural norm”
While in Spain it was Dia de la Hispanidad (Hispanicity Day) for many years, it is now the Fiesta Nacional de España (Spain National Day). Though the 12th October is more usually treated as a religious festival – the Puente del Pilar.
Mexico‘s new version is Dia de la Raza Iberoamericana (Day of the Ibero-American race).
In Venezuela and Nicaragua it is the fiery Dia de la Resistencia Indigena (Day of Indigenous Resistance).
In Peru it is the wordy Dia de los Pueblos Originarios y del Dialogo Intercultural (Day of the original people and intercultural dialogue).
Costa Rica, ever the diplomat, preferred to simply use Dia de las Culturas (Day of the Cultures).
In Argentina, the name was changed to a rather formal and correct Dia de la Diversidad Cultural Americana (Day of the American Cultural Diversity).
In Chile it is a little more conservative and old-fashioned Dia del Descubrimiento de Dos Mundos (Day of Discovery of Two Worlds).
In Uruguay it is the mighty inclusive Dia de las Americas (Pan American Day).
Bolivia, probably most radically, renamed it the Dia de la Descolonizacion (Decolonisation Day).
And in Ecuador it is rather convoluted with a suspicion of a made up word: Dia de la Interculturalidad y la Plurinacionalidad (Day of Multiculturalism and Plurinationality).
In truth, in most peoples’ minds in Latin America it is still the ‘Dia de la Raza‘.
Whether one believes that Columbus landing was a blessing or a curse, this date will always be celebrated, lamented, and debated. Relations between the indigenous population and Europeans over more than 500 years were and still are very complex. People have mingled together, most Latin Americans now are a rich mixture of Europeans, native Americans and Africans (and sometimes Asians). Not only in the blood, but also in their culture, food, music, dance, religion, celebrations’which is why it’s such an incredible place!