Editor’s Note: As part of our special coverage marking the historic transformation of Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day, we offer this contribution by Nicolás Cabrera. He is a graduate student who specializes in Spanish literature at NMSU. Cabrera’s piece discusses Latin American manifestations of the movement, as well as historical accounts of the early conquest period that provide essential background information to today’s debates and controversies.
For several decades there have been movements to redefine the holiday that falls on October 12th. In the United States this holiday is traditionally known as Columbus Day while in many Latin American countries it goes by a different name. Recently Albuquerque joined dozens of other cities in a change that is being led by Native American and Chicano leaders and supporters.
“It is true that this specific movement is about indigenous peoples,” said Albuquerque City Council member Rey Garduño. “As a Chicano and an ally I stand with my Indigenous sisters and brothers.”
Garduño was instrumental in having the Albuquerque City Council join other municipalities across the country vote in voting October 7 to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day with a proclamation for October 12th.
Native American activist Melanie Yazzie explained why this is an issue for everybody. She said, “Because the history of conquest, slavery, and globalized violence that Columbus actively participated in is one that continues and affects us all.”
The redefinition of the holiday began in Latin America in the 20th century where the trend to rename and redefine the October 12th has had the most success.
For example, in Costa Rica it’s called “El Día de las Culturas” (Day of the Cultures) while in Mexico and many other Latin American countries it’s called “El Día de la Raza” which is best translated as “Day of the People.”In Nicaragua it is called “Día de la Resistencia Indígena” (Day of Indigenous Resistance) and Peru calls it “Día de los Pueblos Originarios y del Diálogo Intercultural” (Day of the Native Peoples and Intercultural Dialog).
Lastly, in Spain October 12th was originally called “Fiesta de la Raza” but has since been changed to simply “Fiesta Nacional.”
Andrea Runyan is another activist working to change people’s perceptions of the holiday. Runyan said the movement to replace the holiday is growing because people are “recognizing the resilience of Native communities that have persisted despite genocidal efforts to eradicate them.”
Garduño’s solidarity, Yazzie’s resistance, and Runyan’s activism are rooted in history that is accessible to everybody who wants to learn more about what took place during the initial decades of contact.
The first Spaniards who made contact with Native Americans left several accounts of tremendous historical, anthropological, and literary value. The authors, who were all men, tell the story of conflict and struggle from their own personal experiences.
Christopher Columbus wrote the first accounts and his two most important pieces are “Carta del descubrimiento” and “Diario de a bordo.” In these works he describes the first contact he and his crew had with Native Americans as they toured several Caribbean islands.
Hernán Cortés, the famed conqueror of the Valley of Mexico, wrote “Cartas de relación” of which“Segunda carta de relación” is the most important. In the second letter he gives a detailed account of his journey to topple Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital.
Bernal Díaz de Castillo wrote “De historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España” that presents his personal account of the conquest of Mexico as a solider of Cortés.
“Naufragios” was written by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. This work describes the Native Americans he and his fellow shipwrecked explorers met and encountered during their eight-year journey. They were lost near present-day Galveston, Texas and together they wandered from the Gulf Coast through the present-day U.S. Southwest back to Mexico City.
In “Brevísima relaciónde la destrucción de las Indias” author Bartolomé de las Casas gives an extraordinary account of several encounters he saw first-hand as he traveled throughout the Americas.
He was in a unique position as a friar and bishop to travel and he took an extended journey to an unprecedented number of places. His work is valuable because it documented many of the atrocities and the brutal treatment committed by the Spaniards against the local populations.
Upon his return to Spain he became one of the most vocal critics of the abuse and cruelty he witnessed. Casas helped to push for new laws and protections thereby becoming one of the first Europeans to fight for human rights in the Americas.
An important local account about New Mexico can be found in “Historia de la Nueva México” which was written by Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá. In it he gives his account of the arrival of Juan de Oñate, soldiers, and colonists. It begins with the founding of the first Spanish-Mexican settlements in and around Santa Fe.
But most importantly it chronicles the brutalities committed against the members of the Pueblo de Ácoma by Oñate and his men.
All of these historical accounts of the first contacts between Native Americans and Europeans have been translated to English. As documents in the public domain, they can be consulted online as well as in public and university libraries.