The collective impulse to tear down statues and rename buildings to meet modern sensibilities is growing stronger by the day. Earlier this month a statue of Christopher Columbus in New York’s Central Park was vandalized with graffiti that read “hate will not be tolerated” and a creepy warning that “#somethingscoming.” The following day, protesters gathered at the city’s Columbus Circle to demand that a statue of the explorer there, which stands atop a 76-foot column, be removed.
Foes of Columbus, including Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of New York’s City Council, say the explorer’s likeness is offensive to oppressed peoples. “There obviously has been ongoing dialogue and debate in the Caribbean—particularly in Puerto Rico, where I’m from,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said last month, knocking Columbus for the “oppression and everything he brought with him.”
Ms. Mark-Viverito might want to take a closer look. Puerto Rico celebrates Columbus not once but twice each year: on the federal holiday in October and again on Nov. 19, or Día del Descubrimiento (Discovery Day), which commemorates Columbus’s arrival in Puerto Rico during his second trans-Atlantic voyage.
While folks on the mainland wring their hands over whether to take monuments to Columbus down, Puerto Rico is putting them up. Last year the city of Arecibo inaugurated a Columbus monument taller than the Statue of Liberty. The 350-foot statue, a gift to the U.S. from sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, was rejected by New York, Boston, Miami, Cleveland, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and—maybe the biggest insult—Columbus, Ohio.
Columbus was born in Italy, but he sailed under the Spanish crown. Without Columbus and the Spanish colonization of the Western Hemisphere that followed, Latinos as a people would not exist.
Latin Americans have, thus, long celebrated the day that Columbus landed in the New World as Día de la Raza, or Day of the Race. The word “raza” isn’t meant in a Darwinian or bigoted sense. It refers to what the Mexican thinker José Vasconcelos called the “cosmic race” that incorporates people of all skin colors and physical characteristics in a culture that includes Spanish, native and African traditions. Día de la Raza is a universal celebration of a people and a world made possible because of the courage of Christopher Columbus. By honoring the explorer, Latin Americans honor their own place in the world and proclaim that they, as much as any other people, built the societies of the Western Hemisphere.
Recognizing the importance of Columbus Day to Latinos, President Reagan in 1988 instituted national Hispanic Heritage month, which begins Sept. 15 and culminates just after Columbus Day. Two weeks from now, on Columbus Day weekend, millions of Latinos and Italian-Americans will honor the explorer with parades on Oct. 8 and Oct. 9, respectively.
Such commemorations do not absolve Columbus of his flaws or imply forgetting his missteps. The explorer, like most historical figures, was far from perfect. But much of the anti-Columbus rhetoric is based on old propaganda from the English and Dutch aimed at demonizing their Spanish-Catholic rivals. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan picked up these mischaracterizations as a way to delegitimize immigrants, particularly Catholics. Those who denigrate Columbus today in the name of “tolerance” only feed this bigoted narrative.
Ms. Mark-Viverito would do well to remember that tributes to Columbus honor not merely one man but the shared Latino heritage of all the Americas.
Ms. Braceras is a lawyer and writer in Boston.