My grandmother was a retired 1st grade schoolteacher who lived in a large cement house with my uncle (my mother’s brother) in the barrio of Los Pinos in Havana. She had come to Cuba with her family as an adolescent from Barcelona, and was already a widow when I was born. Every day when I returned home from school I would receive a supplementary education from her.
Around this time of year, she would bring out her treasured box of old school materials, beautifully kept and organized. I would sit on the ledge by the front window of her living room, and she would tell me stories and show me illustrations of Christopher Columbus, of the small fleet composed of the Niña, Pinta and Santa María, and of the inhabitants of the New World.
This was in honor of the Día de la Raza—never to celebrate Columbus’ day. Before politically correct North American liberals found out that there was something disturbing about celebrating the Great Discoverer, Spanish Americans had had occasion to object to the presence of Spain in the Americas, and to its version of history. The Wars of Independence of the early 19th century could not have freed the American hemisphere without the help of Indians, or without first proclaiming the freedom of African slaves. (Cuba and Puerto Rico, in particular, did not obtain their freedom from Spain until after the Spanish American War.)
Raza does not mean race—as ignorant Arizona politicians would have it—in the troubled definition of the word given to it by North American history. A literal translation according to the dictionary of the Real Academia Española renders: caste or quality of the origin or lineage (21st. Edition). Raza means the people created from the various nations that formed, and today still form, the American countries—Indian, European, African, Asian. This was my grandmother’s lesson, and this is the spirit in which Spanish America celebrates October 12.
It is true that Christopher Columbus first introduced to the Americas the system of encomiendas—precursor of slavery—that proved a dark and bloody curse upon Indian and African populations. I make no claim for the Admiral of the Ocean Sea other than to say that he was the Great Explorer—the most important one of Western history. But the execration of his name by American populations who have profited from slavery and genocide, built exceptional countries on that basis, and even today will not acknowledge their own dark history, is an ignoble exercise in scapegoating and hypocrisy. Visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.; then visit the American Indian Museum some blocks away, and then compare the official narratives.
I left Cuba shortly before my 8th birthday, and never saw my grandmother again. My memories of her are supplemented by fading black and white photographs, and by her old book in which she compiled the first grade curriculum for first graders in Havana schools. But her lessons never left me—they are, I think, why I later became a teacher. We are a New People, born in the crucible of the Indian Wars and forged in slavery; we are all different and we are all also One; and this is our Day of Origin.