Good­bye, Colum­bus

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By David L. Ulin David L. Ulin is a con­tribut­ing writer to Opin­ion.

Ear­lier this month, a com­mit­tee of the Los An­ge­les City Coun­cil backed a plan to re­frame Colum­bus Day as Indige­nous Peo­ples Day, fol­low­ing the lead of Berke­ley, Den­ver, Phoenix and the state of Ver­mont. The pro­posal now goes to the full coun­cil. It should vote yes, and the sooner the bet­ter. Giv­ing Colum­bus Day a re­set would rep­re­sent a nec­es­sary reck­on­ing with the nu­ances of Amer­i­can iden­tity and his­tory.

Colum­bus, after all, did not dis­cover Amer­ica, any more than Amerigo Ve­spucci or Sir Fran­cis Drake did. It was here all along, home to a wide ar­ray of cul­tures and civ­i­liza­tions. The Taos Pue­blo, in New Mex­ico, was founded more than 1,000 years ago — that is, about 500 years be­fore Colum­bus “found” his first Caribbean is­land. Along with Acoma Pue­blo, Taos is cited as the old­est con­tin­u­ously oc­cu­pied set­tle­ment in the United States.

In Cal­i­for­nia, Indige­nous Peo­ples Day would carry par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance. The re­gion has al­ways been mul­ti­cul­tural, pop­u­lated by more than 70 eth­nic­i­ties and tribes be­fore the ar­rival of Euro­peans in the 16th cen­tury. Since then it has had a com­plex his­tory, de­fined in many ways by clash­ing cul­tures.

Na­tive tribes were vir­tu­ally en­slaved in Span­ish colo­nial Alta Cal­i­for­nia. Mex­i­can rule was slightly bet­ter, but it gave way to An­glo en­croach­ment that cul­mi­nated in the in­de­pen­dent Bear Flag Repub­lic, which lasted just 25 days be­fore the “rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies” joined John C. Fre­mont’s Cal­i­for­nia Bat­tal­ion. Four years later, Cal­i­for­nia was a state.

Cal­i­for­ni­ans ro­man­ti­cize this “col­or­ful” past and gloss over its vir­u­lent, con­quer­ing racism.

Con­sider Los An­ge­les: Be­gin­ning in the 1920s, re­stric­tive hous­ing covenants pre­vented Lati­nos, African Amer­i­cans, Jews and Asians from liv­ing in many South­ern Cal­i­for­nia neigh­bor­hoods.

“It was law,” the city’s new poet lau­re­ate Robin Coste Lewis re­calls in her poem “Frame”: “we could not own prop­erty / ex­cept in cer­tain codes: South Cen­tral, Comp­ton, Watts, / where the con­struc­tion com­pa­nies were un­der con­tract / with the LAPD to tile or tar our ad­dresses onto our roofs.”

In 1924, an epi­demic of bubonic plague that killed nearly 40 peo­ple led to a quar­an­tine of the city’s so-called Mex­i­can Dis­trict. As USC his­tory pro­fes­sor Wil­liam Deverell writes in his 2004 book “White­washed Adobe”: “There can be lit­tle doubt, given the way in which these neigh­bor­hoods were de­scribed, by lan­guage and perime­ter, that of­fi­cials per­ceived an over­lap be­tween eth­nic­ity and dis­ease.”

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s ten­sions pro­voked the Zoot Suit ri­ots, the Watts ri­ots, the Rod­ney King ri­ots. Statewide mis­ce­gena­tion laws, ban­ning in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage, were not over­turned un­til 1948. Los An­ge­les, the African Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Ch­ester Himes re­mem­bered, “hurt me racially as much as any city I have ever known — much more than any city I re­mem­ber in the South.”

For all the small-d demo­cratic prom­ise of Los An­ge­les, such re­al­i­ties are a large part of our col­lec­tive her­itage. I’m not sug­gest­ing that Indige­nous Peo­ples Day would cor­rect any of this; his­tory doesn’t work that way. All the same, the change would be a nod in the right di­rec­tion, ac­knowl­edg­ing the mas­sive dis­rup­tions of the past.

Op­po­nents ar­gue that re­nam­ing Colum­bus Day is an af­front to Ital­ian Amer­i­cans, who have them­selves been sub­jected to dis­crim­i­na­tion in the United States. One al­ter­na­tive would be to change the hol­i­day to Im­mi­grant Her­itage Day, or keep Colum­bus Day but add a sep­a­rate Indige­nous Peo­ples Day. Prac­ti­cally speak­ing, that’s what will hap­pen: Even as Indige­nous Peo­ples Day catches on in cities and states, Colum­bus Day re­mains a fed­eral hol­i­day.

Still, the ges­ture mat­ters. Hol­i­days are a dec­la­ra­tion of what we find im­por­tant, a recog­ni­tion of our val­ues and how they evolve. Tak­ing a stand on what Coun­cil­man Mitch O’Far­rell — who pro­posed the name change — calls our “re­ally dev­as­tat­ing” his­tory is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in this era of gov­ern­ment as­saults on tol­er­ance. We can only be­come bet­ter, more whole, by (in Ge­orge Or­well’s phrase) fac­ing un­pleas­ant facts, chang­ing that which needs to be changed.

In May, New Or­leans Mayor Mitch Lan­drieu ad­dressed this dy­namic when he ex­plained why it was fit­ting, fi­nally, to dis­man­tle his city’s mon­u­ments to Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers and bat­tles: “The Con­fed­er­acy lost and we are the bet­ter for it,” he de­clared.

Like him, I am ar­gu­ing in fa­vor of en­gag­ing with his­tory as a liv­ing force. The his­tory of Colum­bus Day it­self of­fers a strong ra­tio­nale for tak­ing an evo­lu­tion­ary ap­proach to the hol­i­day. Although it was first cel­e­brated in New York in the 1860s, it did not be­come a na­tional event un­til 1937, when Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt yielded to pres­sure from the Knights of Colum­bus to honor a Catholic.

That’s a telling bit of busi­ness: Colum­bus Day was once its own ver­sion of Indige­nous Peo­ples Day, a way of honor­ing our di­ver­sity. That the def­i­ni­tion of di­ver­sity grows broader, more in­clu­sive, can only be a good thing.

Hol­i­days are a dec­la­ra­tion of what we find im­por­tant, a recog­ni­tion of our val­ues and how they evolve.

Por­trait of Christo­pher Colum­bus, from Art Re­source

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