Indigenous people in a horse drawn carriage, image to illustrate Columbus Day
In Latin America more and more people refuse to celebrate the arrival of the Spanish and their process of conquest. Photo: Pixabay.

Columbus Day: The beginning of the end for indigenous cultures?

October 12, the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America, is celebrated in Spanish-speaking countries, and with it, the beginning of the European…


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In recent years, it has become a common scene in the different Latin American countries to see groups of protesters, often made up of indigenous people, who still suffer discrimination because of their origin, demolishing different monuments and statues that celebrate the Spanish conquerors, the same ones that were behind the systematic elimination of the indigenous population and their cultural customs. 

You can also read: Columbus Day to be changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Philadelphia

Although these sculptures had been perceived for many decades as symbols of reverence and respect towards the conquerors (many continue to do so), in recent years, thanks to the different social movements that at a global level demand inclusion and respect for diversity, today they become controversial figures which, for those who protest, represent centuries of inequality and a tribute to those who wiped out the native populations of the “New World”.

Christopher Columbus, from hero to villain

Estatua de Cristobal Colón en Puerto Rico

The social effervescence that is lived throughout the planet has led the people of Latin America to an awakening of their indigenous roots, a pride crushed from the moment that Europeans called themselves "discoverers" to deny the existing culture and, through a brutal genocide, do their best to erase them from history.

The mobilizations that have generated protests on all continents, regardless of the type of government they have in their countries, seek recognition and inclusion, but not only translated in a monetary way. What is sought is that all cultures are respected and valued, especially when they are considered minorities, since it has been these that historically have had to carry on their shoulders the weight of an undeserved shame that today translates into pride to replace customs imposed by the conquerors.

Changing the name

From Spain itself, where this is considered a holiday, a change for this date has been promoted by some union groups that seek to make it any other working day, as they consider it a celebration of "supremasist genocides."

For their part, in Latin American countries, the date has been transformed into a celebration of the indigenous cultures of each nation, celebrating diversity and native origins. In Argentina, for example, it began to be called the Day of Cultural Diversity; in Chile it is known as the day of the Meeting of the Two Worlds; for their part, Ecuadorians call it the Day of Interculturality and Plurinationality, seeking to highlight the coexistence of various "indigenous nationalities" and leaving behind the colonialist concept. The indigenous peoples of Ecuador have called this date the Day of Resistance.

A different example can be found in Mexico, where it seeks to rescue the link between the "Old and New World" that opened the way to a commercial and cultural exchange. In there the particular festivals of each town are celebrated on different dates, so for them October 12 is the opportunity to commemorate that "there are many races and that they are combined.”

In the United States, whose celebration does not coincide with those of Latin American countries, since Columbus Day is celebrated every second Monday in October, many states do not consider it a holiday and have transformed it into the Day of Indigenous Resistance, using a phrase that has become famous: "Nothing to celebrate."

The decline of indigenous languages

Indígenas reunidos para comer un huevo de avestruz

After the arrival of Columbus to America in 1492, which opened the greatest process of cultural colonization in history, the inhabitants of these regions were massacred and their cultures practically erased from our collective memory. Perhaps only thanks to the fact that many of the native peoples were peaceful and did not possess any type of military power, today we can still recognize some indigenous groups that with difficult conditions struggle to preserve their traditions.

Although it was first the Spanish language that wanted to disappear all traces of any other language that was spoken in the region, after the great power achieved in the 20th century by the United States, English was officially imposed as the universal language. In this way, the most relevant texts and the information that concerns us all are transmitted in this language, assigning other languages a secondary place and leaving the traditional indigenous languages on the brink of extinction.

Scientific study on biodiversity

According to a program at the University of Queensland, Australia, made up of a team of 60 researchers who examined texts on biodiversity in 16 different languages, scientific papers in another language, which could provide a lot of useful information, are often ignored.

This data, worrisome even for those who write texts in different languages, such as German, for example, becomes more terrifying if we take it to indigenous languages, where a lot of knowledge is being lost and will be lost, especially about biodiversity, if we continue on this path that ignores the wisdom that can be found within these communities.

In another study, this one from the University of Zurich, it was revealed that knowledge about medicinal plants in Latin America is in danger since most of the information in this regard (about 75%) is found in indigenous languages with serious risks of disappearing.

Thanks to the indigenous custom of oral tradition, many medical knowledge begins to disappear as language is lost, so it is urgent that the scientific community understand that these issues should not be addressed only through a language, and that, on the contrary, the strong link between cultural and biological diversity must be respected in order to protect knowledge.

According to UNESCO data, 42% of the 7,000 existing languages (approximately) are currently in danger of extinction. In order to preserve them, a decade dedicated to indigenous languages was proclaimed, which will begin next year and will run until 2032.


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