In the pantheon of heroes commemorated by public holidays in the United States, Christopher Columbus has always been the odd one out. Unlike former presidents, or Martin Luther King Jr., or war veterans, Columbus has nothing directly to do with U.S. history.
His symbolic value as a representative of the arrival of Europe, i.e., “civilization,” in the Americas has long been diminished, not least because of a change in public attitudes about the deaths of millions of indigenous people that followed in the Admiral’s wake. Columbus manages to cling on as an emblem of the achievements of Italian Americans, an already tenuous connection forged amid swells in 19th-century immigration—there was no “Italy” in 1492 and he was bankrolled by the queen of Castile—but that too has become weaker.
A handful of states do not recognize Columbus Day, preferring alternative commemorations. For instance, South Dakota celebrates a Native American Day, while Alaska opts instead for Alaska Day on Oct. 18. Some cities, too, have taken similar stances: In 1992, Berkeley, California, became the first to change the name of the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and many others followed suit. Seattle is one of the most recent, with its city council voting this year to adopt the indigenous version of the holiday.
It looks like Columbus Day may be about to set sail into irrelevancy, but before saying good riddance we should think about its replacement. While Indigenous Peoples’ Day rightly commemorates the injustices inflicted of millions of people, there is the possibility that the creation of some sort of “not-Columbus Day” could potentially highlight two important aspects of U.S. history.
The first is the shared history of the Americas, too often eclipsed by the story of U.S. “exceptionalism.” All of us, from the far reaches of Arctic Canada to the tip of Tierra del Fuego, are in some way the products of the imperial adventure that started when the Santa Maria dropped anchor. An Americas Day could be about what this legacy—good and bad—means to all of us, across the Americas.
Ideally, this holiday could be a time to recognize the often-overlooked contributions made to the U.S. from people in the Caribbean and Latin America. The wealth and prosperity of this country has long been supported by (or indeed, extracted from) our neighbors, from the Cuban sugar exports in the 1800s, to the Jamaicans who helped build the Panama Canal in the 1900s, to the Mexican and Central American immigrants whose work is now crucial to the U.S. economy.
Spain and other Spanish-speaking nations have their own version of Columbus Day, known as Día de la Raza or Día de la Hispanidad (Day of the Race or Hispanic Day), which attempts to celebrate the world that the fusion of Europe and the Americas created, though this is not without controversy either. And this leads me to the second point: There is no specific day that commemorates the Hispanic past of the United States. After all, Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 1500s, well before the Jamestown settlers in 1607 or the Pilgrims in 1620. Columbus, while opening the door for Spain, was from Genoa, so celebrating him confuses this part of U.S. history. This is not to say that there should be a Conquistador Day, but there should be a reminder that the story of Europeans in North America does not begin with the Mayflower.
Watching the immigration crisis unfold along the U.S.-Mexico border over the summer, it was clear that this neglected past is important for understanding the present. Columbus represents the standard historical arc connecting the Mediterranean to the British, then to wider European immigration in the 19th century; yet at the heart of the story is Spain, followed by the independent republics that emerged out of the Spanish empire. That this contribution to the formation of the United States—and its ramifications—is too often brushed over is something we might want to reflect on in a year of such strife. A public holiday invoking this history could serve as a potent reminder that the past and present of the United States is intrinsically linked to Spain and to the larger Spanish-speaking world, as well as to our Caribbean neighbors.
So far, there has been no day to mark the contributions from people of the Caribbean and the Hispanic world to the United States (and, no, Cinco de Mayo—an important Mexican holiday hijacked by tequila producers—doesn’t count). Columbus was never a suitable figurehead for the U.S., and until one is found, the national holiday honoring a Genoese sailor who never set foot in continental North America will persist. The simple historical fantasy will continue to triumph over the complex reality.
Carrie Gibson is the author of Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean From Columbus to the Present Day (Grove Atlantic, November 2014).