I didn’t know the true extent of Columbus’s reign of horror until a few months ago. Sitting in a Nashville library, I read accounts of the things Columbus and his men did and felt sick to my stomach.
Columbus and his fellow “conquerors” were assholes. There are a number of sources that show this. It’s easy (and correct) to hate it all. The level of prestige bestowed on them is, frankly, disgusting.
So, when I began to read, I felt ill. Like lots of people, I knew about the general horrors of the conquistadors, yet reading primary source writings added the necessary detail that erasure often removes in order to make things palatable.
There was also rage. A sickening, black cloud of it stormed in behind my eyes, as it usually does when I read the real history of things. Normally, that rage has a name: white supremacy, slavery, segregation, police brutality, racism, privilege, bias. I can normally pin that rage to something, burn that effigy as things to stay away from and consciously choose to try and rid myself of, to work day and day to scrape out internalized oppression and beliefs.
You can’t scrape bloodlines clean, though.
When I first heard the story of Columbus as a kid, I have to admit it felt exciting. This guy was “discovering a new world,” on ships with Spanish names. Up until then, it felt like I hadn’t heard a word of Spanish at school. Then, all of a sudden, we were talking about how the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria were bastions of adventure and discovery, and it was the first time anything that vaguely smacked of my home heritage had a place of honor in the history books.
I am Mexicana and Filipina. I have been raised to be proud of the centuries of ancestors who came before me. Both cultures place a strong emphasis on not forgetting familial and cultural history.
I also come from two “conquered” peoples. Spain—Columbus and men cut from the same cloth— came to both and did unspeakable things. They also, perhaps horribly, mixed bloodlines with those countries. They mixed culture, music, language, and food with those people. I am a “Torres” on my father’s side, and an “Estrada” on my mother’s. A photo of my paternal grandfather and great-grandfather are undeniably Spanish-influenced; the family moved to Guanajuato from Spain in 1765.
I want to hate everything about the conquistadores, yet they influence so many things I celebrate. I speak Spanish, I have a Spanish last name and undeniably Spanish blood passed on as a result of the conquest. I have danced the Maria Clara, twirling a lace mantilla that represented a “beauty” and “elegance” forcibly placed upon a nation of Filipinos.
I know, now, that the dance and the language and the food come as a result of horrendous oppression, yet I still cannot help but live that culture daily. As Richard Rodriguez once wrote, “I am the same distance from the conquistador as I am from the Indian.”
Of course, I read that quote and also realize that I am one of the millions who have and are still embodying this duality, this internal war. I am certainly not the first. Rodriguez finishes that line with the reminder that “righteousness should not come easily…” to any of us.
I don’t claim to be a pillar of righteousness, but attempting to figure out where I am placed in the tangled web of this timeline is new to me. It is strange to honor a history, all the while knowing its existence comes on the backs of an oppressed people. It is also difficult to properly place my anger on something that feels so much a part of who I am. It feels impossible to be Mexicana and Filipina and not be Spanish as well.
This is frustrating, but I am ultimately grateful. The internal war I fight now only fuels my fire.
This is the danger of erasure. It is criminal that, as a child, Columbus was the closest I came to Spanish role models at school. We must teach the truth about those periods in history so that we do not venerate those who are unworthy of such a place in it.
We also shouldn’t allow students to live in a world where the only history we present is one that paints them as a “conquered” people. I don’t want my Latino or Filipino students to see their cultural history only pockmarked with death and oppression. None of our students should only be shown the single story where their people “lose.”
I had, more recently, looked at the history of both cultures as “tragic.” With a furrowed brow, I condemned the act of the conquistadores on the “poor natives,” wondering what we would have seen had they not been allowed to plunder as they did.
I still feel that way at times, but now I am also filled with an intense pride. Mexicanos and Filipinos cannot be defined by our oppression: we are the result of adaptation and survival. We were conquered and endured and created something beautiful in the process. We took horror and tragedy and turned it into song, dance, food and, somehow, joy.
That is something to celebrate. That is the history that flows in my veins and fuels me each morning as I work. This day, I condemn the acts of the conqueror and refuse to center on them. Instead, I will work to re-center and celebrate the stories of the people who rose from those flames and danced.