Dia de la Raza: Learning Poverty Through History

Mother Goose & Grimm is Copyright of Mike Peters.
As a little kid, I remember my mom had a cartoon she cut out of the newspaper and put on the fridge. It was similar to this one by Mike Peters, except the bubble was much more direct:

"Here they come...illegal aliens."

Understanding Columbus Day was always hard for me as a kid. It was a holiday to celebrate the discovery of the "New World," a world that had plenty of history (a fact my mother made sure I knew.) As a Mexican-American and as a quiet kid, it was a topic of question but not something I challenged. If "Columbus Day" was a day which "patriotic people observed," a fact dutifully taught by my 4th grade teacher, why were my mom and other Mexican-Americans so set against Columbus? In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  . That couldn't be too wrong...could it?

As I grew older I learned about Christopher Columbus, and Cortez, Pizarro, and the many others who sought to expand the glory of Spain. And while I recognize that many aspects of my heritage now come from those Spanairds who landed years ago, their model of imperialism, oppression, fuedalistic encomienda, and nationalistic robbery is a source of danger for us today...simply because its been forgotten.

The Franciscan Joseph Chinnici OFM describes phenomenon like this as structural amnesia, the ability of a nation and/or institution to forget about the evils and disparities surrounding it. Whether we look at the history of oppression in Latin America, the effects of slavery and post-civil war oppression, the displacement and slaughter of Native Americans, we as a nation can conveniently find ways to forget about the bad things in the past. Chinnici argues that in forgetting such things, we fail to meet our obligations to live poverty (as Franciscans) and be in solidarity with the marginalized and the destitute:

I have found in my experience as Provincial Minister that we do inherit institutions, emotional responses, and intellectual frameworks that in some way make poverty in all of its dimentions and the poor in all of their fellings invisible to us. We must learn to ask questions from the viewpoints of others...we must learn to see.  Only when our own history leads us outside of our inherited structures...can we unmask our structural amnesia.
           Poverty: An Image of the Franciscan Presence in the World

So today I will celebrate El Dia de la Raza, or The Day of the People. This is a national holiday in Mexico, although Mexicans and other Latinos & Latinas celebrate this holiday in the United States. It exists to commemorate "the Mexican Mestizo race," a unique blend of the Spaniards and Indigenous people of Mexico. For some it is a recognition of the rich heritage that we as Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) have because of these different cultures coming to together. For others, it is an anti-holiday to Columbus Day: a day seen by many as the lifting up of an oppressive man as the premier discoverer of the frontier, the bringer of civility to natives, and the one who brought faith to the Americas.

The debate of Columbus Day is something for greater historians, theologians, and anthropologists than me. However I recognize that my American Experience sees a hypocrisy in the celebration Christopher Columbus. As a Capuchin trying to live my faith, I choose to remember the evils that came along with this "discovery" that is honored today. My hope is that by remembering the sins of the past, I can be aware of my actions to others, and be in solidarity with the marginalized and poor of today.

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