Monday, October 12, 2009

Day of Argument

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and, beyond that, no one ever quite agreed what happened next.

In the English speaking world, unparalleled Spanish cruelty coupled with Catholic obscurantism descended on the continent until 1607, when English people landed in Jamestown. In the Spanish-speaking world, the English were preceded by explorers and priests who brought Western, Christian civilization and spawned a new multiracial society (see Hispanic theologian Virgilio Elizondo's "cosmic race" born in mestizaje), featuring the continent's first universities, churches and other august institutions -- all long before the Puritans or the British pirate Drake.

Among the oldest inhabitants of the American continent (I'm told their preferred word for themselves these days is "Indian" but I'm not taking chances), from Hudson Bay to Tierra del Fuego, October 12 is the anniversary of the beginning of a long tragedy in which various ancient ways of life were destroyed by the sword, the pen and the cross of various Europeans.

Spanish conquistadores decapitated three major pre-Columbian empires. A British general invented biological warfare to better steal lands in New England. French Jesuits naïvely brought about among the once fearsome Iroquois one of the most genuine and heartfelt mass conversions to the gospel of "blessed are the peacemakers," and the tribe was subsequently wiped out in a generation by its long-suffering enemies.

We still don't know conclusively whether the remains of Christopher Columbus are in the Dominican Republic or in Spain. Nor whether he was Italian, the grandson of a Christian Spaniard in Genoa or, potentially, a Sephardic Jew. (The first person in Columbus' first expedition to set foot in the New World was, indeed, a Sephardic Jew, translator Luis de Torres.)

Nor do we know, of course, who really "discovered" America. Most likely, it was a Mongol who crossed the Behring Strait more than 10,000 years ago. Take that, Leif Erikson!

America the continent -- not the weasel "Americas," which tries to make up for the theft of the continental name by one of the countries of the original British North America -- isn't even named after anyone who was actually here.

Of course, as shown, we can't even agree about the name even though, to my mind, on my side of the Atlantic, we are all Americans, from Argentines to Venezuelans and every other nationality in between.

Despite my bouts of flea-bitten regionalism, I feel at home anywhere on the continent, having lived in Canada and Argentina, as well as the economic behemoth that lies somewhere in between. We americanos de la patria grande or Greater Homeland Americans really have a common history of migration and settlement, of constantly remaking and renewing our hopes.

We are more flexible than the Europeans, whose culture is pretty much fixed in identities forged in the first half of the last millenium. We are less mature than the Asians, whose wisdom and ways of life are at once the oldest and newest. We are far too much more individualistic than we should be, as the communitarian cultures of Africa teach us. We are, all of us, too driven to simply enjoy the paradises of Oceania.

Yet we are a tossed salad of them all -- Behring-Strait crossers and Polynesian raft sailors, European transoceanic transplants, Asian seekers of industry, African survivors of the "middle passage" and Pacific Basin neighbors.

In this last notion, I hope, we can all agree.
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