Sunday, October 12, 2008

Día de la Raza

From top: Charles Cordier, Cristóbal Colón, installed 1877, Mexico City (image found here); Jan Van der Straet, Vespucci Meets America, c. 1609 (Image found here; José Clemente Orozco, Cortés and Malinche, 1926 (Image found here); commemorative marker at Tlatelolco (also called the Plaza de las Tres Culturas), Mexico City. The text reads: "On the 13th of August of 1521/heroically defended by Cuauhtemoc/Tlatelolco fell into the possession of Hernán Cortés/It was neither triumph nor defeat/It was the painful birth of the mestizo people/which is the Mexico of today."

Today, Columbus Day, is known in Mexico and throughout much of Latin America as Día de la Raza ("Day of the People"). As in the United States, this day is a legal holiday in Mexico; however, Mexico observes all holidays on their actual dates, so tomorrow will be a work day there, as it will not be for many people here.

We in this country, for better and for worse, are good at forgetting; Mexicans, for better and for worse, are good at remembering. I'm pretty sure I've told this before in the past, but it so perfectly, to my mind, encapsulates the quality of the long Mexican memory that it bears repeating: When I mentioned to a Mexican acquaintance that in all of Mexico there was no monument to Santa Anna, he said, "Texas is a monument to Santa Anna." There is something of that quality of the still-felt direct connection to the past implicit in the contrasting names for this day in this country and Mexico. To call this day "Columbus Day," to be sure, commemorates the man and this day in 1492; but, unless we're given to reflection we're not likely to feel much direct connection between that day and us, in much the same way that not many people seem to remember exactly what Memorial Day memorializes (ironic, given those words' common theme of memory). The Latin American name for this day, though, implicitly puts the particular fact of Columbus' arrival aside in favor of a succinct statement of what that arrival, indirectly, hath wrought: the emergence of a new people.

In part because I presently have Mexico on the brain (we fly to Mexico City on Wednesday) and in part because of some recent reading I've done in connection with my sabbatical work, this day has more than the usual resonance for me. I also think, though, that a little attention to how this day is commemorated can give us some insight into why this hemisphere is, culturally-speaking, such a weird place, as embodied in its twin (but, I'd argue, distinct) names for itself, "the Americas" and "the New World."

More on this later.

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