Reconceiving Columbus Day

On this day in 1492, the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria landed at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. No? The intensity of positive and negative feelings in Colorado about Columbus Day would make you think that the seminal event had occurred here. Well, in a way, it did.

The New World was "discovered" 1,900 miles to our southeast, but the legal holiday commemorating it happened here. Colorado was the first state to make Columbus Day a legal holiday in 1907; the feds didn't follow suit until 1971. Denver has the oldest and largest Columbus Day parade in the country. Even if Saturday's weather chilled this year's event, Denver's parade has long been a magnate for pride, protest, and even dirty tricks, like this year's hoax email that fooled some news outlets to report the parade canceled for funding issues.

I started writing about "legal" holidays on my No Funny Lawyers blog earlier this year. So far I've covered Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. Columbus Day would have been easy to miss as virtually no private employers, and increasingly fewer state and local governments, recognize it. The Columbus Day Monday holiday usually doesn't register with me until I have to figure out why there is no mail.

So if the legal holiday is a throwaway that risks going away, Denver's Saturday parade pits culture against culture because of its Columbus focus. Columbus's voyage was a business venture that took advantage of increasing competition and imperialistic attitudes among European nations. If this Italian had not opened the door to Europe's colonization of the Americas, another European would have. Exploitation, slavery and disease would have followed just the same. We can't change how cultures collided 500 years ago, but we don't have to accept continuing collisions.

Americans of Italian descent should be able to celebrate their heritage. St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth are popular in Denver with folks outside of the focal ethnic group joining in, not protesting, the celebrations; and they don't need a legal holiday to do it. American Indians can and should honor their history outside of a European frame of reference.

Changing the paradigm requires the Italian community to rename its celebration and for our state (and federal for that matter) government to decide if we need and can continue to afford a mid-October legal holiday. Tradition and pride are obstacles to changing the name, but Italian culture is among the richest in the world, surely another rallying theme can be found.

If a legal holiday is kept, it too should be re-conceived as a celebration that honors the peoples, not the conquest, of the Americas. An Americas day, plural not possessive, can honor the original peoples of the hemisphere as it reminds us, its current peoples, that we share more than a land mass, we share a future.

Casimiro Barela is an iconic figure in Colorado history. Central in the creation of the State of Colorado, he also championed that first Columbus Day holiday. In the early twentieth century, Barela, a Hispanic, saw Columbus as unifying force for Coloradans of Italian, Portuguese and Spanish heritage. Now in the early twenty-first century, can Colorado see fit to celebrate both our disparate roots and our collective future?