In a column I wrote in early October I said Columbus Day should be "the Hispanic holiday par excellence." I argued that it represents the beginnings of Hispanic culture. That prompted a response from my colleague, Roberto Rodriguez. In a column for the Los Angeles Times last summer, Roberto wrote that Columbus Day should not be celebrated because the European arrival brought on the "cultural genocide" of Indians. He mailed me the column and enclosed a letter that began, "Roger, it's almost funny that there should be so much disagreement between two people." The letter went on to critique all I had written.
This debate is no small matter. For the past few hundred years, Latin Americans _ and lately, also the more than 20-million Hispanics in the United States _ have seared their soul to define just what being "Hispanic" or "Latino" means.
The diametrically opposed opinions that Roberto and I have represent the two main camps. One view regards the Spanish conquest that began after Columbus landed as a foreign invasion that to this day continues to stifle indigenous cultures. People who believe this say Spanish/European civilization is alien to Latin America.
I argue that even though the European Spaniards were at one time foreign invaders, they eventually became an inextricable part of Latin America. To me, a Hispanic is someone with a cultural ancestry (not necessarily a blood ancestry) that is at least partly Spanish. This definition fits me, and it fits Roberto Rodriguez. He may reject it, but the fact is that Spain's legacy is what defines and unites Hispanics of disparate national, racial or class origins.
That was the idea I had in mind when I wrote, "It was with (Columbus') arrival on this continent that Latin America was born." Roberto does not see this. He wrote, "Latin America was not created by Columbus' landfall. The continent was here already thriving." This misses the point.
The continent may have been here, but Latin America was certainly not. It is a cultural entity that only came into being with the mixture of Indian, African and Spaniard that occurred after 1492.
The process that created this mixture was explosive. As Roberto wrote in his column, it involved "genocide, theft of land, destruction of civilization and enslavement." There is no moral justification for the cruelty with which Spaniards treated the Indians.
But to understand the broader significance of the conquest, Hispanics must master a delicate balancing act: We must reject its barbarity while, at the same time, embrace the civilization that emerged from it. To do otherwise is to commit mass cultural suicide.
Actually, it is nearly impossible not to embrace it. The Spanish legacy is so deeply embedded in Latin America that people don't always realize it is there.
For instance, the Spanish language is a powerful banner of identification for Hispanic Americans of all political persuasions. Roberto Rodriguez himself writes in Spanish for La Opinion, the Los Angeles daily.
Yet Spanish originated in Spain and was brought to the New World by the conquistadores. If I followed Roberto's argument to its logical conclusion, I would find myself saying that Hispanics should reject Spanish, a foreign tongue imposed on Latin America by foreign invaders.
Few Hispanics would say this, because reality has conquered Roberto's historical grievance. Most Hispanics do not think of Spanish as the language of the enemies, but as part of our own heritage.
There is one more thing, Roberto.
Before this controversy surfaced, you interviewed me for a story you were writing, for the newsletter "Hispanic Link" about nationally syndicated Hispanic columnists. The reason you even thought of writing about it is that you realized a link existed between the five Mexican-American or Cuban-American columnists you mentioned.
It is the link we all have to Spain. Whether or not you can easily accept it, it is there. It is part of our history, part of our families, part of the neighborhood in which we grew up, part of ourselves. Almost 500 years after Columbus, it is no longer foreign.
- Roger E. Hernandez is an adjunct member of the journalism faculty at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Born in Cuba, he came to the United States in 1965 when his parents were exiled by Fidel Castro.
1990 King Features Syndicate Inc.