The origin of Columbus Day dates back to 1907 to Denver, Colorado.
At the turn of the century, Italian Americans were not considered "white" by the "mainstream" U.S. culture, and were so not entitled to white privileges. They had to organize themselves in the workplace and on the streets to demand a basic dignity and political rights.
The Italian Americans chose Columbus as a vehicle for their advancement. Christopher Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón, as he was known by the Spanish Crown, was possibly born in Genoa, which is part of modern Italy.
The associations between the “discoverer” of the Americas and American patriotism thus originated, and the first Columbus Day coincided with America’s growing acceptance of Italians as white Americans. Columbus became adopted as a founding father of the nation, as Italians immigrants and Italian-Americans challenged the stereotypes of “wops” (without papers), dagos, etc.
Ironically, this peculiar holiday was founded at the expense of indigenous people in a city, Denver, which was founded on the expropriation of the Cheyenne Nation and Mexicans.
The Pope’s declaration of Spain’s “Right of Discovery” had long since been accepted in U.S. legal jurisprudence, and the creation of Columbus Day further enshrined this doctrine.
The “discovery” doctrine consists of the basic premise that Christian Europeans have the moral right to dispossess non-Christian and non-European peoples of the “aboriginal title” to their land base. This supremacist doctrine has served as the legal rationale for European and European-American conquerors in the Americas since the 15th century.
Columbus’ genocidal example in the Caribbean set a precedent for later settlers. The Spanish Crown funded the enslavement, rape, mutilation, forced conversion to Christianity and mass murder of Taíno and Arawak peoples.
The 19th century slogan of “Manifest Destiny” captured the legacy that Columbus and Columbus Day came to symbolize. Shamefully this “destiny” involved the de facto genocide and extermination of indigenous people, the transatlantic slave trade, and religious intolerance were key elements of official policy shared by Spanish, French, British and U.S. settlers in the Americas.
This same racist ideology justified the annexation of northern México in 1848, the conquest of Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1898, and the dozens of military and financial interventions and occupations in Latin America starting at the dawn of the 20th century with what President Theodore Roosevelt described as “imperialism,” the “Great White Fleet,” and the “Big Stick” policy.
Thus the Columbus icon encompasses the long train of abuses against American Indians, Africans and African Americans, Caribbean peoples, Mexicans and Chicanos, and other non-European peoples.
The celebration of Columbus’ legacy is understandably offensive to the survivors of this genocidal and abusive legacy.
The 1960s saw movements of oppressed peoples within the U.S. challenge the racist power structure. Their demands for human rights challenged segregation, police brutality, discrimination in the workplace, and the racist culture learned over the past centuries. Activists have confronted these racist symbols on the pages of school textbooks, within commercial entertainment, as well as in the public monuments and celebrations.
America began transforming its views on race relations and discarding offensive celebrations. For example, Denver discontinued its annual Columbus Day Parade.
However, the Federation of Italian American Organizations (FIAO) in Denver decided to resurrect the festivities in 1990.
A coalition of indigenous people, Chicanos and Mexicans, Italians and progressive people in Denver has resisted the annual Columbus Day Parade since its re-initiation.
Progressive Italians to Transform the Columbus Holiday (PITCH) have issued a statement reading that “any well-deserved celebration of Italian heritage should be a respectful celebration of which all cultures can be proud.”
In 2001, a coalition of indigenous people, Mexicans and Chicanos, and other local residents, started an annual Anti-Columbus Day in Orange County. They chose the San Juan Capistrano Mission (built by Ajachamen slave labor) as an appropriate site for their first protest.
The Ajachamen, or Juaneño, traditionally inhabited the southern half of Orange County. A burial site known as Puthidem is located up the street from the Mission. J. Serra High School, a private Catholic school, recently built a controversial extension of its campus over the burial grounds. Columbus Day opponents feel this act highlights the ongoing denial of the indigenous genocide of the past as well as living indigenous cultures today.