Decolonizing Columbus: questioning the legacy of colonialism

Photo by Julie Tripp.
Photo by Julie Tripp.
Photo by Julie Tripp.

VCU’s Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action (PLUMAS) addressed the nuanced nature of Christopher Columbus and why his legacy and the holiday celebrating his name has is increasingly controversial and facing pushback throughout the Americas in a forum titled, “Decolonizing Columbus” on Oct. 6.

The panel of six consisted of two VCU students, Diego Orbegoso and Camila Aranguiz-Allend, as well as VCU’s faculty: Dr. Antonio Espinosa, Associate Professor of Latin American History and Isabela Tavares de Melo, Adjunct Professor of Figure Drawing and Costume history. With  two speakers from nearby colleges; Alicia Diaz, Associate Professor of Dance in The University of Richmond and Zoe Spencer, Associate Professor of Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice at Virginia State University.

The panel’s diversity, in regards to age, race, ethnicity, as well as an open floor for audience questions, allowed for thought provoking discussions and debates.

The opening question was ‘What does Columbus mean to you?’

“(Columbus’ landing was) a symbol of colonialism, forced Catholicization, the exploitation of (an) indigenous labor force, the extermination of indigenous groups,” Espinosa said. “The establishment of racial hierarchy which [erases] focus on the Caribbean.”

Professor Tavares de Melo, originally from Brazil, said that colonial systems initiated by Columbus affected Brazil differently – but at the root the it has the same results.

“In Brazil we don’t even talk about race. We really pretend we don’t have racial issues,” said Melo.

She said later on in the panel that due to colorism, she’s privileged due to her fair skin, another impact of colonization.

The rest of panel and the audience echoed Dr. Espinosa’s comments: Columbus’s legacy is one of oppression, violence and an audience member put it, ‘the start of people of color having to conform to systems that don’t value them.’

This is at the heart of a national debate: should institutions change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day?

Colorado recently joined the list of states who have made this nominal switch. Universities such as George Mason campaign annually to demand this change.

Both panel and audience were divided on the topic.

“I’m wondering how much a step forward that really is?” an audience member said. “We’re just gonna call it a different name but not address any systematic things?”

Both student speakers on the panel agreed and felt it was a tactic of complacency.

“To call Columbus day Indigenous People’s Day, it’s just a slap to the face to the them. It should be called Genocide Day,” Spencer said.

Espinosa said it’s important to change the name to highlight the resistance of Native populations.

“What does solidarity look like to you? When different groups with similar struggles come together in strategic ways, respecting their specificities [but] understanding their power together?” Diaz said. “That’s interesting, that’s solidarity.”

Siona Peterous, Staff Writer

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