Columbus Day is celebrated on the second Monday in October annually in the United States. It became a federal holiday in 1937, and a fair share of government and service offices are closed on this day. However, observance of Columbus Day across the U.S. varies from state to state and region to region with a few states not recognizing the holiday at all. Some states and municipalities have chosen to celebrate the second Monday in October with Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor those who lived on the continent prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
In recent years, there has been momentum building in the U.S. for Indigenous Peoples’ Day with the state of Vermont and the city of Phoenix recently joining other places that celebrate the diverse cultures that thrived on the continent before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Chicanos (politically conscious Mexican Americans) and Latinos have been instrumental in advancing the day of recognition in solidarity with Native American brothers and sisters, which is important given the government’s attempt to "Hispanicize" a community with substantial Native American heritage with recognitions such as Hispanic Heritage Month.
The city government in Denver, Colorado has never officially recognized Columbus Day, but this year the city proposed a permanent recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Yet, the state of Colorado does designate Columbus Day as a state holiday. I was able to speak with Denver Councilman Paul Lopez, a Chicano who represents District Three, about Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the context of Chicano and Latino leadership.
“Denver doesn’t have Columbus Day on the books. I worked with the Denver American Indian Commission on this issue. The Chicano and Mexicano community in Denver sees this as important for us as well because it’s inherent to our identity. Just because we have last names that are Spanish or speak a different language, that doesn’t remove the indigenous from our community. There’s an inherent respect and honor for those roots. Denver’s history begins with indigenous people with the Arapahoe and the Cheyenne by the Platte River,” Lopez said.
Lopez added that he hasn’t received any pushback for his work in advancing Indigenous Peoples’ Day and that celebrating indigenous heritage doesn’t disrespect other people.
In Los Angeles, Felicia “Fe” Montes, a Chicana artist and activist who co-founded the creative women’s collective Mujeres de Maiz, attended an Indigenous Peoples’ Rally this Saturday.
“Chicanxs and Raza or those of what is known as Turtle Island (North, South, and Central America) are indigenous people. It is vital that we reconnect, relearn and honor our indigenous heritage so that we may be more in tune with mother earth and all the elements. At this time when water is in danger, climate change is inevitable, and indigenous people across the world struggle for their basic human rights and sacred land, we must stand in solidarity with and be caretakers and protectors of the land and call for truth telling across the board,” Montes said. “No more distorted California mission history, no more Columbus Day, no more Hispanic Heritage month, but instead a Mes de Las Américas. We should honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day every day and the varied his and herstory of all the peoples, nations, and cultures of the Americas.”
The leadership in the Latino community has a unique opportunity to decolonize in celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Those who identify as Chicano tend to already recognize their indio heritage, but the government, the traditional media, and political players continue to speak about “the Hispanic voting bloc,” “la comunidad Hispana,” “the Hispanics,” etc. without regard to this community’s deep ties to the Americas. Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus, an aggressive invader who was not the first person to discover the Americas and who enslaved native people from the West Indies, would signal that we don’t deny our rich indigenous heritage. It would also help distinguish indigenous people from the Eurocentric Latinos who are frequently given a platform to speak on our behalf in the media and political arenas.