Yale-NYU K-12 Summer Institute: Rethinking Columbus… On the Way to the Airport

Altos de Chavón Archeological Museum Director Arlene Alvarez discussing Taino artifacts

While I was in the Dominican Republic last week, I kept running into Columbus. He turned up in colonial museums where the history of his voyages to the island was featured. He was in the lovely plaza next to the cathedral (a statue in his most famous pose) where he now faces the Hard Rock Café. What struck me most notably, however, was that everyone talked about him. In the United States, we only talk about Columbus around Columbus Day, which happens to be a long weekend. (“What are your plans for…?”). If we really think about Columbus, he remains controversial. In Rhode Island, where I live, there is a small statue of Columbus in Providence. It was not erected by the city, however. It is, in fact, on the site of the Italo-American Club. The members wanted to honor a fellow Italian, but the statue cannot compare to the imposing figure of Columbus in Santo Domingo.

On the way to the airport, Israel, my driver, asked me what I had done during my stay in Santo Domingo. Among other things, we talked about visiting the cathedral and the fort in the colonial district, visiting the archeological museums in the Centro León and Altos de Chavón, and having dinner by the water in Boca Chica. Then he asked me if I had visited the Faro de Colón. I had not. He would take me there “to take a picture.” It was very important. I had to see it… on the way to the airport. Israel explained that Columbus had come to Santo Domingo (the island) first. Here the first encounter with indigenous people in the Americas, the Taino, took place. Here were the first fort, the first churches, the first cathedral, the first hospital, the first university… In short, the first European institutions in the Americas. And Santo Domingo was—and is—the first city in America. Thanks to Columbus. He put Santo Domingo on the map (the first map?) of the “New World.” All of the Dominicans I met were proud of this history—and it shows in their monument to Columbus. The Faro de Colón, where twenty-nine of Columbus’ bones are interred, is an enormous structure in the shape of a cross, a “lighthouse” with not one beam, but many beams (visible from space) forming a cross on the sky. I took two pictures.

At the airport I said good-bye to Israel, but I was still thinking about Columbus. Given the long history of Spain in the Americas, I could see why Columbus was so important to Dominicans, but what about the first people he encountered? Their society collapsed, yet there seems to be no criticism of Columbus in the historical narrative. In the museum in Altos de Chavón, I had also run into Columbus. There, I saw beautifully presented exhibits of Taino life showing that they fished, hunted, raised crops, practiced religious rituals, had an organized social hierarchy, and engaged in trade. They welcomed the Europeans. The Tainos were peaceful but resisted being enslaved, and within 50 years of their first encounter with Columbus, they virtually disappeared from the island because of overwork and disease. Yet the demise of the indigenous people is not attributed to Columbus in Dominican history, but to the whole set of conditions and events that took place as the Spaniards established colonial rule. And this makes sense. A closer look at any history shows that it is more complex than the first telling.

When Columbus came upon this “most beautiful land” as he called it, he began the process of the meeting and mixing of peoples that is the history of the island. The Tainos are gone, but so too is the empire that dominated them. Yet their presence is still evident in Dominican culture in the foods (corn, cassava) and other items they produced (tobacco, the hammock, the canoe). It is expressed in popular art, music, ceramics, textiles, and architecture. As the museum guide in Altos de Chavón put it, a continuous thread [“un hilo permanente”] connects the present with the past. His demonstration on syncretism showed that the Tainos, along with Africans and Europeans, are part of the “mix” that is Dominican. Unlike Americans, Dominicans are aware of the history that surrounds them. The past and the present are always present. I am still thinking about that history… and running into Columbus.

Posted by Vanessa Del Giudice — Spanish Professor at Community College of Rhode Island

Vanessa was an educator participant in the Yale University PIER Yale University CLAISNYU CLACS  Summer Educator Institute on Colonial Latin America in July 2011.

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