Columbus--It Just Wasn’t His Day : History: On 500th anniversary of his arrival in the New World, the explorer is criticized in L.A.


Only 500 years--scarcely a tick on the geologic clock--have elapsed since Italian explorer Christopher Columbus first splashed ashore in the Americas. Now, as the nation marks the quincentennial of his triumphant arrival, it is clear that his New World has become . . . well, a whole new world in which he would not feel entirely welcome.

Take Los Angeles, a city that might not exist without the men of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. From one end of the freeway to another on Monday, the critics were out in force, eager to point out that as far as explorers go, Columbus was no Mr. Wonderful.

“He’s not my hero,” declared Joseph Toledo, 28, an American Indian who had just completed a coast-to-coast relay run from New York to Los Angeles celebrating the survival of his people. “What he did was bad. (Europeans) gave us diseases . . . tried to kill us . . . put us in slavery.”


As grand celebrations went, the biggest Columbus Day of all was a bust, big time. Never mind that scientists chose the day to launch their own search for other worlds, switching on massive radiotelescopes designed to seek out the signals of extraterrestrial life. Or that two Columbus movies are now out, plus a book. Or that stores are stocking a commemorative line of Columbus ladies compacts, priced at roughly the original cost of Manhattan Island.

Somehow, Columbus was toppled--or nearly toppled--from his celestial place in the pantheon of history. In an age of political correctness, not even the spin doctors have been able to fully preserve the image of a man who, according to his critics, wrought more death and destruction than Adolf Hitler.

An afternoon rally in downtown Los Angeles was typical of the outpouring of ill feeling that this Columbus Day spawned. Banners read “Wanted--Christopher Columbus” and “500 years of genocide is nothing to celebrate,” while one sign pictured Columbus’ face smeared in blood. Dozens of American Indians lined the street, expressing their anger over European colonization and oppression.

“In a country of diverse cultures, we should not celebrate a person who came and destroyed a culture and a people,” said Isaac Little Bear Urquidi, a Mescalero Apache who took part in the event at Main and Temple streets.

“How can we celebrate someone who brought down our people?” asked 19-year-old Leticia Zaragoza, one of a dozen students from Mt. San Antonio College. She wore red and black ribbons to symbolize bloodshed and mourning.

Many Americans still regard Columbus in a favorable light--64% still perceive him as a hero, according to a recent Associated Press survey. But the role of history’s best known explorer has been very much in debate as a racially troubled nation--and city--struggle to reconcile the long-term fallout of his voyages with the simpler dogma of history books.


At a bookstore in the Beverly Center, historian and author Elizabeth Long signed copies of her newly released book, “Ysabella, First Lady of the Renaissance,” a 452-page tome exploring the life of the Spanish queen and defending her No. 1 sailor. Long praised Columbus by saying many of the ills that followed soon after his voyage--the enslavement of American Indians and the spread of diseases--were the fault of Spanish noblemen and others who were beyond Columbus’ control.

“I believe that he is a hero--definitely a hero,” Long said. “He definitely changed the whole scope of the world with his scheme that the world was round. Any man who had that kind of vision and determination has to go down . . . in history as one of the greatest explorers of all time.”

Members of the Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California, who held their 40th annual Columbus Day banquet Saturday night at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, continue to see their man as a champion.

Philip Bartenetti, the group’s immediate past president, called it “one-sided” to trash Columbus, saying it is “probably consistent with the times, when we are trashing all of our heroes.”

Critics have ignored “the fact that it did take a person of great courage and of great vision to do what the man did,” Bartenetti said. “For Italian-Americans, it causes us concern because Columbus Day is to us what St. Patrick’s Day is to the Irish.”

At UCLA, however, the magnitude of Columbus’ achievements was drawn into serious question. At a daylong rally attended by about 150 students, the message was blunt: Columbus discovered America . . . NOT.


“He didn’t discover anything,” said Balvina Collazo, 19, an Aztec by heritage who helped to organize the event, sponsored by several Indian and Latin American groups. “We were here first. If you go through the school system here, if there’s one line, one paragraph about what really happened, that’s a lot. Most of the history is incomplete. It’s full of lies.”

Cindy Alvitre, chairwoman of the Tongva Tribal Council, said, “(Some people) think we’re Columbus-bashing, that we’re just these malcontent ethnics. I don’t think any of us are Columbus-bashing. Columbus is a symbol of that legacy of devastation.”

In Inglewood, a group of African-American scholars and writers met in kinte cloth and traditional Muslim attire at the Esowon Bookstore to “correct the record.” They said that sailors from Africa reached the Americas almost 200 years before Columbus.

The scholars contended that in 1310 the emperor of Mali ordered an expedition of 100 ships to depart west via the Atlantic Ocean’s strong “Guinea Current” which heads toward South America. The next year, the emperor himself went.

Though neither party returned, the academics said the discovery in Mexico of pottery and almost a dozen 40-ton statues that display African characteristics prove there was pre-Columbian contact between Africans and American Indians.

“The evidence is as substantial and as conclusive as many other events that are part of the historical record,” said Lisbeth Gant Stevenson, a Ph.D. candidate at USC and author of a history book about African-Americans. “We just want our due.”


Meanwhile, in Pasadena, about 100 people, including Aztec dancers and a Gabrielino Indian chief, held a Columbus Day counter-celebration in front of City Hall.

Mayor Rick Cole, who last year criticized the Tournament of Roses for naming a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus as the grand marshal of the Rose Parade--touching off a furor that resulted in the naming of an American Indian as co-grand marshal--proclaimed Monday Indigenous People’s Day.

“I have no hatred for Columbus and the others,” said Mario Black Wolf, a Gabrielino Indian at the event. “I feel sorry for them. In their own ignorance and arrogance, they forgot the meaning of life.”

Times staff writers Jim Newton, Alicia Di Rado and Timothy Williams contributed to this story.