Tomorrow is an important holiday throughout the Spanish-speaking parts of the lands we know as The Americas. Not one land but many, they are all united by the simple fact that on 12 October 1492 their worlds changed forever. The holiday is known throughout most of these lands as Dia de la Raza, which translates poorly as “Day of the Race”. Understanding just what “la Raza” means and where the term comes from is critical to this holiday, how it is celebrated, and how it is often impossible to take language out of a culture and still appreciate its meaning.
The clumsy translation comes up often when anglo culture meets the rest of our hemisphere. When Sonia Sotomayor was nominated for the Supreme Court, her membership in the Hispanic action group la Raza was questioned by many people who opposed her nomination. The literal translation, “The Race”, makes it sound like a kind of supremacy organization when ripped out of its cultural content. The references to la Raza that come naturally throughout the Spanish speaking world refer to conquest, yes, but a historical conquest wrapped in a delicate context that history and legend alone can make sense of.
The year was 1815, and a young revolutionary named Simón Bolívar had been chased out of his native Venezuela. He barely escaped with his life as he found shelter in Jamaica, away from the adrenaline of action and deep in the crystallizing silence of exile. It was not a happy time for him, but it was productive. Bolívar rallied the English of Jamaica to his cause and generally impressed them as a man who was very bright and capable.
In a letter, a local businessman named Henry Cullen asked Bolívar what his plans were for the liberation of Spanish America. The answer came in a long letter, known as the Carta de Jamaica (Jamaican Letter) that laid out the past and future of an entire people.
We are a young people. We inhabit a world apart, separated by broad seas. We are young in the ways of almost all the arts and sciences, although, in a certain manner, we are old in the ways of civilized society. I look upon the present state of America as similar to that of Rome after its fall. Each part of Rome adopted a political system conforming to its interest and situation or was led by the individual ambitions of certain chiefs, dynasties, or associations. But this important difference exists: those dispersed parts later reestablished their ancient nations, subject to the changes imposed by circumstances or events. But we scarcely retain a vestige of what once was; we are, moreover, neither Indian nor European, but a species midway between the legitimate proprietors of this country and the Spanish usurpers.
This appears to be the first reference in history to la Raza, the new race of people from a New World. Their heritage is great, but their future is theirs to make. They are not of one people but a blend of many, with a past that is both regrettable and glorious at the same time.
That is what is meant by la Raza.
The holiday was first proclaimed in Argentina one century on as a substitute for Columbus Day. The past was honored as an event that made things what they are, for better or worse, but more importantly made the people who they are. That is, after all, what ultimately matters as we pause to look behind before moving ahead again tomorrow. The holiday and the concept stuck, and it is now celebrated throughout these Americas – even here in the USofA.
The struggles still continue in various forms for the people who were here first, many of whom have been left behind in abject poverty. As the region generally rises in wealth it is still far too often those with the most native blood in them who remain struggling in poverty. The importance of this day comes in not only recognizing the difficult history that we share but in doing what we can to see that it not be repeated generation after generation. The best hope is a deep understanding of la Raza – that we are, in fact, all a new people of a New World living together regardless of what language we speak.
Columbus Day is a hard one to celebrate for many people, especially since the context his day is ancient enough to appear barbaric to just about any of us. By understanding the concept of la Raza we have what we need to move beyond the history that saw so many in chains. We also need to understand that this was first explained to an Englishman, a man with a cultural heritage much more like ours up here in “The North”. There’s plenty of room in la Raza for all of us.