The Invasion of America: Unraveling Historical Oppression and Racism

Bringing October 12, 1492, to mind should be an exercise in thinking about our present and its deep-rooted social differences.

The Invasion of America: Unraveling Historical Oppression and Racism
Moctezuma's spy. Duran Codex. History of the Indies of the New Spain and Islands of Tierra Firme. 16th Century. Image: UNAM

Words matter, not only because they help to understand and explain problems, social relationships, facts, and contexts, but also because they are able to create them and channel the way we understand them. The words we use to talk about a historical fact or to explain a social phenomenon can serve to reveal specific situations or to hide them.

Words interweave discourses that prioritize messages and ideas that shape a forceful way of organizing the world. The writer of history has the capacity to deny experiences and existences while enthroning others or making them the protagonists of that history.

Enrique Dussel points out that the use of certain terms evidences an "en-covering" interpretation (that hides) of a historical event; he points this out when referring to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors to the territory we know today as America and the word "discovery", used to name this fact, since Dussel explains that it involves the European look as the center of the world that un-covers or removes the veil of a continent.

"To speak of discovery is to start from the European 'I' as a constituent of the historical event: 'I discover', 'I conquer', 'I evangelize' (missionary), 'I think' (ontologically). The European 'I' constitutes the uncovered primitive inhabitant as 'it': 'thing' that, entering the world of the European, acquires 'sense'", writes Dussel.

The Mexican philosopher explains that to speak of discovery is to approach the fact of that encounter or arrival from the perspective of the dominators. Therefore, when we say "discovery of America" we are not stating a fact, but rather interpreting it with the eyes of the one who with the power he held created a story that was given legitimacy and investiture and that inaugurated a way of thinking about the territory he had just known and the relationships that should be established with those who inhabited it.

To say "discovery" then, is to appeal to the way in which the territory we know today as America and its inhabitants were integrated or interpreted in universal history, which under a Eurocentric paradigm sought to position itself, more than as the history of Europe, as the history of humanity, as the historian Federico Navarrete points out:

"According to this vision, then, the inhabitants (...) were waiting to be discovered by the navigators coming from Europe and to be integrated into the universal history of Christian salvation (European history), even if it was as hostages and captives".

The exaltation and universalization of the idea of "discovery" justify colonial domination, the ravages of which are still present, while denying the stories of oppression, violence, and resistance of the indigenous peoples of the past and of the twenty-first century. It would be pertinent to question whether at this point in our history it is really necessary to "celebrate" or commemorate an event, or rather an idea, such as the "discovery of America".

In Mexico, the Day of the Race began to be commemorated in 1928 during the government of Álvaro Obregón and on the initiative of José Vasconcelos, a philosopher, and teacher who was Secretary of Education at the time and who developed a thought focused on nationalism, mestizaje and the idea of cultural syncretism.

However, beyond integrating or promoting the exchange of cultures, the process that began with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, specifically Christopher Columbus when he met the Antilles and landed on the island of Guanahani, was the establishment of a system of relations of domination that is based on the undervaluation and exploitation of the life of indigenous people and other non-white or non-European subjects.

In the words of the Mixe linguist and activist Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil, "what happened 500 years ago marked the beginning of the establishment of a colonial world order that was racialized by structuring a reality that has been hierarchical until now, by extremely violent means".

In this sense, the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano points out that in America a new pattern of power was established based mainly on the idea of race. That is, race, as a supposed "biological" difference that justifies the "natural" superiority of one group over the "natural" inferiority of the other. The race then became the founding element of the relations of domination that occurred in the conquest.

"The formation of social relations based on this idea produced in America historically new social identities: Indians, blacks and mestizos, and redefined others. Thus, terms such as Spanish and Portuguese, and later European, which until then indicated only geographical origin or country of origin, since then also charged, in reference to the new identities, a racial connotation," notes the Peruvian.

The idea of race played a fundamental role in the later history of America, since it represented a way of giving legitimacy to the relations of domination that were generated with the arrival of the European conquerors, since this category became, as Quijano states, the most effective and lasting instrument of universal social domination.

When Quijano argues that "the vast genocide of the Indians in the first decades of colonization was not caused mainly by the violence of the conquest, nor by the diseases that the conquerors carried, but because such Indians were used as disposable labor, forced to work until death", highlights the association of non-salaried work with those subjects who were considered "naturally" or "biologically" inferior races, this is an example of the way in which the appropriation of the life and labor force of the inhabitants of America operated, and which continues to leave its mark.

It would be wrong to think in terms of the past the oppression and structural inequality suffered by the inhabitants of the lands we now call America, for such disadvantaged circumstances are part of the social climate of contemporary Mexico.

Bringing to mind October 12, 1492, contrary to considering it a "celebration" of syncretism, should be an exercise in thinking and understanding our present and its deep-rooted social differences that continue as a consequence of what happened at that time. Likewise, it is a pretext to imagine new horizons of equality and social justice.

Using the right words allows us to recognize the experiences of groups that for the great narratives are correlates of history, where we say discovery, we should say the beginning of oppression, violence, discrimination, and systematic dispossession.

Author: David Olvera López, Source: Ministry of Culture