To most of us, he was the ultimate explorer, the gutsy genius who brought Europe to the New World, one of history's greatest figures.
His name, of course, was Cristobal Colon, better known here as Christopher Columbus, the Italian navigator, who sailed for Spain.
To Italian-Americans, the day he "discovered" the New World marks the day when they display pride for their heritage. To Latinos, Oct. 12 marks "El Dia de la Hispanidad," the day when most recognize and many celebrate the Spanish blood that still runs through their veins. Latinos credit Columbus for giving them their common Spanish language and identity.
But unfortunately, to some other people throughout the hemisphere, Oct. 12 has become a day to malign the memory of Columbus. Because he opened the gate to the New World, they make it seem as if he personally ordered the slaughter of millions of indigenous people. Some extremists have compared him to Hitler; others have called him "America's first terrorist."
On Sunday, throughout the hemisphere, while many will march in Hispanic heritage and Columbus Day parades, some will march in protests. Exactly 516 years after "Discovery Day," people still are arguing about how to recognize a man who obviously changed the course of history.
"So what did he discover?" some ask rhetorically. And then they make the same old and tired argument against Columbus: "You can't discover a territory already inhabited for centuries by indigenous people."
Yet others say that from the perspective of 15th-century Europe, indeed, Columbus discovered a whole new world! And had it been the indigenous Americans who crossed the Atlantic and "discovered" a "new world" called Europe, they would deserve the credit.
But unfortunately, especially since America celebrated its quincentennial in 1992, the debate over Columbus has gone much further than the "discovery" argument. Sometimes it gets nasty.
Because Latinos are mostly descendants of indigenous Americans, Africans and Spanish settlers, some people use the anniversary of Columbus' 1492 voyage to spark identity and racial feuds among Latinos, as well as to promote leftist political agendas in Latin America. They blame Columbus for the genocide and enslavement of indigenous and African people, even if most of it occurred long after he was dead.
Obviously, Columbus was no saint. There is no doubt that many injustices were committed by the men under his command. But judging 15th-century explorers by 21st-century human rights standards is absurd! And blaming Columbus for a holocaust is a terrible distortion of history, especially because most of the killing was conducted by Italian, Spanish, French, English and Dutch explorers who came to the Americas much later.
Nevertheless, those who are still bitter over the pain suffered by their ancestors — and those who use this issue for political gain — are working to abolish Columbus Day and Hispanic Day celebrations. In some parts of the United States and throughout the Americas, some people already are calling Oct. 12 "Indigenous Peoples Day." Others call it "Dia de la Raza" (Day of the Race). And of course, in his infinite diatribe, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez had to take it even further to the left. He calls it "Dia de la Resistencia Indigena" (Day of Indigenous Resistance).
On any other day of the year, this would be a great idea. In fact, I say an "Indigenous Peoples Month" is necessary to celebrate the culture and recognize the remarkable survival of the original Americans.
But to do it with bitter protests against Columbus, on the day when so many other people are rejoicing and expressing pride in their Spanish or Italian heritage, is absolutely ridiculous. Instead of seeking harmony, they seek confrontation.
In the United States and Latin America, sign-waving anti-Columbus demonstrators — usually the most radical descendants of the hemisphere's indigenous people — have been known to disrupt Oct. 12 Italian-American and Hispanic celebrations. With signs charging that Columbus was "America's first terrorist" and leaders charging that those who honor Columbus are racists, these people live in the 21st century but insist on fighting 15th-century battles.
In the United States, when Native Americans protest against Columbus, who never even set foot in North America, history clearly is being stretched. And when U.S. Latinos protest against Columbus, they are doing their own Hispanic community a great disservice.
In a country where too many Americans tend to forget their immigrant roots and then discriminate against other immigrants, Latinos should not be picking fights with Italians and other Americans who actually appreciate their ethnic heritage.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.