Oct 122013


On this date in 1492, Rodrigo de Triana, lookout on the Pinta in Columbus’ flotilla, sighted land in the New World. Columbus had first sailed to the Canary Islands, which belonged to Castile, where he restocked his provisions and made repairs. After stopping over in Gran Canaria, he departed from San Sebastián de La Gomera on 6 September, for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the Atlantic.  Rodrigo de Triana (also known as Juan Rodríguez Bermeo), spotted land about 2:00 on the morning of 12 October, and immediately alerted the rest of the crew with a shout. Thereupon, the captain of the Pinta, Martín Alonso Pinzón, verified the discovery and alerted Columbus by firing a lombard. Columbus later maintained that he himself had already seen a light on the land a few hours earlier, thereby claiming for himself the lifetime pension promised by Ferdinand and Isabella to the first person to sight land. Gives you an inkling of the man’s character.


Columbus called the island (in what is now The Bahamas) San Salvador; the locals called it Guanahani. Exactly which island in the Bahamas this corresponds to is unresolved. Prime candidates are San Salvador Island (so named in 1925 on the theory that it was Columbus’s San Salvador), Samana Cay, and Plana Cays. The indigenous people he encountered, the Lucayan, Taíno, or Arawak, were peaceful and friendly. Noting their gold ear ornaments, Columbus took some of the Arawaks prisoner and insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold. On 12 October 1492 he wrote in his journal:

Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.

He remarked that their lack of modern weaponry and even metal-forged swords or pikes was a tactical vulnerability, saying, “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”  Sign of things to come.


12 October is marked in many countries in the Americas and Europe (in the United States as Columbus Day). The most common name for the date in Spanish is Día de la Raza. The day under this name was first celebrated in Argentina in 1917 (since changed to Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural), Venezuela and Colombia in 1921, Chile in 1922, and Mexico in 1928. The day was also celebrated under this title in Spain until 1957, when it was changed to the Día de la Hispanidad, and in Venezuela until 2002, when it was changed to the Día de la Resistencia Indígena. In Uruguay it is called Día de las Américas.  Originally conceived of as a celebration of Hispanic influence in the Americas, as evidenced by the complementary celebrations in Spain and Latin America, Día de la Raza has come to be seen by many nations and individuals in Latin America as a counter to Columbus Day; a celebration of the resistance against the arrival of Europeans to the Americas by indigenous peoples. In the U.S. Día de la Raza has served as a time of mobilization for pan-ethnic Hispano activists, particularly in the 1960s.

Opposition to Columbus Day dates to at least the 19th century when activists in the U.S. had sought to suppress Columbus Day celebrations because of its association with immigrants and the Knights of Columbus. They were afraid it was being used to expand Catholic influence. By far the more common opposition today, decrying Columbus’ and Europeans’ actions against the indigenous populations of the Americas, did not gain much traction until the latter half of the 20th century. This opposition has been spearheaded by indigenous groups, though it has spread into the mainstream.


There are two main strands of this critique, which are interrelated. The first refers primarily to the indigenous population collapse and cruel treatment towards indigenous peoples during the European colonization of the Americas which followed Columbus’ discovery. Some, such as the American Indian Movement, have argued that the responsibility of contemporary governments and their citizens for ongoing acts of genocide against Native Americans are masked by positive Columbus rhetoric and celebrations. These critics argue that a particular understanding of the legacy of Columbus has been used to legitimize their actions, and it is this misuse of history that must be exposed. F. David Peat in Blackfoot Physics: A Journey into the Native American Worldview asserts that many cultural legends of North America exclude or diminish the culture of Native Americans. These cultural legends include ideas expressed by Michael Berliner of the Ayn Rand Institute claiming that Western civilization brought “reason, science, self-reliance, individualism, ambition, and productive achievement” to a people who were based in “primitivism, mysticism, and collectivism”, and to a land that was “sparsely inhabited, unused, and underdeveloped.” The simple truth is that Europeans discovered magnificent cultures and civilizations, and systematically conquered and destroyed them for the sake of financial gain (under the thin veil of “civilizing” them).


U.S. anthropologist Jack Weatherford says that on Columbus Day people in the U.S. celebrate the greatest waves of genocide of the Indians known in history. American Indian Movement of Colorado leader and activist Ward Churchill takes this argument further, contending that the mythologizing and celebration of the European settlement of the Americas in Columbus Day make it easier for people today to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions, or the actions of their governments regarding indigenous populations. He wrote in Bringing the Law Back Home:

Very high on the list of those expressions of non-indigenous sensibility [that] contribute to the perpetuation of genocidal policies against Indians are the annual Columbus Day celebration, events in which it is baldly asserted that the process, events, and circumstances described above [oppression, and genocide] are, at best, either acceptable or unimportant. More often, the sentiments expressed by the participants are, quite frankly, that the fate of Native America embodied in Columbus and the Columbian legacy is a matter to be openly and enthusiastically applauded as an unrivaled ‘boon to all mankind.’ Undeniably, the situation of American Indians will not — in fact cannot — change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.

A second strain of the criticism of Columbus Day focuses on the character of Columbus himself. In time for the observation of Columbus Day in 2004, the final volume of a compendium of Columbus-era documents was published by the University of California, Los Angeles’s Medieval and Renaissance Center. Geoffrey Symcox, the general editor of the project, asserts:

While giving the brilliant mariner his due, the collection portrays Columbus as an unrelenting social climber and self-promoter who stopped at nothing— not even exploitation, slavery, or twisting Biblical scripture— to advance his ambitions . . . . Many of the unflattering documents have been known for the last century or more, but nobody paid much attention to them until recently. . . The fact that Columbus brought slavery, enormous exploitation or devastating diseases to the Americas used to be seen as a minor detail – if it was recognized at all – in light of his role as the great bringer of white man’s civilization to the benighted idolatrous American continent. But to historians today this information is very important. It changes our whole view of the enterprise.


Every country in the Americas, without exception, has a checkered history with indigenous peoples, which is ongoing.  I certainly approve of using this date to focus a little extra attention on their plight nowadays.  But I think we might also use the day to acknowledge the extraordinary benefits the European world gained by contact with various peoples from the Americas.  The so-called Columbian Exchange, the trade of ideas and biological items between Old and New Worlds was, let us say, uneven. Europeans got tomatoes and potatoes, and the Americas got smallpox and measles.  Obviously that is a cynically gross oversimplification, but it is true that the Old World got enormous gains, especially in the culinary world, out of the bargain. I can’t imagine an Old World cuisine that is not monumentally indebted to New World cultigens.  Where would southern Italy be without tomatoes, England without potatoes for fish and chips, or Thailand without hot peppers?

When I was teaching I used to ask my students once in a while to imagine the produce section of a supermarket without New World cultigens.  Pretty bare.  Pre-Columbian Old World food had its high points, but was very limited.  There’s only so much you can do with lentils, broad beans, cabbage, and carrots. Here’s a reasonably complete list of domesticated fruits and vegetables from the New World that spread globally:

Agave, amaranth (for pseudograin), arrowroot, avocado, common beans (pinto, lima, kidney, black, etc.), black raspberry, bell pepper, blueberry (not to be confused with bilberry, also called blueberry), canistel, cashew, chia, chicle, cherimoya, chile peppers, cranberries (large cranberry, or bearberry species), coca, cocoa, custard apple, guava (common), huckleberry, Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, maize (corn), manioc (cassava, tapioca, yuca), papaya, passionfruit, peanut, pecan, pineapple, potato, prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica), pumpkin, quinoa, rubber, sapodilla, squash, strawberry (commercial varieties), sugar-apple, sunflower, sweet potato, tomato, vanilla, wild rice (not directly related to Asian rice), yerba mate, yucca.

Even this list tells only a small part of the story. Potatoes available in most of the world, for example, represent maybe a dozen out of over 5,000 varieties available (3,000 found only in the Andes). Likewise squashes, peppers, and beans, which come in immense varieties.

colon2  colon5

colon6  colon10

Some species of plants found in the New World, strawberries for example, are found native to the Old World too. But it is the New World species that developed into commercial varieties.  Tomatoes took nearly 300 years to be accepted in Europe because they had been declared early on as poisonous. Furthermore the Old World was highly creative with New World products — chocolate being the shining example.

The so-called Three Sisters are the three main agricultural crops of various Native American groups in North America: squash, maize (corn), and climbing beans (typically tepary beans or common beans). In one technique known as companion planting, the three crops are planted close together. Flat-topped mounds of soil are built for each cluster of crops. Each mound is about 30 cm (12 in) high and 50 cm (20 in) wide, and several maize seeds are planted close together in the center of each mound. In parts of the Atlantic Northeast, rotten fish or eels are buried in the mound with the maize seeds, to act as additional fertilizer where the soil is poor. When the maize is 15 cm (6 inches) tall, beans and squash are planted around the maize, alternating between the two kinds of seeds. This process developed over 5,000-6,500 years ago in Mesoamerica. Squash was domesticated first, with maize second and then beans. Squash was first domesticated 8,000-10,000 years ago (the hot pepper (chile) was likely the first plant domesticated in the region).


The three crops benefit from each other. The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, eliminating the need for poles. The beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants use, and the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, helping prevent establishment of weeds. The squash leaves also act as a”living mulch,” creating a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil, and the prickly hairs of the vine deter pests. Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the human body needs to make proteins and niacin, but beans contain both and therefore maize and beans together provide a balanced diet if eaten together.

Native Americans throughout North America are known for growing variations of Three Sisters gardens. The milpas of Mesoamerica are farms or gardens that employ companion planting on a larger scale. The Anasazi are known for adopting this garden design in a drier environment. The Tewa and other Southwestern United States groups often included a “fourth sister” known as “Rocky Mountain bee plant” (Cleome serrulata), which attracts bees to help pollinate the beans and squash.

Three Sisters’ recipes abound and are limited only by your imagination.  Think of tamales with a bean and squash filling, a steaming bowl of chilli with corn, beans, and squash, or a salad of the same.  Because of the immense varieties of beans and squash, and, to a lesser extent, corn, the combinations of colors, textures, and flavors are endless.

Here is a recipe from my home, Argentina.  I have mentioned locro before as a festive food.  It is perfect at this time of year in North and South America.  The base ingredients are white hominy (maize) and white beans simmered for hours with some meat.  Then various vegetables are added – notably squash, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.  Modern meats and spices are of Old World origin, making this dish representative of the Columbian Exchange. Commonly the dish is served in deep bowls with a bowl of sofrito made from crushed tomatoes, paprika, oregano, cumin, and chiles passed around for guests to add as desired. If you like you can use chopped fresh cilantro in place of the oregano, but Argentinos do not usually use it.  Neither do Argentinos in the Buenos Aires region and southern Argentina use hot peppers. In my version here (which I learnt from an old country woman, with my own wrinkles added), I use spices directly in the cooking in place of sofrito. I am going to give you a pictorial recipe without bothering with precise measurements.

© Tío Juan’s Locro


First ingredients: meat (bacon, stewing beef, and tripe), hominy, garlic, leeks (or onions), garlic, and beans. I used canned beans, but you can use dried and add them with the hominy. I took this set of photos 3 yrs ago when I was being lazy. Meats are your choice.  I’m a tripe nut, and it is very traditional here. You can omit it. Pigs’ feet are also common.


Bring water (or light stock) to a boil.


Add the first ingredients (chopping the meats into bite sized chunks), including beans if they are dried.  Simmer for about 2 hours or until the hominy is soft and fluffy.


Second ingredients: squash, sweet potato, bell pepper, and potatoes, plus spices. Here I use cumin and paprika. You can also use chile peppers, oregano, and cilantro — cook’s choice.


Simmer until the vegetables are well cooked.


Eat for a week.  Argentinos usually have a side salad of tomatoes, lettuce, and onions, and Italian bread.



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