This past Sunday, instead of celebrating Christopher Columbus’ non-discovery of the continent in 1492 and the beginning of its so called “civilization,” some Latin American countries are celebrating the Day of the Indigenous Resistance.
Following the 1913 proposal of Faustino Rodriguez San Pedro, the president of the Ibero-American Union, Latin American governments began to pay tribute every October 12 to the “enrichment” that the Spanish mixing with indigenous peoples represented, under the disgraceful name of “Day of Race” – and “Day of Hispanity” in Spain.
However the so-called “discovery” of the Americas caused the worst demographic catastrophe of human history, with around 95 percent of the indigenous population annihilated in the first 130 years of colonization, according to Professor of Anthropology Henry Farmer Dobyns – without mentioning the victims from the African continent, some 60 million of whom were sent to the Americas as slaves.
With indigenous people increasingly demanding their rights in the 1980s, the United Nations declared October 12 the International Day of Indigenous Peoples in 1992, ruining what Spain and other countries had called the “International Day of America’s Discovery.”
With the rise of progressive governments in Latin America over the past decade, indigenous peoples have been able to have many of their demands met, including changing the name of the “Day of Race.”
Venezuela was the first country in the region to grant the request under Hugo Chavez’s administration, accepting their suggestion of “Day of Indigenous Resistance” in 2002. Chavez described the previous name “Day of Race” chosen by then President of Venezuela, Juan Vicente Gomez in 1921, as “discriminatory, racist and pejorative.”
Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government made Nicaragua the only other country going to change the “Day of Race” to the “Day of Indigenous Resistance” in 2007.
With several exceptions, such as the conservative governments of Paraguay, Colombia and Honduras, for instance, many other countries of the continent have nevertheless changed the infamous name “Day of Race.”
It became the “Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity” in Argentina, after the failure of a legislative project in 2004 to change it to “Day of Resistance of Indigenous Peoples.” Argentina has more than 1,600 indigenous communities, and over a million Argentinian people who claim their indigenous identity according to the National Institution of Indigenous People.
In Chile, where the Mapuche community are still fighting to claim their native lands in the fertile south of the country, the day was renamed even more weakly: “Day of the Encounter Between the Two Worlds” in 2000.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa changed the name to “Day of Inter-culturality and Pluri-nationality” in 2011. That same year in Bolivia, President Evo Morales, the first indigenous leader in South America, changed it to “Day of Mourning for the Misery, Diseases and Hunger Brought by the European Invasion of America.”
This year, Salvadorean and Uruguayan indigenous peoples have been demanding a name change from their governments. The Charrua community of Uruguay, for instance, has made the demand since 2010, but has faced strong opposition by conservative sectors. Last month, the National Assembly approved a legislative project, but only changed the name to “Day of Cultural Diversity.”
In El Salvador, social and indigenous organizations presented a legislative project before the parliament, for which the congresspeople of the governing Farabundo Marti Front (FMLN) expressed their support. In June, the congress finally approved a constitutional reform recognizing the existence of indigenous peoples in the country.
Indigenous peoples in Latin America account for about 13 percent of the total population – about 40 million, with around 670 different nations or communities. Most of them are in Mexico, Guatemala, and Andean countries. They all face some level of racism, discrimination and poverty, suffering more than the rest of the population from an unequal access to resources like employment, health and education services, but also deprived of their ancestral lands and natural resources – about 40 percent of rural populations are indigenous, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.
Recently, however, the indigenous people have increased their levels of organization, communicating their issues to a larger audience, and have received greater international attention. The arrival of new progressive governments has also contributed to granting them legal recognition of their basic political, social and economic rights and cultural identity.
Latin American governments will have an important opportunity to show their support for indigenous communities soon, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference hold in Lima in December this year, with the presence of indigenous peoples for the first time in history. Climate change remains one of the greatest challenges for these peoples, whose cultural and economic survival strongly depends on the Pachamama (Mother Earth in the Andean region).