Put Out into the Deep

Columbus Was the Original Immigrant

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

We just finished celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. The word Hispanic, as we know, has been recently coined to cover immigrants from the 22 Latin-American countries and Spain who speak Spanish and are part of our nation.

The glory of our United States is that we can all be Americans and U.S. citizens without the necessity of losing our culture which consists of our own way of doing things, our customs and yes, even our language. The history of immigration to this country has been one in which people integrate into the mainstream culture from a position of strength. When people feel welcomed and strong, they participate in the majority culture. But when people are marginalized and not welcomed, they do not fully integrate into the society.

The terms integration and assimilation are controversial terms. I prefer the term integration because it has a more positive tone and the word implies that people become a part of the major culture on their own terms, keeping their customs and language. Assimilation, on the other hand, means that people are somehow lost.

The major images used to symbolize these concepts in the past were the melting pot and the mosaic. The term melting pot is a term used to portray assimilation, while the mosaic is one which shows the integration of the many pieces of marble or glass that form a greater more beautiful entity.

There has been some criticism of Spanish-speaking people for not fully integrating into the American culture. However, the facts are much different. In fact, the integration rate for Spanish-speaking immigrants is greater than ever on the social indicators of integration. The first being participation in the labor market and then education, which are the two key integrating factors.

Unfortunately, our anti-immigrant feelings today are heavily felt by the Spanish-speaking community because of their large presence and being the majority of immigrants to our country. We recognize that the future generations in our country, especially in our Catholic Church, will be largely filled with the children and grandchildren of our Spanish-speaking immigrants. Their faith has mostly been preserved in the integration process. It is estimated today that still 70 percent of Spanish-speaking immigrants remain Catholic. As is with all immigrants, it is difficult to participate in the life of the Church in the beginning years after initial immigration.

During this month of October, we have celebrated the holiday of Columbus Day, which has been recently surrounded by some controversy. As we know, Columbus, born in Genoa, Italy, sailed under the flag of Spain to discover the New World. We must put into context what happened in 15th century Spain which then had just recently re-conquered all of its territory from the Moorish invaders and had united most of Spain with the marriage of Isabel of Castile to Ferdinand.

They were in a newly strengthened position and Spain became the supporter of the genius of Columbus who was a self-educated mapmaker. He believed that there was a route to the East if he would travel west. Eventually, Columbus would not find the riches of the East and a new trade route. But to his surprise, Columbus discovered a new continent and new peoples. We celebrate the genius and courage of Columbus because he was the discoverer. Not because he was a colonizer.

The attacks on Columbus seem to be non-specific and are aimed at the malfeasance of others in the colonization of the Americas. The evils of slavery, disease and exploitation, however, cannot be traced back to Columbus himself. We look back through the contemporary writers of that time, especially Bartolomé de las Casas who was a Dominican, and the best example of the protection that the Church wanted to give to the indigenous peoples. He severely criticized many of the colonizers for their brutality and eventually for the implementation of slavery of the native peoples. But for Christopher Columbus, he had only praise because Bartolomé de las Casas was very close to the facts and knew what Columbus did. Columbus spent a very short time in the New World, returning to Spain where he died.

Unfortunately, the current controversy has been politicized and is not historically accurate as far as I can find. I do believe that we must go back to the original sources rather than rely on later commentaries that remake history. Some of the evidence that contradicts this is presented here. We know, for instance, that he was a family man devoted to his wife and children, an affirmation we can draw from their correspondence. We can also ascertain his motives from his own works that attest to the reason for his exploration as remaining primarily missionary. He was also a Third Order Franciscan. He desired to bring the Gospel to those he would encounter, and saw himself as chosen by God for the unique task of such unprecedented exploration. In fact, he did not seek personal wealth from his voyages, but resources that would be sufficient to support the retaking and securing of the Holy Land. He would remain a unique figure, therefore, in light of later explorers to the New World.

Another critique often circulated today is that Columbus was guilty of atrocities against the Native American population he encountered in the Americas. However, consistent with the values of his faith, he enforced the fair treatment of Native Americans as governor of Hispaniola. Research has shown that he respected those he encountered, and prohibited his crew from harming the native population and forbade their exploitation. These rules led to the rebellion and resentment of his crew, but they were never able to dissuade Columbus from his principles. Instead, they would work to have him removed and brought back to Spain, allowing them to evade his strict regulation of their conduct. Shortly after Columbus’ death, Bartolomé de las Casas commended him for his treatment of Native Americans, which led him to stand out among subsequent European explorers.

While Columbus has mistakenly been associated with slavery, he never participated in the evils of the slave trade, which largely occurred after his death in 1506. Finally, others have connected Columbus to the carrying of diseases that devastated the indigenous population of the Americas. In fact, we know that European diseases wreaked havoc on Native American populations, but Columbus cannot be blamed for carrying pathogens he never even knew existed. The spread of disease was a tragic consequence of “first contact,” but cannot be considered an intentional effort by Columbus to harm the populations he encountered and respected. Unfortunately, these accusations and others have obscured the faith, decency, and courage of a man, who four times courageously traveled across the Atlantic. Without any of the technology so readily available today, this explorer held firmly to his faith in God and bravely set out on a journey that would change the course of history.

Columbus, and every explorer, certainly puts out into the deep. He put out into the Atlantic Ocean and found a New World. He was motivated by religious fervor and was successful. The new immigrants from Latin America are inspired by the same spirit; they are explorers wanting a better life for themselves and their children. They take many risks. As we reflect on Hispanic Heritage Month, we also remember the courage and genius of a man who discovered a new continent and brought his Catholic faith to many new peoples.

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