Millions of tradition-minded Americans and Europeans may scoff at the idea, but it came easily to the Ventura Arts Council.
This weekend, for the third year in a row, the council will mark Columbus Day with a festival that looks over the explorer's shoulder to celebrate cultures that his arrival disturbed and transformed.
"We wanted to show an alternative to the idea of America having begun when Christopher Columbus set his foot on it," Maureen Davidson, executive director of the council, said in a recent interview. "In this community and throughout America, there are plenty of indigenous people who feel otherwise, and feel Columbus Day is a cultural slight to them."
The New World Arts Festival, scheduled to last three days, offers a long list of visual and performing arts, including exhibits at five local galleries, a Saturday afternoon dance, a Saturday night satirical production from the Los Angeles ensemble "Latins Anonymous" and a Sunday schedule of children's events. Participating organizations range from the city's Department of Parks and Recreation to the Santa Ynez Chumash Reservation.
The event has prompted no public protests from friends of Columbus. In fact, officials at Ventura City Hall, the Ventura Chamber of Commerce and the Ventura Visitor and Convention Bureau were unable to name any civic groups, rival celebrations or special events with traditional Columbus festivities planned.
But the background of the Ventura festival, its organizers said, offers a hint of the growing nationwide debate over how the 1992 quincentennial of Columbus' arrival should be observed.
The governments of Spain, Italy and Portugal and legions of Americans plan unabashed celebrations. In Los Angeles, city and county officials have been wrangling over which government body will take the lead role in celebratory events. And in Sacramento, the Legislature has a committee working on plans for a traveling art show and a bicycle tour of the missions.
"Most people accept that fact that we've been celebrating Columbus Day for many years," said Kevin LaGraff, the San Francisco-based staff director of the Legislature's Joint Quincentennial Committee. "And this is the direction we're going in."
But millions of American Indians and Latinos and scores of organizations like the National Council of Churches--a multidenominational group that recently decried the "invasion" of 1492 as a precursor to genocide and enslavement of native peoples--are moving in the opposite direction.
"For the indigenous and mestizo populations throughout the Americas," writer Roberto Rodriguez said in a July opinion piece for The Times, "the year 1492 marks one of the bloodiest chapters in the annals of human history."
The Ventura Arts Council, a private, nonprofit organization that receives city, state and private funding, took on the issue in 1988 at the suggestion of Michael Kelly, a Ventura resident who sat on the arts council's board of directors.
"I've been involved with Latin American art for the last 20 years," said Kelly, a free-lance curator and international art promoter, "and I've been thinking about the quincentennial for at least the last 15."
Kelly remains a primary force behind the event. The Xochipilli Development Co. of Baja California, of which he is vice president, is the festival's principal sponsor.
That first New World festival, a one-day affair that drew about 800 people, featured an American Indian rug weaver and the Ballet Folklorico de Oxnard. Its main attraction was an art exhibit titled "Origins and Influences" that included works from Mexico, Spain, Nicaragua, and Uruguay, curated to show the interplay of American Indian cultural influences with formal Spanish style.
In 1989, the occasion grew to three days and drew upon presentations of other local arts groups. The leading visual arts attraction, again arranged through Kelly, was "Mexican Masters," which included several works from well-known Mexico City artist Rufino Tamayo. In addition, there were poetry readings, an evening of Latin American traditional and contemporary music and folk tales.
Last year, a school group planned a madonnari project--pastel work on pavement in the Italian tradition. The group asked to be included in the festival program, an inclusion Davidson said "might have gotten me in trouble" with participating American Indian groups. But since the program had already gone to print, Davidson was spared the difficulty of decision-making.
This year, festival organizers asked the Native American Indian Inter-Tribal Assn. of Ventura County if it would participate--and were turned down because the group's policy is to avoid any event connected to Columbus.
"The Indian people don't really believe that Columbus settled a new world anyway," said Floyd Beller, chairman of the Inter-Tribal Assn. "There are all sorts of controversial things that have happened over the years with that, so we just don't participate."
Kelly, who plans to build the New World festival each year as 1992 approaches, said he still hopes to win such groups over.
Regardless of whether you mourn or celebrate Columbus' arrival, "it symbolizes an enormous change in the world," he said.