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Parade Unites 2 Worlds

December 19, 1991|EDUARDO GARRIGUES | Eduardo Garrigues is the consul general of Spain in Los Angeles and author of the novel "The Grass Rain" (McMillan, 1984).

Although Christopher Columbus never reached the coast of California, and didn't even remotely know of its existence, the first important event of the Quincentennial--on Jan. 1, 1992--will be celebrated in Pasadena, where the main theme of the annual Tournament of Roses Parade will be "Voyages of Discovery."

Cristobal Colon, a direct descendant of the great navigator, and--20 generations later--also a sailor by profession, will come to California as the Tournament's co-grand marshal, an honor he will share with an American Indian, U.S. Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.), a member of the Cheyenne Nation. The dual representation is meant to symbolize the encounter between two worlds that took place for the first time on a small Caribbean island in 1492.

Admittedly, not everyone agrees with the commemoration or approves of what resulted from the voyages of discovery. According to detractors of the quincentennial, there is absolutely no reason to commemorate, and much less celebrate, a date that in their view stands for a period of invasion and subjugation of the native inhabitants by Europeans, who had a more advanced social structure and technological culture. Stated in such simple terms, the assertion is indisputable. But one may ask, when in the whole of human history has this not been the case?

We, the European peoples--the Spaniards first and foremost--are the product of a centuries-long process of invasions, destruction and acculturation. A Mexican-American has as much reason to accuse a modern-day Spaniard of the destruction of Tenochitlan as does a Spaniard to reproach an Italian for the destruction by the Roman legions of Saguntum and Numantia. When the Spanish city of Merida celebrates Roman Theater Week in the city's beautiful and ancient amphitheater, the descendants of the Iberians do not organize demonstrations or write letters to newspapers protesting against the violence of the Roman Empire.

The main flaw for those who attack this historical milestone lies in their attempt to apply a contemporary scale of values to events that took place 500 years ago. Or, then again, it could well be an attempt to denounce current injustices and abuses by calling attention to what took place in the past. They are two different aspects of a single perception: sentimentally valid, but intellectually incorrect.

The best proof that the Spanish system of colonization was not quite so bad must be sought among the very critics of the system. Bartolome de las Casas, who denounced the Encomienda system and excoriated his own compatriots for their treatment of the natives, was promoted to the rank of bishop, and his writings circulated freely throughout Spain and the rest of Europe. What would have happened if a U.S. Army chaplain in the 19th-Century Old West had set about openly attacking the conduct of his superiors in their dealings with the Indian tribes? How long would it have taken for him to be stripped of his post and punished for his insubordination?

In the American Southwest we find the Pueblo Indians, or the Navajos, who have survived, preserving part of their ancestral traditions and assimilating some elements of the culture of the Spanish invaders, such as the horse, sheep, weaving and gold- and silver-working techniques, acquired in part through contact with the colonists.

And when congressman Campbell parades through Pasadena in front of Cristobal Colon--in front of, because it is true that the Indians were here first--atop his beautiful pinto, he will be representing a symbolic fusion of cultures. The horse was brought to America by the Spaniards, and the term mustang so closely identified with the American West, is derived from the Spanish word mesteno, which had its origins in the "Mesta," a Castillian stockbreeding institution that predated by far the "Voyages of Discovery."

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