The New World as Obsidian Mirror: Some Belated Thoughts on What to Call October 12


An Aztec mirror made of obsidian, with a modern wooden base. Museo de América, Madrid. Wikipedia Commons.

On my Facebook feed during the days leading up to the day traditionally known as Columbus Day, friends and colleagues posted discussions about proposals either not to celebrate that day, or that we instead honor Bartolomé de las Casas,  or that, as the city of Seattle did this year, we should urge municipalities or states vote to change the name of the day to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”  As I read these items, I found myself torn.  I was and remain fully in sympathy with these suggestions for the reasons we all are familiar with; but I also wondered if they, well-intentioned though they were, weren’t equally as flawed in their attempts to honor the historical and cultural realities of this hemisphere.

As I thought about all of this, I was reminded again of an odd but compelling metaphor I had run across a couple of years ago and had been trying to use this summer as a way of elucidating some of my thinking about New World culture:

[T]he history of [Mexico] is an Aztec mirror of polished obsidian, which has the strange property of converting the rays of light which strike it into dark and confused waves and of turning images into shadows.  –José de Jesús Cuevas’ preface to Fortino Hipólito Vera’s book, Guadalupan Treasure (1889), quoted in D. A. Braden, Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition across Five Centuries (London: Oxford University Press, 2001), 287.

The passage’s immediate context is Cuevas’ discussing the difficulties in establishing a firm historical record of the appearances of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego in central Mexico in 1531 that is closer to that actual date.  However, something about the metaphor of Mexican history as an Aztec mirror–why not a Spanish one, or an African or Chinese one; or, for that matter, why specify its culture at all?–and, moreover, something about how the stone of the mirror distorts the light it reflects rather than reflects it truly, kept me returning to it again and again in my memory when I first read it.

This summer, as I reworked the preface for the book project (what I kept calling the “Columbus chapter”), the image of the obsidian mirror became something of a reference point for me.   I read cultural and literary studies by writers throughout the hemisphere and over the centuries that, again and again and in various ways, suggest that such studies properly should begin not with people but with the brute fact, the presentness, of the land.  This I associated with the stone of the mirror and its effects on the light it reflected: even as it presents a reflection of the person peering into it, it insists that it, too, be seen and taken into account by the person, despite the best intentions of the mirror’s maker.  The stone insists on being seen and acknowledged–accounted for–in those dark and confused waves and shadowy images.

Columbus encountered the land’s presentness just before he encountered its inhabitants. Yet he and others, such as Bartolomé de las Casas and Peter Martyr (the man credited with coining the term New World) saw this place and its original inhabitants through the lenses of European theories or interpretive frames that we bring with us every time we peer into that mirror. The physical lands of this hemisphere go unnoted, rarely seeming to figure into those examinations of our hemisphere apart from how they correspond to those European models.  The one time the land was taken into account by Columbus was on his third voyage when he simply, finally, could not square what he was observing with what he thought he know about the locations of the continents–and even then, in order to make sense of what he was seeing in terms of previously-accepted knowledge, he re-imagined the planet as having the shape of a pear.  Even de las Casas, as he courageously and correctly argued on behalf of the humanity of indigenous peoples, also theorized that they were descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel.  Finally, Martyr’s famous coinage sought, as much as anything else, to create a rhetorical space for discussing Columbus’s findings that, he hoped, would avoid posing any direct challenge to the Bible’s status as the ultimate authority on the things of this world.

In short, the first Europeans’ accounts of this hemisphere sought to shoehorn this place into already-existing (read: European) knowledge and theories about the world.  As I engaged with them, I came to think of those accounts as analogous to the long European tradition in painting of depictions of Venus gazing in her mirror as a symbol of vanity, the mirror’s surface not calling attention to itself but only to the person peering into it.  I could not help but wonder, then, if at least some of those who were proposing that October 12 be called Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in their sincere desire to make visible the peoples made invisible via the name “Columbus Day,” were not ironically repeating this same European motif.  Now, the reflection they were seeing was actually their own historical and cultural guilt and shame for the sins of Columbus and those who followed in the wake of the Encounter, and their own desire to atone in some way for those sins.

Something happened on October 12, 1492, something deserving of recognition; yet even as “Columbus Day” ignores the presence, not to mention the historical and cultural tragedies of the destruction and loss of indigenous peoples to war, torture, enslavement, and disease, so also does “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” ignore the arrival of Europeans and peoples of African and Asian descent whose presence has, in combination with those same indigenous peoples, created the most culturally-vibrant nations on the planet.  One name honors pre-Columbian cultures; the other honors European cultures; each name, however, leaves empty and unseen the day itself, the day of the Encounter.

plaza de las tres culturas2

Plaque commemorating the final battle for Tenochtitlan between the Aztecs and Spaniards on August 13, 1521, at Tlatelolco in Mexico City. The lower section of text reads, “It was neither a triumph nor a defeat; it was the painful birth of the mestizo people who are the Mexico of today.” Image found here.

And so I found myself thinking of the Aztec obsidian mirror and, by extension, the importance of seeing this place’s cultural realities as well as our own faces as we peer into it.  Might there be another name for this day that does not result in the erasure of millions of people, no matter our intentions?  I would argue that Hispanic-American nations have names for that day that are closer to the mark: Many countries call it Día de la Raza; Belize and Uruguay call it Día de las Américas; and Argentina gives it the rather unwieldy name of Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural. All of these names, in their ways, make visible the significance of that day: the day that peoples who had not known of the other’s existence met for the first time. None of these other names denies the painful history of this hemisphere, but they do call attention to what also emerged here in ways that neither Columbus Day nor Indigenous Peoples’ Day succeeds in accomplishing: a new people and culture that had not existed before and would not have come into existence if not for that day, and which deserve our honor and respect and affirmation, no matter how much we may rightly be horrified and shamed by the historical circumstances that led to–indeed, produced–that people and culture.

Reading the text of the plaque at Tlatelolco that you see above is like gazing into that obsidian mirror: it tells the reader the difficult truth about the final defeat of the Aztecs on August 13, 1521, that the Mexican people would not exist if the events of that day had not come to pass.  It is a truth that, by extension to the rest of the nations of the Americas, neither “Columbus Day” nor “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” tells the person observing that day.

New World culture is the stone of the mirror we peer into every October 12, insisting that it be acknowledged.  The day deserves a name that honors that insistence.

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