Last week marked the 523th anniversary of the day when Christopher Columbus (or Cristoforo Colombo, or Cristóbal Colón, depending on which biography you believe) and his Spanish ships arrived to America for the first time. And we heard, again, that we were celebrating the day in which “Columbus discovered America,” which makes no sense.
He, of course, didn’t discover anything. Columbus was stubbornly ignorant, had miscalculated the circumference of the Earth, and believed to his death that he had reached Asia. Before him, other Europeans had reached America. But, more importantly, before Columbus’ arrival, there were already millions of people living in America, who we could say had “discovered it” already.
Yet, the United States still officially calls this day “Columbus Day,” even though it celebrates a lost sailor and murderous tyrant who was responsible of starting one of the greatest genocides in human history.
Other countries in the American continent are already past this. Many Latin American countries (including Colombia, which is named after Columbus, no less) call October 12th “Día de la raza” (or “Race Day”), as a celebration of their mixed heritage (which brings its own problems). Venezuela calls it “Día de la resistencia indígena” (or “Day of Indigenous Resistance”), while many in the United States have been promoting an “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” instead.
So, on October 12th, 1492, nothing was discovered. And Columbus is not a character we should be celebrating. But let’s stop for a moment and think about that last part of the sentence: “Columbus discovered America,” because here we have another problem. What is that “America”?
Contemporary people from the United States of America (and from other English-speaking countries) use the word “America” to refer specifically to that North American country. But in other languages (particularly those derived from Latin), “America” is used to refer to a whole continent stretching from Alaska in the north to Patagonia in the south and usually including the islands of the Caribbean to the east. To complicate things further, in English, America— this landmass which is united in Romance languages — is split into two: the North American continent and the South American continent. (As a native Spanish speaker, I will continue to use the term “America” here to talk about a single continent, unless otherwise noted).
This might be confusing to people in the present-day United States, some of whom, if they don’t give this enough thought, might believe that “Columbus traveled to America” means that he arrived to a country that would only come to existence two centuries after his death. (By the way, he never set foot in what is now the modern-day United States, except for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).
There is much debate about who gets to be “American,” particularly in online forums where English speakers coexist with Spanish and Portuguese speakers. (When I am asked by an English speaker if I am “American,” being Colombian, I am tempted to reply “yes”).
This seems like a fruitless discussion. Will the rest of America accept that one country has appropriated the word for their continent? What different word can the United States people use to call themselves? If what follows doesn’t help to solve these questions, at least I hope it will bring some context to the use of this contested issue.
“America” was coined by Europeans as a word to designate the whole “New World,” all of that new landmass that, from the 16th century onwards, appeared in maps made in Europe: that place which Europeans were set to explore and exploit. So, when Columbus is associated with America, it is implied that the arrival of the admiral impacted all of the landmass we in Spanish, Portuguese or French (and others) call “America.”
How exactly the word “America” came to be is still disputed. The most widely accepted theory is that the continent was named after Florentine explorer and Columbus’s friend Amerigo Vespucci. Between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, Vespucci sailed around the area previously explored by Columbus, which we now call the Caribbean. With his annotations and his calculations regarding the circumference of the world, he realized that the landmasses he had navigated couldn’t be part of Asia, but rather had to be something “new” to him and his fellow Europeans.
Vespucci sent letters to Italy detailing his discoveries, some of which later were published in a tome titled Mundus Novus (or The New World). These letters arrived to the hands of a group of German scholars who, in 1507, published them in a book titled Cosmographiae Introductio (orIntroduction to Cosmography). In it, cartographer Martin Waldseemüller drew a map of the world, in which the “new world” is labeled “America” across what is now Brazil.
The authors of the book explained this decision:
But now these parts [Europe, Asia and Africa, the three continents of the Ptolemaic geography] have been extensively explored and a fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespuccius [a Latin form of Vespucci’s name], as will be seen in the appendix: I do not see what right any one would have to object to calling this part after Americus, who discovered it and who is a man of intelligence, [and so to name it] Amerige, that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europa and Asia got their names from women.
Another theory is that the word America comes from a mountain range in modern-day Nicaragua, which was called Amerrique or Americ by the native Mosquitos. This name, according to different theories, either influenced Vespucci to change his name from Alberigo to Americo, or was used by the Caribs in the Antilles to describe the mainland lying west of them.
One further theory, with less adepts, deals with an Italian sailor named Giovanni Caboto (or John Cabot). Caboto sailed for England, and in 1497 explored the eastern shore of what is now Canada. For this, the king of England gave Caboto a pension. This pension was paid by an official in Bristol: a Welshman named either Richard Ameryk, Ap Meryke, or Amerycke. America would have gotten its name from him, then.
But, regardless of its origin, the name America took a bit to stick around. In his letters from his voyages, Columbus referred to his whereabouts as “Indias” (or “Indies”), which was the customary name the Spanish gave to the Far East. This is why Native people from America were originally referred to as “indios,” why the current Colombian city of Cartagena was baptized “Cartagena de Indias,” why many isles in the Caribbean are known to be part of the “West Indies” and why books from explorers and conquistadores about the New World are known as “crónicas de indias.”
Eventually, the use of “America” spread throughout Europe and it became a word that designated both the “new” lands and its new inhabitants of European ancestry, who started to call themselves “americanos” in Spanish and portuguese, “americáins” in French and “American” in English. By 1538, the famed cartographer Gerardus Mercator was using “America” to refer to the continent and the islands in the Caribbean. Eventually, Spain referred to its colonial possessions in the American continent as “Spanish America,” and Portugal did similarly with “Portuguese America.”
The breaking point on what and where exactly is America happened later in the English portion of the land.
The United Kingdom first successfully established a colony in the American continent in Virginia in 1606. Eventually, the English officially called its possessions here “English America,” a term which first appeared in 1648, when Thomas Gage published the book The English-American: A New Survey of the West Indies in 1648. When Scotland joined England and Wales, and the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed in 1707, the new official name came for British colonies in America came to be “British America and the British West Indies,” or colloquially, “British America.”
Similarly to Spanish America, British America covered land in different subdivisions of the American continent. The British portion included, up to 1776, the Thirteen Colonies that would later form the United States, parts of the current Mexican state of Yucatán, and the eastern provinces of modern-day Canada in North America; the eastern shore of Honduras and Belize in Central America; Guyana in South America; and Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean.
This was what was referred to as “America” in English, and the inhabitants of these lands were considered “Americans.” Nonetheless, in 1776, those aforementioned thirteen colonies in North America united and declared their independence, choosing the unfortunate name “United States of America” for their new country. Citizens of this new country were still named “Americans” as it was the only demonym that made sense in English (because, what on Earth is a “Unitedstatesian?”).
In English, then, it made sense to call the United States “America.” Much more so since, what is now Canada, became “British North America,” while the rest of British American possessions could be described as being in Jamaica and its dependencies, in the Leeward Islands, or in the British West Indies. In Spanish, we have the word estadounidense, which works pretty well, so there is no confusion there. But I say that this name was unfortunate because “American” was and is still a word used by people from other places to identify themselves.
This is particularly true of “Spanish Americans” and their descendants. By the 18th century, the idea of nationalism had risen in Europe, and Spanish Americans (who were called “criollos” by Spaniards from Spain) embraced the “American” name as a collective identity in their struggle for independence and post-colonial unity.
For example, legend has it that when the indigenous leader from Peru, Túpac Amarú II, led a rebellion against the Spanish crown in 1780, he was recognized as “king of America” even by indigenous people in eastern Nueva Granada, or what today would be the east of Colombia.
Later, in 1791, the Jesuit Juan Pablo Viscardo y Guzmán, who was born in the Viceroyalty of Peru, wrote a Carta a los españoles americanos (or Letter to American Spaniards). Viscardo, who was expelled from all Spanish territories with the rest of the Jesuits in 1767, wrote this letter inspired by the story of Túpac Amarú II and in an attempt to call Spanish Americans to unity and to fight for independence from the Spanish crown. In the letter, he said: “The New World is our homeland and its history is ours.”
Even later, in 1806, Venezuelan patriot Francisco de Miranda would print this letter (translated from the original French into Spanish) and then share it throughout South America, to boost morale for the independence cause. But, of course he was not the only Venezuelan to use “America” in a broad sense during the independence wars in the region.
Simón Bolívar, hailed as a liberator in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama, was prone to writing about his dream of uniting all of the peoples of America into a single, independent nation. In his Letter from Jamaica in 1815 (after a great deal of Spanish America had declared, but not necessarily gained, independence), Bolívar wrote: “The fate of America is irrevocably set; the bond which united it with Spain has been cut … it is less hard to unite both continents, than to reconcile the spirits of both countries.” In 1818 he also wrote: “The nation of all Americans must be one, since we have all had perfect unity.”
When, in 1810 the criollo elite of Santa Fe, Nueva Granada (modern-day Bogotá, Colombia) declared a new government which they, Spaniards born in America, could integrate alongside Spaniards from Spain, they wrote: “From the reciprocal union between Americans and Europeans must come public happiness.”
Also in 1810, slavery was formally abolished “in America” by the Mexican general Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who signed the resolution in Guadalajara as “El Generalísimo de América.” This text begins with: “From the happy moment in which the courageous American nation took up arms to get rid of the heavy bond…”
When U.S. President James Monroe launched his Monroe Doctrine, it was 1823 and the countries of Spanish and Portuguese America had just become independent, or were on the brink of it. The famous uttering of “America for the Americans” then was meant by Monroe as a reassurance to the rest of the American countries, that the United States would side with them against European powers.
Nonetheless, the difference of interpretations of what is America was clear even back then. Chilean politician Diego Portales, for example, wrote a letter to a friend expressing his distrust of Monroe: “We have to be very careful. For North Americans, the only Americans are themselves.”
By 1896, Mexican writer Antonio Zaragoza y Escobar had perceived a deeper divide in the interpretation of America. He wrote in his book El “Monroism” y el general D. Porfirio Díaz:
We should not get our hopes up: the phrase ‘America for the Americans,’ which summarizes the doctrine of James Monroe has been read by the successors of the fifth president, from Quincy Adams to Cleveland, with very rare exceptions as an acquisition title of all America for North Americans who, according to themselves, are the original, the authentic, the legitimate, the best, the only Americans.
Evidently, identification with America continued after independence. New categorizations arose, like the one suggested in the 1830s by Frenchman Michel Chevalier, who created the concept of “Latin America.” But the new Latin Americans kept considering themselves Americans, part of America, and using the word America to talk about the whole continent.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, for example, wrote Canto General in 1950, a book of poems dedicated to the American Western Hemisphere. In it, one of his most famous poems begins: “América, no invoco tu nombre en vano” (“America, I do not invoke your name in vain”) in reference to the continent.
The identification with America continues even now, two centuries after the independence of the various former Spanish-American countries, as we are taught in school that we belong to the American continent, and as many politicians and social movements keep on calling for an “American Unity”. This is why we clash so often when people from the United States call themselves Americans.
The Real Academia de la Lengua Española, or RAE, the institution that regulates Spanish language and produces the most authoritative dictionaries of Spanish, offers this opinion on its entry for “Estados Unidos”: “The use of americano to refer exclusively to the inhabitants of the United States should be avoided, it is an abusive use explained by the fact thatestadounidenses often use the abbreviated name América to refer to their country. It should not be forgotten that América is the name of the whole continent and americanos are those who inhabit it.”
But, more than a technicality, for many in the rest of America, the appropriation of the term “America” by the United States is a political issue.
Legendary Argentinian ska band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have a song, “V Centenario,” released in 1993 (and thus alluding to the 500 years after the arrival of Columbus), which criticizes the celebration of European colonists in America and begins: “I want to live in America / I want to die in America / I want to be free in America / They are going to kill me in America.”
The Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar staged an intervention in Times Square in New York in 1987. Then, the iconic big screens showed an outline of the map of the continental United States with the legend “This is not America.” He restaged it in the same place last year, saying:
Language is not innocent and reflects a geopolitical reality. The use of the word America in the U.S.A., erroneously referring only to the U.S.A. and not to the entire continent is a clear manifestation of the political, financial, and cultural domination of the U.S.A. of the rest of the continent.
This, of course, has a huge problem: that “America” was a word coined for people of European descent. Where do indigenous people stand in all of this? They were not only the original inhabitants of these lands, but are also, in this very moment, part of our population (and for many, also part of our heritage). Therefore, some indigenous organizations have proposed that, instead of “America,” we start talking about “Abya Yala.” This is an expression that comes from the Kuna, an indigenous group in what is now Colombia and Panama, which allegedly referred to the whole continent, even before the arrival of the Spaniards. This is not a proven fact, but so far it seems like the best alternative.
So just remember, if you call yourself American, whether you are from the United States, from the American continent, or from the originary people of the land, remember that your choice of words carries political weight.