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The Quincentenary : It’s Significance For Hispanic America

Thank you to Guest Writer, Frank Gomez.

A former senior American diplomat and corporate executive, Frank Gómez has expertise in international and domestic media, strategic communications, speech writing and speech training, event management and other areas. He brings to Latin Insights a strong background in management of Hispanic issues and the development of domestic and international media communications and strategies.

Following is the introductory chapter of a book that with the help of many I published in the summer of 1992 as a contribution to the Quincentenary. 

I helped found and was a member of the National Hispanic Quincentennial Commission and was an advisor/consultant to the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History for its flagship exhibit, Seeds of Change.  I also advised the Spain 92 Foundation.

I am indebted to Frank de Varona, then Superintendent of Public Schools of Miami/Dade County, for his outstanding work in editing the volume and for inviting me to contribute a framework for understanding the Quincentenary and its relationship to Hispanics.  While he did the heavy lifting in editing, I did the lifting to marshal financial support. 

The book and its many teachings includes a chronology of significant events from 1492 to 1992, a rare compilation of historical facts. 

The Monument to Admiral David G. Farragut in Farragut Square, Washington, DC

On a grassy knoll near the Department of State in Washington, D.C. stands a modest statue of a young man in uniform astride a horse. In a city of monuments, it commands little notice. The man’s name: General Bernardo de Gálvez.

How that statue got there and why Gálvez is so little known are sufficient reasons in themselves to explain the great interest of Hispanic Americans in the Quincentenary. Gálvez, whose exploits are recounted in this volume, was the governor of Spain’s territories in what are today Louisiana, Texas and other states. Spain declared war on England and became an ally of the American revolutionaries, and Gálvez scored numerous victories against the British along the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.

Those actions denied supplies, weapons and reinforcements to British forces in the upper Ohio River Valley, thereby helping to assure the American victory in the Revolutionary War. In addition to Gálvez’s decisive military engagements, the Government of Spain proved a vital ally and significant factor in the securing of American independence.

The monument to General Bernardo de Gálvez was a gift from the Spanish government to the American people in 1976 during the American Bicentennial. In a year of great celebration across the land, it attracted little attention. But, if nothing else, it demonstrated the gaps in Americans’ knowledge about a pivotal ally in the struggle for our independence. Spain’s gift proved visionary, for sixteen years later, during the 1992 Quincentenary, the Iberian presence in the Americas would become the focus of much long-deserved scholarly inquiry.

In September, 1980, a group of Hispanic Americans organized a wreath-laying ceremony at the statue of Gálvez. Officiating were the Spanish Ambassador and the Secretary of the Navy at the time, Edward Hidalgo. Also present was co-organizer Raúl Yzaguirre, President of the National Council of La Raza.

Three years later, recalling no Hispanic American had been chosen to serve on the U.S. Bicentennial Commission, and that Hispanics were overlooked in 1976, Yzaguirre and a handful of other Hispanic leaders from around the country founded the National Hispanic Quincentennial Commission (NHQC). They vowed that Hispanic America, excluded from the Bicentennial commission, would be present for the Quincentenary. Created in 1983, the NHQC pre-dated the official “Christopher Columbus Jubilee Commission of the Discovery of America” by one year. And the official body counted only four Hispanics among its two dozen members.


With few resources but with unbridled determination, the NHQC began mapping plans for conferences and research, tracking projects and providing services to organizations around the country. Much of its fine work is now a matter of record, and as this book goes to print, NHQC is moving forward with a plan to create a permanent, Washington-based Hispanic culture foundation.

Hispanics and the Quincentennial  

It is significant that two hundred years after having fought for American independence, Gálvez has helped to raise the consciousness of Hispanic and non-Hispanic Americans alike.  

That he and so many others of Hispanic origin who helped shape our country are absent from or minimized in our history books explains the origin of this volume.  It explains, furthermore, why Hispanic Americans have embraced the Quincentenary as an opportunity to “explore” their own origins and “discover” pride in their contributions.

The notion of “celebrating” a half millennium of history and the birth of lands and people more diverse than any that had preceded them was fraught with controversy from the outset.  For one thing, the United States Congress provided the Jubilee Commission with a budget which scarcely allowed for an office and a small staff in Washington.  Funds for projects would have to be raised from the private sector and foundations.  This proved a daunting task.

As the anniversary approached, controversy swirled.  For many Americans the anniversary focused on Christopher Columbus and his exploits.  The “Admiral of the Ocean Seas” occupies a prominent place in our folklore and our spirit of nationalism.  The nation’s capital, patriotic songs, broad avenues, majestic monuments and, of course, history books honor him.  

Armed with new insights and the sensitivities of growing multiculturalism, however, critics have held that we should not “celebrate” the impact of misdeeds committed long ago, nor extol the virtues of the malefactors.  Many American Indians justly claimed that rather than a celebration this should be a period of mourning.  Some Chicanos in the Southwest, proud of the Native American blood coursing through their veins, objected to commemorations by a dominant culture that in their eyes denigrated their own.  And environmentalists lamented the destruction of natural resources set in motion by the arrival of the Europeans.   

The controversy, charges of past mismanagement at the Jubilee Commission and a weakened economy precisely when funds would be needed most combined to dull the luster of what some envisioned as a period rivaling the Bicentennial in activities and excitement.  The controversy notwithstanding, much talent, enterprise, energy and money went into projects the impact of which will endure for decades.  Official commissions were created in scores of nations; and in our own country each state had a commission, and in cities across the land people came together to help mark the anniversary as they saw fit.

Besides the Jubilee Commission, national organizations that played major roles were those of Portugal, Italy, France, England, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and The Bahamas.  The Sociedad Estatal del Quinto Centenario (National Quincentenary Society) of Spain was among the most visible, having organized, with others, the construction and commemorative voyage of replicas of Cristóbal Colón’s three ships.  Spain also created the “Spain ’92 Foundation” to help raise monies and coordinate projects in the United States.  

Italy opened its libraries, museums and archives to scholars from around the world who wished to explore documents, paintings, sculptures and other sources for clues to improved understanding of the period of discovery and its aftermath.  Some works were made available to researchers for the first time, while others were examined with a new focus of inquiry, a Quincentenary focus.

Perhaps one of the lest heralded but most fascinating projects was a major exhibit at Yeshiva University in New York City.  Entitled “A Sephardic Journey,” it portrayed the consequences of the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.  The Sephardic “diaspora,” it was shown, had immeasurable impact on much of the world, beginning with Spain herself and including the United States. Despite the tragic origins of the expulsion, the introspection and objective analysis of history spurred by the 500th anniversary have had a salutary, healing effect.  King Juan Carlos II of Spain, for example, publicly apologized for the misdeeds and commissioned a gold sculpture by Joan Miró to symbolize that sentiment.

Similar to the Yeshiva University project is “Al Andalus,” an unprecedented exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of New York City, La Alhambra in Granada and various institutions in Spain, Europe and North Africa.  Gathered for the first time were objects that reveal as never before the powerful cultural, religious, linguistic and economic hold that Islam had on Iberia for eight centuries.  Many of the works have never before been displayed in public.  

The Sephardic experience, the impact of Arab culture and of Islam, and countless other examples of this period of “discovery” have illustrated the great diversity of Spain – Iberian, Celtic, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Visigoth, Arab, Jew and others.  Never before has that earlier “melting pot” been studied with such great interest as a possible explanation for Spanish acceptance of varied cultural influences, particularly in the Americas where new “razas” (races) arose.   It is worth noting that in Latin America Columbus Day is commemorated as “El Día de la Raza,” proud recognition of the new societies forged in the hemisphere by European, Indian and African peoples.  

One of the most striking examples of the fecundity of the Quincentenary period is “Seeds of Change,” the largest exhibition in the history of the Smithsonian Institution. 

“I had the good fortune to have been selected to advise the Smithsonian on the Seeds of Change Exhibit, particularly regarding its references to Hispanics and American Indians”.  
Frank Gomez, New York, NY

Housed in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, it documents how five factors propelled by the “interaction” of Europe, the Americas and Africa altered the course of world history. 

The five “seeds” are corn, sugar, the potato, the horse and disease.  Scheduled through the fall of 1993, the display will have been seen by some 16 million people, and millions more will view smaller traveling versions throughout the country. 

It candidly presents evidence of the impact of trade on new and old agricultural commodities on Europe, Africa and the Americas.  It describes the enslavement, torture and killing of Indians and the diseases that reduced their numbers.  It explains the introduction of African slaves to replace Indians for the harvesting of sugar in the Caribbean and Latin America, and cotton in the United States.  Warts and all, “Seeds” sheds new light on forces that shaped world history.  

Public Broadcasting Service, with the support of Xerox Corporation, produced a much acclaimed television series “Columbus and the age of Discovery.”  The Interior Department created a Center for Spanish Colonial Research in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Headed by Dr. Joseph Sánchez, this institution has been in the forefront of efforts to explore and make known little-known aspects of the impact of the clash of the Spanish and the Indians in the Southwest.   

Hispanics and the Quincentenary 

The foregoing presents just a few examples of the countless projects which illustrate that, rather than a celebration of deeds, the Quincentenary was an opportunity to explore and discover unknown, little understood and distorted aspects of world history and American history.  More importantly, for Hispanic Americans it was an opportunity to learn what textbooks never taught us, an opportunity to nourish not only our minds, but our hearts and souls as well.          

As some have pointed out in speeches and articles, “We Hispanics were there at the creation.”  Many Spaniards and Americans of Hispanic ancestry helped secure American independence, of course.  One of these, Jorge Ferragut, was the father of our nation’s first admiral and a courageous Civil War hero: David G. Farragut. Historians Anglicized Ferragut. 

In September 1981, again with the support of Raúl Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza (now UnidosUS) I organized a wreath laying ceremony at his statue in Farragut Square in Washington, DC.  

Statue of Gen. Bernardo de Gálvez, Washington, DC, September 1980. The monument to General Bernardo de Gálvez was a gift from the Spanish government to the American people in 1976 during the American Bicentennial.

Jorge Ferragut, Bernardo de Gálvez and other Spanish names are not easily found in American history books, particularly in secondary school texts.  And the period of exploration, conquest and settlement by the Spanish and their descendants is treated all to briefly and in folkloric terms (e.g., the dreamer Juan Ponce de León and his quest for the fountain of youth).  

Historians and scholars have come to accept the term “The Black Legend” to explain history’s treatment of the Hispanic presence in America.  In large measure, the chronicling of events was the province of the English, those who for centuries had been bitter rivals of the Spanish in Europe and in the “New World.”  And historians in the colonies and in the United States were, for the most part, descendants of English colonists who had acquired the values and attitudes toward the Spanish that had prevailed in Great Britain.  

Thus, when it came time to record the history of the United States, events relating to the Spanish – enemies of the British – were minimized, distorted or simply left out.  Events since the early period have helped to burnish a negative stereotype in the minds of many.  Our own war with Spain, war and conflicts with Mexico, much publicized immigration from Mexico, and other factors have fueled the notion that Hispanics in the United States are interlopers, foreigners “who do not belong here.”  

A recent survey of attitudes toward ethnic and racial groups found that Hispanics rated near the bottom, just above gypsies.  In fact, they were rated lower than a fictitious group that researchers had invented for the questionnaire!  In another recent study, respondents were asked to list terms that best describe their perception of various ethnic groups.  The terms most often used for Hispanics: lazy, ignorant, foreign.  

The consequences of the recording of history and the negative stereotypes may not be tragic, but they are unfortunate indeed!  Youngsters already denied so many opportunities are also denied role models from their own community.  And role models are often the prime ingredient for dreams and aspirations.  Young people’s self-worth and their place in American society are brought into question.  And the ravages of abuse and discrimination, too numerous to mention here, weaken the spirit.

It will surprise no one, therefore, that Hispanic Americans should wish to avail themselves of opportunities to set the record straight, to demonstrate their contributions to their fatherland by birth or their fatherland by choice.  (More than half of the nation’s 25 million Hispanics were born in the United States).  Hispanic Americans want to have textbooks, museums and art galleries that include them, that can provide possible role models for their children and for the explorers of tomorrow.  

Each subgroup within the mosaic that is Hispanic America claims significant achievements.  Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans whose lands of origin were home to the first European settlements in the Americas are today being elected in unprecedented numbers to public office.  Although concentrated along the Atlantic coast, these Hispanic Americans are dispersed throughout the United States.  Their contributions are many.  And where they constitute a minority within the Hispanic minority, they join hands with their fellow Hispanics to seek a better tomorrow.  

Most Mexican Americans, more than 60 percent of Hispanic America, trace their ancestry to pre-Columbian times, proudly celebrating a unique culture and a unique history going back centuries.  They, too, embrace their fellow Hispanics of other backgrounds, helping to open doors and create opportunity.  Their resilience over centuries of exploitation and misfortune is a quality that speaks to a brighter future.  Volumes have yet to be written on the richness of their experience.  

Airplane travel, high mobility, television, growing interaction and other factors have combined to help Hispanic Americans of diverse backgrounds to understand one another.  A Hispanic can be of any race or of any combination of races.  And his or her origin may be in the United States of America or a score of other countries.  But whatever the origin, and despite their cultural differences, Hispanics are united by two factors: Spanish heritage and an appreciation for the Spanish language.  

It is a mistake to think that Hispanics do not want to assimilate and become “as American as apple pie.”  Quite the opposite is the case.  Hispanics have fought and died in defense of liberty; and they shed a tear when they hear the National Anthem.  Those who do not speak English well sacrifice greatly to learn to do so, recognizing that it is the key to higher education, to employment, to increased opportunity.  Hispanics, although often rejected, strive to be part of the American mainstream, able to compete on an equal footing with the rest of society.  

But unlike earlier generations of Americans, they do not believe that they must surrender cultural and linguistic attributes they hold dear to do so.  For assimilation is not an “either or” proposition.  One can be both American and Hispanic. 

The Quincentenary, in conclusion, has opened the door to the discovery of realities old and new.  It has fostered introspection, analysis, research, writing, interactions and, above all, pride.  It has also uncovered truths about many other aspects of American society, from the enslavement of Indians and Africans to contributions of Asians and others.  In the process, we have all gained.

So much more needs to be done, however.  This book is a “grano de arena,” a grain of sand.  But many grains of sand can make a mountain.  Compiling data on historical truths that have been overlooked has been a daunting challenge.  And trying to meet a deadline has meant much sacrifice and less that full satisfaction with the final product.  There are omissions – many of them.  But let each omission be a challenge to others to read, to research, to write and to publish to spread the word, to complete the history of the Hispanic presence in the United States.  

       In his Quincentenary book, Mexican author Carlos Fuentes observed:

“People and their cultures perish in isolation, but they are born or reborn in 

contact with other men and women, with men and women of another culture, 

another creed, another race.  If we do not recognize our humanity in others, 

we shall not recognize it in ourselves.”

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