Costa Ricans, like Americans, have historically celebrated Columbus Day on October 12. Originally, the subtext of those celebrations was that Christopher Columbus (known as Cristóbal Colón) had brought civilization to previously barbarian lands. People in Costa Rica commemorated the introduction of the Spanish language and of European customs into their land after Columbus’s 1502 arrival in what later became the port of Limón.

In later years, however, many Latin Americans rethought the meaning of Columbus’s “discovery” and began to mourn the destruction of the native cultures and languages that flourished before the Spaniards’ conquest of the New World. Antonio Casa, a Mexican philosopher, declared in 1918 that Mexico ought to celebrate the “Mexican mestizo race,” and not Christopher Columbus, on October 12. The mestizo race–”la raza”–was created through the intermarriage of the Spanish conquerors and the indigenous population. According to Casa, the people of Mexico should celebrate their own mixed heritage, the result of the Spaniards’ intervention in Mexico’s original culture. Other Latin Americans adopted this idea of celebrating La Raza, and October 12 became El Día de la Raza, a celebration of the mestizo race. Christopher Columbus ceased to be the civilizing hero of Latin America and became the enemy of the area’s original peoples.

As in Mexico, Costa Rica changed its Columbus Day celebration to honor El Día de la Raza. On October 12, Costa Ricans now celebrate their indigenous culture and the contributions of precolombian society to present-day Costa Rica, and not just the glory of the Spaniards’ arrival. The celebrations honor the Spanish-indigenous intermingling and the racial mixtures that contribute to Costa Rica today. (However, Costa Rica never had a significant indigenous population, and some might argue that there has been little indigenous influence in the country.)

Among certain academic circles in Costa Rica, there has been yet another shift in the Columbus Day/Día de la Raza story. For various intellectuals, El Día de la Raza has given way to a still newer conception of race and culture in Costa Rica. Some now encourage the country to adopt El Día de la Cultura, a yet-more-universal celebration of global culture, on October 12. This new holiday supposedly recognizes the Spanish influence in the country, the indigenous response to the Spanish arrival, and also the interrelationship of many different cultures that make Costa Rica what it is today. In particular, El Día de la Cultura is meant to honor the African influence on Costa Rican culture. Some scholars, like Mauricio Meléndez Obando, argue that Costa Rica has long downplayed the importance of African race and culture in its history. They believe that the slave trade and an African presence shaped Costa Rica to a far greater extent than most realize. Persuasive though their arguments are, these academics have not convinced most Costa Ricans, who still celebrate El Día de la Raza on October 12.

As notions of race and culture become more complicated and multi-dimensional, Costa Rica’s celebrations of Christopher Columbus have become increasingly layered and segmented and, perhaps, ever more interesting. In some form or other, Costa Ricans will always celebrate their heritage and their culture on October 12.

Read more about Antonio Casa and El Día de la Raza in Mexico.

Read Mauricio Meléndez Obando’s thoughts about El Día de la Cultura in Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.