When I was seven years old and growing up in Southeast Los Angeles, I was taught that Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving were things to celebrate in school. Columbus was celebrated in our classrooms for his heroic deeds in the “New World” which included “discovering” a continent which already had thriving populations of people.
We were also told that Thanksgiving was a holiday to celebrate the way indigenous people helped save the lives of a group of pilgrims who only survived a harsh winter because they were helped with food and shelter.
At home, however, I was being taught an almost entirely different history.
My mom taught me that Columbus was not someone any of us should celebrate but instead revere as a criminal. “Mijo, Columbus was someone who killed a lot of people, raped women, and made dogs eat the indigenous babies,” I would often hear her say. She made it very clear about how she felt about Columbus: he was to be blamed for the genocide of indigenous people across the Americas.
You can imagine how these competing stories could confuse a six year old child.
During one Thanksgiving, my school had a large assembly in an assembly hall. Every student in school was in attendance as well as every staff member. And everyone was either dressed as a pilgrim or an “Indian” as indigenous people were often referred to in those days.
The plan was to have a large student led reenactment of the Thanksgiving meal that we were there to celebrate that the pilgrims and Native Americas apparently shared together. About eight of my classmates had practiced for the event, which included one of my classmates dressing up as a turkey while laying down on the main table in proper Thanksgiving fashion.
The assembly started off pretty uneventful. The “turkey” classmate stepped on to the table and laid flat on it while the other students who participated in the feast placed ornaments around him. They sat down in their seats afterwards and placed their eating utensils in front of them.
Meanwhile about one hundred other students sat in chairs throughout the assembly hall while one of my other teachers spoke about the history of Thanksgiving on a loud speaker.
The odd thing about the situation was that the people who were dressed as pilgrims and Native Americans had to frequently poke the kid dressed as a turkey to make it seem like they were eating the turkey. This caused the turkey kid to squeal and shout something to the extent of “ouch!” every time he was poked.
It was a hot mess.
After about twenty minutes of sitting through the assembly, I began to feel weird about it all. It’s almost like my mom’s voice crept into my head and I heard her say something to the extent of “Walter, do something to end this madness immediately.”
And as each minute passed, the voice kept getting louder and louder. It finally got to the point where I couldn’t bear it any longer.
I had to do something, so I did.
I jumped out of my seat, threw the plate of turkey and mashed potatoes that had been passed out earlier on the floor and jumped on the main table and began yelling at the top of my lungs:
“THANKSGIVING IS A BAD HOLIDAY! COLUMBUS WAS A MURDERER. HE WAS A MURDERER!”
(I repeated the entire line about five times.)
The room was quiet. You could hear a pin drop.
And the looks on my classmates faces resembled someone who had just seen a ghost. They were stunned.
The only student who didn’t look shocked was, of course, the kid who was dressed as a turkey. He was crying because when I had jumped on the table, I accidentally stepped on one of the turkey legs, which was covered by a bunch of napkins.
Within a minute, there were at least twenty other students people crying around the room. And it wasn’t a soft, discreet cry; it was an uncontrollable wail. It seemed like their world suddenly came down crashing when they heard that Columbus was “murderer and a rapist.”
I was finally brought down by a team of teachers and was escorted out of the room and immediately taken to the principal’s office where I sat with the principal until they could get a hold of my mom who — at that time — was in graduate school at UCLA.
You see, what the principal didn’t know was that my mom was heavily involved with different activist circles and would take me to protests nearly every weekend.
When she arrived to the school hours later, however, she looked incredibly disappointed. And immediately gave me one of those looks that Mexican mother’s give their children before the belt or the chancla is about to come out.
I was confused because I was almost certain that she would have applauded my efforts that day. I thought we were going to be celebrating my actions that day by going to McDonalds and getting a happy meal.
The principal explained that I had completely disrupted an entire Thanksgiving assembly and had made at least twenty of my classmates cry. He also mentioned that I had almost broke the turkey kids “arm” when I jumped on the table.
My mom immediately scolded me for hurting my classmates arm, but then her look started to change. Moments later, she was explaining the history of colonization and the violence that Columbus had carried out throughout the Americas to my principal.
After being lectured for about thirty minutes, the principal looked at me and gave me “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” look.
Surprisingly, I was only suspended from school for a week.
But when my mom and I walked out of the meeting, she looked at me and said, “Good job, mijo, I’m proud of you.”