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Birth Of Columbus Day

By Ed Quillen

October 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004 DENVER POST. All rights reserved.

It's turning into a tradition. On the Saturday before the official federal Monday holiday, there's a Columbus Day parade in Denver. And there's a protest against the parade. This year, the protesters blocked the route for about an hour, and more than 200 people were arrested.

It's easy to understand the reason for the parade - it's a sort of "Italian-American celebration of ethnic pride." It's also easy to understand the protests - the intercourse that began on Oct. 12, 1492, was devastating to American Indians.

But it's not quite so easy to understand why this happens in land-locked Colorado, rather than some maritime venue with a better connection to Columbus.

According to the protesters at the Transform Columbus Day Alliance, "There is no better place ... to begin than in Colorado, the birthplace of the Columbus Day holiday."

That's true. In 1907, Colorado was the first state to make Columbus Day a state holiday, followed by New York in 1909. How did it come about that Colorado was ahead of New York with something?

The answer lies with Casimiro Barela. Although he is one of only 16 people honored with a stained-glass portrait in the rotunda of our state Capitol, he is not nearly as well-known as most of the others, like John Dyer, Kit Carson and Chief Ouray.

Barela was born in New Mexico in 1847, and moved to Las Animas County, Colorado, in 1867. He was involved in many enterprises, from freighting to newspaper publishing, but his major business was a profitable ranch that sat 20 miles east of Trinidad.

His political career started in 1869 when he was elected justice of the peace. He climbed the ladder quickly: county assessor and territorial representative in 1870, county sheriff in 1871, delegate to the Colorado constitutional convention in 1875, state senator for many years thereafter - a seat he kept even after switching from Democrat to Republican in 1904.

In the Territorial Assembly, Barela fought the "English only" lobby of the era, and got the laws published in Spanish as well. As a delegate to the constitutional convention, he argued that "If Colorado is made a state, its progress will be undeniable. This is good, so be it, but it needs the residents of southern Colorado to succeed. These inhabitants need the publication of the laws in Spanish ... ." Colorado thus began statehood with three official languages: English, German and Spanish.

A biographer observed that Barela "secured the vote for his people, a right of which they would undoubtedly have been disenfranchised, only God knows how early."

Barela also fought the prejudice of that era by ceaselessly advocating statehood for New Mexico, which remained a territory until 1912. It would be difficult to argue that Barela was a bigot, and yet he was the main mover behind Colorado's Columbus Day holiday. He introduced the bill in 1905, his first session as a Republican, but it was tabled.

Even so, a statue of Columbus was erected in Pueblo, and the governor proclaimed Oct. 12, 1905, a holiday to be celebrated with a parade. Barela spoke there at some length, honoring Columbus as a man of humble origins who had "presented so many services of such note to civilization and human progress," with the "discovery of a new world where today so many free and independent nations enjoy peace and joy." He noted that the Italians, Portuguese, and Spanish all claimed Columbus, but he "is not the property of a single nation. He is the property of all the Latin race."

Barela was likely working some practical politics, since that was a decade of heavy immigration from Italy. In 1900, his Las Animas County had 13 residents of Italian birth; by 1910, it had 3,362. Pueblo County went from 98 to 1,957; Huerfano from 33 to 710; the entire state from 517 to 14,375.

Barela had new constituents to serve, and promoting Columbus Day was a way to unify them, no matter where they came from. In 1907, his Columbus Day bill became law in Colorado; the federal government didn't adopt it until 1971.

So that's one of the ironies of history here in the state where Columbus Day was born. Columbus Day is now denounced as a celebration of racism and genocide, and yet it was the product of a Colorado pioneer who devoted his political career to fighting discrimination and bigotry.

Ed Quillen of Salida is a former newspaper editor whose column appears Tuesday and Sunday.

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