The message of a problematic image
With Thanksgiving around the corner we often see college campuses get ready to celebrate by decorating offices and dining halls with the central theme of this holiday. While walking out of a SUNY Cortland building late at night, I was stunned and appalled to see an image painted on a window by the ASC (Auxiliary Services Corporation), the organization responsible for catering and producing the food that we eat here in SUNY Cortland. The image had a heading that said “What else to be thankful for?” presumably synonymous with the theme of Thanksgiving, with the three ships of Columbus, The Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, sailing forth underneath. Notably, the Niña contained a typo in it, with the Spanish letter “ñ” having been reduced to the Anglicized “n.” On the side of the painting there was another image of a coffee maker that had the Plymouth Peets.
There are so many problems of this painting that it is hard to know where to start. To begin with, the use the proper language and spelling is essential if one is attempting to be at least nominally inclusive (which presumably was the case with this mural). Yet an even bigger problem is that of historical inaccuracy, as the image ties two very different figures some 128 years apart: Columbus, who landed in what is now known as the Caribbean in 1492, and the pilgrims, who settled in Plymouth in 1620. No less important is the related problem of cultural inaccuracy. Columbus was a Genoese navigator commissioned by the Spanish government to find a shorter route to India, whereas the Pilgrims came from England, a different place, culture, and set of motivations. Still, the most offensive part of this image was the message to the Latino and Caribbean community: that we should be grateful for the pillaging, the ethnocide, the destruction, and the rape that occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean – a process kick-started with Columbus’s “discovery” of the “New World.” Indeed, the ships appear to sail towards Plymouth for coffee, which represents the stealing of our lands natural resources.
Now I understand that the conscious intention was not to offend the campus community, but the problems are that this kind of thinking reveals are central to what is taught in our schools. To be taught that Columbus is a hero is very problematic, because it perpetuates a warped view of Columbus and his legacy, apart from (in this instance) collapsing the distance of 128 years and a few thousand miles between him and a very different group of people in the American Northeast. Yet perhaps the major problem is not the image but the reaction by the appropriate institutions at SUNY Cortland. The painting stood there for a week until a student and a faculty started to bring up questions about the image. In other words, people must have looked at the painting mostly without problematizing its representation of Thanksgiving: an even more revealing paradox due to the fact that this image was painted in the library (where we are supposed to learn the real history) of an institution of higher learning. The fact that it took a whole week before a student and a faculty noticed this and started asking questions of the administration is concerning. Yet, given precisely that we are at an institution of higher learning, one would think that this incident could be used as a teachable moment. I personally suggested leaving the painting on, especially given that this was open house time, so that prospective students could witness some of the lingering problems at SUNY Cortland. Yet less than four hours later, as I approached the library, I was surprised to find out that the mural had been taken off.
Washing off the image, however, does not solve anything, but rather makes it seem that these kinds of things can be painted, washed away, and just forgotten. Washing it off just creates another situation in which this could happen again, and with no consequence. Washing off just turns the heat on the Latino and Caribbean community, allowing for our blood to boil and our anger to rise. Washing it off creates a sense of exclusion and indirectly tells my people that our history does not matter. And, alas, washing it off showed me the real face of not just SUNY Cortland’s administration but the problems that we face as being discriminated against on an institutional level: something that needs to be urgently discussed as a community, and on a local and state level. We cannot allow for these kinds of things to continue because they represent racism and allow for it to continue. The administration has failed to realize that and to perceive the real implications of this image and what it means to us. They seem to believe that by apologizing (which is yet to happen!) and washing it off they can create the supposedly inclusive and respectable environment that SUNY Cortland is so proud of. Yet in order to create that environment faculty and students must be involved as well, because we are the ones that are directly impacted by these kinds of images.
About the Author
My name is David Alfredo Paulino. I am twenty-one years old and I am currently a senior attending SUNY Cortland. I am an international studies major with a concentration in Global Political Systems and my minors are Anthropology, Latin American Studies, and Asia and the Middle East. After I finish my bachelors degree in Spring of 2015, I wish to take a year break, while still being able to contribute to CNY Latino. After that year I wish to join the Peace Corps and hopefully work somewhere in Latin America. Once I finish my service in the Peace Corps, I am going to pursue a Masters degree, most likely in the University of Peace at Costa Rica, which is a United Nations Charter School.
I was born in Manhattan, NYC, but I currently live in the Bronx with my Mother, little sister, and Stepfather. Although I was born here most of my fondest memories come from my frequent visits to the Dominican Republic, and always being there. I even stayed there for a year due to my constant going back and forth, I grew to love the atmosphere there and sometimes I yearn for it more than the actual city.