By Jack Tomas
The Spanish conquistadores were weird. What they chose to keep and what they destroyed makes no sense. For instance, they hated efficient Aztec indoor plumbing but were totally fine with Indian grasshopper tacos? I want consistency from my oppressive mass murderers. Either you reject the conquered culture entirely or you assimilate it. Same rule applies with the names given to several locations. In many cases, they renamed the places they conquered after Catholic saints or towns in Spain. Other times they let the place keep its Indian name. In my own ancestral country of Cuba, they let the capital keep the Indian name “Havana” but relabeled the town where my mother is from “Ciego De Avila”. In case your Spanish is rusty, that means “Blind man of Avila”. See what I mean? Below is a list of five Latin American countries and their original names.
You may have heard Puerto Ricans talking about “Boricua pride.” Know where it comes from? Fun fact: the island that gave us Ricky Martin, Tito Puente, and singing Hell’s Kitchen gangs was once called “Borinquen,” which means “Land of the Valiant Lord” in Taino. To me, that sounds like there’s an ancient Indian Voltron hidden somewhere on the island. Columbus renamed it San Juan Bautista when he arrived, but it was later changed to “the rich port.” I’m still hoping there’s an ancient Puerto Rican Voltron that will one day arise to save the Boricuas. Maybe he dwells under El Moro?
Columbus named the island that now contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic “Hispañola.” The Tainos called the Eastern half of the island “Quisqueya,” which means “Mother of all Lands”. Clearly this name was too cool for Cristobal so he renamed the first settlement on Hispañola “Santo Domingo” after Spain’s patron saint. The western half of the island was called Haiti by the Taino which means “mountain land”. The French took over that part and called it “San Dominique.” When a slave revolt overthrew French rule, the victors renamed it Haiti. Why didn’t the Dominicans do the same when they kicked out the Spanish? That would have been the ultimate “go eff yourselves.”
After conquering Mexico, The Spanish named it “New Spain”. It was a lot like New Coke, in that no one liked it and it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. The plateau in central Mexico where the Aztecs built their capital city of Tenochtitlan was called “Mexhico,” which is nahuatl for “land where Huitzilopochtli lives.” Yeah, I can’t pronounce that either. Huitzilopochtli’s nickname was “Mextli,” meaning “Moon Man”. He was a warrior-wizard meaner than Gandalf and bloodthirstier than Voldemort. When the people who lived in Huitzilopochtli’s domain kicked out the Spanish, they named the country “Mexico” in his honor. Que cute.
Yes, those are golden boobs in the picture above. They were the work of the great Quimbaya, a civilization that was almost a thousand years old when the Spanish showed up. Their gold work was renowned throughout all of Central and South America, which was their downfall given Spain’s penchant for bling and their habit of killing the Natives for it. As if exterminating them wasn’t enough, los conquistadores renamed the land after Colombus. Cold blooded.
Back in the day, Bolivia was called Tiwanaku, an Aymaran word for “stone at the center.” The natives chose this because they thought that the capital of Tiwanaku was the center of the universe. They ruled an area comprising modern day Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. By the time the Spanish showed up, the area had been conquered by the Inca and the Tiwanakus had become part of Incan society. While I’m fine with naming the country after Simon Bolivar who, liberator of much of South America, it’d be a whole lot cooler if the original name stuck around, if only to see gringos hilariously butcher it with their terrible Spanish.