Why do we Americans diminish Columbus Day by paying more attention to the rival claims of Spain and Italy on the nationality of the Captain of the Ocean Sea than to the liberating philosophical contributions the discovery of the New World made to Western Civilization.

For us that epic celebration somehow is confined to Thanksgiving Day when we celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims who fled the tyranny of Charles I. But imagine, had the Genoese captain and his Spanish caravels not sailed eastward searching for Cipango and Cathay in 1492, then the Pilgrims might have been forced to turn to the known continents of Africa or Asia.

By sighting the Western Hemishphere, the new Atlantis, Columbus confirmed the beliefs of the great utopian thinkers in the existence of a more just social order that would lead milions over the next half-millennium to find refuge in both the northern and southern halves of the New World.

It is puzzling that Latin Americans call Oct. 12 "Dia de la Raza" and observe it as an affirmation of their Iberian heritage, as though they had fought no wars to throw off the yoke of the Spanish crown. Moreover, don't they occupy, with us, a continent that has experienced the vital convergence of Indian, European, African and Asian cultures?

For all the talk of pioneer spirit and independence, we remain colonized by a British version of history, just as the Latin Americans remain captive to the texztbooks of Spain.

These sectarian, Old World approaches to the commemoration of the date that changed the world illustrate the topsy-turvy perceptions one half of the hemisphere has of the other. How else can we explain the remarkable disregard we have for the basic fact of our shared origins as immigrant comunities that fled the political intolerance and rigid social hierarchies of Europe? Have we become so conditioned by parochiarl European prejudices that we fail to recognize the unique New World quality of our increasingly egalitarian and ethnically mixed societes or that the same frontier spirit that claimed California claimed the Pampas, built Brasilia, Medellin and Houston and today produces some of the world's most vital literature, music and art? That freedom and creative impulse is the miracle of the man of the Americas.

"The people of the Americas were commoners -- plain Perezes in the Hispano-Indian colonies, plain Smiths in the English," writes the eminent Colombian social critic, German Arciniegas."Europeans who had been docile vassals in Europe emigrated to America as bold adventurers."

The Founding Fathers and many of Latin America's heroes of independence had the same vision. Thomas Jefferson maintained that the American hemisphere "must have its separate system of interests which must not be subordinated to those of Europe."

Only 40 years ago, it was still a respectable opinion in the United States that the nations of the Americas had common roots, common values and a common destiny. That was when we were threateneted by World War II. In many ways, Franklin D. Roosvelt's Good Neighbor Policy of that time was simply a modern reassertion of the 18th century ideasls that separated republican America from monarchical Europe. But these ideals are becoming blurred by silly, xenophobic efforts to revived Anglo-Saxon/Latin rivalries, grotesquely transplanted from the Old World to the New, as we have seen in the Malvinas/Falklands crisis.

To hear some Americans talk today you would think we are living as an island of Puritan virtue in a hemispheric sea of perversity, while Latin American critics thunder away like the Inquisition at the Reformation, accusing us of materialism, godlessness and imperial pretensions.

Before we can succesfully understand the man of the Americas, we must devote more thought to our common history and how it relates to the rest of the world. Perhaps as we approach the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first great transoceanic voyage, we can be inspired to explore the various assumptions that have led to our conflicting interpretations of life in the other half of the New World so that we may be able to celebrate 1992 with the spirit of pride and mutual understanding the event deserves.