MEXICO CITY — Statues of Columbus are being toppled across the Americas, amid fierce debates over the legacy of European conquest and colonialism in the region.
Few things have been more controversial than the replacement of a monument in the heart of Mexico’s capital, touching on some of the most intense disputes in the country’s current politics, including not just race and history, but also gender. .
After a long debate, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum announced on Tuesday that the statue of Christopher Columbus that once stared down Mexico City’s main boulevard will be replaced with a pre-colonial indigenous figure, including a woman.
Announced ahead of Ms. Sheinbaum’s planned 2024 run for president, the new statue is widely seen as an attempt by the mayor, who is the first woman elected to lead North America’s largest city, to address – or exploit – the cultural tensions that plague the country. , including women’s growing resistance to a male-dominated culture.
The new statue “represents the struggle of women, especially indigenous people, in Mexican history,” she said at a news conference announcing the decision on the anniversary of the first arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. “It’s a story of classism, of racism, which comes from the colony.”
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has gone further than his predecessors in denouncing the history of colonialism, celebrating indigenous culture and portraying himself as the defender of the poor against the country’s conservative opposition and majority elite. of European origin.
He held elaborate commemorations this year to honor 500 years since the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, in present-day Mexico City, to Spanish invaders. He has traveled the country in recent months to apologize to indigenous communities for colonial atrocities and demanded a similar atonement from the Spanish government.
But Mr. López Obrador has shown much less sensitivity to Mexico’s growing feminist movement.
In recent years, Mexican women have increasingly taken to the streets to demand government action against one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Latin America. At least 10 women and girls were murdered in Mexico on average every day last year, according to official government figures, and most crimes go unpunished.
This year, thousands of women demonstrated in Mexico City, attacking the ramparts in front of the presidential residence with bats and torches. Feminist protesters have also attacked colonial statues, seeing them as symbols of Mexico’s male hegemony.
Mr. López Obrador downplayed the protests, going so far as to call them an opposition ploy to destabilize his government. Last month, he claimed the feminist movement in Mexico was only created after he took office in 2018.
“They had become conservative feminists just to affect us, just for that purpose,” he said, applying to feminists a word he often uses to mock his political opponents.
His disparaging remarks presented a political challenge to his protege and possible successor, Ms Sheinbaum, who has tried to position herself as the leader of a more progressive and younger wing of the president’s left-wing Morena party.
She also drew criticism from feminist organizations by condemning violent attacks on public buildings in 2019.
“Violence is not fought with violence,” she said at the time.
The bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, erected in 1877 atop a pedestal in a traffic island, had been defaced by protesters in the past, and authorities pulled it down last year, amid threats of additional damage.
In its place will be a replica of a stone carving called ‘the young woman of Amajac’, which was discovered in January in the eastern state of Veracruz and dates from the time of Christopher Columbus’ voyages there. is over 550 years old. The new figurine will stand approximately 20 feet tall, three times the height of the original, now housed in the National Museum of Archeology in Mexico City.
Choosing a statue of a woman to replace Columbus could appeal to feminists, while supporting Mr. López Obrador’s indigenous rhetoric, said Valeria Moy, director of the Center of Public Policy Research, a Mexican think tank.
“She’s trying to please everyone, especially her president,” Ms Moy said. “From a political point of view, the choice of the statue seems like a good decision.”
But not everyone was happy on either side of the cultural divide.
“They are focusing on the statue, not focusing on the rights of the women who are alive,” said Fatima Gamboa, an activist with the Indigenous Lawyer Network, a Mexican advocacy group.
Ms. Gamboa, a member of the indigenous Maya people, said a gesture celebrating Mexico’s indigenous heritage did little to improve the precarious socio-economic conditions and discrimination that many indigenous women still suffer from.
A former conservative president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, said the monument to Columbus was a valuable part of Mexico’s artistic and historical heritage and disagreed with its replacement.
“Removing it, mutilating it is a crime,” he wrote on Twitter last month, when the Mexico City government first announced plans to replace it with an indigenous symbol. “In other words, they’re stealing it from Mexico City, its people, and all Mexicans.”
The statue’s replacement reflects a wider debate across the Americas over the legacy of Christopher Columbus and other early European explorers, with many saying their arrival led to destruction and exploitation.
In Guatemala this week, protesters attempted to dismantle a statue of Christopher Columbus. In Colombia and Chile in recent years, protesters have vandalized or toppled monuments commemorating Spanish conquerors like Sebastián de Belalcázar or Pedro de Valdivia. And in the United States last year, protesters in states including Minnesota, Massachusetts and Virginia damaged or tore down statues representing Columbus after protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked an uproar. review of monuments.