MEXICO – Statues of Columbus are being demolished across America amid a fierce debate over the legacy of European conquest and colonialism in the region.
Few have been more controversial than replacing a monument in the center of Mexico’s capital, touching upon some of the most heated debates in the country’s current politics, including not only race and history, but gender.
After lengthy debate, Mayor Claudia Scheinbaum announced on Tuesday that the statue of Columbus, which once overlooked Mexico City’s main boulevard, will be replaced by a pre-colonial indigenous figure – specifically a woman.
The new statue, announced ahead of Ms Scheinbaum’s proposed presidential nomination in 2024, is widely seen as an attempt by the mayor, who is the first woman elected to lead North America’s largest city, to eliminate – or exploit – cultural tensions gripping the population. countries, including the growing resistance of women to a culture dominated by men.
The new statue “represents the struggles of women, especially indigenous peoples, in Mexican history,” she said at a press conference announcing the decision to mark the anniversary of Columbus’s first arrival in America. “This is the story of classism, racism that comes from the colony.”
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador went further than his predecessors in denouncing the history of colonialism, glorifying indigenous culture and portraying himself as a defender of the poor against the country’s conservative opposition and predominantly European elite.
This year, he organized an elaborate commemoration commemorating the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in today’s Mexico City by the Spanish invaders. In recent months, he toured the country to apologize to indigenous peoples for colonial atrocities, and demanded a similar atonement from the Spanish government.
But Mr Lopez Obrador has shown significantly less sensitivity to Mexico’s growing feminist movement.
In recent years, Mexican women have increasingly taken to the streets, demanding government action against one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Latin America. According to government figures, at least 10 women and girls were killed on average every day in Mexico last year, and most crimes go unpunished.
Earlier this year, thousands of women protested in Mexico City, attacking the ramparts outside the presidential residence with bats and blowtorches. Feminist protesters also attacked colonial statues, seeing them as symbols of Mexico’s male hegemony.
Mr Lopez Obrador minimized these protests, going so far as to describe them as an opposition ploy to destabilize his government. He said last month that the feminist movement in Mexico was only created after he took office in 2018.
“They became conservative feminists only to influence us, only for this purpose,” he said, applying to feminists a word he often uses to ridicule his political opponents.
His dismissive remarks posed a political challenge to his protégé and eventual successor, Ms. Scheinbaum, who tried to position herself as the leader of the more progressive and younger wing of the presidential left-wing Morena.
She also drew criticism from feminist organizations, condemning the violent attacks on public buildings in 2019.
“You can’t fight violence,” she said at the time.
The bronze statue of Columbus, erected in 1877 on a pedestal on a transport island, has been damaged in the past by protesters and was demolished by authorities last year amid threats of further destruction.
In its place will be a replica of a stone carving called “Young Lady of Amajaka”, which was discovered in January in the eastern state of Veracruz and dates back to about the time of Columbus’s travels, more than 550 years ago. The new figure will be about 20 feet tall, three times the size of the original, which is now in the National Archaeological Museum in Mexico City.
Choosing a statue of a woman to replace Columbus can appeal to feminists and at the same time support Mr López Obrador’s rhetoric about indigenous peoples, said Valeria Moi, director of the Center for Public Policy Research, a Mexican think tank.
“She tries to please everyone, especially her president,” said Ms. Moy. “From a political point of view, choosing a statue seems like a good decision.”
But not everyone was happy on both sides of the cultural divide.
“They are focusing on the statue with no regard for the rights of living women,” said Fatima Gamboa, an activist with the Mexican advocacy group Indigenous Lawyers’ Network.
Ms. Gamboa, an indigenous Mayan representative, said the gesture to celebrate the indigenous heritage of Mexico did little to improve the precarious socio-economic conditions and discrimination that continue to plague many indigenous women.
Mexico’s conservative former president, Felipe Calderón, said the Columbus monument is a valuable part of Mexico’s artistic and historical heritage and did not agree with its replacement.
“To remove it, maim it is a crime,” he tweeted last month when the Mexico City government first announced plans to replace him with an indigenous symbol. “They rob him from Mexico City, its people and all the Mexicans.”