MEXICO CITY – Statues of Columbus are 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 the Mexican capital, addressing some of the most intense disputes in the country’s current politics, including not only race and history, but gender as well. .
After a lengthy debate, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum announced on Tuesday that the statue of Christopher Columbus that once looked down on Mexico City’s main boulevard will be replaced by a pre-colonial indigenous figure, including a woman.
Announced ahead of Ms Sheinbaum’s candidacy for president in 2024, the new statue is widely seen as an attempt by the mayor, who is the first woman elected as head of North America’s largest city, to address – or to exploit – the cultural tensions that plague the country, including the growing resistance of women to a male-dominated culture.
The new statue “represents the struggle of women, especially indigenous women, in the history of Mexico,” she said at a press 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 that 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 predominantly elite. of European origin.
This year, he organized elaborate commemorations to mark the 500 years since the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, located in present-day Mexico City, at the hands of the Spanish invaders. He has traveled the country in recent months to apologize to indigenous communities for the colonial atrocities and demanded a similar atonement from the Spanish government.
But Mr. López Obrador has shown much less sensitivity to the growing feminist movement in Mexico.
In recent years, Mexican women have increasingly taken to the streets to demand that the government take action against one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Latin America. At least 10 women and girls have been murdered in Mexico on average every day last year, according to official government figures, 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 torches. Feminist protesters also attacked colonial statues, seeing them as symbols of Mexico’s male hegemony.
Mr. López Obrador played down these protests, going so far as to call them an opposition ploy to destabilize his government. Last month, he claimed that the feminist movement in Mexico was not established until after taking office in 2018.
“They had become conservative feminists just to affect us, only for that purpose,” he said, applying to feminists a word he often uses to ridicule his political opponents.
Her derogatory remarks presented a political challenge to her protege and possible successor, Ms Sheinbaum, who attempted to position herself as the leader of a more progressive and younger wing of the left-wing Morena presidential party.
She has also drawn criticism from feminist organizations by condemning the violent attacks on public buildings in 2019.
“Violence cannot be fought with violence,” she said at the time.
The bronze statue of Columbus, erected in 1877 atop a pedestal on a traffic island, had been defaced by protesters in the past, and authorities removed it last year, amid threats to additional damage.
In its place will be a replica of a stone sculpture named “Amajac’s Young Woman,” which was discovered in January in the eastern state of Veracruz and dates from the time of Columbus’ travels there. over 550 years. The new figurine will be around 20 feet tall, three times the height of the original, now housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Mexico City.
The choice of a female statue to replace Columbus might appeal to feminists, while also supporting Mr. López Obrador’s indigenous rhetoric, said Valeria Moy, director of the Center of Public Policy Research, a Mexican think tank.
“She tries 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 both sides of the cultural divide.
“They are focusing on the statue, not focusing on the rights of living women,” said Fatima Gamboa, an activist with the Indigenous Lawyer Network, a Mexican advocacy group.
Ms Gamboa, a member of the indigenous Mayan people, said that a gesture celebrating Mexico’s indigenous heritage does little to improve the precarious socio-economic conditions and discrimination that many indigenous women still suffer.
A former conservative president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, said the Columbus monument was a treasured part of Mexico’s artistic and historical heritage, and disagreed with its substitution.
“To remove it, to mutilate it is a crime,” he wrote on Twitter last month, when the government in Mexico City first announced its intention to replace it with an indigenous symbol. “They are stealing it from Mexico City, its people and all Mexicans. “