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Statue of Christopher Columbus in Mexico City to be replaced by Indigenous female figure

The removal of statues of the explorer has been common in the United States and elsewhere as countries reckon with the public commemoration of their past

In this June 2020 photo released by the Miami Police Department, the pedestal where a statue of Christopher Columbus stands is seen vandalized in Miami. (Miami Police Department/AP)
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A statue of divisive European explorer Christopher Columbus that was on prominent display in Mexico City will be replaced with a figure of an Indigenous woman, the city’s mayor said this weekend, as the country becomes the latest to reckon with the public commemoration of its past.

The looming Columbus figure had stood tall on the Paseo de la Reforma boulevard for over 100 years, but on Sunday the mayor of the capital city, Claudia Sheinbaum, said it was time for a change of landscape and to make way for a monument that delivers “social justice.”

“We are announcing that the Columbus roundabout will very soon, in October, become a great recognition of the 500 years of resistance of the Indigenous women of our country,” Sheinbaum said. “We owe it to them.”

Although the country recognizes Columbus, “there are two visions,” one native and the other a European vision of the “discovery of America,” she told an event in the capital.

The statue was taken down from the Paseo de la Reforma boulevard last year for restoration work ahead of an annual protest and has not been put back up.

Sheinbaum is an ally of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has staked a large part of his leftist political claim around championing Mexico’s Indigenous communities.

Last month, López Obrador asked the country’s Indigenous peoples for forgiveness for the abuses inflicted on them during the bloody 1521 Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. He has previously called on Spain’s royal family and Pope Francis to formally apologize for atrocities committed during the Spanish conquest at the beginning of the 16th century.

Columbus never set foot here. Why do we remember him?

The replacement of Columbus figures has been common in the United States, where several statues of the Italian navigator have been removed or defaced in places such as Richmond, Boston and St. Paul, Minn., since the Black Lives Matter protests prompted a worldwide reexamination of the colonial era.

In June, the House also passed legislation to remove statues of Confederate leaders from the U.S. Capitol and replace the bust of Roger B. Taney, a chief justice who wrote the 1857 Supreme Court decision that said people of African descent were not U.S. citizens. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the legislation was an “opportunity to right the wrongs of history, starting here … in the U.S. Capitol.”

Similar reckonings have taken place elsewhere.

In Britain, protesters made international headlines last year when they toppled a statue of British politician Edward Colston — who through his role in the slave trade helped enslave tens of thousands of people — during the global Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. A debate also continues to rage at Oxford University’s Oriel College around a statue of former student Cecil Rhodes, a 19th-century British imperialist known for his racist views.

France, meanwhile, has grappled with the legacy of its former emperor and military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, who reinstated slavery but remains revered in some conservative circles, including by President Emmanuel Macron.

For Mónica Moreno Figueroa, a Mexican academic in the United Kingdom and co-founder of the Collective to Eliminate Racism in Mexico (COPERA), the removal of the Columbus statue is “symbolically important.”

Figueroa told The Washington Post on Monday that she welcomed the public debate that the decision had spawned over “what kind of images we want in the public space.” However, simply replacing Columbus with a possibly anonymous Indigenous woman, in a country that is home to at least 50 Indigenous groups, would lack nuance, she added.

“It’s good to have this debate and to think about what to do with these things, but I think a replacement in itself needs to be carefully thought about,” Figueroa said.

The statue’s replacement was also welcomed by the nonprofit Survival International, which champions the rights of tribal peoples around the world.

“The days when governments thought it right to celebrate figures like Columbus should be long gone,” Jonathan Mazower, Survival’s communications director said in a statement. “But statues and other symbols, while important, must never be a substitute for real action, and it’s much easier to replace a statue than it is to take real, meaningful action to redress the historic crimes against Indigenous peoples.”

Elsewhere in South America, public debates on the historic place of Columbus have also been hot topics, particularly in Peru and Colombia, said Gabriela Ramos, a senior lecturer in Latin American history at the University of Cambridge.

Ramos said the public should be wary of the replacement of historical figures and of being dragged into a “war of symbols” because of modern-day political opportunism.

“That’s not the way to deal with history, by kind of erasing or deleting things, but actually trying to put all that we have into perspective,” she said.

“I’m against this constant attempt to use the past and try to manipulate it, instead of trying to understand it and think harder,” she added. “We should commemorate things without trying to cancel other aspects of history.”

Ramos also argued that Mexico’s history is nuanced, including examples of Indigenous people who cooperated with European invaders. Instead, she said statues should stay in place, perhaps with better explanations about racism, exploitation and colonialism to guide people through the public space in a more “enriching” way.

The 19th-century bronze of Columbus in Mexico City, however, will not be taken down altogether, said Sheinbaum, the mayor. Instead, it will be relocated to an unspecified “worthy” place elsewhere in the city.

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