MEXICO CITY – Statues of Columbus are being torn down in the Americas, amid fierce debates about the legacy of European conquest and colonialism in the region.
Few have been more controversial than the replacement of a monument in the heart of Mexico’s capital, which touches on some of the most intense disputes in the country’s current politics, including not just race and history, but also sex.
After a lengthy debate, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum announced Tuesday that the Columbus statue that once looked out over Mexico City’s main boulevard will be replaced by a pre-colonial indigenous figure, in particular, a woman.
Announced ahead of Sheinbaum’s long-awaited presidential bid in 2024, the new statue is 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 they take over the city. country, including the increasing resistance of women to a male-dominated culture.
The new statue “represents the struggle of women, particularly indigenous women, in the history of Mexico,” she said at a press conference announcing the decision on the anniversary of Columbus’ first arrival in the Americas. “It is a history of classism, of racism that comes from the colony.”
The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has gone further than his predecessors by denouncing the history of colonialism, celebrating indigenous culture and presenting himself as the defender of the poor against the country’s conservative opposition and the mostly European-descended elite.
This year it organized elaborate commemorations to mark 500 years since the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, located in present-day Mexico City, before the Spanish invaders. He toured the country in recent months to apologize to indigenous communities for colonial atrocities, and has demanded a similar atonement from the Spanish government.
But López Obrador has shown significantly 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.
Earlier this year, thousands of women came out to protest in Mexico City, attacking the walls outside the presidential residence with bats and blowtorches. Feminist protesters have also attacked colonial statues, seeing them as symbols of Mexico’s male hegemony.
López Obrador has downplayed these protests, even calling them an opposition tactic to destabilize his government. Last month, she claimed that the feminist movement in Mexico was only created after she took office in 2018.
“They had become conservative feminists just to affect us, just for this purpose,” she said, applying to feminists a word she often uses to poke fun at her political opponents.
His derogatory comments have presented a political challenge to his protégé and possible successor, Ms. Sheinbaum, who has sought to position herself as the leader of a younger and more progressive wing of the president’s left-leaning Morena party.
It has also received criticism from feminist organizations when condemning the violent attacks on public buildings in 2019.
“Violence is not fought with violence,” he said at the time.
The bronze statue of Columbus, erected in 1877 on a pedestal on a traffic island, had been defaced by protesters in the past, and officials tore it down last year amid threats of further damage.
In its place there will be a replica of a stone carving called “The Young Lady of Amajac”, which was discovered in January in the eastern state of Veracruz and which dates from the time of Columbus’ travels, more than 550 years ago. The new figure will be about 20 feet tall, three times the height of the original, which is now housed in the National Museum of Archeology in Mexico City.
Choosing a statue of a woman to replace Colón could appeal to feminists and, at the same time, support López Obrador’s indigenous rhetoric, said Valeria Moy, director of the Center for Public Policy Research, a Mexican think tank.
“She is trying to satisfy 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 satisfied, on both sides of the cultural divide.
“They are focusing on the statue, without focusing on the rights of women who are alive,” said Fatima Gamboa, an activist with the Red de Abogados Indígenas, a Mexican advocacy group.
Ms. Gamboa, a member of the indigenous Mayan people, said that a gesture of celebration of Mexico’s indigenous heritage does little to improve the precarious socioeconomic conditions and discrimination that many indigenous women still face.
A former conservative president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, said that the Columbus monument was a valuable piece of Mexico’s artistic and historical heritage and did not agree with its replacement.
“Taking it away, 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. “They are stealing it from Mexico City, its inhabitants and all Mexicans.”