Every morning, on my way to university, I took a bus that passed in front of the statue of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian merchant and navigator from whom America got its name. For years, whenever I passed in front of this monument, I would see that a Wiphala, the common emblem used to represent some indigenous cultures in Latin America, had been painted over his name.
This is not the only event where a Spanish colonizer’s statue has been defaced or, in other cases, taken down. This act of resistance or resignification is seen all over the globe; last year in the USA and UK with the Black Lives Matter movement, this year in Canada following the news that 215 indigenous children had been found buried near residential schools. It also occurred in Colombia with the National Strike. While these actions might not change us instantly or even change history, they do make a statement on how we need to acknowledge and educate ourselves on the different angles of history.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the definitions for monument is: “a lasting evidence, reminder or example of someone or something notable or great”. It is only fair to ask the question ‘what do we understand by great and notable?’. Those are subjective concepts, like beauty is, but today some accomplishments that may have been admirable before are condemned.
On April 28th, the first day of Colombia’s national strike, the inhabitants of Cali woke up to the news that Sebastián de Belalcázar’s statue had been toppled by the Misak people. This caused outrage on social media while the indigenous representatives defended their actions by saying it was “an act of protest against a symbol of abuses to indigenous communities and the murder of leaders and right defenders”. The main issue with upholding this kind of monuments is that in most cases they stand there without any context and serve only to be gazed upon and revered.
All the information we get about the men that are depicted and honored with statues is what we learn in school. For example, Simon Bolivar is painted as this great war hero and strategist that achieved independence for many Latin American nations. What is often overlooked is the fact that he betrayed many of his comrades like Francisco Miranda, who he gave to the Spanish. In addition to this, he ordered massacres in Venezuela and Colombia. While his fight for independence is undoubtedly notable and great, the statues devoted to him fail to mention his full story. It is only recently that it has resurfaced, and so we continue to believe a myth without really paying attention to the other side of the coin.
The great liberator is just one example. On June 9th, the Misaks were again in the headlines when they tried to take down the statues of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabel. Previously, these statues had been painted red and bore the inscription ‘origin of the genocide’. The statues were not toppled by the indigenous people but two days later they were removed by the Ministry of Culture, and they are still assessing if the statues will be returned to their exhibition place or go to a museum. Again, these are people that have been shown favourably throughout history. He as the man who discovered America and she the queen that blindly supported him. As I have shown previously, this is far from true.
These actions of protest mean a step towards understanding and representing a side of the story which we have neglected for a long time. For art historian Erin L. Thompson, a statue is “a bid for immortality. It’s a way of solidifying an idea and making it present to other people. […] It’s not the statues themselves but the point of view that they represent. And these are statues in public places, right? So these are statues claiming that this version of history is the public version of history.” Historically, humanity has done this time and time again, to erase the legacy of a person, to change because of a war or conquest. As Thompson notes, the difference here is that what we are seeing is a constant questioning of our past and how rebelling against a hateful past can help build a more peaceful future.
For historian Julian Hayter, from the University of Richmond, this is not a war on statues but on stories. Hayter noted to Business insider that in the U.S these monuments “were designed to rewrite history, to essentially justify the rise of racial apartheid and segregation, and the racial apartheid and segregation of the 20th century has cast a very long shadow over America in the 21st century”.
So, if a monument or statue tells a story but it often comes without context, we stand before images of men that conveyed a meaning and sense of awe. But today their actions are seen with critical eyes for the pain caused to marginalized communities. This exact same situation happened with the statue of Gonzálo Jiménez de Quesada in Bogota on May 7, a group of Misak indigenous people took down his figure just as dawn started to break in an act of historic justice. Jiménez de Quesada, the man who founded Bogota, is yet another Spanish explorer who pillaged, robbed, murdered, and raped the Muisca people who inhabited those lands.
We lack monuments to those people whom history has forgotten. In Colombia, at least, the statues dedicated to the stories of indigenous people are few or often placed with no context, such as in Bogota. Taking down statues or painting over them is not destroying or past because the history is still there. What we can do is change how we perceive it; expand the reach of the stories we know and modify the way we interact with monuments to see the full picture. As a society, we need to acknowledge the pain that has been endured by communities the world over. Their stories persist in the tales of those we have chosen to immortalize in stone. Over time, we must learn about their struggles and history too.
Written by Andrea Jaramillo Caro
Andrea Jaramillo Caro is a columnist at Decipher Grey
Photograph: Tony Webster | Flickr.com