Mexico promotes indigenous people as it erases memory of Columbus

Mexico City (AFP) –


Mexico is erasing symbols of Christopher Columbus as it works to give indigenous people who suffered during the Spanish colonial era a bigger say in today's world.

Tuesday is a national holiday in Spain marking the anniversary of the "discovery" of the Americas by Columbus in 1492.

But in Mexico, authorities talk about the "Day of the Pluricultural Nation."

Columbus, and a statue of him, are at the heart of a national debate in Mexico over state "indigenismo" -- the policy of promoting a more prominent role for indigenous people in society.

It has been a year since the statue of the Genovese admiral was removed from its plinth on the Mexico City square that bears his name.

In its place, feminists have erected the figure of a woman with her clenched fist pointing towards the glass and steel skyscrapers of Paseo de la Reforma, the wide avenue that exemplifies Mexican capitalism.

They have rechristened the square: "the place of women who fight."

A statue in honor of "Women who fight" has been placed on a plinth in Mexico City where once stood the figure of Christopher Columbus
A statue in honor of "Women who fight" has been placed on a plinth in Mexico City where once stood the figure of Christopher Columbus PEDRO PARDO AFP

Columbus will not return to his plinth.

In due course, he will be replaced by an indigenous woman from the Olmec civilization that flourished from 1,500 to 400 BC, the city's mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, an ally of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has announced.

The new statue is meant to represent five centuries of "indigenous resistance," said Sheinbaum, the granddaughter of Jewish migrants that left Europe in the 20th century.

"It cannot come back to its place," historian Federico Navarrete told AFP.

"Trying to impose this colonialist, racist narrative ... makes no sense."

The pro-indigenous policy also has its detractors in Mexico, with some saying symbolic steps are all very well but hard policy choices in favor of indigenous people would achieve more.

The six-meter tall statue by French sculptor Charles Cordier, erected in 1877, is undergoing restauration before being moved to the upmarket Polanco neighborhood.

It's part of a policy of recognizing the trauma inflicted on indigenous people by the invading Europeans five centuries ago.

- Breaking Spanish influence -

Earlier this year, Mexico's government once again demanded that Spain, one of its main socio-economic partners, and the Vatican "apologize" for the brutality inflicted on its "original peoples" during the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

Pope Francis acknowledged the "sins" committed in Mexico by the conquerors in a letter to the episcopate that Lopez Obrador read out on September 27, the day Mexico celebrated the 200th anniversary of independence from Spain.

In Spain, however, the center-left government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez remained silent while the right-wing opposition hit out at the Mexican president.

"Andres is for the Aztecs, Manuel is for the Maya, Lopez, that's a mix between the Incas and the Maya," said former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar (1996-2004), making a point about how Spanish Lopez Obrador's name sounds.

Despite the heightened tensions, Spain remains one of Mexico's four largest European economic partners, although Europe is well behind the United States and China in that regard.

The breaking with symbols of Spanish domination is an inconsistent policy and has not extended to another monument on the Paseo de la Reforma: the tower that is home to Spanish bank BBVA, the market leader in Mexico.

BBVA may continue to thrive but Spanish energy giant Iberdrola stands to lose out in one of Lopez Obrador's electricity market reforms.

The president wants to reserve 56 percent of the market for the state Federal Electricity Commission (CFE.)

- Apologies -

Lopez Obrador has himself apologized to the Yaqui and Mayan peoples for "state crimes" during the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship from 1884-1911.

These statements are nothing new and part of the "indigenismo" of the state, said indigenous linguist and writer Yasnaya Aguilar, referring to the political and cultural habit in Mexico of promoting the pre-colonial past.

"They have always used this phenomenon and symbolism, even though in reality there are projects that affect indigenous people, like the Maya Train," said Aguilar.

That is a tourism project launched by Lopez Obrador in the southern Yucatan peninsula but in May, local indigenous communities accused certain companies involved in it of fraud and human rights abuses.

The national tourism fund even had to cancel its contracts with the companies concerned.

"The apology is worth nothing if there is no change in these policies and practices that affect the indigenous communities," said Navarrete.