These past two weeks a cultural revolution swept the United States as many statues and monuments celebrating or memorializing the Civil War were toppled, removed, or defaced. Not only in the South but also in the North, people finally rose up against these symbols of white power that once held sway over the so-called land of the free.
The war against the statues has divided the country in a way reminiscent of the protests against the Vietnam War. On one side are the defenders of the statues and monuments who perceive their destruction as part of a new counterculture bent on destroying their history and culture. On the other, there is a zealous crowd intent on erasing what to them are historical symbols of bigotry, pain, discrimination, slavery, and pure evil. What is more, the latter argue, the men glorified in these statues were not heroes but traitors to the country, who rebelled and tried to secede from the Union. You don’t see other countries erecting monuments and statues to such people, they add.
I agree with the arguments put forth by the statue over-throwers, except for the last part, the one about the role of statues in other countries. Obviously, they haven’t been to Mexico where the same kind of petrified hero worship can be found exactly in the form they despise in the USA, that is, where historical heroes and villains elbow each other in famous boulevards, glorietas (roundabouts), and statuary rows.
I invite anyone to take a stroll down Reforma Avenue in the center of Mexico City, where they’ll encounter statues of Cristobal Colón (Columbus) and Cuauhtémoc, the last “tlatoani” (emperor) of the Aztecs. These are, as it were, at walking distance from each other! If they were alive, Cuauhtémoc would readily capture Colón and take him over to the Zócalo where he would sacrifice the Italian and offer his evil heart to the war god, Huitzilopochtli. So, to avoid this violence, it’s better these two remain in their petrified existence.
But this matter is not so black and white. Neither Cuauhtémoc nor Colón can claim to be legitimate heroes or that one is the good guy and the other the bad guy. In Latin America, Colón may have lost some of his luster but he’s not yet the villain that he represents to some sectors of American society. Cuauhtémoc’s case is also a bit problematic. Nineteenth-century Mexican historians who wrote or invented the official history of Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos (a.k.a. Mexico) created a romantic image of Cuauhtémoc in which he is represented as the last great valiant defender of what the poet, Amado Nervo, called “la raza de bronce.” The post-revolutionary regimes enhanced this image of a courageous Indigenous man who resisted the Spanish conquerors to the end, a symbol of the bronze race, a race that did not even exist until years later when the Spanish invented the category of Indian. In other words, the indigenous people did not fight the Spanish as a unified unit, simply because there wasn’t any racial, ethnic, social or political cohesion among all the native groups. Cuauhtémoc defended his city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, but not any entity in the form of an indigenous nation known as Mexico. The country didn’t adopt the nation-state model until 1824. This, however, has not stopped the government from teaching children until the present day the absurd notion that Cuauhtémoc defended the entire “raza de bronce.”
What happens when a descendant of the Tlaxcaltecas or Purépecha from Michoacán (such as yours truly), two mortal enemies of the Aztecs at the time of the conquest, see the statue of Cuauhtémoc today? I suppose that if they view it through the prism of nationality, as Mexican nationals, they perceive the valorous hero who defended our “raza de bronce,” the Indian race that the Spanish colonial powers created and used to lump together all the different native peoples. However, if the descendants of the Tlaxcaltecas and Purépechas—for that matter any of the descendants that were not allies of the Aztecs—view Cuauhtémoc’s statue with ancient tribal eyes, they will see a symbol of imperial oppression and evil which is why the Tlaxcaltecas and other peoples allied themselves with Cortés to topple the Aztecs or Mexica, as they called themselves.
The statues of Cuauhtémoc and Colón are far from being the only problematic ones. Not far from them is La Alameda, which contains a memorial to what many consider the greatest “Presidente de México.” I’m talking about the full-blooded Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, Benito Juárez, who is revered in Mexico and throughout the world. And rightly so since through subtle and intelligent diplomacy together with brilliant military strategy, he was able to defeat the Conservatives in a civil war, expel the French Invasion, and consolidate Mexico’s political autonomy. In the process, he also pursued the full establishment of the Mexican nation-state that required equality before the law, cultural homogeneity, and citizenship based on private property. To bring about this endeavor, Juárez promulgated the Leyes de Reforma, from which the famous avenue discussed above gets its name and which also gave lots of headaches to indigenous communities since these laws attempted to destroy their communal way of life. For Juárez, to be a Mexican citizen meant to quit being Indian. Therefore, once again, what thoughts must go through the minds of indigenous people when they look at Benito Juárez’ monument? Does it represent to them the greatness of one of their own or do they see oppression, repression, discrimination, and racism? They certainly don’t hear his famous saying: El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz. For if they do, it must be ironical as hell since Juárez didn’t respect the right of the indigenous communities to live their communal, traditional lives.
Then, there are the statues dedicated to the big heroes of the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican Gang of Four: Venustiano Carranza, Álvaro Obregón, Emiliano Zapata, and Pancho Villa. Though official history presents these men as a unified front, they actually rose up in rebellion in 1910 against the dictator, Porfirio Díaz in different places and for different and, sometimes, contradictory reasons. They’re rightly revered for toppling the long Porfiriato in 1911; however, by the end of the same year, Zapata rebelled against Francisco Madero (probably the only president that has ever been elected in a clean, democratic election in Mexico). Other rebellions around the country soon followed Zapata’s lead and, in 1913, a politically-weak President Madero was assassinated by Victoriano Huerta, with the help of the American ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson (yes folks, Americans have had a hand in the assassination of a Mexican president, but lordy lordy, how upset they get when foreigners meddle in their politics or elections). The Gang of Four reunited to do away with Huerta and then promptly went on an assassination binge . . . against each other.
First, Zapata had been a thorn in the government’s side, so soon after the new Constitution was promulgated in 1917, President Carranza had the southern hero assassinated. In 1920, Obregón did away with Carranza because he became a threat to Obregón’s rise to power; and in 1923, the one-armed president also had Villa killed for good measure. Finally, in 1928, Obregón likewise met a violent death at the hands of an assassin. However, by the 1930s, the puppet governments of El Caudillo, Plutarco Elias Calles—who probably had a hand in all these killings—had elevated the Mexican Gang of Four to heroes of La Revolución. They were consecrated in corridos, films, literature, statues, monuments, murals, names of streets, towns, and schools. Through these means, the children of Mexico have learned until the present day that these men were part of “la familia revolucionaria (a dysfunctional family, I would add) that eliminated Díaz and bequeathed to us the bounties of the Revolution. But don’t these statues, monuments and murals (especially those of Diego Rivera) also remind us of the carnage these revolucionarios perpetrated against each other and the population at large. Zapata’s forces were so ferocious he was dubbed the Attila of the South. Villa and his army of Dorados committed many violent deeds that today would be categorized as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity: for example, the killing of Chinese immigrants in Torreón and, most famously, is the case of Villa’s henchman, Rodolfo Fierro, who is said have killed 300 prisoners of war as documented in the episode, “La fiesta de las balas,” in Martín Luis Guzmán’s El águila y la serpiente.
How do we deal with such contradictions?
I am not condoning here the removal of these statues, monuments, and murals, or the renaming of streets, towns, and schools. What I do propose is that we look at this manner of memorializing the past with honesty and transparency, to acknowledge that historians have appropriated these historical figures to write distorted official histories of Mexico. Moreover, we need to reassess the past and admit that our heroes leave much to be desired. Above all, it is necessary to see these statues and monuments for what they truly are; that is, part and parcel of the concept of nationhood as understood in nineteenth century terms: a form of political and social organizing that required a gospel (History) and a book of saints (the heroes that we learned to worship and revere) to control the people and legitimate the power of so-called revolutionary government.
This scheme was relatively successful in Mexico roughly from 1920-1970. Since then the Mexican nation-state has lost its grip on the people within the confines of the country. The reasons are many, but particularly because of the increasingly corrupt administrations, a series of economic crises, massive waves of migrations to the USA, a pathetic education system, and the effects of globalization. Many Mexicans have lost their faith in the nation they supposedly belong to and others are too busy trying to just survive and get past the latest crisis. The people are moving into a post-Mexican condition (to use Roger Bartra’s phrase) in which the mythology of nationalism has lost its enchantment and cohesive power. Therefore, unlike Americans, Mexicans probably could care less if the statues were removed or stay put. They are superficial symbols, empty of meaning, especially for the NAFTA Generation that has come of age in the last 20 years. I’m willing to bet that this younger generation identifies more readily with the latest American movie stars and superheroes than with a statue of Zapata or Villa.