John Otis, NPR, September 30, 2020
The campaign to remove Confederate statues and other symbols of white supremacy in the United States is resonating in Latin America, where protesters have destroyed monuments to European colonizers who brutalized Indigenous populations.
The latest target was a statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar, a Spanish conquistador. He founded the Colombian cities of Popayán and Cali in 1537, while leading a military campaign that killed and enslaved of thousands of Misak Indigenous people.
“The time has come to get rid of these statues all across the Americas,” said Jesus Maria Aranda, a Misak leader who noted that the de Belalcázar statue was built atop a sacred Misak religious site. “The conquistadors did so much damage to Indigenous peoples.”
Tearing down statues in times of political upheaval in Latin America is not new.
But more often, protesters focus on representations of Christopher Columbus and other European explorers who first landed in the Americas at the end of the 15th century. During anti-government marches last year in Chile, Mapuche protesters toppled an effigy of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, who established the Chilean capital city of Santiago but is now widely reviled for waging war on the Mapuche.
All told, about 60 statues in Chile were damaged or destroyed during the protests, according to the National Monuments Council. Such acts are considered criminal vandalism, but they haven’t stopped. Last month, protesters in the Chilean town of Lumaco attacked a bust of Cornelio Saavedra, an army officer who led raids against the Mapuche in the 1800s. The protesters pulled it down and tossed it into a river.
“Every time these groups are faced with these kind of public monuments, they obviously are forced to relive their condition as victims of colonialism and violence,” says Arlene Tickner, an American who teaches international relations at Rosario University in Bogotá, Colombia.
In Mexico City, city council member Teresa Ramos wants all traces of the conquistadors erased. She is demanding the removal of statues of Columbus and Hernán Cortés, who conquered the Aztec Empire in the 1500s, and wants streets honoring their memory to be renamed.
Tickner notes that protesters across Latin America have been further inspired by their U.S. counterparts who, since the killing in May of George Floyd, have expanded their drive to remove monuments to Confederates and slaveholders.
“In viewing the whole discussion in the United States toward historical monuments that vindicate colonizers and racists, this slowly but surely seems to be affecting the debate in different parts of Latin America,” Tickner says.