BARCELONA – Christopher Columbus has been decapitated, defaced, or quietly removed for his own good from pedestals across the United States in the wake of the protests for racial justice sweeping the country.
In Spain, however, he is still safe atop his many perches.
Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau is one of only a few public officials who say Spain must revisit its colonial legacy — though she doesn't back timid calls to remove the city’s monument to Columbus located at the end of its famous Las Ramblas promenade.
Instead, she wants to encourage a public discussion about the Italian explorer whose landing in the Caribbean in 1492 gave birth to Spain’s overseas empire. That empire transformed Spain into a world power and spread Christianity and European education across the Americas, while in turn decimating Indigenous populations through disease and war.
“Was Columbus a slave trader? No, but he does represent the colonial era. There is an open debate and we think that is positive and necessary,” Colau told The Associated Press in an interview on Thursday.
“We are consulting the experts and listening to voices from citizen organizations to see how we can explain this monument,” said Colau.
“We are not going to rewrite history, but we have to explain history in its entirety because history was usually told by the winners and has avoided telling about the bloodshed, the exploitation and the slavery also associated with that age.”
The city hall headed by Colau, a housing activist-turned-politician, in 2018 removed a statue of Barcelona aristocrat Antonio López who had made fortunes from slave trading.
But in Colau’s view, the monument commemorating the encounter between Columbus and Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella on his return from his first voyage in 1493, should undergo a redo, not a removal.
Colau said that she would back removing some figures on the nearly 200-foot-tall pedestal that lifts Columbus above Barcelona’s old port because they could be considered offensive for their depiction of native peoples. She also would like to put up explanatory plaques that would balance Columbus’ achievements and the negative impacts of the period of European colonialism his explorations inaugurated.
“That was an age when there were positive things, but there was also exploitation of people who were living happily, and there were authentic massacres of indigenous peoples, and if you believe in human rights and democracy that is not defensible,” Colau said.
In the U.S., statues of Columbus have been toppled by crowds or removed by authorities in the wake of protests for the death of George Floyd, as the demands for social and racial justice spread beyond the plight of African Americans to the legacy of European colonialism. Tensions reached dangerous levels in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a man was shot when armed men fired at protesters who were trying to tear down a bronze statue of a Spanish conquistador.
In Spain there have been rallies supporting the Black Lives Matter movement since Floyd's death. Some were organized by a group of Spaniards of African origin along with African migrants and they drew crowds of several thousand. African migrants wanted to raise awareness of the precarious economic situation and the discrimination they suffer.
But while Spaniards are largely sympathetic with the BLM movement in the U.S., many are puzzled by the extension of the demands to remove Confederate-era statues to include figures of the colonial past that has successfully reached European countries like Britain and Belgium.
Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia ran a photo of a Cervantes statue that had been sprayed with red paint in San Francisco on its front page. The accompanying story mentioned that the author of Don Quixote, who had no involvement in Spain's colonies, was himself enslaved by Barbary pirates for several years.
Last month, a statue of Spanish priest Junípero Serra was pulled down in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Three days later, another statue of Serra was defaced on the island of Mallorca, his 18th-century birthplace, in a rare incident in Spain against its colonial-era monuments.
One government minister supported the questioning of Serra’s figure, but the government has defended Serra’s legacy, saying he was a pioneer in the defense of the Indigenous population, a claim disputed by his critics.
In 2016, a statue to Hernan Cortés in his hometown of Medellín in western Spain was doused with red paint by a group of activists for the conquistador’s bloody conquest of present-day Mexico. That protest, however, did not gain momentum. Nor have the other statues to Columbus — who many Spaniards consider a discoverer and not a colonizer — become sources of contention now.
Spain’s government is actively using its diplomatic weight in the U.S., writing letters to authorities to counter the narratives against what it considers the “Hispanic legacy” in the country.
David García, a history professor specialized in Spain’s American colonies, lamented what he called the “superficial” view of history held by some protesters.
“There are people in Spain worried for where this will lead because the future cannot be based on ignorance. Junípero Serra held ideas that were considered progressive for his time, while Cervantes wrote one of the most moving works of all time,” García said. “We are all children of our past. What we cannot do is judge what happened centuries ago by our own standards.”
Jordi Guixé, professor of history of the University of Barcelona and an expert in public memorials as director of the European Observatory of Memories, believes that Spain has not reckoned with its imperial past because its society is still painfully absorbed by its conflicting memories of its 1936-39 civil war.
Many Franco-era monuments and place names have been removed, but the debate still rages over what to do with the tens of thousands of civilian victim s of the war and the subsequent right-wing repression that still lie in mass graves.
“The focus of collective memory is always drawn to the most recent trauma. There is a never-ending debate about the memory (…) of the Civil War,” Guixé said. “(The colonial period) has gone overlooked in our society, so how can a society react to something that it ignores?”
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