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Lessons on Colonial Monuments From an Unlikely Place

Photo by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar | CC BY 2.0

Last week, two incidents of vandalism targeted monuments of the Spanish colonial legacy in North America.  On Tuesday, a statue of Christopher Columbus in New York’s Central Park was discovered with red paint on its hands and the words “Hate will not be tolerated” spraypainted on its base.  The same day, residents and workers at the Old Mission Santa Barbara awoke to find that a statue of Junípero Serra—an eighteenth-century Spanish friar canonized by Pope Francis in 2015—had been beheaded and covered in blood-red paint as well.  These events join the numerous other recent controversies surrounding public monuments in the U.S., most notably those that emerged from Charlottesville, Virginia last month, when a young woman was killed and numerous people were injured while protesting white supremacists’ attempts to paralyze the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

The overnight fates of the Columbus and Serra statues extend these debates from the context of the American Civil War and white supremacy to another chapter of oppression on this continent: that of indigenous peoples.  Despite what continues to be the celebratory tone of textbook teachings and the triumphal observation of Columbus Day, the atrocities committed by Columbus and other European ‘explorers’ since 1492 are well documented.  In Serra’s case, his status as a saint neglects the indigenous communities whose cultural legacies were effaced by Spanish colonialism and proselytizing missions in what is today the state of California.  Ironically, however, looking to Spain—the origin of Serra, Columbus’s voyage, and history’s largest colonial empire—can help us to better understand debates on historical legacy and to critically channel the furor about public monuments into constructive action.

Such debates have been ongoing in Spain, whose experience with civil war and Fascism is both more recent and extensive.  The dictatorship of Francisco Franco, whose forces overthrew a democratically elected government in the Spanish Civil War (1936­­–1939) with the support of Hitler and Mussolini, lasted well over thirty years until his death in 1975.  Part of the agreement in transitioning to democracy and forging a new constitution in 1978 was that officials from Franco’s regime and aggressors in the civil war would enjoy immunity.  The idea was that, in the interest of peace, reconciliation, and healing, past differences had to be set aside.

As time went by, however, the wisdom of such an agreement began to be called into question.  The Law of Historical Memory, approved by the Spanish Congress in 2007, sought to recognize the victims of the civil war and dictatorship.  Among other reparations and provisions, the controversial legislation called for the removal of Francoist symbols in public spaces.  Since then, a slew of monuments, statues, and street names have been extirpated or changed accordingly.

Though most of these changes have transpired peacefully, it has not always been a clear-cut process.  In July, the progressive, left-wing government of Madrid, whose mayor is a former Communist and Supreme Court justice, suspended the alteration of fifty-two street signs in the city.  Madrid officials explained their decision as one of “prudence,” since they had received a few complaints about the imminent changes.  They almost certainly had in mind the southeastern Spanish city of Alicante, which earlier this year was served a judicial order to replace the Francoist street signs that had previously been removed for not having passed through the proper legal channels.  For practical reasons, of course, statues are in some ways already easier to change than street signs.  But this is a far cry from the expediency with which the mayor of Baltimore successfully removed Confederate monuments in an overnight operation shortly after the events in Charlottesville.

Even more recently, news broke that Sabadell, an industrial city in the metropolitan area of Barcelona, had commissioned a local historian, Josep Abad, to offer recommendations for changing the names of city streets and plazas there.  It seems that Abad was more zealous than the spirit of the Law of Historical Memory had envisioned.  Among the list of candidates in his report were a number of non-Catalan place names and cultural figures, which were deemed part of a “pseudo-cultural Francoist model.”  These included the seventeenth-century Spanish authors Lope de Vega, Luis de Góngora, Tirso de Molina, and Pedro Calderón de la Barca, along with the famous painter Francisco de Goya.  Also on the chopping block were the countries of Uruguay and Colombia.

In the rest of Spain, reactions to the report were swift, due in part to the seething tensions around the Catalonian government’s aspirations for greater political autonomy and independence.  El País, the daily newspaper published in Madrid, was predictably forceful in its condemnation of the study in Sabadell.  The well-known writer Julio Llamazares, in a column that appeared on August 18 alongside news of the attacks in Barcelona, characterized the project as one of “stupidity.”  It didn’t take long for the mayor’s office of Sabadell to release a statement clarifying that it had no immediate plans to implement the changes proposed in Abad’s study.

But no matter what becomes of the street signs in Sabadell, the debates about historical memory and public space in Spain might help to inform those that have suddenly come to the fore on this side of the Atlantic.  First of all, they remind us that not even literary figures are neutral or universally admired—not even those who, like Góngora, have been dead for nearly four centuries.  To implement the suggestion that Confederate or colonial statues be replaced by those of cultural figures is therefore likely to be a process far from straightforward.  Spain exemplifies the long-term resolve needed when a small but vocal minority manages to paralyze attempts to build a cityscape more accepting of difference.

On the other hand, and perhaps most importantly, Abad’s list illustrates what happens when otherwise earnest attempts at reclaiming national identity—or a healthy, spirited iconoclasm—threaten to abolish the traces of anything ‘foreign.’  Franco’s Spain defined itself through a homogenous, monolithic identity based on one country (Spain), one religion (Catholicism), and one language (Castilian Spanish).  The compulsory ‘unity’ of this model exerted what some have called colonial violence on regions like Catalonia, which for centuries have possessed their own unique language and culture.  The problem is that, by eliminating the symbolic presence of external or extralocal entities, the effort to vindicate regional or national identity risks succumbing to the same forces of isolation from which it struggles to free itself.  In seeking to abolish the symbolic remains of an oppressive past, Sabadell risks reproducing some of its more troubling dogmas.

Just as Confederate monuments are inseparable from the defense of chattel slavery on which the Confederacy was founded, the figures of Columbus and Serra, try as one might, cannot be fully excised from the context of colonial violence that abetted their rise to fame.  No doubt some Catalans feel that canonical literature from Spain’s so-called ‘Golden Age’ is similarly tainted by the country’s early modern imperial ambitions and nascent consolidation of a unified national identity that subsumed all others.  It is true that, while many twentieth-century Spanish writers and artists had been killed or exiled by the regime, Franco invoked some of the figures and motifs of Spain’s imperial past when promoting his Fascist vision of unity.

But to suggest erasing Uruguay and Colombia from the local map, on the other hand, surely does a grave disservice to the multicultural reality of Catalonia, which has welcomed migrants from around the world, particularly those of Latin American, Eastern European, and North African descent.  This cosmopolitanism is movingly demonstrated by the fact that the victims of last month’s terror attacks in Barcelona hailed from some thirty-five different countries.

This underscores another transatlantic lesson we can learn: that, even in attempts to rebuild regional or national culture, we ought not lose sight of a more diverse, international perspective.  What if, instead of Columbus Circle, New York’s central intersection were called Sandra Cisneros Circle instead?  Or, in addition to the thoroughfares that already bear the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. in some forty states today, we could navigate to DeRay Mckesson Drive, Harvey Milk Highway, Annie Pootoogook Place, Adunis Avenue, or Passeig de Joan Miró?  (That some of these names may sound unfamiliar underscores both the problem and the opportunity.)

As the events in Spain and Catalonia make clear, such changes are obviously easier to implement in theory than in practice.  My point is that we now have the chance to broaden the terms of the debate, to put something in the place of Confederate and colonial monuments that is not only less reprehensible and offensive, but more deliberately inclusive, international, and diverse.  In today’s political climate, the opportunity to reconsider what kind of cultural symbolism we want to see in the public spaces of our communities is even more urgent.  We would do well to look overseas not only for the origins of colonial and imperial violence, but for lessons on contesting its lingering effects.

Paul Michael Johnson is a specialist in the literatures of early modern Spain and teaches Spanish at DePauw University.

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