Debate about Public Monuments The Misuse of Archaeological Heritage in Mexico

Statue of Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc, Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City, Mexico
Statue of Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc, Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City, Mexico | Photo (Detail): Crossland, D. © picture alliance / imageBROKER

In September 2021 the authorities in Mexico City decided to replace the Christopher Columbus monument by a statue of an Indigenous woman aiming to decolonise the country's past. Archaeologist Daniel Salinas explains why the use of archaeological artefacts of pre-colonial times is not enough to decolonise the Mexican state.

By Daniel Salinas Córdova

After a year of controversy, in October 2021 Mexico City’s government announced that a reproduction of a recently discovered archaeological sculpture of a Huastec female leader would replace the famous Christopher Columbus monument in Paseo de la Reforma, one of the capital’s main avenues.

On 10th October 2020 the 1877 erected statue of the Genovese sailor was hastily removed. City officials declared that it was due to conservation works, but the timing and manner point towards it being to avoid the statue being toppled or damaged in a demonstration announced for two days later on Día de la Raza, the “day of the race”, a holiday celebrating the Iberoamerican race on the date when Columbus landed in the Americas.

Months later, in September 2021, the authorities unilaterally decided and announced that the Columbus statue would be replaced by a monument to Indigenous women made by artist Pedro Reyes. The fact that Reyes is neither Indigenous nor a woman, among other issues, caused a great deal of criticism, which led authorities to backtrack, removing him from the project.

“The Mexican nation-state has extensively used precolonial Indigenous material culture and aesthetics in its nation-building efforts. Archaeology and heritage have been one of the pillars to construct and strengthen the imagined community which is Mexico.”

After weeks of heated public debate but no real democratic participation, Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City’s mayor, announced that the Columbus statue would soon be replaced by a six meter tall replica of what has been named the Young Lady of Amajac, a sculpture of a richly attired female leader made by the Huastec people during the late postclassic period (1200-1521 AC), which was found at the start of the year 2021 in the state of Veracruz. This is the last instance of a long list of cases in which archaeological artefacts and imagery from the ancient Indigenous past has been used, appropriated and displayed by authorities in Mexico.

Archaeology, monuments and national identity

The Mexican nation-state has extensively used precolonial Indigenous material culture and aesthetics in its nation-building efforts. Archaeology and heritage have been one of the pillars to construct and strengthen the imagined community which is Mexico. Since very early on after gaining Independence from Spain, cultural and political elites worked on establishing direct links between the ancient Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the Mexica, and the modern Mexican nation as a way of distinguishing it from its former colonial metropole.

This can be seen in the establishment of a National Museum by presidential decree in 1825, an institution with a strong pedagogical nature which started to collect precolonial antiquities and other cultural artefacts in an effort to build, define and give meaning to the Mexican nation.

A Mexica monument which quickly became an iconic element of nationhood is the Sun Stone or “Aztec Calendar”. Discovered in 1790, for many decades it was displayed next to the Cathedral in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza and political epicentre. In 1885 the stone was transferred to the National Museum and in 1964 it was moved again to the new National Museum of Anthropology, occupying a central place in both of them as one of the star displays. Since the 19th century the Sun Stone has been used and reproduced innumerable times as a symbol of Mexico, prominently in official coins and bills.
  • The “Aztec Calendar” or Sun Stone in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, Mexico Photo (detail): Diego Cupolo © picture alliance / NurPhoto
    In the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, Mexico, the “Aztec Calendar” or Sun Stone is visible, a large circular stone relief, to be found in one of the museum's galleries.
  • The statue of a female figure unearthed in Hidalgo Amajac, in nearby Alamo Temapache, Veracruz state, Mexico. Photo (detail): Uncredited © picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS
    On 4th January 2021 Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology released the photo of the statue of a female figure unearthed in Hidalgo Amajac, in nearby Alamo Temapache, Veracruz state, Mexico. She is called “Young Lady of Amajac”. Farmers digging in a citrus grove on New Year's Day found the six-foot tall statue of a female figure who may represent an elite woman rather than a goddess, or some mixture of the two.
  • Mexican Indigenous take part in a tribute to Cuauhtémoc, the last ruler of Mexico- Tenochtitlan, in front of his statue in Mexico City on 28th February 2011. Photo (detail): Mario Guzman © picture alliance / dpa
    Mexican Indigenous take part in a tribute to Cuauhtémoc, the last ruler of Mexico- Tenochtitlan, in front of his statue in Mexico City on 28th February 2011. Several Indigenous people commemorated the 486 years of the death of Cuauhtémoc with dances and other activities.
  • Columbus monument, Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City, Mexico. Photo (detail): D. Crossland © picture alliance / imageBROKER
    Columbus monument, Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City, Mexico.
In the second half of the 19th century the links to the precolonial past started to be represented in public spaces as monuments. In 1887 a bronze statue of Cuauhtémoc, the last ruler of the Mexica, was erected as a symbol of the resistance to the invading Spaniards, standing on a base with Mesoamerican stylistic elements on a roundabout of Reforma Avenue, just 500 meters away from where the Columbus statue stood.

The monuments of Cuauhtémoc and Columbus could be seen as a representation of the duality behind the concept of mestizaje, the biological and/or cultural mixing of Indigenous peoples and Europeans, which has been a key aspect in the top down definition of Mexican identity by cultural and political elites since the 19th century.

In the post-revolutionary period from the 1920s to the 1940s governments and intellectuals pushed for the consolidation of a national unified mestizo identity, one which acknowledged the Hispanic roots and celebrated the ancient Indigenous past of Mexico, which continued to be embodied by the use and reproduction of archaeological artefacts and motifs in monuments, architecture, art and design. Simultaneously, living Indigenous communities were denigrated and marginalised, for example by strong, state-led Hispanisation, education and development programmes which, in the pursuit of progress and national integration, and together with new mass media and rapid changing lifestyles, decimated Indigenous languages and cultures throughout the 20th century. The percentage of people who spoke an Indigenous language in the country at the beginning of the 19th century was around 65 per cent, by 1950 it had reduced to 9.5 per cent, and today it stands at only six per cent.

The Monolith of Coatlinchan is another notorious case of an archaeological statue turned into a public monument. Often thought of as a representation of the Mesoamerican god of rain Tláloc but most likely one of the feminine water deity Chalchihuitlicue, the massive sculpture was removed by force from the town of San Miguel Cotalinchan by the Mexican government in 1964 to be placed at the entrance of the new National Museum of Anthropology, also on Reforma Avenue, where to this day it receives visitors to one of Mexico’s most renowned and visited museums.

Replacing Columbus for the Young Lady of Amajac

The replacement of the Columbus monument is embedded in broader discursive and commemoration drifts from the federal government which aim to decolonise the country’s history and monuments, settling “historical debts” with the Indigenous population. In August 2021, the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlán to the Spanish led armies in 1521 was framed as the “500 years of Indigenous resistance”. The removal of the image of Columbus and the controversial decision to replace it, first by Reyes’ monument of an Indigenous woman – projected as a colossal stone head reminiscent of the ones made by the Olmec – and then by the reproduction of the Young Lady of Amajac, unleashed intense debates.

Voices like that of anthropologist Sandra Rozental or linguist Yásnaya Aguilar have sharply pointed out how the “Indigenous woman” which the new announced monument will commemorate responds to a category imagined and constructed from an external and exoticising logic which does not refer to an actual person. The replacement is based on the assumption that the appropriation and use of pre-Hispanic objects by the state and their use as symbols of the nation's indigeneity is a neutral and politically correct act.

In my view, the removal of the Columbus monument did not respond to genuine decolonisation, but rather a suppression of possible protests stemming from a conservationist and patrimonialist logic. I see the decision to place a reproduction of the Young Lady of Amajac as an easy fix, an apparently neutral answer to the criticisms and controversy surrounding Columbus’ removal and the proposed monument of Reyes. Drawing on a hegemonic and unifying idea of the pre-Hispanic past, Mexican authorities are once again using ancient archaeological artefacts to represent abstract ideas of Indigenous people, women in this case, who indeed have spent five centuries resisting colonial and sexist systems which, despite discursively saying otherwise, the Mexican state is heir and still a part of to this day.