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Latin America’s Problematic Statues

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The U.S. most certainly has a lot of problematic statues. But so does Latin America and that reflects the history of racism and genocide just as profound there as here. Moreover, the cultural politics over these things are also rife with dissension. After all, Jair Bolsonaro is president of Brazil largely for the same reasons that Donald Trump is president of the United States–the fascism of white (or whiter) people. So what to do?

Wires and guards have been deployed in São Paulo – to protect a statue. Borba Gato is considered one of Brazil’s more prominent bandeirantes, who were marauders that expanded the borders of colonial Brazil hunting and enslaving indigenous people. Borba Gato represents “an enslaver, a kidnapper, who killed indigenous peoples and brought more enslavement to the province of São Paulo,” said Keila Grinberg, a history professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “In Brazil, we don’t confront our past. And that is what made it possible for us to pay homage to slave traders.”

Protesters have painted over Gato’s statue before, and calls have intensified to take it down altogether. Since the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was dragged from its plinth and thrown into the River Avon in Bristol, England on June 7, inspired by protests in the U.S., the issue has again been revived — in São Paulo and across Latin America, where monuments and public spaces celebrating slave traders and slave holders are everywhere.

But Cândido Domingues, professor at the Universidade do Estado da Bahia, says Brazil is more in the “discussion phase” of what he dubbed the “Colston effect” of pulling down controversial statues. Right after the Colston statue went underwater, Domingues and a group of scholars in Salvador, Brazil’s first capital and where the population is 80% black, started to map monuments and statues dedicated to slave traffickers and slaveholders. The group plans to launch a website that also lists forgotten and unmarked places, such as the slave markets that were dispersed throughout the city. 

Demands to rename spaces and monuments that honor slaveholders have been taking place in Brazil for the past two decades, according to Grinberg. But some Brazilians are developing “new historical sensibilities towards the past,” Grinberg told AQ, “calling for a change in the way we portray history in public spaces.” 

In Colombia, calls across social media demand a change at President Iván Duque’s alma mater, Universidad Sergio Arboleda, named after a slaveholder, and officials in Cali are themselves proposing to relocate a statue of a conquistador from a public space to a reconciliation memorial.

The debate about these and other controversial statues is more of a “discussion about the present, not about the past,” said Grinberg. “Monuments and memorials are a way of punctuating particular histories— when people engage with them, they open up important conversations,” said Katherine Hite, a professor of political science at Vassar College who focuses on the politics of memory.

This is an interesting 2018 story about how this has played out in Mexico with a statue of Hernan Cortes in Mexico City. Of course, Mexico’s big famous writers like Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes were all about it. In any case, these issues of what history means to us today are not just a debate within the United States.

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