Image above: The Benito Juárez Hemicycle monument, Mexico City, defaced by anti-gender-based violence protesters in 2019. Credit: Santiago
Until recently, statues of Christopher Columbus quietly watched over major cities of the world amongst other bronzed men and marble slave traders, including in Mexico City. Public monuments are now flashpoints for activist movements worldwide, including the anti-gender-based violence (anti-GBV) movement. In October of this year, the governor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, announced that a statue of the indigenous ‘Young Lady of Amajac’ would replace the statue of Christopher Columbus toppled 2 years ago by the anti-GBV movement, renewing debate surrounding the historical representation of women.
Protest and public monuments in Mexico
The anti-GBV movement in Mexico provides fertile ground for discussion; deemed ‘the most successful women’s and feminist movement in the history of Latin America’ by Associate Professor Edmé Domínguez, yet birthed from a patriarchal society with one of the highest rates of gender-based violence worldwide.
Originating in the #MeToo phenomenon, the movement reached boiling point during the student occupation of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in October of 2019 (ongoing to this day). Mass protests of hetero, trans and non-binary women subsequently erupted under the Ni Una Menos and Aequus collectives. Judith Butler describes the movement as “a realisation of a common social good and social bond, one that recognises that what is happening to one life…is also happening for others.” This collective approach provides an alternative to more individualistic modes of western feminism.
The most visible expression of the anti-GBV movement in Mexico is the defacing and dismantling of public monuments.
“the movement is anti-patriarchal and, in one aspect anti-capitalist, that’s why one of its forms of resistance is to intervene in these representations of historical figures and facts as forms of protest”.Prominent feminist collective Aequus
During the anti-rape glitter protests of 2019, slogans such as ‘the State doesn’t take care of me, my friends do’ were painted across Mexico City’s iconic Angel of Independence. This lasting imagery situates women in the public sphere, giving new meaning to spaces that previously celebrated masculine ideals of war and colonial rule.
In September of 2020, anti-GBV collectives Aequus, Okupa and Ni Una Menos took further radical action by occupying the National Human Rights Commission and converting the building into a shelter where over 100 women sought refuge. Activists painted over portraits of the all-male historical figures that adorned the Commission, highlighting the female human rights defenders who have been erased from history.
This form of radical visual activism has become so infamous that president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador erected a 3 metre metallic barrier, or “macho wall of shame”, around the presidential palace in nervous anticipation of the International Women’s day March this year. Aequus Collective contends “if the State does not guarantee the security, integrity and the life of women, we should not respect figures symbolic of the State”.
The most recent visual demonstration of the anti-GBV movement is the installation of a cardboard cut-out of a woman with a raised fist where a statue of Christopher Columbus was toppled two years ago. Activists renamed the site the ‘Glorieta de las Mujeres que Luchan’ (Women Who Fight Roundabout), painting the names of murdered women across its base. Aequus explains that “the demand not to commemorate anyone in particular is a way of expressing pain and rage in the face of violence, as well as a will to fight for the dead and disappeared.”
Whether the replacement of the cut-out with a replica of ‘the Young Lady of Amajac’ is genuinely progressive or purely performative remains heatedly debated in Mexico.
Statue toppling as a global phenomenon
Dating back to ancient Rome, the practice of ‘statue toppling’ forms part of ‘damnatio memoriae’ (the condemnation of memory) in which public figures were erased from official accounts. We are currently experiencing a global wave of statue toppling that intersects gender, class and race campaigns, such as the mass removal of confederate statues during the Black Lives Matter Movement. Modern activism distinguishes itself through this fixation on history, re-examining and rectifying what is remembered, by whom and for what purpose.
In October 2020 in La Paz, Bolivia, activists from the group Mujeres Creando clothed a statue of the Queen of Castile, financier of Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the Americas in 1492, in a traditional hat, aguayo and pollera (the traditional dress worn by Andean indigenous women, or ‘cholas’).
Indigenous women in Bolivia experience compounded discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnicity and class, with gender-based violence most pronounced in rural areas. Perpetrators of gender-based violence justify their crime by debasing indigenous women. Consequently, the transformation of the statue of the Queen of Castile into a chola serves to elevate the position of indigenous women in society, reflecting their active participation in business, education and politics.
Significance: statues as symbols or vehicles for change?
The question remains: is the dismantling of the old and rebuilding of new public monuments merely symbolic or can it engender genuine change? Professor Verity Platt defines statues as ‘ideological powerhouses: physical objects that compress whole systems of authority into bodies of bronze or marble’. Similarly, Perhamus and Joldersma (2020) argue that the toppling of statues is ‘more than symbolic destruction of representations, these ‘acts of takedown’ are concrete, physically manifested interruptions’ of the established order.
From this, we can understand the recent substitution of the statue of Christopher Columbus with the indigenous Young Lady of Armajac in Mexico as more than a passive reflection of feminist ideology, but rather, an active tool for countering machismo.
Gender-based violence knows no bounds of race or class. Judith Butler stresses that ‘violence seeks to secure the class of women as killable, dispensable; it is an attempt to define the very existence of women’s lives as something decided by men, as a masculine prerogative.’
Put simply, a man who respects women doesn’t kill them; what we need is a cultural revolution. Aequus explains that the violent and patriarchal culture in Mexico is “linked to the official version of Mexico’s history in which male historical figures and facts are elevated…due to the broad influence of the armed forces in different aspects of public life”. The anti-GBV movement in Mexico is changing its violent culture against women by tearing down the patriarchal ideology preserved in statues, monuments, portraits and public spaces, and we should be doing the same.
Sarah Easy is a human rights lawyer based in Mexico City and research assistant for the Australian Human Rights Institute. She has previously worked in the Human Rights Specialist Law Service and the Mental Health Advocacy Service at Legal Aid NSW. She has also worked in several NGOs across Mexico, Spain and Australia. She undertook her practical legal training at the Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS). Her work focuses on women’s rights and refugee and asylum seekers’ rights.