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“We don’t want our children to grow up thinking that the exploitation and humiliation of our people is normal.”
Pável Uliánov Guzmán, spokesman for the Supreme Indigenous Council of Michoacán
With axes, hammers and ropes, a group of activists called by the Supreme Indigenous Council of Michoacán demolished part of the monument called Los Constructores (The Builders) on February 14. The sculpture represented two indigenous Purhépecha men doing forced labor, while two Spaniards supervised the construction of the aqueduct.
This action joins a global movement that has torn down and defaced monuments in dozens of cities around the world for the same reasons: to stop extolling the symbols of slavery and exploitation of indigenous peoples and to start writing a new history where opressed indigenous peoples claim their dignity.
Two of the four statues that made up the set of eight tons of bronze, made by the Morelian sculptor José Luis Padilla Retana, were cut from the monument and thrown away. Since May 21, 1995, the controversial monument has marked the beginning of the Aqueduct of the city of Morelia, capital of Michoacán.
The statues destroyed were that of Fray Antonio de San Miguel, who was bishop of Michoacán, and that of a Spanish architect known as Alarife.
The Supreme Indigenous Council of Michoacán (CSIM) is an organization made up of 65 communities from the four Purhépecha regions in one of Mexico’s most emblematic states. It makes its decisions through assemblies, as do most other indigenous groups throughout the region. In an exclusive interview for The Esperanza Project, Pável Uliánov Guzmán, spokesman for said Council, explained that several hearings were held to reach the decision to remove the monument, because a consensus was reached that the way in which the monument represented the indigenous workers being subjugated by white men was an offense to the native people.
Since September 2020, signatures were collected and a citizen consultation was held inSince September 2020, signatures were collected and a citizen consultation was held in Morelia and seven communities in the state so that people could vote for or against the decision to remove the monument. Most of the votes were in favor and the media started announcing that the monument was going to be relocated. There were forums and dialogue tables to decide the path to take to remove it.
The government even authorized it to be covered with a tarp to commemorate “Día de la Raza” on Oct. 12, 2021.
Raymundo Ortiz Martín del Campo, legal adviser to the CSIM, explained that the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) did not want to be held responsible for the costs of relocating the monument, arguing that it was not cultural heritage.
On the other hand, the work does not belong to the catalog of assets of the municipal, state or federal government since it was financed by a civil association that no longer exists; therefore, it was not clear who currently holds the rights to the sculpture, or who would be responsible for authorizing and covering the costs of its relocation.
Raymundo explained that the original intention was not to destroy it, but only to remove it from the public thoroughfare.
“It is not the same for a piece like this to be in a museum where people go to appreciate works of art, as for it to be a monument that can be found on the street. Monuments must have a normative, educational role,” he commented.
Despite the agreements and efforts that had been made for at least two years to remove the statue legally and peacefully, with the change of administration, all progress was lost. Time passed and the authorities did not show the slightest interest in resuming the agreements that had been reached, so the Supreme Indigenous Council decided to bring it down on their own.
Only the two figures representing the Spanish characters were removed, while the figures of the indigenous workers were kept intact.
“It was decided to preserve them out of respect for the true builders of the cities and monuments of our country, the indigenous people, who through forced labor and with much mistreatment and humiliation built the great constructions such as the Aqueduct. Hundreds of indigenous brothers perished in this type of work, so it was decided not to destroy that part of the monument,” explained Uliánov.
June 2022 marks the 500th anniversary of the invasion and conquest of Michoacán (1522); therefore, Uliánov Guzmán commented, “this year is a significant date, a good time to analyze and discuss historical monuments and their meaning.”
Feb. 14, 1530, marked the death of the last Purhépecha ruler, Tangáxoan Tzíntzicha, so it was decided that the way to commemorate him would be to carry out this symbolic act.
The recent events made international news, but few commentators noted that this was not the first time that a monument has been demolished in Morelia. In 1992, to commemorate 500 years of the conquest and colonization of America, in a demonstration organized by the Michoacan Civic Front in which the same communities and organizations of the Purhépecha Nation participated, a statue of Antonio de Mendoza, the founder of Valladolid (today Morelia) and the first Viceroy of New Spain, was destroyed. However, the municipal government restored it and put it back in the same place, at the intersection of Morelos Norte Avenue and Del Trabajo Street in front of the Morelia House of Culture.
According to an article published on Changoonga.com, “That was not the only sculpture that fell on Oct. 12 (1992). In Chiapas, a group of indigenous people had demolished the effigy of Diego de Mazariegos, the Spanish founder of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Organizers of the two events did not have any dialogue nor were they aware of the existence of the other. They were simply two indigenous ethnic groups that unloaded the anger accumulated by five hundred years of marginalization.”
The demolition of the statues of the Spaniards was carried out in a demonstration where the community members lit fires in the four directions to honor their ancestors, and the call of Arenga, the traditional Purhépecha war cry, was made.
During the demonstration there were no problems, but at the end, when the indigenous activists were leaving the city, they were arrested. Pável Uliánov recounted that “twenty-four community members were arrested, as well as three students and three minors. It was a totally arbitrary detention; the comrades were beaten and humiliated; doctors from indigenous communities have the proof. Due process was not respected, the colleagues were photographed and the photographs were published without authorization. Nor did they have legal advice in a timely manner.”
The CSIM took on the task of carrying out several high-profile mobilizations to request the prisoners’ release. Six highways and the railway tracks were taken over and blocked. As a result of these mobilizations, the activists were released, but as a condition of their release they were forced to sign an incomplete document, where they promised to pay the damages.
The Supreme Indigenous Council is supporting these citizens legally, politically and socially and they are taking full responsibility for the damage.
Uliánov Guzmán explained that even the valuation of the damage done to the monument has been full of irregularities. Not even the authorities are clear what the cost of repairing the damage would be. They have quoted a fine that can vary between 80,000 up to 800,000 pesos. “But we are definitely not willing to pay for the removal of a monument that had already been agreed that the city had to remove.”
A permanent general assembly is being held at the CSIM to decide what will be the way to proceed to get the charges dropped. More mobilizations are planned in the city of Morelia to put pressure on the government, although Pável Uliánov commented that the municipal authorities are already opening up to dialogue.
“Public space belongs to everyone,” said Uliánov. “Morelia is the capital of both the Morelians and the indigenous communities that make up Michoacán. This action is a vindication of the historical discourse. We do not want our children and people who come from other communities to see indigenous exploitation as a normal thing.”
Special thanks to Raymundo Ortiz, Pável Uliánov, Xana Zamudio, Enrique Castro, Carmen Hernández and El Sol de Morelia for the information and photographic support for this article.