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OP-ED: Replacing Columbus, cultural heritage, and neoliberal modernity

  • Published at 10:48 pm October 17th, 2021
The statue of Christopher Columbus
File photo: Workers clean the statue of Italian explorer Cristobal Colon, also known as Christopher Columbus, surrounded by metal fencing during Columbus Day, or Day of the Race (Dia de la Raza), in remembrance of when Colon came to the Americas, in Mexico City, Mexico, October 12, 2020 Reuters

 And the hypocrisy that ties them together

“A replica of a mysterious pre-Hispanic sculpture of an Indigenous woman was chosen Tuesday to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus on Mexico City’s most prominent boulevard … The National Institute of Anthropology and History said at the time the statue was similar to depictions of a fertility goddess of the Huastec culture. But institute archeologists also said she may have been a member of the elite, or part of the governing class.” -- The Guardian

Mexico’s attempt to replace Columbus with the pre-Hispanic sculpture of an indigenous woman is a depiction of the end of colonialism -- at least, that’s what they are trying to portray with such an act. This is nothing but a pseudo-movement. 

Finance-led neo-liberal capitalism is a prominent characteristic of the Mexican economy. Capitalism has always been accompanied by colonial oppression, but it was under imperialism that this oppression assumed an unprecedented scale and intensity. 

Mexico is still living under the legacy of Spanish colonialism, which robbed native peoples of their resources and stifled their cultural practices and traditions. In response to a surge in the tourism industry, wealthy developers began privatizing ejidos. The Mayans of central Quintana Roo and their environment have undergone enormous transformations in recent years. 

Pressures not only from tourism development but also from land tenure changes and land speculation are beginning to create increased tensions within Mayan communities between people that want to continue the current system of “ejido,” or communal land tenure. 

Many feel pressure to sell their ejido rights to potentially offer land for development or for biodiversity conservation, especially in the communities around the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. These changes are putting enormous pressure on their resources, the forest, forest wildlife, their traditional agriculture, and are making them more dependent on government subsidies. It also has the effect of promoting migration to try and find one of the relatively few jobs that the tourism industry provides. 

Globalization is now a classy trend, a Louis Vuitton bag at the feet of poverty while looking back at the homeless with sympathy. Globalization is promoting an increasingly homogenized modern capitalist culture on the one hand and, at the same, time bringing together various civil society focused on women’s struggles, around notions of new forms of creativity, culture, ideas, alternative development, and alternative economies. 

Similarly, dispossession of indigenous property as a means of capital accumulation has become a primary trait of capitalism, only to then cover it up with indigenous human rights organizations as a form of ideology put forward to give off the idea that “we care.” 

The ideas of the ruling class are always the ruling ideas. Hence, replacing such a sculpture doesn’t preserve heritage but actually hides what goes on underneath. In a country where the indigenous people are living below the poverty line, going through unbearable sufferings on their own lands, a sculpture is structured to protect their identity. 

I fear that one day there will be no indigenous peoples, merely their paintings hanging from the walls of a luxurious tourist hotel. Neoliberal modernity first dispossesses then creates a cultural heritage. 

Nree Raha Adrija is a freelance contributor and a Marxist activist.

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