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Several States Call For Removal Of Spanish Conquistador Statues


Statues mostly linked to slavery are being taken down in some parts of the country. But some protesters are tackling older history, looking at the Spanish conquest and its legacy of violence, theft, the erasing of Indigenous culture and forcible religious conversion. Statues of those conquistadors, like Ponce de Leon and Juan de Onate, have been defaced or taken down in several states, including New Mexico, California and Florida. This has fueled a larger debate within the Latino community over their colonial heritage and its place in modern America.

Louie Dean Valencia-Garcia joins me now. He's an assistant professor of digital history at Texas State, specializing in Spain and its global relationships.


LOUIE DEAN VALENCIA-GARCIA: Hi. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: First of all, help us understand - how did these statues get put up in the first place?

VALENCIA-GARCIA: Well, as the United States was changing its borders throughout the 19th century, the idea of who counted as American was changing. And so a lot of the colonial statues that we see of Christopher Columbus, of Isabel, of Ponce de Leon, all these people really comes from this idea that there were people that were not being accepted as Americans in the 19th century, and they tried to lay claim to that through these statues.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, there's also been pushback - right? - in the Hispanic and Latino community against taking these statues down. Recently, Cuban writer Fabiola Santiago in the Miami Herald wrote an op-ed titled "We Don't Need To Erase Florida's Spanish Heritage To Fight Modern-Day Racism." Can you explain a little bit about that argument?

VALENCIA-GARCIA: Yeah. I think that it's trying to think about what it is in our history that we want to celebrate. And I think one part of this is actually a representation of the lack of integration of Latino/Hispanic history in elementary and high school curriculums. So Latinos and Hispanic-identifying people are descendants of Indigenous and European people. They are of colonizers and of the colonized. And this is also true for many Black Americans.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But some of this really does go back to the larger tensions within the Latino community. You know, white Hispanics who come from Spain or have lineage to Spain might see these statues differently.

VALENCIA-GARCIA: And it's an opportunity for the Hispanic and Latino-identifying people in the United States to have these hard discussions about race that have been subsumed for centuries. We need to talk about what white supremacy is. We need to talk about colorism. We need to talk about all of this within our communities and be aware of where it's coming from.

So I don't think that this is a moment where we should hold steady to our statues. It's a moment that we can actually reflect a little bit more. A good metaphor would be, you might see a lot of statues in a Catholic church, right? But imagine if you were to see a statue to Satan and a statue to Judas Iscariot. No doubt, those two figures are important figures in the history of Christianity. But the figures that we put on to the pedestals are supposed to tell us something about our values. And I think anybody who would walk into a Christian church and see a statue of Judas Iscariot and of Satan would probably rightfully question the sort of ethics of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So to what extent do the arguments in support of keeping these monuments echo what we're hearing with those defending the Confederate monuments? And is there a link between movements on the far-right supporting the Confederate statues and those within the Hispanic community to maintain these monuments to Spanish colonialism?

VALENCIA-GARCIA: A lot of the far-right actors are using this language of reconquest to talk about taking back land, and that's prominent in, like, the statues of Isabel and Columbus. But these statues show more about us in our current moment or in the moment that they were put up than they actually show about the history itself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Louie Dean Valencia-Garcia is assistant professor of digital history at Texas State University.

Thank you very much.

VALENCIA-GARCIA: Thank you. I appreciate it Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.