Builders of Morelia, institutionalized racism

Here in what many call Morelia, but we continue to know it as Uayangario, we are going to remove the scene of racism institutionalized when the city was called Valladolid.

By Raymundo Ortiz Martín del Campo
Photography: Wendy Rufino

I want to begin by clarifying that at this moment I am not interested in judging the life and work of the characters represented in the “Monument to the constructors of Morelia”, neither its artistic value nor the refined casting technique, nor the aesthetic scope of the work.

The issue is the scene that is represented: two European men stand up pointing their hands in command, while two indigenous people work, one breaking stone and the other carrying one. This last figure adopts the proper position to carry a stone held from his head. The position is clearly obedient as the head is tilted forward and his gaze is on the ground.

This scene could very well illustrate the history books to understand how during the colony a division of labor was established marked by a social caste system. Where skin color and lineages established what role each person played in society and what work you performed in the production chain.

By the way, one of the Europeans is a clergyman and dresses as if he were celebrating the most pompous liturgy and not as someone who assists to supervise a construction site. The other European dresses in the style of the 18th century Spaniards. The stonecutter may be castizo because of the thickness of his nose, but his straight hair reveals his strong indigenous component, dresses as a craftsman with a work apron. The last one, barely wears a blanket loincloth. The social strata of the new Spain, or at least part of them, are clearly represented. Without a doubt the whole is eloquent.

The problem is that the piece in question is called a “Monument”. And here we must reflect on why societies erect monuments. First, monuments are always placed in public spaces. They have a social purpose. Second, they correspond to the collective consciousness, to a set of knowledge and impressions that are shared by a society or a large part of it.

In the case of historical monuments, it has a “memory” load, they correspond to something that society wants to remember in the present and towards future generations or at least as far as it works symbolically. Here another question arises, how do you determine what that society wants to commemorate? Well, based on the values of society or at least of its dominant sectors.
In this way, a monument will be valid in a public space, as long as it represents the values of the society around it.

I must confess that when I came to live as a student in this city I believed that the sculptural composition had a role to denounce the pain and injustice with which such a beautiful city had been built, a reminder of the human condition that Victor Hugo saw, there mediating between what sublime and nefarious.

But it turns out that it bears the dignified title of “monument to the builders of Morelia.” Are they not supposed to represent the builders of Valladolid, the viceregal name of this city? As it turns out, the piece was built at the end of the 20th century when the name of the city was already dedicated to the priest José María Morelos. And here it is worth remembering the historians Marc Bloch and Jacques Le Goff, in their idea that History speaks more about the present than about the past. I mean that those who have put a scene of white men (one dressed as a clergyman) leading Indians, and with the name of Morelia, were not talking about the 18th century but about maintaining in this era of our history the values of social hierarchy of the colony that the most conservative groups in Mexican society still carry.

At the speed with which the aqueduct is traveled, the discourse is clear: the role of the people is to obey, work selflessly and wait for the orders of those who rule because of their superiority on the social scale.

The composition of the sculptural pieces in question does not allow any other semiotics.

And we would have to ask ourselves if in this year that I write this text, 2020, we still preserve the values of social hierarchy from the colonial era. Or even more if it is valid to keep and reproduce them. Unlike the independence movements of other countries, our independence arose by abolishing the caste system. And in this same city, Hidalgo prohibited slavery. That is the memory to which we have decided to make monuments. And since then, the struggle of the Mexican people has been for their constant emancipation and decolonization, of course, with the corresponding frictions with reactionary groups. My point is that the dominant values of today’s society are freedom and equality and not the vassalage and racism that are represented in the monument.

Now I must say that a monumental city does not need monuments to it. It is already a monument made up of a group of them. To honor the architects, their creations are already there. They do reflect the best of their time, but a racist regime of social and labor division was definitely the worst in the colony. We are not in the presence of Sor Juana or New Spain humanism; the scene commemorated in the “Monument to the builders of Morelia” is political and ideological domination in a racially divided society.

Three hundred years of that social division have left us dire consequences. Even in recent years, the professional destiny of an individual may depend on their skin color or whether they claim to be indigenous or not. If you speak their language, if you wear their dresses, if you are Indian, you will not be hired by a commercial chain or any company where they ask for “good presentation”, “you have to whiten yourself” to climb socially and you have to find a whiter partner to “improve race”. Indian, black, cocho, it’s still an insult. The pretty ones in the media and in advertising are blonde. In the countries to which Mexican television stations export their soap operas, they must think that this country is blond. The indigenous people are left with marginalization, migration, contempt and shame, being the symbol of backwardness for the infamous worshipers of progress.

If we want this situation to change, a good step is to remove from public spaces the images that make an apology for domination, a cult of servility. Racism represented as a constructive condition is what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil” and does not lead to anything good, but to the inversion of values to the extent that the bad seems good and the bad is reproduced without any criticism against.

In the United States monuments to the Confederates were demolished, in England the monument to a slave trader was demolished, in Chile the monument to a bloodthirsty conqueror went through the same fate. Here in what many call Morelia but we continue to know it by the name Uayangario, we are going to remove the scene of racism institutionalized when the city was called Valladolid. They can place the statue in a museum where visitors can observe the work of a good sculptor, and where they can learn who Bishop Fray Antonio de San Miguel was, his work in Valladolid, the conditions in which the indigenous people were forced to work and how the Viceregal regime was so unfair that your job depended on your color. Hopefully one day viewers will be so impressed that they will not believe that something so unfair was ever a reality.

¡Juchari Uinapikua!

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