On the Vandalism of a Monument

Today is the anniversary of the capture of Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, by Hernán Cortés in 1521. With the capture of their capital, the rule of the Aztecs finally came to an end, and for the next three hundred years Mexico was a colony of the Spanish Crown. Some may debate the assertion, but at the very least in its long-term effects it is not an exaggeration to state that this is one of the seminal events of world history.

It is not the purpose of this blog post to engage in debate over the actions of the parties involved in the battle for control of Mexico. Those interested in reading a first-hand account of these events would do well to read the very interesting book “The Conquest of New Spain” of Cortés’ companion Bernal Díaz which, while written from the perspective of a Spanish conquistador, is at least somewhat critical of Cortés. With regard to secondary sources, those seeking to find apologists for Spain, apologists for the Aztecs, and apologists for no one in particular, have a wealth of written material at their disposal.

What does concern me is what occurred in the town of Medellín, Spain, on Wednesday. A monument to Cortés, which stands in the center of the town square, close to his birthplace, was defaced by anonymous vandals early on Wednesday morning, by splashing red paint all over it. This occurred the day after the Spanish national soccer team, on a visit to Mexico City to play the Mexican national team, presented the World Cup Trophy to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patroness of Mexico, at a mass in the Basilica dedicated to her in Mexico City. An unusual display of old-fashioned Catholic piety and chivalric behavior, as well as a gesture of genuine respect and civilized friendship from Spain to Mexico in a highly-secularized and plebeian world, the presentation came about because Angel Maria Villar, President of the Royal Spanish Soccer Federation, made a promise to Our Lady when he visited her shrine in Mexico City last year, that if Spain would finally win the World Cup he would come to honor her favor and bring the trophy with him.

The unknown individuals who defaced the statue – referring to themselves as “anonymous citizens” – stated in pamphlets left at the scene that the statue was offensive because it depicted Cortés standing on the decapitated head of an indian. They further complained that the statue was a “fascist representation”. As usually occurs among proponents of the non-thinking Leftist mob variety, neither of these assertions are the case.

The statue does not show Cortés standing on the decapitated head of an indian. Rather, Cortés is standing on the head of a toppled Aztec idol, as indeed the Government of Mexico has pointed out, through a statement by its Ambassador in condemning the vandalism of the monument. Thus, the first argument of the vandals falls away.

Moreover, as usually happens when people bandy about terms they do not understand, one has to question the use of the term “fascist” with respect to the erection of this monument. From a purely chronological perspective, the monument to Cortés was erected in 1890; fascism only began to emerge as a serious political movement in reaction to World War I, a quarter of a century later. Even if one was to refer to the government of Spain under General Francisco Franco as fascist – at least in its early stages – that government only came into power in 1939, nearly fifty years after the monument to Cortés was inaugurated in Medellín. From the perspective of historical political theory at the time of the dedication of the statue, calling this monument “fascist” makes as much sense as calling it “Guelph”.

In addition, the design of this piece is in no way emblematic of what one could reasonably term a “fascist” aesthetic. Not unlike the art and architecture of the Soviet bloc, the public sculpture of Western fascist artists was typically severely linear, often attempting to evoke a secular humanist, severe neo-classicism. By no means can this complicated sculpture of the conquistador, in all of its late Victorian (admittedly pompous) detail, be considered artistically close in any sense to the fascist aesthetic.

What particularly troubles me is the destruction, in a 21st century representative democracy, of a work of art, whatever its merits or lack of them, for the purpose of making a political statement. Debating history is one thing; defacing history is something else. I may not care for Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, and what they did to thousands of English Catholics, including members of my own family. That fact does not, however, give me the right to march into the National Portrait Gallery in London and slash their portraits with a razor blade, or jackhammer their tombs to pieces.

If citizens of a particular place wish to debate the question of removal of a piece of public art, then any rational chimpanzee knows that the proper forum in which to do so is in the form of democratic debate, forum, or referendum. If some of the residents of the town of Medellín wish to have the monument to Cortés removed, then they should take steps to persuade their fellow citizens do so. In a free and democratic country however, those steps should not include childish acts of vandalism. What is particularly telling about this particular action is that its authors remained anonymous, as is typical of the cowardly who do not have the strength of their convictions.

As a final consideration, dear reader, I would defer to the words of Jaime Manuel del Arenal, the Mexican Ambassador to Madrid, which he made condemning the vandalism of this monument. In a statement he noted that while the history of relations between the Spanish and the Mexicans was often violent and painful, this fact was not a unique occurrence in world history. Moreover, without the coming together of the cultures of Spain and the indigenous peoples of Mexico, as Ambassador del Arenal pointed out, there would have been no emergence of “the proud and free civilization that we Mexicans are. We are the result of a universal epic.”

Defaced Monument to Hernán Cortés in Medellín, Spain