HomeWorld NewsAn underground campaign is transforming the monuments of Mexico City

An underground campaign is transforming the monuments of Mexico City

MEXICO CITY — It’s been called one of the “world’s coolest streets.” Slicing through the capital, Paseo de la Reforma is a European-style gem, a leafy boulevard of graceful fountains and historic bronze statues.

It’s Mexico’s power corridor. The country’s main parade route. And a symbol of a city exploding with bike lanes, charming Airbnbs and Instagrammable meals.

But the 19th-century avenue has been swept up in a very 21st-century conflict, centered on questions familiar to people in the United States and Europe: Whom should a country’s statues honor? Who gets to write history? In the United States, that debate has focused on memorials to Confederate leaders, enslavers and Christopher Columbus. In Mexico, activists have lined Reforma with grim reminders of the extreme violence of recent decades.

The Angel of Independence, one of the best-known monuments on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. (Video: Luis Antonio Rojas, Patricio Martinez/The Washington Post)

These “anti-monuments” aren’t just a protest. Mexico’s leaders have long tried to control the historical narrative to legitimize their rule — from the Mexican-American War of the 1840s to the Revolution starting in 1910. Now, a movement of artists, grieving families and feminists is trying to wrest that narrative away.

Mexico’s fight over monuments began in the wake of a notorious case of police abuse. On the night of Sept. 26, 2014, officers detained 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college in southern Mexico as they headed to a demonstration. Then, the young men vanished.

Authorities said that the police were in league with a drug-trafficking group, which had “disappeared” the students. But independent investigators found that state and federal officials were involved in the crime, too — and they alleged a cover-up. As Mexico was rocked by its biggest protests in decades, a small group of activists decided to put a memorial in a place where the government couldn’t ignore it: Reforma.

The protesters formed a clandestine network — including architects, welders, engineers and construction workers. In a warehouse far outside Mexico City, they secretly fashioned a 1,870-pound sculpture. It was a giant 43, with a plus sign nodding to the growing number of people disappearing, allegedly at the hands of crime groups, the police and the military.

“We thought the story would end with the plus-43. That the government would take it down,” said one of the activists, who only gave his code name, Juan. But after the statue was installed in 2015, he said, “people began to claim it as their own.”

Protests on Reforma in 2023 by relatives and friends of the missing Ayotzinapa students, including Cristina Bautista (left) and a student at the school (right). (Video: Luis Antonio Rojas, Patricio Martinez/The Washington Post)

In the years since, activists have installed anti-monuments up and down Reforma, as well as in nearby plazas. The sculptures protest government repression, deaths blamed on bureaucratic or corporate indifference, pervasive violence against women in a machista culture.

Alexandra Délano, a scholar at the New School in New York, said activists “are trying to create a space where memory does not mean closure.” Instead, she said, “memory means continuous struggle.”

That’s true for Cristina Bautista, who often visits the plus-43 monument with other parents of the missing Ayotzinapa students. “Every month, we are there,” she said. “Demanding the government return our children alive.”

Reforma has long been Mexico’s national stage, the site of protests and celebrations — whether for a new president or the winner of a soccer championship. But for years, the avenue’s luster was dimmed by street crime, economic crises and the effects of the 1985 earthquake.

Lately, the Mexican capital has been experiencing a renaissance. Leftist city governments tamed the downtown crime. Mexico’s relaxed covid-19 protocols contributed to a boom in tourism. Now, on Sundays, Reforma is thrown open to bicyclists, runners and exercise classes. Glittering five-star hotels offer $250 tequila tastings and host Fashion Week. In 2021, Reforma made Time Out magazine’s list of the “world’s coolest streets.”

Paseo de la Reforma is thrown open on Sundays to cyclists and joggers – a sign of the renaissance of the capital city. (Video: Luis Antonio Rojas, Patricio Martinez/The Washington Post)

Music fills the air as people join weekly exercise classes on Reforma. (Video: Luis Antonio Rojas, Patricio Martinez/The Washington Post)

The contrast between the anti-monuments and Mexico City’s new vibe couldn’t be starker. The memorials are in-your-face reminders of institutional failure and widespread impunity. One statue, outside the Mexican Social Security Institute, recalls a 2009 blaze that ripped through one of its day-care centers, killing 49 children. Another, in front of the Stock Exchange, commemorates 65 workers buried by an explosion in 2006 at a coal mine owned by a major company, Grupo Mexico.

The activists behind the installations have mostly remained anonymous — to evade the police, to allow victims’ families to take center stage, to keep the government on edge. Authorities “don’t know when or how an anti-monument will appear,” Juan said.

In late 2020, George Floyd’s murder in police custody in Minneapolis sparked global protests against racial injustice, leading to the toppling of statues commemorating the Confederacy. As the targets spread to Spanish colonial icons — viewed as symbols of oppression of Indigenous peoples — Mexican authorities removed a statue of Christopher Columbus from a traffic circle on Reforma.

Months later, feminists and mothers of the disappeared joined veteran anti-monuments organizers in seizing the plaza. On top of the empty pedestal, they placed a silhouette of a girl with her fist raised. They painted the site with names of women who had battled for justice. They christened it the Plaza of the Women Who Fight.

The takeover was an open challenge to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who built his career on confronting the authoritarian, one-party state that dominated Mexico, and who had taken office in 2018 pledging to improve the lives of the poor and bring justice in disappearance cases.

Although authorities, for the most part, had left the anti-monuments alone, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum — López Obrador’s protégé and a hopeful in the 2024 presidential race — drew the line at the Columbus circle. City workers painted over the names on the anti-monument. The women repainted them. The city announced it would replace Columbus with a statue representing Indigenous women. The activists called it a distraction from their protest.

Ricardo Ruiz, a top city official, says demonstrators can’t simply rename plazas or replace monuments — no matter how legitimate their cause.

“In New York, if a group took over the Statue of Liberty and said it would become the statue of some movement, would the U.S. government allow it?” he asked.

As in the United States, the debate over memorials has divided Mexicans.

“They’re taking away so many of the beautiful things we have in Mexico,” said Genoveva Illescas, as she strolled down Reforma on a Sunday.

Alfredo Cruz, who had just finished a race on the avenue, defended the anti-monuments. “People should not allow the disappeared, the 43, the children, to be forgotten.” he said.

Cyclists on Reforma pass a traffic circle that’s been taken over by activists and re-named the Plaza of the Disappeared. (Video: Luis Antonio Rojas, Patricio Martinez/The Washington Post)

In May 2022, activists seized another traffic circle on Reforma, known as the Plaza of the Palm. They renamed it the Plaza of the Disappeared and plastered it with photos of their missing loved ones.

As López Obrador nears the end of his term, violence remains near record levels, with fresh reports of disappearances nearly every day. No one has been convicted in the Ayotzinapa case.

The anti-monuments have become a permanent j’accuse.

Politicians pass them on their way to work. Soldiers marching down Reforma in the annual military parade confront reminders of human rights abuses that the army was accused of having taken part in.

Authorities say they’re not trying to downplay the country’s violence; a memorial garden honoring victims was opened in 2013 in Mexico City’s main park, Chapultepec. But few people visit the out-of-the-way site. The activists want to keep the issue front and center.

Their demands go beyond a memorial, said Jorge Verástegui, a member of a group searching for the disappeared. “We are also confronting this monopoly of legitimacy that the president and his movement want.”

The government hasn’t agreed to cede the Plaza of the Disappeared. But last summer, after more than a year of legal skirmishes and protests, the city gave up its fight to put a new statue in the circle where Columbus once stood.

If you look for the site on Google Maps, it’s clear who has won this small battle over Mexican history. It’s now known as the Plaza of the Women Who Fight.

Lorena Ríos contributed to this report.

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