Spain expresses concern over toppling of historical statues in United States

The Foreign Ministry has told US authorities it is worried about the damage caused to figures like Christopher Columbus amid the anti-racism protests

A statue to Saint Junipero Serra was vandalized in San Francisco.
A statue to Saint Junipero Serra was vandalized in San Francisco.DAVID ZANDMAN (Reuters)

Spain’s Foreign Ministry has expressed its concern over the toppling of statues of Spanish historical figures in the United States. Hundreds of statues have been toppled, vandalized or officially removed in the US amid the protests over the killing of George Floyd, who died during arrest after a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nearly 10 minutes on May 25.

Most of these statues depicted Confederate leaders, but monuments to Christopher Columbus, who traveled to the New World under the patronage of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, and Friar Junípero Serra, a Spanish priest who led religious missions in the US, have also been targeted.

On Thursday, the Spanish Royal Academy of History (RAH) issued a statement “deploring” the attacks and reaffirming its “commitment to the knowledge of Spain’s actions in America, beyond the falsification, the distortion and the partisan manipulation.”

A statue of Christopher Columbus about to be removed from Wooster Square Park in New Haven, Connecticut.
A statue of Christopher Columbus about to be removed from Wooster Square Park in New Haven, Connecticut. GTRES

According to Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya, Spain has sent several diplomatic letters to address the issue, and sources from the ministry say the Spanish ambassador to the US has approached “federal, state and local authorities,” without mentioning which ones. “We have made them aware of the importance we award to this shared history with the United States, as shared as it is unknown,” said González Laya at a press conference on Wednesday.

The letters are not formal complaints, and the concerns have been “discreetly” communicated to US authorities, said González Laya.

The wave of anti-racism protest sparked by the death of George Floyd has opened a wider debate on historical symbols in the US. Amid this discussion, monuments to Hispanic figures as diverse as Columbus, Don Quijote author Miguel de Cervantes and the explorer Juan Ponce de León have been toppled or beheaded.

During the press conference, González Laya tried to draw a line between the fight against racism, arguing Spain “shares a lot with this movement,” and the attacks on statues of Spanish figures. The minister also announced that Spain will open a headquarters of the Cervantes Institute in Los Angeles before the end of the year.

“Unjustified attacks”

The Spanish Royal Academy of History on Thursday condemned the attacks against the monuments to Spanish figures, arguing that they were “not just against the memory of famous people,” but also against the history of Spain due to “lack of knowledge.”

“Only an anachronistic and decontextualized interpretation of historical events could explain the unjustified attacks against these monuments,” stated the release. The institution’s website offers biographies of several of these historical figures “to achieve a contextual vision of their careers and achievements that is different from the image of them that is being portrayed by some media and some groups.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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