MEXICO CITY — Statues of Columbus are being toppled across the Americas, amid fierce debates over the region’s legacy of European conquest and colonialism.
Few have been more contentious than the replacement of a monument at the heart of Mexico’s capital, touching on some of the most intense disputes in the country’s current politics, including not just race and history, but also sex.
After prolonged debate, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum announced Tuesday that the Columbus statue that once gazed down on Mexico City’s main boulevard will be replaced with a precolonial Indigenous figure — notably, a woman.
Announced before Ms. Sheinbaum’s expected run for president in 2024, the new statue is widely seen as an attempt by the mayor, who is the first woman elected to lead North America’s largest city, to address — or exploit — the cultural tensions gripping the country, including the growing resistance by women to a male-dominated culture.
The new statue “represents the fight of women, particularly the Indigenous ones, in Mexican history,” she said in a news conference announcing the decision on the anniversary of Columbus’s first arrival in the Americas. “It’s a history of classism, of racism, that comes from the colony.”
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has gone further than his predecessors in denouncing the history of colonialism, celebrating Indigenous culture and presenting himself as the defender of the poor against the country’s conservative opposition and mostly European-descended elite.
He staged elaborate commemorations this year to honor the 500 years since the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, in today’s Mexico City, to Spanish invaders. He toured the country in recent months to apologize to Indigenous communities for colonial atrocities and has demanded similar atonement from the Spanish government.
But Mr. López Obrador has shown significantly less sensitivity to Mexico’s growing feminist movement.
In recent years, Mexican women have increasingly taken to the streets to demand government action against one of Latin America’s highest rates of domestic violence. At least 10 women and girls were murdered in Mexico on average every day last year, according to official government figures, and most of the crimes go unpunished.
This year, thousands of women turned out to protest in Mexico City, attacking ramparts outside the presidential residence with bats and blowtorches. Feminist protesters have also attacked colonial statues, seeing them as symbols of Mexico’s male hegemony.
Mr. López Obrador has minimized these protests, going so far as to call them an opposition ploy to destabilize his government. Last month, he claimed the feminist movement in Mexico was created only after he took office in 2018.
“They had become conservative feminists only to affect us, only for this purpose,” he said, applying to the feminists a word he often uses to deride his political opponents.
His disparaging remarks have presented a political challenge to his protégée and possible successor, Ms. Sheinbaum, who has tried to position herself as the leader of a more progressive, younger wing of the president’s left-leaning Morena party.
She has also drawn criticism from the feminist organizations by condemning violent attacks on public buildings in 2019.
“Violence is not fought with violence,” she said at the time.
The bronze statue of Columbus, erected in 1877 atop a pedestal in a traffic island, had been defaced by protesters in the past, and officials took it down last year, amid threats of further damage.
In its place will be a replica of a stone carving named “the Young Lady of Amajac,” which was discovered in January in the eastern state of Veracruz and dates to around the time of Columbus’s voyages, more than 550 years ago. The new figure will stand about 20 feet tall, three times the height of the original, now housed in the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City.
The choice of a statue of a woman to replace Columbus could appeal to feminists, while at the same time supporting the Indigenous rhetoric of Mr. López Obrador, said Valeria Moy, director of Center of Public Policy Research, a Mexican think tank.
“She is trying to satisfy everyone, especially her president,” Ms. Moy said. “From a political standpoint, the statue choice seems like a good decision.”
But not everyone was pleased, on either side of the cultural divide.
“They are focusing on the statue, without focusing on the rights of women who are alive,” said Fatima Gamboa, an activist with the Indigenous Lawyer Network, a Mexican advocacy group.
Ms. Gamboa, a member of the Maya Indigenous people, said a gesture celebrating Mexico’s Indigenous heritage did little to improve the precarious socioeconomic conditions and discrimination still suffered by many Indigenous women.
A conservative former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, said the monument to Columbus was a valuable piece of Mexico’s artistic and historical heritage, and disagreed with its substitution.
“To remove it, to mutilate it, is a crime,” he wrote on Twitter last month, when Mexico City’s government first announced plans to replace it with an Indigenous symbol. “In other words, they are robbing it from Mexico City, its residents and all Mexicans.”
The replacement of the statue reflects a broader debate across the Americas over the legacy of Columbus and other early European explorers, with many saying that their arrival led to destruction and exploitation.
In Guatemala this week, demonstrators tried to dismantle a statue of Columbus. In Colombia and Chile in recent years, protesters vandalized or toppled monuments commemorating Spanish conquerors like Sebastián de Belalcázar or Pedro de Valdivia. And in the United States last year, protesters in states like Minnesota, Massachusetts and Virginia damaged or tore down statues depicting Columbus after demonstrations against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted a re-examination of monuments.