More than 100 people have signed a petition calling for the Hispanic Society of America (HSA) to disavow controversial comments made by Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the conservative president of the Community of Madrid, during a visit to its Manhattan headquarters two weeks ago.
While closed to the public for renovations, the HSA museum opened its doors to Díaz Ayuso for an interview with the Wall Street Journal while she was in New York as part of a US trip in September. After the interview, during a tour of the Sorolla Vision of Spain Gallery with around a dozen HSA representatives, Díaz Ayuso criticized anti-colonial movements that center the Native experience of the Spanish conquest as “revisionist, dangerous, and pernicious,” saying there is a “dangerous current of communism through indigenismo that constitutes an attack against Spain.”
Responding to Hyperallergic’s initial request for comment, HSA Director and CEO Guillaume Kientz said the institution “is not affiliated with Isabel Díaz Ayuso” and that her views “in no way represent or endorse the views shared by the museum and its mission.”
In a petition to HSA’s board of directors yesterday, María J. Feliciano, an art historian based in New York, and Simone Pinet, a professor of Spanish at Cornell University, say they are “aghast” that the organization hosted the far-right politician.
“We are even more disappointed at the way in which the HSA has failed to clearly, unequivocally, and unapologetically disavow her offensive manipulation of history and racist rhetoric,” Feliciano and Pinet write.
“It is not enough that the Hispanic Society has privately claimed to have been uninformed of the remarks, or that the Society supports other projects or other people who are of value to the Hispanic community,” they add later in the petition. “It is that as an institution you have yet to issue a statement to distance yourselves and effectively reject these remarks made in your building and, seemingly, at your invitation.”
The authors cite Díaz Ayuso and her administration’s track record of denying Indigenous experiences and perspectives “in the name of Spanish culture.” Regional Minister of Culture Marta Rivera de la Cruz recently censored the words “racism” and “restitution” from the wall texts for an exhibition of works by Peruvian artist Sandra Gamarra at Madrid’s Sala Alcalá 31. The show, a critical examination of Spain’s role in Latin America and the enduring impacts of colonialism, was also excluded from Hispanidad 2021, a festival organized by the Community of Madrid.
“The [HSA] has made immense efforts to serve its community through outreach and programming,” Feliciano said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Along comes Ms. Díaz Ayuso with a discourse that subsumes the national experience of its neighbors into a simple narrative of submission and derivation of a complex colonial project. Miss Díaz Ayuso’s discourse of ‘Hispanidad’ similarly has painful associations to its deployment by the fascist government of Francisco Franco as a spearhead of its cultural agenda.”
Elected in May of this year, Díaz Ayuso doubled support for the right-wing Popular Party, founded by politicians from the Franco regime. She has drawn ire from left-wing voters for her lenient approach to the pandemic and discriminatory rhetoric. In a speech at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, DC, last month, the conservative leader said Spain brought “civilization” to the Americas and called for a defense of “Hispanicity.”
“Díaz Ayuso’s insensitivity to the plight of Native Americans in her equation of ‘indegeneity’ and ‘Communism’ needs no explanation but begs serious and categorical rejection,” Feliciano told Hyperallergic.
“Many [of] the objects in the Hispanic’s collection attest to indigenous originality, resistance, and resilience in the face of the enormous cultural changes that brought us here, today,” she continued. “Institutional silence beyond a perfunctory salute to Indigenous People’s Day on social media stand incongruous to its mission.”
Feliciano and Pinet argue that HSA’s presence in Washington Heights, where 70% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, as well as its critical role as a research institution, necessitates a formal refutal of Díaz Ayuso’s declarations. Feliciano adds that the society shares its Audubon campus with Boricua College, an educational institution founded to serve the Puerto Rican community in the 1970s that has become invaluable to the neighborhood’s Spanish-speaking immigrant residents.
“I think that one of the implicit roles of the HSA is to channel the diversity of New York’s Hispanic history, in disseminating accurate and thoughtful information about the histories of those communities and cultures its collections represent — contemporary, indigenous, Caribbean, colonial, American, medieval, Spanish, early modern,” Pinet told Hyperallergic.
She was disappointed by HSA’s meek response to Díaz Ayuso’s remarks, what she views as a failure to speak up for the communities, cultures, and collections the institution represents.
“This silence made me think that the HSA is siding with Ms. Díaz Ayuso’s chilling version of history, with an idea of Hispanism I find unrecognizable,” Pinet added. “What does this say about NYC and how it recognizes and puts its Hispanic communities forward? What does it say about how Hispanic communities can feel represented in NYC’s artistic institutions and archives?”
Feliciano and Pinet both said HSA played an immense role in their academic lives, its collections and staff providing a wellspring of scholarly resources and inspiration.
“I want to see a place that I love and admire as much as I do the Hispanic Society flourish and thrive in our city,” Feliciano said. “The Hispanic is not a relic of a time past — that seemingly distant nineteenth-century of robber barons and European antiquities shopping tours. It is a living and breathing part of the cultural map of a city that holds treasures — artistic, documentary, bibliographic, musicological — of immense importance to the story of Iberian and Latin American societies.”
The Hispanic Society has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s most recent request for comment.