Ernest Guilbert, “Monument to Columbus in Santo Domingo” (1887) bronze and granite (photo 2017 by Mario Duran-Ortiz, courtesy Flickr)

It has been roughly two years since racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd launched a worldwide push for the removal of monuments to human traffickers, Confederate generals, Spanish conquistadors and, overwhelmingly, Christopher Columbus. This decolonizing wave has spread across many parts of Latin America. However, on the island today shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where Columbus first landed in 1492, there is a monument to the admiral in the capital city of Santo Domingo that has managed to dodge serious scrutiny. Powerful origin stories are the reason why.

Santo Domingo is a unique case. Columbus not only got his fame from his exploits on the island, but his remains allegedly lie inside a sarcophagus at the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo. In addition, the monument was inaugurated on February 27, 1887, 43 years to the day of the country’s independence from Haiti. This especially marked the sailor as a symbol of sovereignty for the new nation. These powerful origin stories imbricating the life of Columbus with the nation’s foundational tales are the ones preventing a popular consensus on the fate of the monument. To displace the bronze statue would be to destabilize the very idea of nation and surrender the coveted allure of primacy in the Americas.

Institutional inaction stems from the very real possibility of losing some of the goodwill capital that comes from tracing a genealogy to White Europe. Inaction is also supported by the tragedy of colonial trauma which disarticulated Afro-Indigenous solidarities. To bring up Columbus is to dredge up the trauma associated to the Taíno extinction debate. An entrenched colorism constructed Taíno lineage as a step closer to whiteness. This created animosity in a territory where people of African descent made up the largest demography since the middle of the 16th century. This tension separates constituencies who ought to form a united front against Columbian monumentalizing, regardless of their ethnic identities.

But decolonization is not one size fits all, and any long-lasting solution needs to grapple with the situation on the ground. The Caribbean, with its vastly diverse but also deeply entangled Spanish, French, Dutch, and English colonial histories, is a region that relies on service-oriented industries. Nowhere has Columbus contributed more to that industry than in the Dominican Republic. His footsteps have long generated revenue from tourist visits to World Heritage Sites like the palace of his son, Diego. Monies from these activities may not trickle down systematically to everyday people, but they do dynamize the economy.

Decentering Columbus’s perspective from the narration of the colonial encounter is possible and viable. Many forget that his monument was largely created as an anticolonial and anti-Spanish expression. But choosing meaningful, representative s/heroes that inspire local pride today will not destroy diplomatic relations with Spain. It would simply cast them anew. This is what pan-Caribbean leaders like Gregorio Luperón and Ramón Emeterio Betances did in the 19th century when they jumped on the Columbus bandwagon: They capitalized on the drama that had unfolded in their own region. As calls intensify around the globe to reframe imperial histories across institutional platforms, disengaged leadership risks losing step with an emboldened generation that came of age through strong island-diaspora affinities. Fighting to keep alive a discourse that died in 1992 is to attempt to plough the sea.

Artists such as Firelei Báez, Joiri Minaya, and La Vaughn Belle are working to disarticulate the narrative of discovery, settlement, and civilization that capitalist powers perfected in the Caribbean. They expose historical erasures, finding creative ways to make the voiceless speak from the depths of archives and preparing the ground to heal colonial trauma. Minaya’s “Encubrimiento”(2021) shrouded the Columbus monument in Santo Domingo with a fabric she designed featuring Afro-Indigenous ethnobotanicals, recouping ancestral forms of resistance. Báez’s installation, “To breath full and free …” (2021), engages the ruin as a space rife for plotting origin stories, modeling chronologies for the historical imagination that honor fragments.

Toppling a monument will achieve little if authorities or the culture around it are invested in supporting what it stands for. The monument might be replaced immediately, as happened with the Ponce de León statue in San Juan. But art can begin chipping away at the supporting armature. Making people become aware of long-held assumptions can lead to fundamental change. These would include vanishing the notion of “discovery” from school textbooks, updating colonial museum displays and labels to reflect new reckonings, and helping island and diaspora academics connect research agendas.  

Héctor Julio Páride Bernabó (aka Carybé), “Discovery and Settlement of the West” (1963) Miami International Airport (photo Jennifer Baez/Hyperallergic)

The word “invasion” has been swiftly embraced to describe Russia’s military conflict in Ukraine, yet its adoption to describe one of the most consequential invasions in the history of modern humanity, that of the so-called New World, is still being debated. Fantasies of discovery like the Westward Expansion in the US deck the halls of airports, libraries, post offices, universities, and public plazas all over the global North. Greeting visitors, these fantasies perpetuate the idea that White invaders bring civilization. Artists destabilize these fantasies, opening up dialogue, but they now need the help of national governments. The island where it all began, which served as the Spaniards’ first and only home base of operations in the Americas for 15 years, can certainly help the world chart new paths forward.

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Jennifer Baez

Jennifer Baez is an art historian specializing in the African diaspora in colonial Latin America. She is assistant professor of Latin American art history at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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