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South Florida Grapples With Its Own Contested Monuments Of Spanish Conquistadors

A view of the Juan Ponce de Leon statue near the Torch of Friendship in downtown Miami days after it was vandalized during a Black Lives Matter protest on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.
A view of the Juan Ponce de Leon statue near the Torch of Friendship in downtown Miami days after it was vandalized during a Black Lives Matter protest on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Statues and monuments linked to slavery are being taken down — sometimes forcefully by protesters themselves — across the United States as people grapple with the painful history that they often memorialize.

South Florida shares Confederate street names and city names with other parts of the country, but not many Confederate monuments. What it does have is statues of Spanish and European conquistadors.

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Earlier this month, protesters in Miami vandalized the statues of Spanish conquistadors Christopher Columbus and Juan Ponce De Leon at Bayside Marketplace.

That demonstration has been part of a reignited discussion about what these statues signify and where they belong.

We gathered a panel of speakers to discuss how our history is reflected in these monuments and whether they should be taken down.

Dr. Andrea Queeley is an associate professor at Florida International University teaching anthropology and African and African diaspora studies. Dr. Dan Royles is an assistant professor at FIU focusing on the United States and African American history. And Dr. Paul George is a resident historian at HistoryMiami Museum.    

This excerpt of the conversation has been edited for clarity.

WLRN: What's the role that these monuments and statues play in our society? 

ROYLES: Statues and monuments build particular understandings of the past into our everyday landscape. And they do that in a way that conceals or subsumes the particular histories and power relationships that are behind them. They seem neutral, divorced from historical context. And so what we really need is a more critical, contextualized understanding of the past beyond what statues and monuments often can provide.

How did these statues of conquistadors end up here in South Florida?

GEORGE: We ended up that way because Columbus' landing site was within 50 to 100 miles of where we are right now. Juan Ponce De Leon may have touched down at Key Biscayne in 1513. But the reason they're there is because Miami had begun to position itself as a gateway to the Americas, at least as far back as the 30s. What happened in subsequent decades and again, leaning toward this idea of a gateway to the Americas, we would begin to put busts of Latin American and Caribbean leaders on little pedestals. And Bayfront Park, the Columbus statue, was dedicated on Columbus Day, 1953.  

There is the argument that these statues are a part of Florida’s Spanish heritage and the Latino community’s history- — that tearing them down isn’t going to help fight modern-day racism. What do you think about that argument?

ROYLES: The memorialization of conquistadores and Confederate monuments are not two separate issues. The history of Columbus in the United States is connected in important ways to that in the late 19th century, when new immigrants like Italians and Irish were able to lay claim to whiteness because when they arrived in the United States they were considered kind of off white or somewhere between black and white. And the celebration of the Columbus story and the Columbus myth was really part and parcel of the way that they wrote themselves into a white supremacist national history. At the same time, groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy were promulgating a false narrative about the causes of the Civil War. This is the idea of a very romantic Confederacy with the antebellum South. And we've absolutely romanticized our past with the conquistadors as well.

What should we do with these statues and monuments?

QUEELEY: I've thought about this question and what is the kind of society that I would envision that I would want to live in? What would they do? One of the obvious answers to that question is, of course, having them in museums, so they can actually be used as tools for education. I'm hoping that we're on the brink of some kind of process of truth and reconciliation nationally. And I wonder whether or not an actual burial of these statues would be appropriate in having some kind of ritual that would kind of signal that we are embarking upon a new chapter in this country.  

GEORGE: I think it's important that we don't totally destroy a statue because I think it's it's really a learning thing. We bring a lot of youngsters to the museum every year with our education department and I just think it's it's a good teaching experience. You can talk about the life of that person looking at both the good and the bad part. And I still think we're kind of like in the early stages of what to do with these things. I was kind of pushed when I saw the statue of that slave trader in England that was thrown into the sea. I would have rather have had it preserved somewhere with the proper description of his life and what he represented, much of which would have been negative.  

ROYLES: I want to be clear these should not be displayed in public in the way that they are now. What we can do is to leave the pedestals in place stripped of any celebration of and contextualize the empty place where the statue used to stand. I think that would be a really powerful testament to the kind of country that we want to be.

What about the argument that moving these statues would erase or change history?

QUEELEY: That idea represents something that other people are concerned about, that we have this dark past and so we're hiding it. And that's not what at all we're proposing, it's about the distinction between revering a particular individual and actually contextualizing them. So what is it that we're choosing to revere? This is not a "1984" scenario where we're reworking or rewriting the past. We're actually trying to move towards a more just and accurate depiction of historical realities. And in order to approach that, there has to be a more honest appraisal of the impact and a legacy that's being celebrated.

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