Spanish media and institutions have denounced the attack on a statue of Miguel de Cervantes in San Francisco, USA. The attack has been interpreted as an offense to the “Spanish Heritage”. We spoke with Nicholas R. Jones and Chad Leahy, two specialists in the Spanish Renaissance, about statues and black lives, the discrepancy of the Spanish heritage and the author of Don Quixote.
Codex Azcatitlán (mid-late 16th century), depicting the Spanish Armada in 1519, with Hernán Cortés and La Malinche leading the march towards the Aztec kingdom. Among the soldiers is a black man, most likely an enslaved African man.
During the Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States a few months ago, monuments to historical figures of the Spanish empire were attacked in several cities in California. This was the case with statues of Queen Isabella of Castile, Fray Junípero Serra and the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. The attacks caused a great deal of commotion in Spain. The Spanish newspaper ABC alone published two dozen articles on the subject. Some of them characterized protesters in a derogatory and misanthropic manner. Meanwhile, official institutions such as the Real Academia de la Historia (Royal Academy of History), the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the U.S. think tank The Hispanic Council condemned the attacks on the statues and on the “Spanish heritage” in the U.S. C&AL spoke with Nicholas R. Jones and Chad Leahy, both Spanish Renaissance specialists, about statues, Black Lives Matter, and the so-called “father of Spanish-language literature”.
C&AL: The author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) was not directly involved in the colonization of America or in the transatlantic trafficking of black people. Why do you think his statue was attacked during the Black Lives Matter protests?
Chad Leahy: The truth is, we don’t know the people who were behind these attacks. Some theories suspect that the perpetrators belong to the extreme right, seeing as Celtic crosses were found, as well as the word “bastard” on the statue of Cervantes, which, in this context, would have racist overtones against Hispanics. There are also eyewitnesses who claim that the Cervantes statue was already splashed with paint when the Black Lives Matter protesters arrived at the statue of the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra [1713-1784]. In other words, there is more than one interpretation. One possibility is that Cervantes’ statue was attacked because it is associated with the Spanish empire and its history of violence. Another explanation is that this is actually an act of anti-Hispanic racism in the United States.
C&AL: Official Spanish institutions expressed their concern about the “Spanish legacy” in the U.S. What legacy are they referring to?
Nicholas R. Jones: From my point of view, it is a legacy that upholds and privileges whiteness and excludes blackness. There is a very interesting chapter in the history of the Spanish empire, which complicates official historical versions, and that is the existence of black “conquistadores” (conquerors). What do we do with these sub-Saharan men who went to America as assistants to the Spanish conquistadors and participated in the genocide and occupation? These were men who went as slaves but who, in some cases, became campaign leaders and conquistadors in order to win their freedom. This is a part of history that is not talked about. Should we discuss black conquistadors in the same way we talk about Hernán Cortés or Francisco Pizarro? Should we remember and criticize them in the same way? These are questions that are never asked, because these men are simply not mentioned.
CL: This annihilation of the black heritage is not only characteristic in the general public, but also widely spread in academia. The truth is that the reaction in Spain to the attacks on Cervantes’ statue, reveal that very few people seem interested in understanding the current context in which we now read or discuss the symbols of the Spanish empire. It seems to matter little that black people in the United States are dying from asphyxiation and gunfire on a daily basis, and that the demonstrations we are witnessing are an expression of a valid demand for justice after centuries and centuries of racial violence. The irony perhaps is that, as critics, we value historicism when it comes to the Spanish Golden Age, but then we find it difficult to apply the same lense to the current context.
C&AL: Can the attack on the statue of Cervantes be justified as an attack on a “racist” figure? Who is the Cervantes that emerges when you read his work through the lense of racial relations?
NJ: On the very first pages of Don Quixote, we find a poem that pays homage to the renowned black poet and professor at the University of Granada, Juan Latino. In the first part of the novel, we also encounter the famous passage where Sancho Panza fantasizes about becoming a “slave-driver”, imagining himself as the governor of the island promised to him by Don Quixote. This fantasy is presented as a delusion, as a sign of Sancho’s madness. In other chapters of the novel we also find explicit dialogues about the suffering of the black slaves who were soldiers of the empire. And, beyond Don Quixote, in another of his novels El coloquio de los perros (The Dialogue of the Dogs) for example, Cervantes poses the question of who is more human; a dog or a black woman who wants to see and bring food to her beloved. Throughout Cervantes’ work there is a clear recognition of the existence of Spanish people and their experiences, including their habits and customs, as well as a critical look at slavery and racism.
C&AL: So, is Cervantes an anti-racist author?
NJ: I would say yes, he is an anti-racist author, especially when it comes to black people and black experiences. This is also the argument I propose in my book Staging Habla de Negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain.
CL: Without a doubt, Cervantes’ work, expresses a dissident position with respect to the hierarchies of his time, including racial hierarchies, even in spite of his commitment to imperial ideologies and his proud participation in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 [where a European military mission confronted the navy of the Ottoman Empire].
C&AL: In view of the current debates on historical monuments in the context of racism, what criteria do you think should be established when erecting or tearing down such monuments in the public space?
CL: Basically, both erecting monuments and tearing them down is always a reflection of the values and ideologies of a certain era. It is very important to recognize the historicity of the monument, both at the time it is erected and when it is dismantled. How many statues do we have of the Roman emperor Nero in 2020? None, because we no longer agree with the reasons that would have led to the erection of his statues in the past. Returning to the statue of Cervantes, I regard the paint splashing as an anomaly and not as a rule against his figure.
However, it is very telling how the reaction to the attack on his statue has revealed a whole discourse that once again monumentalizes the Spanish heritage to the detriment of black people, both of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the history of the Spanish empire and the work of Cervantes himself.
Nicholas Jones is an assistant professor of Spanish in the Department of Latin American Studies at Bucknell University, USA. His research focuses on the agency, subjectivity and performance of Afro-Dacian identities in early modernity on the Iberian Peninsula and Ibero-America. He is the author of Staging Habla de Negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain (2019).
Chad Leahy is an assistant professor of Spanish in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Denver. His research focuses on the work of Cervantes and Lope de Vega, as well as on material culture, book history and the relationship between Palestine and Spain in the early modern era on the Iberian Peninsula and in Latin America.
Catalina Arango Correa, who conducted this interview, holds a PhD in Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures from New York University. She works as a freelance author, editor and translator.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen