Men Made of Marble

Ah, the drive of nationalism. How deep it settles in, how it eats away at any attempt to empathize by imposing itself with its always justified right to insult, indignation and snap responses. All its apparatus of statues, busts and monuments that, in everyday life, have no significance beyond decorating the urban landscape, provoke the most conflicting passions. Monuments go unnoticed most of the time and become visible and present only when some stain, some alleged opprobrium falls on them. This is what happened when the image of the statue of Martí placed at the entrance of the cultural center of the same name in Mexico City started to trend on the networks. The feminist march walked past it and left it with the purple splotches that are left covering all the streets after the march ends.

Then the monument worshippers intervened with uncontainable fury: “Martí is our symbol, how dare they.” In such an event, the equivalence between the representative and the represented becomes absolute: Martí becomes his statue. Any damage to the statue is perceived as if it had been done to Martí himself, or to his memory, which is Martí himself. The graffiti on the José Martí’s monument unleashed one of those animistic episodes that only the most rancid nationalism provokes when its foundational fables are called into question.

Putting a momentary parenthesis in the initial annoyance and reaction, some asked why Martí had been the object of feminist rage in Mexico City. Thanks to the question—questions are always more fruitful than positions tend to be—some of the reactions could be channeled. Perhaps it is that moment of temporary halt of discomfort that can open the way to understanding and empathy, so it is worth recovering some of the arguments.

In Mexico, for some years now, it has become very clear that the complaints of women against the State for the very serious situation of gender violence has morphed into a discussion about the importance of public images (statues and monuments) as opposed to the importance of the real bodies of women victims of such violence. Monuments are defended by a part of the population that considers them untouchable in their sacredness, artificial bodies, but no less real for that, which must be protected from any attack because they carry the burden of history. History is perceived there as the “real thing,” without considering that, in general, what statues and monuments show is not the memory itself, but the reworking of memory in the service of the State narrative and its necessary association (and appropriation) with the nation and the homeland.

State forces then put up fences and sent policemen to prevent the rage displayed in the streets during the marches from reaching the statues. Feminists, and women in general, insist on the capital hypocrisy that becomes evident in this protection. It occurs in horrifying contrast with the impunity and the absence of concrete actions and measures to protect the bodies of murdered and attacked women. In the face of the selective deafness applied to the argument, the rage is then always redirected to those artificial bodies, real, yes, but real in how they show that a statue is more important than a woman.

All things considered then, Benito Juárez, El Ángel de la Independencia or José Martí are not very different. They are not throwing paint specifically at Martí. It is not an attack on the Cuban version of nationalism in the image of its hero. It is not a reflection with glitter on his 19th-century machismo. It is rather an action launched on monuments and statutes in reaction to the inability of the State to detach itself from the worshipping of artificial bodies in contrast to the necessary urgency of the attacked bodies that cry out for justice and solutions to the crisis.

And, in that sense, the rage against the monuments is also, by extension, the rage against the State itself, against the unfruitful adoration of its constituent narratives and against its ever-renewed capacity to determine which bodies are worth defending and which could be excluded. And it is no coincidence that those excludable and murderable bodies against which the monuments of nationalism stand impassively surrounded by the protection of the repressive bodies of the State are racialized, sexualized, impoverished bodies.

In the midst of this dispute, the fact that the statue of José Martí gets a little purple paint should not be a reason to feel offended and rekindle, with the fire of emotions, the loyalty to the metanarrative of the nation and the homeland. That Martí of Mexico City, at the exit of the subway at Hidalgo’s stop, lives daily serving a profane but necessary use, as much as his fertile and life-giving thought that, I suspect, would make him keep walking in the face of so much statuary patriotism. From that Martí hang, taut, the ropes that support the stalls where every day a group of local merchants sell food. Martí also inhabits the universe of tacos and quesadillas. And this daily inhabiting of his representation is also a possible image of the homeland. Because the homeland, whatever that is, is always somewhere else. In fact, it is probably so elsewhere that it is neither unique nor fully human.

That Martí dwells there, in the middle of everyday life in Mexico City; that he is reached by the rage of women who claim that their bodies are more valuable than all the statues and monuments and the fantasies that built them, also speaks of a Cuban homeland, which is nothing more than the geographically delimited version of a human homeland, just what Martí himself aimed at when he said “Homeland is humanity.” Our homeland would have to include the flag on the shoulders of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara bathing on the beach as much as the statue of Martí in the Hidalgo subway stop splotched with violet paint. If there is no space for all that, and the only thing left is the gesture of a blind offense that seeks to self-affirm itself, then no homeland is good for anything.

Hilda del Carmen Landrove Torres. Cuban researcher and cultural promoter. She has been involved for years in social and cultural entrepreneurship and more recently in academic research in anthropology. She is currently a PhD candidate in Mesoamerican Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.


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