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Pizarro Knocked From His Pedestal

A statue honoring the Spanish invader, which some deemed a tribute to a criminal, is removed from key square in Peru.

March 28, 2005|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

LIMA, Peru — If you stand at a certain spot inside the newest park in this capital city and crane your neck skyward, you might see two things: an imposing bronze statue of a conquistador astride a horse, and the wide wings of vultures circling high overhead.

The vultures are looking for carrion in the nearby River Rimac, a sad stream of urban flotsam where dogs die and trash rots. The statue honoring Francisco Pizarro, the 16th century conqueror of the Incas, just happens to be underneath their flight path.

The Pizarro statue used to occupy much nicer digs several blocks away in the city's central square, where it was a favorite snapshot for tourists -- but not for an architecture professor named Santiago Agurto Calvo.

"It took me nine years to get rid of Pizarro," proclaims Agurto, who campaigned to remove the statue from the plaza in a series of newspaper columns.

Until Agurto took notice, Pizarro and his steed stood proudly atop a tall pedestal in the northwest corner of the Plaza de Armas, a place of privilege many thought befitting the man who founded colonial Peru.

To the left of the helmeted conquistador were the grounds of the Government Palace. His horse galloped toward Lima's cathedral a hundred or so yards away, where the body of the real Pizarro is interred in a mural-covered pantheon.

But for Agurto, as for a growing number of Peruvians, Pizarro was a kind of war criminal. The Spaniard entered the land of the Inca in 1532, marched up into the Andes, captured the Inca leader Atahualpa and held him hostage, then forced his subjects to fill a room with gold as ransom. The Inca delivered, but Pizarro had Atahualpa killed anyway.

"For me it was offensive that Peruvians accept a statue to their victimizer in the most important site in the capital of the republic," Agurto says. "Every Indian who walked past there was being obliged to pay respects to the man who killed their great-grandfathers."

Agurto, an avuncular 83-year-old with a drooping white mustache and a fringe of white hair around his bald pate, gives the faintest of ironic smiles as he makes this statement. He is himself the descendant of a conquistador, Andres de Agurto, who arrived in Peru not long after Pizarro.

"I cannot deny my European heritage," he says. "I think we inherited more defects from our Spanish forefathers than virtues. Pizarro was like all the other conquistadors of the epoch. They were all disgraceful characters."

Pizarro has for centuries been seen as Peru's founding father, the man who first brought Western institutions to the Andes. But in modern Peru, with an indigenous and mixed-raced majority that is increasingly proud of its roots, the violence behind his feats are in the forefront.

Another thing Agurto had going in his favor in his campaign to move Pizarro was the sculpture's own convoluted history.

The figure in the statue is not really Pizarro at all -- the sculptor never intended to represent the conquistador -- but an anonymous European foot soldier. The horse, sword and helmet are all historically inaccurate.

Created by the sculptor Ramsey MacDonald, the "Pizarro" was one of three copies: The others reside in Wisconsin and in Spain. After MacDonald's death, his family tried to donate one to Mexico as a representation of the conquistador Hernan Cortes, but the Mexicans didn't want it. That copy ended up in Lima in 1934.

The Peruvian authorities originally placed the statue near the center of the plaza. But church officials objected that the horse's hindquarters were facing the cathedral. So Pizarro was moved to a newly constructed addition to the plaza.

And there the sculpture stood until November 2002, when an old acquaintance of Agurto's, Luis Castaneda Lossio, became the city's mayor. Several months later, Agurto says, he got a phone call one Saturday morning from a friend who lived near the plaza.

"Santiago, you won!" the friend said. "There's a tractor here knocking down Pizarro's statue."

"Caramba!" Agurto exclaimed. "I'll be right there."

Agurto arrived to find workers surrounding the statue with barriers. It turned out that they weren't taking down Pizarro.

The architect in charge of the site was one of Agurto's former students. She showed her old professor the plans for the site: Pizarro would be surrounded with flowers and three flags: those of Peru and of Lima, and a new flag, the Tahuantinsuyo, a symbol of indigenous pride.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"I think it's a terrible idea," Agurto said. Why not remove the statue altogether? The architect suggested Agurto tell that to the mayor, who was coming to visit the site later that morning.

"Santiago, what a pleasure to see you here!" Castaneda called out when he arrived. "What do you think of my project?"

"Terrible," Agurto answered. Castaneda seemed stunned. Agurto then launched into a speech, addressing the mayor, the architect and all the workers.

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