The penacho is ours | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today we start in Austria. Specifically, at the Vienna World Museum.
[Presenter]: Ein prominentes Beispiel für Feder arbeiten mit den Federn des Quetzalcoatl ist der Penacho der alte mexikanische Federn Kopfschmuck
[Daniel]: The audio you hear is from a video produced by the museum. A man is seen in a softly lit room, with a display case behind him. In that cabinet there is an object.
It is positioned at a slight inclination so that it can be better seen. It looks like a diadem, a hairband. The fabric is colorful—bright blue, green, red—with a lot of ornamentation. Gold. But what stands out the most are rows of enormous feathers. Multicolored. All standing straight. Some almost a meter long. In the light, the feathers seem to turn gradually from green to blue.
The presenter is talking about one of the most important objects in the museum’s collection. And perhaps the most famous: the headdress of Ancient Mexico. Or well, that’s how the museum currently presents it. It is better known as the Penacho de Moctezuma, emperor of the Mexica Empire.
[Presenter]: Früher gab es viele solcher Exemplare, [Fade under] aber diese Feder Kopfschmuck ist jetzt einzigartig, weil er der einzige ist, der uns erhalten geblieben ist.
[Daniel]: He says there used to be many objects like this, but it is the only one that has been preserved.
[Presenter]: Er ist über 500 Jahre
[Daniel]: The headdress has existed for more than 500 years, explains the presenter, and it has been in Austria since the late 16th century.
[Presenter]: … etwas, das für große Debatten sorgt.
[Daniel]: And at the end he adds, “A subject of intense debates.”
[Andrés Manuel López Obrador]: We are in a campaign to reclaim all the objects of art and culture that belong to Mexico and have been stolen from us.
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in February 2022, demanding the return of the headdress and other pre-colonial items to their country of origin.
This is not the first time this request has been made. In 1991, the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico made a formal request to Austria to return the object. They refused.
Then, 20 years later, the government tried to borrow it—yes, borrow it, not get it back—in exchange for Maximilian’s carriage, which is in Mexico, being exhibited in that European country. Maximilian was an Austrian Archduke appointed Emperor of Mexico in the 19th century by Napoleon the Third. And he was shot when a group of liberals led by Benito Juárez took control.
That proposal was also unsuccessful. In 2020 Mexico made another request. Like the previous proposals, it came to nothing. And according to López Obrador, relations with Austria have cooled since then…
[Journalist]: But are you in contact with the Austrians?
[Manuel López Obrador]: From then on there was a “healthy distance.”
[Daniel]: Yes. As the Austrian presenter said, this is a subject of “intense debates,” and things are not easy at all. We’ll get into all of that, but for now what you need to know is that it’s not just the Mexican government that’s asking for the piece back.
There are also Mexican citizens who have the same goal. This is the story of some of them. And how they infiltrated the Vienna World Museum in an attempt to bring the headdress back to Mexico.
Our editor Luis Fernando Vargas will tell us after the break.
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[Daniel]: I leave you with Luis Fernando.
[Luis Fernando Vargas]: They are two best friends.
[Yosu Arangüena]: My name is Yosu Arangüena. I am a 49-year-old Mexican publicist.
[Sebastián Arrechedera]: I am Sebastián Arrechedera. Everyone calls me El Pana. I am Venezuelan by birth and Mexican at heart.
[Luis Fernando]: They met in their 20s, when they were starting to work at an advertising agency.
[Sebastián]: A friendship was born there; we began to travel more and more, to go to advertising festivals, etc., etc., and we became super-good friends.
[Luis Fernando]: After a few years, they took different paths. Yosu started his own advertising agency in Mexico. Sebastián started working as a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles. But they remain close.
[Yosu]: One day we would do stand-up, another day we would do whatever crazy thing occurred to my Gordi. And here we are, going along on our way together.
[Luis Fernando]: Note: Gordi is how Yosu calls Sebastián, affectionately. So yes, they are always looking for things to do together, to eliminate the geographical distance that separates them.
A little over two years ago, Yosu went to visit Sebastián in California.
[Sebastián]: And one day, one night, after driving in a motor home through the desert, we were having a couple of whiskeys and suddenly we said… Hey…
[Yosu]: We started talking about the subject of the headdress.
[Luis Fernando]: Yosu had only just learned of the existence of the headdress in 2010, when he saw a replica in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico.
[Yosu]: The truth is, I’m ashamed to say that I found out so late in my life.
[Luis Fernando]: He thought that was the original piece. It was not until shortly after, thanks to a note in a newspaper, that he realized the real headdress was in Vienna.
[Yosu]: I wondered why is it in Austria. This was very strange to me. Austria, right?
[Luis Fernando]: Sebastián didn’t know much else, either. And in the middle of the Californian desert, with a whiskey in hand, they thought…
[Sebastián]: Wow, imagine if we did something and managed to bring the headdress back, right?
[Yosu]: Pretty much as a joke more than anything else. But we were left with the feeling of, hey here’s something interesting.
[Sebastián]: Suddenly we said, “We should carry out this idea, you know? Are we going to do it? Let’s do it.”
[Yosu]: Let’s do something very Mexican. Kind of like… more wit than budget, and more heart than technique.
[Luis Fernando]: They began to bounce ideas around in the days that followed. They thought of an app, but that did not seem to be transgressive enough. They thought of traveling to Vienna, entering the museum and pasting a postcard with a different version of the facts—that the headdress was looted and that the piece belongs to Mexico… they did not dwell on this too much, they didn’t find it attention-grabbing…
In their research trying to come up with something, they came across this man:
[Xokonoschtletl]: Xokonoschtletl Gómora.
[Sebastián]: He is a great Mexican activist who has spent his entire life trying to get the headdress returned.
[Xokonoschtletl]: Well, my fight started 40 years ago. A very long, uninterrupted time. And I have traveled more than 2 million kilometers.
[Luis Fernando]: We’ll come back to Yosu and Sebastián, but I want to stop and explain who Xokonoschtletl is. He is 71 years old, he is a traditional Aztec dancer, and has written 11 books: 3 in Spanish and 8 in German. Most of them are about the importance of the headdress returning to Mexico and the need to make a historical memory of the Conquest.
He has traveled to Vienna multiple times to hold sit-ins and lectures on the importance that the headdress has for his country, for his culture.
He has brought Mexican dancers to Europe to protest and raise awareness of his cause. He learned German in order to get his message across in Austria.
Xokonoschtletl also traveled 90 kilometers from his house to Tabasco to find a place where they would help him use Zoom to talk to me. Ninety kilometers there and back. This topic is not just important to him; it’s his life’s mission.
His struggle to bring the item back to his land began when he was 30 years old and realized that children in schools were not being told the whole story:
[Xokonoschtletl]: It is an official story, told by the winners, by the invaders, by the Spanish. It was a story, in quotes, written by them and made for them, not for us.
[Luis Fernando]: For those who are descendants of the original peoples of America.
[Xokonoschtletl]: We want to look like the gringos, we want to look like the French, the Italians, the Spanish, and we forget to want to look like what we are.
[Luis Fernando]: What Xokonoschtletl said reminds me of something I read several years ago. That all national identities have an enemy to define themselves. And that the enemies of Latin Americans are ourselves. I do not know if it’s true. It’s not my place to decide this matter. I didn’t ask him when we spoke, but I think Xokonoschtletl would agree with that idea.
[Xokonoschtletl]: After 500 years, we have been brainwashed. They have tried to take away everything related to our culture and they have wanted to make us into second- or third-class Spaniards.
[Luis Fernando]: His position is very rigid as to what is truly “Latin American” or “Mexican.” For him, what is ours is only what was here prior to the Conquest, without taking into account those 500 years in which the continent has been transformed by migrations, by social and political conflicts, by technology, and by the inherent change that the passage of time brings. Part of his life mission is to convey this to people through lectures and talks, but it’s like hitting a wall.
[Xokonoschtletl]: I try to explain our history to these Mexicans, and most do not understand it because they live in cities where they have very little contact with nature, where they see only cars, asphalt, houses.
[Luis Fernando]: Radical, yes. And I wonder if it is a discourse that many people from the Mexican indigenous peoples share. Things, as always, tend to be much more complex than black and white dichotomies, yes to this and no to that. And I think it’s important to emphasize this. This is Xokonoschtletl’s position, and of course there are people who support it, but it does not represent all of Mexico’s cultural diversity.
The truth is that understanding Xokonoschtletl’s position helps to understand how important the headdress is for him.
[Luis Fernando]: First of all: for him it is more than a headdress, more than a bunch of feathers on someone’s head for decoration. It’s a crown. And that difference, he says, is important.
[Xokonoschtletl]: This crown that we are talking about far exceeds any European crown, whether of a king or even an emperor. Because that crown represents for them only the political, the economic. Whereas our crown represents the spiritual; that is what makes it sacred.
[Luis Fernando]: Xokonoschtletl equates the importance of the crown with the importance for Catholics of the papal miter, the headpiece worn by the Pope during ceremonies.
[Xokonoschtletl]: To me, it is so sacred that I would not dare touch it.
[Luis Fernando]: And what gives it that sacred character are its feathers.
[Xokonoschtletl]: It was made from 400 feathers of the quetzal bird. Four hundred feathers. This bird is sacred.
[Luis Fernando]: For the Mayans and Aztecs, the quetzal was the god of the air. Its tail feathers were an allegory for the growth of plants.
However. That is the version of Xokonoschtletl. His truth. The official story is that we don’t know who the crown or headdress belonged to. And as the years progress, anthropologists who study it are more convinced that it didn’t belong to any emperor, but was possibly used by priests, because the rulers used to wear gold ornaments.
Another thing that is not known for sure is how it got to Europe. One of the most widespread theories is that it was a gift from Moctezuma to Hernán Cortés, the leader of the expedition that conquered Mexico in 1521. Later, the Spanish took the piece back to Europe and gave it to Carlos I of Spain and V of the Holy Roman Empire. There are people who believe that its being a gift makes the claim a little unfair. One thing that is known, according to the historical writings of the time, is that the Spanish, after obtaining the piece, captured Moctezuma and that he died of unexplained causes. And well, yes, that could certainly be called unfair, too.
So, apparently, the item moved to Vienna in the second half of the 17th century, where it appears in the art collection of Archduke Ferdinand II of Habsburg, who was a relative of Charles I. Later, it was moved several times because of wars and other circumstances, until in 1814 it returned to Vienna to be exhibited at the Lower Belvedere Palace.
Until that moment, the idea that the headdress belonged to Moctezuma himself did not exist. What’s more, for many years Europeans couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. It was not until the end of the 19th century that an American anthropologist, Zelia Nuttall, concluded that such a beautiful piece could only have been worn by the emperor. It was that arbitrary. This idea was repeated in the media and in academia, and Vienna’s museums advertised themselves as possessing a piece that belonged to the great leader. So it was for many years.
Xokonoschtletl is sure that the headdress is Moctezuma’s crown, and this makes it very important to him. He echoes Nuttal’s theory, that such a piece was not worn by just anyone. Xokonoschtletl is a person who has heard all his life that the object belonged to a character who is very relevant to his culture, a sacred character, and he makes it his life mission to have the piece returned where it belongs.
But hey, you may be wondering, why won’t Austria return the piece to Mexico?
I tried to get an interview with a museum representative, but so far I haven’t been able to get one. However, the video of the headdress that we heard at the beginning explains. This is Christian Schicklgruber, assistant director of the World Museum in Vienna:
[Christian Schicklgruber]: Sind Federn, die mehrere 100 Jahre alt sind und in der Zwischenzeit…
[Luis Fernando]: He says that because the feathers on the headdress date back several centuries, they are so dry and brittle that the slightest vibration would destroy them.
[Christian Schicklgruber]: Es hat umfangreiche Untersuchungen gegeben, einerseits…
[Luis Fernando]: And he explains that for two years, shared studies were done by restorers from the Vienna museum and Mexican conservators who made it clear that the headdress is too fragile to be transported. Xokonoschtletl does not believe it.
[Xokonoschtletl]: Is a fallacy, a lie, or rather, a pretext for not returning what is ours.
[Luis Fernando]: But let’s get back to Sebastián and Yosu. Both think that the justification given by the museum for not moving the piece is pretty much an excuse.
[Yosu]: We think that it can be moved, damn it, it can… They just sent a satellite 50 million kilometers away. I think a piece can be moved… I mean, the technology has changed, but it doesn’t matter anyway, because Mexicans don’t deserve to have it because it’s too tough to move it.
[Luis Fernando]: For Yosu, this is a condescending gesture. For him it is as if the museum were saying:
[Yosu]: “It is better off in our hands than in yours.” It is very arrogant to tell a culture that its things are better off there than here, and even if they were not, they are not theirs. It is not their decision.
If I burn down my house, it is my house.
[Luis Fernando]: Once they found the name of Xokonoschtletl, something awoke in them. An idea: bring the voice of this person inside the museum, but discreetly. Not with loudspeakers, but speaking to the visitors in their ear. That is, through the audio guides. Those devices that each visitor can use to have a guided tour without needing to be accompanied by a museum guide.
[Yosu]: When we got to the audio guide, we said, Yes, here’s something, here’s something because no one has touched the medium. That’s the part that moved me the most.
[Luis Fernando]: They decided this was the way to go: insert an audio by Xokonoschtletl into the museum’s audio guides. The how could be left for later. The important thing right then was to know if Xokonoschtletl was willing to participate. They contacted him through Facebook. It was Sebastián who wrote to him. They were afraid to sound stupid. He had no idea who they were. And they didn’t know if he would be suspicious.
But Xokonoschtletl was on board from the start.
[Xokonoschtletl]: I thought it was very good from the beginning, because it was an excellent idea.
[Daniel]: Now it was time to think about the logistics. But they were sure of one thing: they were going to make their position known to the World Museum in Vienna.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We are back with Radio Ambulante. Before the break, we heard the plans of two Mexicans and a Venezuelan-born Mexican at heart to infiltrate the World Museum in Vienna and claim its most valuable piece: the headdress of Ancient Mexico, better known as el Penacho de Moctezuma. Although the official version now says that it did not belong to him, but to a priest. Regardless of whose it was, Yosu, Sebastián and Xokonoschtletl believe that the museum’s version does not tell the whole story.
[Sebastián]: There is a version of the story that is told at the museum, which is much more superficial and exotic, for a public with a… from a point of view that is totally, almost, almost patriarchal, of who has the crown and at all costs avoiding any mention of the reality. And that is, it was the product of looting, right?
[Daniel]: It’s not that the museum refuses to talk about the Conquest. In fact, it’s there on the website and in the description of the piece. But it is true that there is no talk of the bloodbath it left behind. Vague, nebulous information is given. What it does say explicitly is that the headdress is the property of the Republic of Austria.
Anyway, Yosu and Sebastián devised a plan to introduce a speech by Xokonoschtletl into the museum without the authorities noticing—through the audio guides.
Luis Fernando continues the story.
[Luis Fernando]: Once Xokonoschtletl joined the operation, the next step was to create the audio that would be heard by the museum visitors. Xokonoschtletl wrote a text explaining what the piece means to the descendants of the Aztecs. They took him to a studio to record it. They happened to tell me that they were in the studio on August 13, 2021. The day that marked the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Mexica civilization. Then they edited it, with music.
[Xokonoschtletl guide]: This Aztec symbol is actually called Copilli Quetzaly in the Nahuatl language, which means precious royal crown. And it is for us, very important…
[Sebastián]: He talks about how it is made, what the feathers are that make it up. The cultural symbolism of each of those feathers.
[Xokonoschtletl guide]: The crown has 400 long feathers, a symbol of wisdom, power, eternity and infinity.
[Sebastián]: It was basically imbuing a whole meaning into an object that perhaps nowadays visitors weren’t even thinking it could have that much importance, right?
[Xokonoschtletl guide]: To Europeans, the headdress is beautiful, ancient, and mostly exotic. But for us, the Aztecs, this crown is the bearer of strength, power and wisdom of the sovereign Moctezuma, Xocoyotzin.
[Luis Fernando]: And most importantly, they make the claim directly.
[Xokonoschtletl guide]: That’s why we want it back. It must return to Mexico, where it belongs.
[Yosu]: We did not edit what he said, that is, we told him, “Look, we believe that you have to present the audio guide so that people will understand what is going on, because there in the museum it is going to say, ‘What is happening here?,’ right?”
[Luis Fernando]: They then translated the audio into English and German. What came next was getting archives of audio guides from the World Museum in Vienna, to create replicas. A Ukrainian friend put them in touch with someone in Vienna, who smuggled an audio guide out of the museum and transferred the contents to a computer. It’s easy; the audio guide works like a hard drive. It’s a matter of connecting to the computer and copying and pasting. Once the files were in her possession, she returned the device.
[Sebastián]: And obviously we took a picture of it to find out which audio guide the museum had.
[Luis Fernando Vargas]: In other words, the model of the device, in order to get the same ones. They searched the Internet for the producer of the audio guides. It was a Russian company. They bought 50 devices exactly the same as those in the Vienna museum. It was an arbitrary number. What fit in the budget they had. The thing is, this was an operation financed entirely by Yosu and Sebastián, that is, everything came from their own savings.
The idea was to import the 50 devices to Mexico, but due to customs issues, that was not possible. So they were sent to Austria. By that time several people in Vienna, friends of Yosu and Sebastián’s Ukrainian friend, were involved in the operation, helping the audio guide devices reach Austria safely.
With all this ready, Yosu and Sebastián took a plane to Vienna.
[Sebastián]: The audio guides were now ready and prepared to enter the museum with all the information exactly the same, except that audio 68, the audio of Xokonoschtletl Gómora was telling his truth.
[Yosu]: Each one of us took one, one audio guide, we kept it in our clothes, we entered the museum at different times and on different days, we asked for an audio guide, right? We paid for it, right? We never said we were Mexicans.
[Luis Fernando]: The truth is that Yosu, at least, was very scared of being caught.
[Yosu]: It was very scary. I am very, very prone to panic. Sebastián is much braver than me.
[Luis Fernando]: They went in. Walked around for a while, calmly.
[Yosu]: We pretended to be watching things and we recorded with hidden cameras, and then we would go into the bathroom.
[Luis Fernando]: In the bathroom they took out the audio guides they had bought, the ones with the modified audio.
[Yosu]: And fortunately for us and unfortunately for the museum, they have a very European system where one just leaves the audio guide in a basket, ¿right?, because we played a bit by ear.
[Luis Fernando]: They deposited the two audio guides, the one from the museum and theirs, in the exit basket. And they left. Fast. The idea was to create confusion, but not so much suspicion.
[Yosu]: For them to say, “What is going on? Why are there more audio guides? Oh, someone must have brought new ones.” Because if audio guides are missing, very soon the alarm would go off, right? They are stealing the audio guides, right?
[Luis Fernando]: But if they left more, that not only caused confusion but technically they were not stealing anything. It was the least risky option legally. The least likely to land them in jail.
And so they did the same for several days. Some days they left one, another day they didn’t go. And so on. Little by little, filling the museum with audio guides.
The Austrians who were helping them also brought in audio guides. The nerves of the first day were soon gone, upon seeing that it was actually very easy to bring in the new devices.
While in Vienna, Xokonoschtletl connected Sebastián and Yosu with two Austrian congresswomen. One of them is Petra Bayr.
[Petra Bayr]: I’m dealing with the issue not very intensive, but for 12 years or so.
[Luis Fernando]: She says that she has been working on the subject of the headdress for 12 years. Although she admits that not too intensely. At that first moment, the then-chair of the foreign relations commission had asked for a review of the possibility of returning the headdress to Mexico. So the legal ways to do so were discussed. But the technical review concluded that the crown could not be moved. Petra thinks it’s time to do a new investigation.
[Petra]: During these 12 years, a lot of technical development happened. So I simply ask to have another, another investigation of whether…
[Luis Fernando]: She says that in these 12 years technology has advanced a lot and asks that it simply be evaluated again to see if it is possible to transport it to Mexico.
Sebastián and Yosu made an appointment with Bayr and had her listen to Xokonoschtletl’s audio. Bayr told me that her perspective of the situation did not change much because she already thought that the piece should be in Mexico.
[Petra]: That was another proof that there are really people demanding for it and that there are people whom this piece is very has a lot of values for them.
[Luis Fernando]: That the audio was additional proof that there are people who are demanding that the piece return to its country of origin and for whom it has great value. It was another layer in their argument that the piece would be better off in Mexico than in Austria.
By the time of the meeting, Bayr had a motion prepared to present in Parliament. It would open the possibility of a discussion on the piece being transported to Mexico, and she told them that she was going to submit it. Sebastián and Yosu were excited, but not hopeful.
[Yosu]: The first thing I think or I thought—I said, “like with all the politicians in my country, nothing is ever going to happen”.
[Luis Fernando]: But within days, Bayr presented the motion. And it was discussed in April 2022.
[Petra]: It was a very, very intensive and very serious debate about it. But I didn’t expect, to be honest.
[Luis Fernando]: It was an intense debate, she says, and very serious. She didn’t expect it, to be honest.
[Petra]: The chair of the Committee for Culture made the suggestion that we should, on the one hand, invite people who are engaged in this case, and have a meeting at the museum…
[Luis Fernando]: The chair of the Culture Committee proposed that the case be discussed by bringing in different parties to a meeting at the World Museum in Vienna. The meeting will probably take place after the European summer, that is, after September 2022.
After three weeks in Vienna, Yosu, Sebastián, and the other collaborators managed to get 47 audio guides into the museum. After bringing them in, everything was out of their hands.
[Yosu]: We don’t know if two or ten thousand heard it.
[Luis Fernando]: They returned to Mexico and Los Angeles and immediately prepared to launch a campaign: a statement, a website and a petition on Change dot org to ask for the headdress to return to Mexico. The news would begin to circulate on February 10, 2022.
But three days before, on February 7…
[Sebastián]: Coincidentally, just when we are about to launch, or were launching, the video to the press, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico, comes out saying that the headdress must be returned, and that raises a big stir.
[López Obrador]: Because those who have the headdress, illegally, by the way… argue that they cannot move it, that they have done studies and that it would be damaged…
[Yosu]: I mean, we’ve been at this for two years and bad timing always hits.
[Luis Fernando]: But they went ahead with their plans. They released the statement and yes, there were media outlets that were interested in the intrusion, but they backed down when they suspected a relationship between them and the government.
[Sebastián]: So many people began to tell us that we are paid by the government, that we were part of a campaign. Well…
[Luis Fernando]: But they always made it clear to journalists that no, they had nothing to do with it.
[Yosu]: What’s more, the only people who have not contacted us throughout this adventure is the Mexican government.
[Luis Fernando]: He says this because, despite the fact that some media did not publish a note about it, the news of the intrusion quickly spread throughout Mexico and the world.
[Journalist]: In international news: two Mexicans hacked audios from the Vienna museum in protest to ask Austria to return Moctezuma’s headdress.
[Journalist]: A few weeks ago, they took on the task of doing something unprecedented, an intervention, and putting audio guides with the truth inside the Vienna Museum in Austria.
For its part, the World Museum in Vienna, which until then had remained silent, perhaps because it did not even know about the infiltration, responded very diplomatically.
[Sebastián]: The truth is that they did it very well. They said they thought it was an incredible action because they were totally in favor of polyphony.
[Luis Fernando]: The intrusion became so viral that even López Obrador continued to insist on the subject.
[López Obrador]: We must not close the file. We must continue insisting that they give us back our headdress and that they give us back everything that has been stolen, which belongs to the Mexicans.
[Luis Fernando]: The public responses were mixed. If you look, for example, at the comments on the Facebook post in the newspaper La Jornada—the first note that was posted—there is everything from support and admiration for Yosu and Sebastián, comments that say it can be better cared for in Vienna, to claims saying there are more important issues. I read one on Twitter that said, “No one cares about Moctezuma’s headdress.”
I have talked with Xokonoschtletl a few times, and I feel that such indifference is something he has experienced during his years of struggle.
[Xokonoschtletl]: Because these Mexicans do not understand what I am doing, they do not support, they do not help and they try to stop it. They often try to humiliate, they try to make fun of something they don’t really understand. And that makes me sad and frustrates me.
[Luis Fernando]: Sebastián visited Xokonoschtletl at his home in Tabasco before the museum was infiltrated. He says that his situation is very precarious. And this is a symptom of what’s wrong in Latin America, not only in Mexico: the exclusion of indigenous populations.
[Sebastián]: In other words, the issue of classism, almost of castes, and racism in Mexico. Well, it’s very clear that they see Xokonoschtletl and they say, “Ah, this guey, he’s just a crazy dancer.”
[Yosu]: What bothers me is when they say, “Oh, go to the Zócalo and put your caracoles on your feet and dance.” That is a very snobby comment. That’s what’s behind this, the “that’s a damn Indian thing,” that’s what they’re saying.
[Luis Fernando]: And for that reason, the return of the headdress to Mexico would be some kind of reparation.
[Sebastián]: That’s why we want this to come back. Symbolism is very important, isn’t it?
[Luis Fernando]: Not just for Xokonoschtletl, but for many Mexicans who identify as indigenous and who have been marginalized for centuries. And who care about their cultural heritage, and who see in this object something important from their ancestors.
[Luis Fernando]: As I said before, I didn’t manage to get an interview with the museum when I closed this story, but I did manage to get an official statement via email. Translated from English, it says:
“We see the artistic intervention that replaced the museum’s audio guides and gave an alternative recording about the ancient headdress of Mexico as an interesting contribution to the current discussion about the post-colonial legacy in ethnographic museums.”
And yes, it is a very important discussion at the moment. With each day that passes, criticism of the history of colonization, so full of violence, is weighing more and more on museums, generating pressure. So much so, that in May 2021 this happened:
[Presenter]: It is been called a game changer and the start of a new era. Germany has promised to begin returning the artifacts known as the Benin bronzes to Nigeria next year, making it the first country to do so.
[Luis Fernando]: “It has been called a change in the rules and the beginning of a new era,” says the journalist. And she clarifies that Germany announced that next year, it would return the bronzes from Benin to Nigeria. It is the first country to do something like this.
Scotland, England and France followed. All announced that they will also return the Benin bronzes in their possession. These pieces are scattered over more than 160 museums and many private collections. The Brooklyn Museum returned more than a thousand pieces to the National Museum of Costa Rica. And there are other cases like these, especially related to private collectors. Times are changing, and this gives hope to Yosu, Sebastián and, especially, to Xokonoschtletl, who is certain that the piece will return to its country of origin.
[Xokonoschtletl]: When this crown returns to our country, returns to Mexico, I am certain that now the people of Guatemala, the people of Peru, the people of Bolivia, the people of Chile will fight. And they will say, “The Mexicans did it. Now we are going to rescue our sacred lands, to rescue our origins.”
[Luis Fernando]: And maybe in those hypothetical cases there will be no need for artistic interventions that can get you into trouble. Just diplomacy and a revision of history.
[Daniel]: Yosu and Sebastián are preparing a documentary about the intervention at the World Museum in Vienna. Luis Fernando Vargas is editor of Radio Ambulante and lives in San José, Costa Rica.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura and me. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking.
Sound design and music are by Andrés Azpiri.
El resto del equipo de Radio Ambulante incluye a Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Bruno Scelza, David Trujillo, Ana Tuirán and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
Natalia Sánchez is our editorial intern.
Selene Mazón is our production intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
If you’re a podcaster interested in Hindenburg Pro, go to hindenburg.com/radioambulante and take a free 90-day trial.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.