The world is full of rocky homages to bankers, politicians, lawyers, soccer players, priests and other public figures. In 451 days of travelling I’ve encountered an immense amount of statues that commemorate these (predefined) heroes of our society. After recently spending four months in South America, I have seen more than fifty versions of Simón Bolivar, the liberator of the continent in the nineteenth century.

Although I’ve seen plenty of Bolivar and other equivalent figures around the world, there is a statue that has petrified in my mind. This is the statue of Juan Maspalomas, whom you probably know nothing about. This sculpture stayed in my mind given its unfortunate exceptionality, its almost unique representation of a gigantic issue. Juan Maspalomas was a working-class man, a neighbour of one of Bogotá’s poorest neighbourhoods, encapsulated in the southern hills of the city’s adjacent mountains, an illegal and constantly developed puddle of brick houses.

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Juan Maspalomas was just another number lost in the ten million metropolis until one day he decided to help a woman in the supermarket next to his house. It was late in the evening, and the store was practically empty. He was filling the basket with the weekly groceries, pasta here, tomato sauce there… he crossed the stands and made a turn towards the dairy stand in the corner. He saw two men and a woman, he also quickly perceived the fear in her face. One man was strongly grabbing her by the arms, she was trying to kick the other one, who was covering her mouth and telling her why she didn’t like some manly appreciation, mamasita. While the second man was slowly stroking the woman’s side, towards her bottom, he shouted at them.

The two men didn’t react, they ignored his presence. He stood still, saw how the man was now touching the woman’s ass. He stirred at the sight of the abuse. He left his basket on the floor and hurried towards the men. Now, the aggressor payed attention. He turned, rage in his face, and barked at him.

– Porque te metes donde no te llaman maricón?

– Deje a la señorita en paz, por favor.

The man moved very fast, and he suddenly felt a train running over his head. The punch landed like if he was teleported to the middle of the ring against Rodrigo Valdéz. He was in the floor still dazed, so he could only hear the rushed steps, the shouting and an aggressive voice in the background.

–… ¡perra te vas a enterar como te vuelva a encontrar por la calle, ¡coya! ¡Buscona de mierda!

– Y tu hijueputa, ¿te gusta ayudar a estas bandidas? ¡Vas a ver ahora pendejo!

The first kick he felt, the pain instantly travelling from his head to his stomach. He coughed blood, breathless and confused. The aggressor didn’t stop there, his eyes out of orbit and filled with rage. The other man was standing with a hand in his face, feeling the strong slap that the escaping victim gave him in the previous moment of confusion. He spoke the last words Juan could understand.

– Para huevón, lo vas a matar. ¡Lo vas a matar culiao!

– ¿Y ahora qué, quieres ser el héroe todavía, eh? 

The two men left running, observing that the cashier was not standing at the entrance desk, leaving Juan’s body on the floor and having only taken on their way out a bag of chips, a beer six-pack and a human life. The policed filled the report after talking to the terrified young woman who was found sobbing under the desk, too afraid of doing anything when she realized what was going on in her store. After a vague investigation, with no promising leads, the case was filed as another unresolved murder in the city of Bogotá. 

As things were, Juan would remain as another statistic, hidden in the 26.8 murder rate (out of every 100.000) that Usme had in 2017. Juan, 42, left no family and no memory.

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If Juan became an exception between representations of Simón Bolivar and other Colombian national heroes was because the victim survived and started a campaign to remember his anonymous saviour. In a country where women are still hugely relegated under the rule of men, Mariela slowly moved the neighbours in order to present a popular motion in the city hall. First she talked to her female friends in the ten storey building where she lived, then to the parents of the school where her two daughters studied. Patiently, after a couple of months of receiving rather timid supports and threats from certain empty-heads, she gathered 2.500 signatures that backed her unique idea.

Followed by a group of less than 25 neighbours, Mariela stood up in a chair and, shouting with conviction and dignity, read her motion to the curious listeners that were passing by that morning in Parque Principal de Usme, next to the local town hall where she would later deposit the document. Here’s what Mariela shared with her fellow citizens:

Estimado señor alcalde,

Last year, in November, I became another victim of sexual abuse in the supermarket of calle 117b sur, just around the corner of my house. Two men decided that instead of buying their groceries they preferred to molest a defenceless woman. Nothing special, nothing new in our city nor in the times we’re living. They violently grabbed my arms, covered my mouth and proceeded to touch my body. You probably read about the case if you follow the local newspaper – something you probably do, for the sake of our barrio.

If my case is known is because a fellow citizen of ours came to my rescue. Juan Maspalomas stood up against the assaulters and told them to leave me be. As a result, he was brutally murdered and I, in the seconds of confusion, was able to escape the abuser’s grasp and run for my life and integrity.

When I read the news the next day, I realised what had happened back in the store, how that man had saved my life by giving his. I called the police, tried to give an accurate description of the facts, but in the end there was nothing they could do to identify those criminals. I was consumed in anger, tears and helplessness.

I could talk about the million problems that caused an incident like this, but after a month of mulling over the problem, I came with a different solution, a solution I want to present to you now.

I’m not a travelled person, I’ve barely visited more than three cities in our own country. I, as any other neighbour of Bogotá, I’ve been several times to the downtown area. Walking there after the incident, I realised something that had been there in plain sight all the time. If our nation was built and inspired by all those heroes we have standing tall in the middle of our plazas, immortalised in marble and stone for the rest of us to observe and venerate, why have I never seen a woman up in those places?

Let’s even forget about the underrepresentation of women for a moment. Why have I never seen a anonymous hero in those places? Why doesn’t Juan deserve to be there and project his tremendous values to our present and future society? Wouldn’t it be a nice message to send to immortalise the memory of an ordinary man who fought for women’s rights, saw us as equal people and gave his life to save another one?

If my daughters and the kids at their school come to this humble square and see the statue of Juan, learn about his story when reading the statue’s plaque, wouldn’t that send the right message for our future generations?

I don’t understand the point of having so many homages to our founding fathers, politicians and religious figures. It seems that we forgot that the success of us people, of humanity, resides in the smallest acts of any given individual.

I believe we have the responsibility to make a change. Juan saved my life and defended me and, in a broader sense, the rights we have as women. I don’t want to see another statue of Simón Bolívar if I don’t see first a statue risen here, in this modest neighbourhood, paying homage to our great Juan Maspalomas.

Muchas gracias por su tiempo y consideración,

Mariela Fernández

I’ve always thought: ‘Yes, I play basketball, but, what does this contribute to the world?’ The idea is to make this a better place, leave a legacy… People told me ‘you have done so many things in your career’, and I thought ‘but I only score basketballs’. I don’t build houses, don’t bake bread, don’t cure people… I play basketball and on top of that, women’s basketball. If I were at least Pau Gasol and had a global impact…

Laia Palau, Spanish international basketball player.

When I envisioned the statue of Juan Maspalomas I was reading an interview with Laia Palau, a veteran basketball player from Spain. I also had recently known about a case of sexual abuse in my hometown which affected someone I really care for. Being in Colombia, I felt far and unable to help, hurt by how these things happen on a daily basis and in every corner of the planet.

Maybe I was in front of a statue, I’m not sure, but this chain of events brought the figure of this sculpture to my mind, a way to express what I felt about this unfortunate situation. I asked myself, why so many political statues? Why so many Hail Marys to military, religious and sports people? What are these people really teaching us about life and values? I also looked at some astonishing numbers that speak from themselves: there are at least 170 statues of men in Barcelona, only 14 of women. The same happens in a bigger scale: in the UK there are only 158 statues of women out of 925; in the United States, only 394 out of 5.193.

I thought that having statues that represented and guarded the deeds of great women –clearly underrepresented in numbers–, social and human rights activist, feminists, homosexual and other minority collectives, would be a good idea to send a message to future generations. This is why I imagined Juan Maspalomas, a fiction character that I’m sure exists. As far as I know, no one has represented a man who fought for equality like this. Even worse, I’m not very confident in finding a female example either.

We should all be more concerned about sexual abuse and discrimination, and I believe we could improve things by starting to represent its standard bearers. Be it a statue or a park, a street name or a simple plaque, we should start giving voice to the memory of our contemporary heroes.