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New Mexico takes down statue of its conquistador
Statue called “La Jornada” in Albuquerque, N.M., which features Juan de Oņate, on the property of the Albuquerque Museum on June 15, 2020. The agitation against honoring Juan de Oņate reflects a tension that has long festered between Native Americans and Hispanics over Spain’s conquest of New Mexico more than four centuries ago. Adria Malcolm/The New York Times.

by Simon Romero

ALBUQUERQUE (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Authorities in New Mexico on Monday removed a statue of Juan de Oņate, the despotic conquistador of New Mexico, as anti-racism protests around the United States are evolving to target symbols of colonial atrocities.

The removal of the Oņate statue in Alcalde in northern New Mexico came amid a flurry of other actions aiming to topple monuments to Oņate, who became the province of New Mexico’s brutal colonial governor in 1598, putting into motion centuries of Spanish rule in the region.

A protest against another Oņate statue, in Albuquerque, was scheduled for Monday night. Protesters recently sprayed the words “your God is not my God” on a colossal Oņate statue in El Paso.

The agitation against honoring Oņate reflects a tension that has long festered between Native Americans and Hispanics over Spain’s conquest more than four centuries ago, with protests this year over police violence unleashing a broader questioning of race relations in this part of the West.

Oņate’s period as governor was marked by a violent repression considered severe even by the standards of his time. He killed 800 indigenous people in Acoma Pueblo and ordered his men to cut off the foot of at least 24 male captives. Spanish authorities convicted him on charges of excessive violence and cruelty, permanently exiling him from New Mexico.

Maurus Chino, 66, an Acoma artist, said he welcomed the efforts to take down the statues. But Chino said that in his view, removing the monuments did not go far enough.

“Melt them down and recast them as commemorative pieces,” said Chino, adding that doing so could help draw attention to crucial junctures in New Mexico history, such as the 1680 uprising that figured among the most successful indigenous rebellions against the Spanish empire anywhere in the Americas.

The statue in Alcalde that was removed on Monday gained notoriety decades ago when the right foot of the statue was cut off in a secretive act of protest. Since then, that act has resonated widely in New Mexico as a symbol of indigenous resistance.

Some Hispanic leaders in New Mexico oppose removing the statues, though there is by no means consensus on the question. Ralph Arellanes Sr., president of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico, said that taking down the Oņate statue in Albuquerque would be wrong.

“It is a sculpture of a group of people on their journey into New Mexico with their livestock,” Arellanes said in a Facebook post about the statue, which was completed in 2004 and depicts Oņate leading an expedition of settlers and soldiers.

The Albuquerque Museum board of trustees voted last week to remove the sculpture, called “La Jornada,” or the journey. The city’s Cultural Services Department said over the weekend that it would convene a group of artists and community leaders to discuss the issue.

Officials in Rio Arriba County told the Albuquerque Journal that the statue in Alcalde was being removed “temporarily.”

The discussion about what to do with the statues is feeding a broader debate over race and identity in New Mexico. For many Hispanics, statues of Oņate and other conquistadors represent symbols of resistance to Anglo dominance in New Mexico since the 19th century.

“We’ve been living among each other for 400 years, intermarrying, making New Mexico what it is today,” Arellanes said in a telephone interview, while emphasizing that he had indigenous ancestry from Tewa-speaking peoples. “This is what happens when people try to drive a wedge between us.”

Others, however, said it may be time to stop honoring conquistadors. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico, said on Twitter that taking down the Oņate statue in Alcalde was “a step in the right direction” toward understanding New Mexico’s complicated history and “imbalanced power structures.”

Brian Vallo, the governor of Acoma Pueblo, said he agreed with removing the Oņate statues, drawing a connection between the atrocities carried out centuries ago during the conquest and the legacy of those events today. He pointed to the vulnerability of tribal nations in the face of COVID-19 and the heightened risk they face of dying, as an example of how indigenous peoples are still struggling with extreme inequality.

“This is not anything new for Acoma,” said Vallo, who opted against speaking at the Albuquerque protest on Monday to remove the Oņate statue. He said he was trying to lead by example for a people that have followed strict distancing measures in an attempt to prevent infections. “It has to be understood that Acoma has been dealing with this trauma since it happened in 1599.”

The impetus for removing the statues also points to shifting definitions in New Mexico of what it means to be Hispanic or Native American. Some pushing to take the monuments down identify as Genízaros, descendants of enslaved Indians who were raised in Hispanic culture, while other proponents of the statue removals suggest there are other ways to recognize the endurance and resilience of New Mexico’s Hispanic culture.

“We are not static museum pieces and history has never stood still like these statues,” Estevan Rael-Gálvez, a former New Mexico state historian, said in another Facebook post. “The fact that Oņate and other figures of conquest have been embraced as a symbol of identity reveals a lack of critical thinking and imagination.”

Š 2020 The New York Times Company

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