Oñate’s Statue and Monument: Removal at a Troubled Site

By KAY MATTHEWS

Demand for the Removal of the Oñate Statue

Where: Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area (formerly the Oñate Monument and Visitor’s Center), 848 State Highway 68, Alcalde, north of Española

When: Monday, June 15, 4:00 pm. Please wear face masks and observe social distancing.

The statue of Juan de Oñate on his horse isn’t the only issue associated with what used to be the Oñate Monument and Visitor’s Center out on SH 68 north of Española. The building itself, often referred to as the “white elephant,” was a $2 million paeon to former Rio Arriba County patrón Emilio Naranjo, named for one of the most violent Spanish conquistadors in northern New Mexico. Controversy has surrounded the building—and the statue—from its inception until today.

With funds from capital outlay appropriations ($1,300,000), Rio Arriba County ($700,000), U.S Small Business ($350,000), and $120,000 for the statue, Naranjo got his so-called Hispano cultural monument. Then, just before the center’s “grand opening” in 1994, Naranjo got kicked out of office as county manager by the newly elected county commission, whose support for the monument was less than enthusiastic when it realized there was no money left over for operation.

The building stood completely empty, without completed electrical outlets, and no staff until, in another controversial move, Estevan Arellano was appointed director (the project manager sued the county over Arellano’s appointment claiming he wasn’t qualified). Against all odds, Arellano got the place up and running and it became a center for Indo-Hispano history that evolved from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Laws of the Indies to the formation of the Land Grant Forum, an advocate for redress over the legacy of stolen lands. Numerous workshops were held at the Center on topics of interest to nuevomexicanos—water rights, “conversos,” or Crypto Jews, genealogy—along with poetry readings, art exhibits, and theater presentations.

La Jicarita attended numerous political meetings at the Center during the mid to late 1990s as the controversies over community access to forest and water resources heated up as environmentalists sued the Forest Service over management of the Mexican spotted owl and promoted their Zero Cut timber policy throughout el norte. Activists like Ike DeVargas, Max Córdova, Chellis Glendinning, Richard Rosenstock, Maria Varela, Herman Agoyo, Moises Morales, Georgia Roybal, and Juan Sanchez came together to organize and advocate for land based communities and Hispano and Indigenous rights.

Then, in 1998, in the dead of a January night, just before the 400th anniversary of the first Spanish settlement, a Native American group came and sawed off Oñate’s right foot with an electric saw: boot, stirrup, and star-shaped spur. They released a statement that said: “We took the liberty of removing Oñate’s right foot on behalf of our brothers and sisters of Acoma Pueblo. We see no glory in celebrating Oñate’s fourth centennial, and we do not want our faces rubbed in it.” Arellano supervised the reattachment of a foot later that month and was dismissive of the event: “Give me a break—it was 400 years ago. It’s OK to hold a grudge, but for 400 years?”

Arellano eventually left his job at the Oñate Monument in a bitter quarrel with the new Democrats for Progress county commission. A succession of directors then came along but the lack of adequate funding by the county eventually closed it down. The building was rented out to various tenants: a Montessori school, a charter school, a weekend flea market, and yoga studio. Then, in 2017, the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area opened at the monument, funded by the U.S. National Park Service, whose mission is to “sustain the communities, heritage, language, culture, tradition, and environment of New Mexico’s Northern Rio Grande country through partnerships, education, and interpretation.” I wrote an article about the concept in 2000 where some folks expressed fear that the kind of “corporate” tourism that might result from a heritage designation would further erode, not enhance, the cultural integrity of their villages. The site currently features artists, publishes the cultural guide Land Water People Time, and hosts cultural events.

So we’ll see how the Rio Arriba powers that be react to this new demand for the removal of the Oñate statue. Moises Morales, one of the leaders of the Democrats for Progress back in the day just won the Democratic primary for county commissioner (where he served twice before). The current county commission did nothing to address a complaint filed in 2019 over the renaming of the Rio Arriba County Complex after Emilio Naranjo.

You can sign a petition for removal of the statue online at Change.org