By KAY MATTHEWS
I stood next to Ike DeVargas and his grandson Andres at the celebration (a protest until the county preempted it) of the removal of the statute of Juan de Oñate at the former Oñate Monument and Visitor’s Center in Alcalde, north of Española. When the last Red Nation speaker cried out, “We’re coming for you, de Vargas,” referring to the statue of Don Diego de Vargas in Cathedral Park in Santa Fe, the look on Andres’s face was startling: “Are they coming for us, grandpa?” he asked Ike.
Ike explained to Andres that no, they were referring to the Santa Fe statue. But he also had to explain why a statue named de Vargas was in Santa Fe in the first place and that although they share a name with a Spanish conquistador they share a much more complicated genealogy of Mexicano, Indio, Nuevomexicano, and Chicano, the intersection of all those who make up the northern New Mexico community.
Although the celebration at the Oñate monument was led by the Red Nation, founded in Albuquerque several years ago, this site has been the center of controversy within the larger norteño community for many years, beginning with its inception at the hands of Emilio Naranjo, longtime Rio Arriba patrón who terrorized La Raza Unida Party activists who challenged his stranglehold over the county as U.S. Marshall, state legislator, and chairman of the Democratic Party. Naranjo saw himself as a descendent of Oñate not only via Spanish blood but by dominion rule over those he deemed inferior. The building and statue were largely seen as a boondoggle by those who had to come up with the money to maintain it and an affront to those oppressed by both Naranjo and Oñate.
Rio Arriba County may have turned a protest into a celebration by taking down the statue but it failed miserably to disassociate itself from the Naranjo legacy. In an issued statement County Manager Tomás Campos said he ordered its removal for “safe keeping” after the county learned of the planned demonstration and possible “destruction or damage” to the statue. In a separate statement, County Commissioner Leo Jaramillo said that the commission welcomes a discussion with county residents about the future of the statue, but Jaramillo will no doubt soon leave the commission—he won the Democratic primary for state senate. Longtime La Raza Unida Party member Moises Morales won the Democratic primary for a commission seat and is a shoe-in for the election. One can hope there will be no future for Oñate under Morales’s guidance.
Kurly Tlapoyawa, an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian, takes a critical look at the Oñate myth in Unseennm.org:
“The hispanos view their veneration of Juan de Oñate as a matter of European birthright, and perceive any criticism of Oñate and the parade held in his honor as an assault on their culture. And therein lies the problem: by framing Oñate as the embodiment of their culture, Oñate supporters have painted themselves into an ideological corner, creating an intractable situation in which even the slightest compromise would be seen as complete cultural surrender. In their minds, admitting that Oñate was a piece of shit is tantamount to admitting that their culture is also shit.
This fear of somehow betraying their heritage prevents them from ever doing the right thing in this situation, which would be to commemorate history without glorifying a murdering rapist. But perhaps creating such an immovable position was the plan all along. After all, it is far easier to mobilize your base against an imagined threat to your culture and community than it is to do credible research and admit that celebrating Oñate is a pretty fucking horrible idea. Unfortunately, people tend to have a hard time admitting when they are wrong.”
Rather, they have embraced a pointedly ethnocentric position that seeks to privilege the legacy of European conquest by any means necessary. Framing European colonization as an inevitable form of “manifest destiny” and declaring that their descendants are now “natives” is a hallmark of settler colonialism. Australian writer and historian Patrick Wolfe calls this strategy “destroy to replace.”
There is a disconnect in the Indigenous community as well. The governor of Ohkay Owingeh, Ron Lovato, allied himself in a letter with State Representative District 40 Joseph Sanchez (who ran unsuccessfully in the Democrat primary for U.S. Representative), a conservative Catholic: “The actions taken today at the Onate Monument and Visitor’s Center, unfortunately, unfolded without consultation with Ohkay Owingeh, its members, or that of the greater surrounding Hispano communities.” The letter goes on to say what others argue, that these statues teach us our history, we should learn from it, not erase it. “For hundreds of years, our communities have lived in harmony and continue to look ahead and plan to the benefit of the generations to come.”
The point of Tlapoyawa’s essay is, of course, that statues glorifying “murderers and rapists” don’t provide an insight to history or the ability to take a critical look at the genesis of your beliefs and engage in informed dialog. In a statement in The Santa Fe New Mexican, norteño activist Luis Peña, who took the lead in initiating a petition to remove the Oñate statue, expressed what he hopes a reckoning will engender: “I think with the death of George Floyd, people are finding their collective voice and they’re finding solidarity with each other, and I think it is crossing racial and economic boundaries. I think people out in the streets right now are not asking for justice but demanding it. This is one piece in a much larger puzzle of collective liberation of people.”
In a comment regarding Tlapoyawa’s essay, Richard Rosenstock, longtime civil rights attorney who represented La Raza Unida in various cases, suggested that in addition to the arguments over Spanish purity, “sentiments that arise in northern New Mexico are, in many cases, coming from a more complicated place that includes resentment and anger over the increasing feelings of marginalization. This seems obvious in Santa Fe where the entire downtown was lost to long time residents long ago and families that lived in the city for many generations can no longer live there.”
A good place to explore the genesis of this loss is The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish-American Identity in New Mexico 1880s-1930s, by John N. Nieto-Phillips. Nieto-Phillips traces the metaphor of identity as the language of blood purity, or limpieza de sangre, from the 1880s through the 1930s. Two basic factors fueled its creation: Anglo tourism and settlement that exploited the Spanish colonial past to implement Manifest Destiny; and Nuevomexicanos own use of Spanish purity, as opposed to Mexicano or metizaje, as a defense against political and social marginalization by this same Anglo settlement.
In another book that looks at the more recent gentrification of Santa Fe, the Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition, author Chris Wilson lays out the story of how in the 1980s the Anglo newcomers undertook a public campaign to project Santa Fe to the world as an exotic tourist destination using triculturalism—Indian, Spanish, and Anglo—to create what he terms a “successful illusion of authenticity” that commodified Indio and Hispano cultures. The end result, just as Rosenstock notes, was displacement and ethnic animosity.
In an article in Medium, Andrea J. Serrano, Albuquerque activist, has this to say: “This is a moment where Brown people can begin to confront our complicated histories and be in solidarity with Black and Indigenous communities as we all work toward liberation. Last I checked, Raza are killed by police with impunity and have high incarceration rates as well — solidarity is what will set us free. The criminal ‘justice’ system does not regard Brown people as Spanish royalty, and our fantasies of Spanish conquest have done little to shield us from the reality of racism. Internalizing anti-Black and anti-Indigenous oppression isn’t going to make life easier for Brown people; it just means we’re inflicting greater harm against our sisters and brothers, and ultimately, ourselves.”
By investigating the city’s trademark architectural style, public ceremonies, the historic preservation movement, and cultural traditions, Wilson unravels the complex interactions of ethnic identity and tourist image-making. Santa Fe’s is a distinctly modern success story–the story of a community that transformed itself from a declining provincial capital of 5,000 in 1912 into an internationally recognized tourist destination. But it is also a cautionary tale about the commodification of Native American and Hispanic cultures, and the social displacement and ethnic animosities that can accompany a tourist boom.
As many in our community have noticed, the County’s statue of Don Juan de Oñate was removed today and taken to storage. County Manager Tomas Campos authorized this controversial decision based upon information that destruction or damage to the statue and County property at this afternoon’s demonstration, and in the future, was highly probable. Rio Arriba County residents need to understand that a final policy decision has not been made about the Oñate statue other than its removal today to protect it from damage or destruction. The County Commission welcomes a respectful and civil discussion from its residents about the future of the Oñate statue. Thank you.
Alcalde & Ohkay Owingeh, NM
The actions taken today at the Onate Monument and Visitor’s Center, unfortunately, unfolded without consultation with Ohkay Owingeh, its members, or that of the greater surrounding Hispano communities.
History is by its definition the past, we should learn from it, not try to erase it or think vindication comes by removing statues. For hundreds of years, our communities have lived in harmony and continue to look ahead and plan to the benefit of the generations to come. Our villages are filled with a mix of beautiful people and cultures, that on a daily basis interact peacefully and often without much fanfare to raise our children, care for elders, tend the land and acequias, give life to our plazas, celebrate our faith, dance, languages, stories, food and so much more.
Going forward, it is our collective hope that our communities and the people who comprise them are consulted before such actions are taken. In the meantime, we will continue to do the work of our people and look forward to engaged and thoughtful dialogue about these actions that have, for the most part, ignored the majority of our stakeholders – the people of this region.
Governor Ohkay Owingeh
Joseph L. Sanchez
State Representative District 40