RIO ARRIBA COUNTY, New Mexico — Authorities removed a bronze statute of a Spanish conqueror on horseback from a cultural center in New Mexico on Monday amid a new wave of criticism of the memorial as an affront to indigenous people and an obstacle to greater racial harmony.
The controversy surrounding Juan de Oñate has stretched throughout the region, with another statue of him outside El Paso International Airport recently vandalized.
In northern New Mexico's Rio Arriba County, a forklift pried the massive bronze statute of Oñate from a concrete pedestal, to the sound of cheers from bystanders along a rural highway.
The statute of an armored Oñate on horseback at a county-operated heritage education center in Alcalde has been a source of criticism for decades.
Oñate, who arrived in present-day New Mexico in 1598, is celebrated as a cultural father figure in communities along the Upper Rio Grande that trace their ancestry to Spanish settlers. But he’s also reviled for his brutality.
To Native Americans, Onate is known for having ordered the right feet cut off of 24 captive tribal warriors that was precipitated by the killing of Onate’s nephew. In 1998, someone sawed the right foot off the statue.
“There are as many Hispanics, Latinos and Chicanos who are against this as there are Native Americans,” said Elena Ortiz, who organized a protest at the site for Monday night. “They also don’t want to be identified with symbols of conquest.”
A separate demonstration in Albuquerque was aimed at the removal of another Oñate likeness that is part of a caravan of Spanish colonists set in bronze outside a city museum.
Monuments to European conquerors and colonists around the world are being pulled down amid an intense re-examination of racial injustices in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.
Albuquerque city officials announced they will convene a council of community leaders and artists to consider the concerns about the public art piece as they look for “creative solutions.”
Titled “La Jornada,” the sculpture depicts Oñate leading a group of Spanish settlers to what was then the northern-most province of New Spain in 1598. The collection of statues includes an indigenous guide, a priest, women settlers and soldiers. The names of the families who accompanied Oñate are listed on plaques below as part of the “Wall of Spanish Ancestral Heritage.”
“Recent calls for altering ‘La Jornada’ remind us that works of art often challenge communities to debate ideas, pursue empathy, grapple with multiple perspectives, reconcile conflict and interrogate history,” said Shelle Sanchez, head of the city’s Cultural Services Department.
“La Jornada” is one of two pieces on museum property that were installed to reflect part of New Mexico’s history, city officials said. The other by artist Nora Naranjo Morse of Santa Clara Pueblo is meant to be a place of solace and reflection that was commissioned as a response to the caravan.
In northern New Mexico, annual costumed tributes to Spanish conquistadors, including Oñate, have been scaled back or canceled in recent years in deference to local indigenous communities and new revelations about the subjugation and enslavement of Native American servants and people of mixed ancestry.