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City faces new calls to remove Oñate sculpture

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The city of Albuquerque is facing new calls to remove a sculpture of Spanish colonists, including Juan de Oñate, on Albuquerque Museum property. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

With governments across the nation rapidly acting to take down statues of Confederate leaders – and citizens themselves felling Christopher Columbus monuments – Albuquerque officials face a new push to remove a bronze sculpture depicting Spanish colonists.

The Albuquerque Museum Board of Trustees is asking Mayor Tim Keller to remove the multi-figure “La Jornada” sculpture from the museum grounds at 19th and Mountain, calling such action “overdue.”

“La Jornada” – which features conquistador Juan de Oñate, but does not identify him – was accepted into the city of Albuquerque’s public art collection in 2005. The work of Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera and Betty Sabo, the sculpture drew controversy during its planning stages, with critics arguing 20 years ago that it was disrespectful to Native Americans. The city, as part of the same project, also commissioned Native American artist Nora Naranjo-Morse to create an adjacent land art installation called “Numbe Whageh.” Together, the works cost the city about $800,000.

But with civil unrest surging around the country in response to racism and the Minneapolis Police Department’s killing of George Floyd, public demands to remove monuments to controversial historical figures also has grown, including a sculpture of Oñate in Alcalde.

That has renewed the conflict over “La Jornada,” a piece that the city’s public art manager says has likely elicited more response than any of the approximately 1,100 other pieces in the city’s collection.

“The public art program retains public art project files on every project we do, and this project has four three-ring binders worth of communication,” Sherri Brueggemann said, adding that a typical piece generates a half-inch of papers in a file folder.

The Albuquerque Museum Board of Trustees voted this week to request removal of “La Jornada” from the property, according to a June 11 letter to Keller, though City Clerk Ethan Watson said the meeting will have to be reconvened with proper public notice since the board appears to have violated the Open Meetings Act.

Pamela Weese Powell, chair of the advisory board, did not respond to a Journal message Friday. But she wrote to Keller that the “La Jornada” sculpture “has caused conflict, pain, and has divided our communities” since its inception.

The Office of the State Historian’s website details how Oñate ordered Acoma Pueblo people into servitude and, in some cases, had their right feet cut off following Acoma’s killing of several Spanish soldiers and a subsequent retaliatory Spanish attack that killed hundreds on the pueblo.

Rivera, a renowned Albuquerque artist, created the bronze sculpture of Juan de Oñate outside the Oñate Monument Center in Alcalde and was one of three artists who created the massive, 100-foot-long “La Jornada” bronze outside the Albuquerque museum.

“I feel very honored to have done them,” Rivera said, adding that he does not see a correlation between calls to remove Confederate sculptures and calls to remove sculptures glorifying Oñate and the Spanish colonization of New Mexico.

While he doesn’t take issue with accounts of Oñate’s orders after the Acoma battle, he said that shouldn’t negate the contributions made by Oñate.

“It’s not about the cruelty of the incident, but about the colonization of New Mexico and what he brought, including Christianity, which is a big part, but also wine, irrigation, mining and livestock – the horses, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.”

There is a new push to remove this Juan de Oñate memorial in Alcalde. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

His vision for both of his commissioned Oñate sculptures was to capture “the greatness and spirit and energy of the man,” as well as give the sculptures “the authority” they required.

Removing the Oñate sculptures “would be like removing a part of history.”

Oñate colonized New Mexico in 1598 under a contract with the king of Spain and state historian Robert Martinez said he is not surprised at new calls to remove statues of him.

“For Hispanic New Mexicans, on the one hand, he’s the founder of Hispanic culture here and Hispanic civilization, but he was also arrested, and he was sent south, accused of abusing pueblo people and Spanish colonists,” Martinez said Friday.

Weese Powell’s letter to Keller included a statement from fellow museum trustee Helen Atkins. Atkins wrote that featuring Oñate sends a terrible message that makes no sense in a place like Albuquerque.

“As a person of color, there are signs in this world that tell me when I am not welcome. I, and so many New Mexicans like us, understand that the lives of black, brown and indigenous Americans are intertwined in the same web of oppression, genocide and white supremacy. To leave a monument to Oñate at the front of a public institution is to say we don’t care about your pain,” Atkins wrote. “Further, we value the pride of conquest over the still fresh wounds of indigenous genocide, particularly the Acoma people.”

Keller said in a written statement Friday that he is asking the city’s Public Arts Board to meet and make a recommendation about the sculpture.

“This is not the first time our city has had a deep conversation about this statue, and it’s time we have it again,” Keller said.

Elena Ortiz, a member of Ohkay Owingeh and chair of The Red Nation-Santa Fe Freedom Council, an activist organization that has advocated for removal of all Oñate statues, said having his sculpture outside the Albuquerque museum is a symbol of “patriarchal violence” that also serves to diminish current efforts to build community.

“If you look at it logically, he was no one to celebrate,” she said. “He was convicted of treason by his own people and banished from New Mexico forever.

“Why would you glorify someone like that?”

She said she also supports the removal of an Oñate statue in Alcalde.

With communities around the U.S. acting to remove statues of Confederate leaders, monuments to other controversial historical figures have also attracted new public scrutiny. That includes this Juan de Oñate memorial in Alcalde.

Ralph Arellanes Sr., director of New Mexico LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and chairman of the Hispano Roundtable of New Mexico, said Friday that LULAC and the Hispano Roundtable support the Black Lives Matter movement and its efforts to remove statues and other monuments that “glorify the Confederacy.”

However, should any government agency or private group attempt to remove statues or monuments in New Mexico that pay homage to Spanish conquistadors and other figures from Spain’s history in the state, “we will file lawsuits and seek injunctions,” he said.

Those intent on removing such monuments here “are hijacking” the Black Lives Matter movement, Arellanes said.

“The Spanish came as an expansion of Spain and to build a new world, whereas the Confederates were about breaking the country in two – the North and South,” he added.

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