Statue of Oñate being removed ‘temporarily’

Workers with Rio Arriba County removed the sculpture of Juan de Onate from the Onate Center in Acalde on Monday. Crowds of people for and against the removal lined Highway 68 in front of the center. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A statue of Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate that stands outside a building that now houses offices of the Rio Grande National Heritage Area in Alcalde is being taken down “temporarily,” according to Rio Arriba County officials.

The building used to be called the Oñate Monument Center until the name was changed three years ago.

The decision to remove the statue comes as the city of Albuquerque is considering taking down a multi-figure sculpture titled “La Jornada” that includes Oñate and stands in front of the Albuquerque Museum. The museum’s board of trustees asked Mayor Tim Keller to remove the sculpture by Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera and Betty Sabo.

Rivera is also the sculptor of the Oñate statue in Alcalde.

Oñate is a controversial figure in New Mexico history. While he is seen as a heroic figure by some for leading the colonization of New Mexico in 1598, he is viewed by some Native Americans as a killer who repressed and enslaved their ancestors. Following an uprising at Acoma Pueblo, he sentenced hundreds of their people to 20 years of “personal servitude” and purportedly ordered all men over the age of 25 to have a foot cut off.

In 1997, vandals cut of the foot of the statue in alcalde. That incident took place days before the calendar turned to 1998, the 400th anniversary of Oñate’s arrival.

Rivera recently told the Journal that Onate’s indiscretions shouldn’t negate the contributions he made to New Mexico history.

“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,” he said.

Santa Fe activist Elena Ortiz, a member of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, has advocated the removal of all Oñate statues. She told the Journal that the conquistador 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?”

The decision to remove the statue also comes at a time of national civil unrest and racial tension over last month’s killing of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. That incident led to a surge of demonstrations across the country. It also renewed the appropriateness of statues honoring Confederate leaders and military bases named after them.

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