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With a large crowd watching from both sides of N.M. 68, crews on Monday meticulously removed a statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate from its pedestal in Alcalde, just north of Española.
A petition started days earlier called for the statue’s removal because of Oñate’s treatment of New Mexico’s Native Americans in the 16th century and has gained almost 3,000 signatures.
“Oñate perpetuated cruel and inhumane violence against the Pueblos and was prosecuted and exiled by the Spanish for war crimes,” the petition says.
However, there is a chance the Oñate statue will be reinstalled later.
Rio Arriba County Manager Tomas Campos said the statue was removed to protect it from protests that were planned for Monday afternoon.
He said that organizers had threatened to tear the statue down and that the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office did not have the manpower to protect it all night.
The Rio Arriba County Commission did not approve or reject the removal, he said.
“I texted them that I was doing it; I didn’t seek their approval,” Campos said.
The County Commission will now have to decide whether the statue returns, a decision sure to upset some in the Española Valley.
The statue, dedicated in the 1980s and located at the former Oñate Monument Center – which now houses offices of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area – has long been a divisive symbol in Rio Arriba County.
While Oñate is seen as a heroic figure by some for leading the colonization of New Mexico in 1598, he is viewed by many others as a killer who repressed and enslaved Native Americans’ ancestors. After an uprising at Acoma Pueblo, he sentenced hundreds of people to 20 years of “personal servitude” and ordered men over age 25 to have one foot cut off, according to the website of the Office of the State Historian.
Those actions are regularly mentioned in protests against Oñate. In 1997, someone cut the left foot off the statue, an act Campos said cost around $10,000 to fix. He estimated it would cost more than $1 million to replace the entire statue today.
The divisiveness in the community was on full display Monday, as many arrived to the center sporting Spanish family crests and conquistador helmets. Others, especially those from the nearby Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, cheered for the statue’s removal.
After the statue was removed, tribal member Thantsideh danced atop the now-vacant pedestal where Oñate once stood. Supporters of the statue berated Thantsideh, and police made him leave the area.
“The past history with Oñate, he was not great with the Natives,” said Virginia Cata of Ohkay Owingeh. “(He) definitely has a history of murder, rape, a ton of disgrace to the pueblo.”
Some, though, argued that the statue is a symbol of Spanish heritage and that removing it would erase that history. Other supporters, such as Ruth Ann Galvan-Vargas, said Oñate’s actions could be excused by violence inflicted by Native Americans.
“It was a war, and (Native Americans) were fighting against us – there was retaliation on both sides,” Galvan-Vargas said.
She also said she viewed Oñate colonizing New Mexico as “bringing people together” and not as someone conquering a group of people against their will.
Ryan Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation from Arizona, said he thought the statue was insensitive because it failed to recognize any of Oñate’s brutalities against Native Americans.
“Statues aren’t held in such high regard (in Native communities), so when you put something up like that, it’s just kind of in your face,” he said.
The statue’s removal comes as communities across the nation remove statues and memorials dedicated to Confederate generals, slave owners, Christopher Columbus and others with histories of committing atrocities against racial minorities.
Albuquerque has its own statue of Oñate that has received calls to be removed.
The statue, “La Jornada,” depicts Oñate and other colonists traversing across the New Mexico landscape and has been controversial since its inception.
The Rio Arriba County Commission will meet again sometime next week, although Campos said it is unlikely to make a decision on the statue. In the meantime, he said, the Oñate statue will be kept in an undisclosed location by the county.