Reviewing history: Conflict over monuments

Amid a push to rid the public sphere of memorials to racist and oppressive figures, protesters convened last week at the city’s “La Jornada” sculpture, which includes a statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Enrique Lamadrid knew the fight was not over.

When the city of Albuquerque decided 20 years ago to include conquistador Juan de Oñate in its “La Jornada” memorial despite objections from the Native American community, Lamadrid sensed future trouble.

“We knew it was a bomb. We knew it was a land mine, and we knew someone was going to step on it in the future,” said Lamadrid, an emeritus professor of Spanish at the University of New Mexico who was part of a city commission in the late 1990s that planned the sculpture.

The outcry from decades ago resurfaced this month amid a national movement that has expelled Confederate monuments and statues of oppressive figures. For the first time, officials say, the local Oñate debate grew violent.

Last week, protesters flocked to the bronze Oñate sculpture outside the Albuquerque Museum for a gathering that also attracted heavily armed members of a self-described civilian militia.

Tensions flared as protesters tried to topple the statue. The event devolved into chaos when one man was critically injured by gunfire and police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

A protester covers the Oñate figure in Albuquerque’s “La Jornada” sculpture with a plastic bag last week. New calls to remove monuments and public artwork depicting Confederate leaders have renewed the debate in New Mexico about public memorials to conquistador Juan de Oñate.

The city removed the Oñate sculpture the next morning but has no long-term plan, joining the ranks of American communities and public institutions facing decisions about how to recognize a history marred by violence and injustice.

Albuquerque Cultural Services Director Shelle Sanchez said the sculpture’s removal is only a temporary solution.

“We have to move together as a community to find the best solution for our community,” she said.

Nationwide debate

The debate comes amid national unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Protests against police brutality and systemic racism have renewed calls to remove public monuments to Confederate leaders who fought to preserve slavery.

In New Mexico, the movement has intensified long-standing criticism about the public representations of conquerors such as Oñate, who settled New Mexico for Spain in the late 16th century. Though celebrated by some, his reign was marked by violence and the deaths of hundreds at Acoma Pueblo. After attacking the pueblo, Oñate is said to have ordered the right foot cut off of all 24 men over age 25 who lived, and he forced many survivors into servitude. The Spanish government ultimately banned Oñate from New Mexico for his excessive force and other crimes.

Workers with Rio Arriba County removed a sculpture of Juan de Oñate from the Onate Center in Acalde last week. Crowds for and against the removal lined N.M. 68 in front of the center.

Lamadrid, an expert of New Mexican culture, said using such divisive historic figures is unnecessary. Oñate, for example, came to New Mexico more than 400 years ago but has been commonly memorialized throughout the Rio Grande Valley only for about the past 30 years, he said.

“If you want a hero, there’s plenty of heroes. It’s really too bad that Oñate became inscribed on the map of cultural identity of so many New Mexicans,” Lamadrid said. “It’s very divisive. It’s painful to see that division in our Hispanic community.”

The city of Albuquerque last week removed the Juan de Oñate figure from the “La Jornada” public artwork outside the Albuquerque Museum. Officials call it a temporary solution and say they are convening a community discussion to determine what to do in the long term.

The city of Albuquerque is not the only entity dealing with the backlash for its nods to Spanish colonizers.

Planned protests prompted Rio Arriba County last week to remove its Oñate monument at Alcalde for safekeeping.

Albuquerque kindergarten teacher Cristian Villa is calling for a name change at Oñate Elementary School in Albuquerque – and he’s not alone. Albuquerque Public Schools had about a dozen emails urging the same, school district spokeswoman Monica Armenta said.

“I don’t understand why you’d immortalize such an awful human being,” said Villa, a teacher at Marie M. Hughes Elementary School.

Santa Fe last week removed a statue of Diego de Vargas, who led the resettlement of New Mexico in 1692, with plans to use community input to determine its long-term fate. Mayor Alan Webber has said he supports taking down the statue and a pair of obelisks over concerns they perpetuate institutional racism against Native Americans.

The University of New Mexico, meanwhile, continues a yearslong effort to modify its seal and address some high-profile murals many have long decried as problematic.

‘Listening, learning’

At Albuquerque Public Schools, a procedure exists for potential school name changes, Superintendent Raquel Reedy said. Under an existing directive, the Board of Education can consider a change if a majority of members believe “there is a compelling reason to do so,” and Reedy said the process includes seeking community input.

“We hear our community’s concerns,” Reedy said. “Schools named after historical, famous or local persons must reflect individuals our students can look up to, admire and emulate.”

As other institutions seek solutions to criticism about monuments, public art, buildings and more, many say soliciting extensive feedback is key.

“There really needs to be a back-and-forth, a real conversation and deep, deep listening and learning,” New Mexico Arts Executive Director Michelle Laflamme-Childs said.

But deciding when and how to open such a process is not an exact science. Is one complaint enough to begin exploring changes or would the opposition need to reach some kind of critical mass?

As of right now, removing artwork funded with state money technically requires five years of sustained community complaints and a vote by the New Mexico Arts Commission, Laflamme-Childs said. But that process is generally only invoked due to concerns about artwork’s age and deteriorating condition, she said; she has not seen a state-funded piece draw criticism on more sociological grounds.

“I don’t know – if something was clearly problematic (in that vein), I’m sure that could be addressed in a different way,” she said.

At UNM, change is often a long, painstaking process because of the dialogue. But officials say that is beneficial.

It has been about five years since UNM started fashioning a new seal – the official emblem stamped on diplomas. At the time the insignia depicted a frontiersman and a conquistador, which Native American groups on campus said was insensitive.

The University of New Mexico is still in the midst of a yearslong process to change its official seal, an insignia Native Americans have called offensive. Someone recently spray-painted “stolen land” on a wall featuring the seal.

The UNM regents and president should finally pick a new seal this fall after years of using the university’s corporate logo as a stand-in, said Assata Zerai, the university’s vice president for equity and inclusion.

“I do know that change at institutions is slow. … It takes buy-in. This is an educational institution. It’s about not just an edict that ‘we’re going to change it,'” Zerai said. “It’s really important to bring people along and bring culture along. You don’t want to create a backlash because people weren’t brought along and educated through the process.”

UNM’s conversations include more than the seal. There are plans to make changes to the “Three Peoples” murals in Zimmerman Library, which some contend are racist. And it’s possible that buildings named after Oñate and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado will be renamed, Zerai said.

At UNM, the discussion about how to memorialize history has also included the “Three Peoples” murals inside Zimmerman Library. Critics have long complained they are racist.

Sanchez, with city Cultural Services, said she still wants to go through a community process to decide the ultimate fate of the Oñate sculpture, which is now being stored. She envisions an autonomous council with people of different perspectives and backgrounds who could make recommendations to the decision-makers in government. She said the effort – dubbed The Race, History, and Healing Project – could serve as a model when related issues arise in the city and also yield more interesting ideas.

“We go in believing that there might be very creative re-imagining solutions that might move beyond a binary choice of ‘take it down’ or ‘leave it,'” she said. “If you imbue the community with the power to problem-solve, there might be a solution we could come to together that none of us can see right now.”

But Sanchez acknowledged that results might take at least a few months to achieve.

‘Timeout’

Tom Chavez, former director of the New Mexico History Museum and the National Hispanic Cultural Center, agrees that now is the time for serious reflection. While he called protesting Oñate a “perfectly legitimate point of view” and does not defend the conquistador, he worries about the larger implications of the current anti-Oñate discourse.

Tom Chavez

He said it has undertones of prejudice toward New Mexico’s Hispanics and he sees the “La Jornada” sculpture – which features several other adult and child settlers and animals – as “an homage to the people who came here and settled and survived, and who represent most of the people who are here today.”

Chavez questioned how protesters might deal with the Washington, D.C., statue of Po’pay, honoring the Tewa religious leader from Ohkay Owingeh who organized the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, in which hundreds of Spanish settlers were killed.

With so much to consider, he contends everybody should take a “timeout.”

“We need to think about all of this,” Chavez said. And once everyone has stopped to take a breath, “maybe we can come together and talk and be reasonable, rather than emotional, and come to some sort of solution.”

Others say there is not much to debate.

Edward Romero

Ed Romero, former U.S. Ambassador to Spain, flatly disagrees with removing sculptures or monuments that he sees as symbols of his and many others’ Spanish ancestry.

“I’m opposed to it because it’s an affront to history,” he said. “When it comes to Oñate and being appalled by what he’s accused of doing, that’s one thing, but removing history is another thing. Should we take down the Washington Monument because Washington was one of the biggest slave holders of his time?”

Melanie Yazzie, meanwhile, sees no way to salvage “La Jornada.”

Melanie Yazzie

An assistant professor of Native American Studies and American Studies at UNM and a member of The Red Nation, an organization advocating for Native American rights, Yazzie said monuments to conquests of the past keep such a mindset in the present. The way history is narrated, she said, matters.

The version of history told through monuments to Spanish settlement is a version that “aligns itself with the conquerers and is the story that the conquerers tell about the Native people and the founding of this nation,” Yazzie said. “That version of history needs to be challenged at all turns. It’s a version of history that erases the truth and erases Native perspectives.”

One way to challenge that is pressing for the removal of these monuments and sculptures, which she said activists have already done for years.

The “La Jornada” sculpture outside the Albuquerque Museum is once again igniting criticism from those who say it glorifies Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate. Before its recent removal, parts of the sculpture were defaced with paint.

But it’s not just about taking down monuments, Yazzie said.

“It’s about this being a window or a gateway into a larger conversation about history, no matter how difficult that conversation is, and a conversation about material reparations,” she said.

Yazzie, who is Navajo, blames the “pre-existing conditions of colonialism” for setting the stage for the current COVID-19 health crisis on Navajo Nation, which has one of the highest infection rates anywhere.

“There’s a reason that exists and it’s because of colonialism and the persistent impoverishment it has created for our people,” she said. Colonialism has not ended, “it just has a new face in this day and age.”

Michael Chavarria, governor of Santa Clara Pueblo and chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said the time has come for a dialogue well beyond the framework of monuments and artwork.

Michael Chavarria

The Albuquerque sculpture and the Alcalde monument were erected despite pleas from Native Americans, a symptom of a much bigger problem, he said. While Chavarria is glad they have been taken down, he said it does not resolve the lack of respect shown by putting them up in the first place.

Native people here are “still living with racism,” and the only way to prevent these situations from occurring in the future is to offer a seat at the table to all the stakeholders, including elected officials and leaders from all communities, so they can openly and mutually discuss issues, intentions and goals, he said.

“Otherwise, it will keep happening,” Chavarria said. “New Mexico is a multicultural state, so we have to live and learn together.”

Shelby Perea contributed to this report.

 

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