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Learn from art, don’t just destroy it

My sculptures of Don Juan de Oñate have sparked controversy since I did my first piece for Alcalde in 1992. The La Jornada caravan in Albuquerque caused another uproar in 2000, which prompted heated public debate.

Reynaldo 'Sonny' Rivera

Reynaldo ‘Sonny’ Rivera

I’m an artist, not a politician. My work depicts a variety of subjects: Hispanos/Mexican Americans, Native Americans and Anglos, males and females, young and old. I celebrate the courage and spirit of people who confront challenges and overcome obstacles in life.

La Jornada commemorates Oñate who came here with priests, settlers and Indians. I tried to reflect their courage and determination to confront the unknown to create a new life in New Mexico 422 years ago.

Oñate was not a saint, but it’s important to have some context to both the bad and the good that the Spanish brought to our country.

Yes, he was accused of being cruel to Acoma Pueblo people. But it’s important to know that Oñate responded in retaliation to an Acoma ambush that killed his soldiers and family members.

Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers who wrote “All men are created equal,” was a slave owner while living in the White House.

The big difference is that Oñate was punished for his crimes by his government. He lost the governorship of New Mexico and was put on trial by Spain. Jefferson suffered no punishment for his crimes against humanity.

The Oñate caravan brought religion, livestock and new ideas like mining and an irrigation system – acequias – which have impacted everyone in this country today.

The Spanish horse revolutionized Indian life and created a billion-dollar cowboy culture. Native American weavers and jewelry makers have world-renowned legacy that Oñate introduced here. And who has not had a glass of wine or eaten a hamburger whose origins began in Spain?

Spain also sanctioned the marriage between the Spanish and Indians. More importantly, today New Mexico Native Americans still have their own lands and their language and their religion. Not so where other European colonizers encountered Native peoples.

After heated public debate 20 years ago, a compromise was reached that La Jornada would become a two-piece collaboration that would include work by Anglo artist Betty Sabo, Native American artist Nora Naranjo-Morse and myself.

Who didn’t get the message? Or maybe some want to tear open old wounds between Native Americans and Hispanos. The wound was not caused by my work; it was already there.

In the past few days that compromise has been trashed by lawless thugs who are repeatedly trying to destroy my work, forcing two of my pieces to be removed to protect them. There’s been violence. One man was shot in the streets of Old Town Albuquerque.

This movement to tear down our Spanish historical figures and symbols is happening around the country. Some are demanding Oñate’s name be removed from schools, parks and community centers. This promises more retaliations, more destruction, more violence.

What’s next? Po’pay, who led the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 against the Spanish, killed countless innocent men, women and children. He was called a dictator, a tyrant and a murderer and a petition is now being circulated to take down his statue. Where will this end?

I understand this is a byproduct of the movement for justice for the killings of African-Americans by white police, and I support that move for justice. I believe Black lives matter. I believe Native American lives matter. But justice is not just for them. Hispano/Mexican American lives also matter. I matter. And my art matters.

I do think it’s wrong to destroy or remove controversial art. Just like I don’t believe controversial books should be burned.

I would favor an additional compromise to add more perspective in the form of a plaque for those who consider my art piece controversial.

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

– Sir Winston Churchill

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