Can any historic figure stand up to scrutiny? - Albuquerque Journal

Can any historic figure stand up to scrutiny?

After the recent violent protest at the base of the statue of Juan de Oñate, a Mexico-born “conquistador” and first governor of New Mexico, it appears that for some the removal of the work of art was not enough.

Some are now calling for Albuquerque Public Schools to change the name of an elementary school named for Oñate, saying he didn’t deserve the honor because of some of his actions four centuries ago.

Oñate Elementary School in the Northeast Heights is named after a controversial conquistador who also served as the first governor of New Mexico. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Oñate is known for establishing in 1598 the first permanent settlement of non-indigenous people in what is now the United States and for the exploration of an area from near Wichita, Kansas, to the Gulf of California. He also is known for the violent and extreme measures he ordered or let his men take as he maintained order in the region.

He was recalled to Mexico City in 1607 and convicted of cruelty to both the indigenous residents and the colonists who had followed him north to the Española Valley. Oñate went to Spain to appeal and was absolved of the crimes by King Felipe IV. In 1624, the king appointed him head of all mining inspectors, an important post. He died in Spain in 1626.

So statues and place names are based on Oñate the explorer and colonist; efforts for the removal of his statues and place names are based on Oñate the despot.

His place in history is certainly ripe for serious, contextual discussion.

But, since we’re thinking of erasing his name from an APS school, why stop with Oñate? Here are some other less than immaculate people for whom APS has named its properties.

Montezuma: Emperor of the Aztecs during the Spanish conquest. Took untold thousands of slaves and oversaw the human sacrifice of many of them. He was so hated by neighboring tribes that Hernán Cortés had no trouble quickly amassing an army of several thousand indigenous warriors to help fight the Aztecs.

Aztec: According to some reports, during reconsecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs sacrificed more than 80,000 victims in just four days. The usual annual toll of sacrificial victims was more like 20,000. Hearts were cut out, heads were impaled and flesh was given to celebrants to eat.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor: All these presidents owned slaves. Washington put five of his slaves to work building the White House in 1795. Jefferson impregnated one. Madison had more than 100. Jackson had 150, but is also known for his cruelty to Native Americans. His Indian removal policies in the South were intended to open land for cultivation by slaves. Polk is Mr. Manifest Destiny. Taylor said owning slaves was a constitutional right worth fighting for.

Grover Cleveland: Rolled back Black civil rights, put into place or extended policies against Chinese immigration, made efforts to get Native Americans to assimilate into white society that resulted in a massive loss of Native lands.

Woodrow Wilson: Undid the efforts of his predecessors by resegregating the federal workforce. A huge supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, Wilson defended klansmen by saying, “The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt: During World War II, he ordered the forced removal from their homes and incarceration without trial of about 120,000 Japanese Americans. They were placed in concentration camps, including near Santa Fe. More than 1,800 died of diseases in the camps. Most lost their property, businesses and belongings. Germans and Italians were not put in camps, but Roosevelt as commander in chief ultimately is responsible for the firebombing by U.S. airmen of civilian populations in cities such as Dresden, Germany. Somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 people in Dresden, including children, women and noncombatant refugees, burned to death in air raids by Allied forces.

Harry S. Truman: He had a decent civil rights record but was notorious for his use of the N-word throughout his life. In 1911, he wrote to his fiancé: “I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a (N-word) or a (racist term for Chinese).” After recalling a racist story his uncle told, he added, “He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I.” Truman ordered the still controversial atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which more than 150,000 Japanese were killed by just two bombs – many incinerated, others left to slowly die from radiation poisoning.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Signed important civil rights legislation, but he demeaned his efforts by his racist attitudes toward Blacks and Mexicans. He called a major piece of civil rights law the “(N-word) bill.” And when appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court said, “when I appoint a (N-word) to the bench, I want everybody to know he’s a (N-word).” Johnson, who a biographer says spoke about the “hordes of barbaric yellow dwarves” in East Asia, greatly increased the U.S. military presence in Vietnam.

Mark Twain: Not a president, but an author who wrote a novel about an adult Black man, a runaway slave, who was helpless without a little white boy who constantly puts him in dangerous situations and uses the N-word as part of his name. Sure, Twain was trying to make a point, but you get my point.

There you have it, and there are other honorees that could be on this list.

So when you start trying to figure out new names for all these schools, I’d suggest sticking to inanimate objects or geographical references. They are safe. History is not.

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to managing editor Dan Herrera at 823-3810 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.


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