One year after protest, fate of Oñate sculpture in limbo

Nearly a year after a protest that resulted in a shooting, the statue of Juan de Oñate that sparked the conflict remains absent from the lead of the “La Jornada” sculpture in front of the Albuquerque Museum. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)
An armed member of the New Mexico Civil Guard and curandera Alma Rosa Silva-Banuelos stand near the Juan de Oñate sculpture outside the Albuquerque Museum on June 15, 2020, during a protest that ultimately turned violent, prompting the city to remove the statue the next day. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Tuesday marks a year since a demonstration at Albuquerque’s “La Jornada” installation in Old Town devolved into a violent clash and shooting, prompting the city to remove its most controversial element – a sculpture of Juan de Oñate – and stash it in storage.

Despite a monthslong community input process last year intended to help city leaders make a decision about the artwork’s long-term fate, no such determination has been made.

And it’s not clear when that will happen.

The city’s arts and culture director said Mayor Tim Keller’s administration is waiting for the City Council to conduct more public input sessions.

City Council President Cynthia Borrego declined multiple Journal requests for an interview on the subject.

But Klarissa Peña, one of the councilors who pushed for additional community discussions after the pandemic, said COVID-19 makes a timeline impossible to predict. While many public health restrictions have loosened considerably and vaccines are widely available, Peña noted the Albuquerque City Council has not returned to in-person meetings and she is not comfortable proceeding with discussions when conditions are still not 100% normal.

“If you’re telling me we’re officially out of the pandemic, let’s rock and roll,” she said Friday. “But I haven’t gotten word we’re out of the pandemic.”

The chairwoman of the city Arts Board – which provided its recommendations for the installation seven months ago – said the council owes it to the community and the artist to spur along the process.

“It’s an important civic conversation they need to move forward on and have,” said Emilie De Angelis, who has been on the citizen arts advisory panel for two years. “I know it’s a hard one, and I know the implications are not easy, no matter what the answer ends up being ultimately.

“But just being in a limbo space doesn’t do any good; we need to have the conversation.”

A subject of criticism since its inception more than 20 years ago, “La Jornada” rocketed back into the larger public consciousness last summer during nationwide demonstrations over past and present racial injustices. Local protesters objected to the “La Jornada” figure, depicting conquistador Juan de Oñate, which was sculpted in bronze by Albuquerque artist Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera. Rivera and Betty Sabo collaborated on “La Jornada.”

While some argue that Oñate, who in 1598 became the first governor of New Mexico under Spanish rule, made vital contributions to New Mexico, his brutal treatment of Native Americans has defined his legacy for others.

The Oñate sculpture outside the Albuquerque Museum drew a crowd of protesters on June 15, 2020. That, in turn, attracted counterprotesters – one of whom, Steven Baca, is being prosecuted in connection with the shooting of Scott Williams and the assault of two women.

The city – with Rivera’s consent – removed the sculpture the next morning and put it in storage for what was supposed to be a year.

The Arts and Culture Department within days announced the Race, History & Healing Project – a community discussion about the future of the sculpture conducted through summer and early fall. More than 1,500 people provided input during the process, which included “dialogue” sessions,” phone interviews and an online survey. The process also involved 12 city employees, 10 professional facilitators and nine project advisers.

In September, the City Council narrowly approved legislation that codified a public input process. The bill also ensured that the final outcome rested with the council, as opposed to the mayor.

But the council has not discussed “La Jornada” since late 2020, when Keller forwarded the city Arts Board’s recommendation.

The board had recommended the city not return the Oñate piece to its original position and that it re-imagine or “re-contextualize” the larger “La Jornada” installation – ideas that originated with the community through the Race, History & Healing Project.

At the time, several city councilors expressed hesitation about taking action, saying more community outreach was warranted after COVID-19.

“I think it’s the desire of the community members I’ve spoken to that we wait to do anything with this until after the pandemic, so that we can ensure all members of the community can participate,” Peña said during the council’s Dec. 7 meeting.

The council did not vote to accept or reject the recommendation but rather to acknowledge that the recommendation had been received.

Shelle Sanchez, director of the city’s Arts and Culture Department, has said the city cannot do anything until the council takes additional steps.

Peña said Friday that it is not something she has been actively coordinating.

“We’ve had so much on our plate in terms of issues related to the pandemic that obviously this is a priority, but this wasn’t something I was looking at currently,” she said.

But she said she remains committed to additional dialogue when the time is right.

“I think once we get a little bit more breathing room (from COVID-19), we need to get started and start that whole process, because we definitely need the community’s input,” she said.

Rivera doesn’t know where the city is in the process and hasn’t been contacted by the city since December.

Contacted by the Journal on June 8, Rivera’s wife, Hope Rivera, said the city had not been in touch. But she said the city reached out June 9 to schedule a meeting with the artist for later this month.

“We just found out that the mayor is extending his invitation to meet us,” Hope Rivera told the Journal on Thursday.

Sonny Rivera said he understood that the agreement was to temporarily move the Oñate statue into storage for up to 12 months.

“I feel the pandemic has slowed everything down and that’s the reason it hasn’t been resolved,” he said.

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