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Reconciling past historical atrocities

Kudos to the Indigenous Book Festival’s program, “Beyond Stereotype, Prejudice, and Racism.” Its daring to challenge the near sacred seal of the University of New Mexico has produced far reaching results.

A recent article quotes celebrated author Sandra Cisneros as saying, “I think what New Mexico needs is what South Africa had … the truth and reconciliation (commission)” in order to address it’s history of violence between Hispanics and Native Americans.

Cisneros also stated that such conflicts influenced her recent decision to not relocate to New Mexico. This story reveals a long standing schism and offers an opportunity for understanding the division.

The op-ed letter, “Native American, Hispanic History Forever Intertwined,” written by a member of the New Mexican Hispanic Cultural Preservation League, defends the seal’s implicit message and symbolism, “the sword and musket personify just how order and civilization was achieved in the founding of New Mexico.” In her attempt to minimize past atrocities she quotes “noted historian Mark Simmons, ‘History is not for sissies… every group welded the ax and the sword.'”

Many New Mexican Hispanics, who self identify as Chicano, Mexican American or Latino, disagree, and choose to be guided by the words and example of Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, a 16th century Spanish soldier, who “owned” natives, became a Dominican friar, turned historian and is widely recognized as the most influential critic of Spanish colonialism.

Fray Bartolome, a long time candidate for beatification, spoke a liberating truth that remains uncomfortable to the present. He spoke of unspeakable atrocities, such as butcher shops providing human-native meat for the dogs. Fray Bartolome is considered one of the first human rights activists.

After meeting with the native coalition seeking changes to the seal, UNM President Bob Frank admitted, “It’s been a very educational experience for me.” Let us hope that an “educational experience” ensues the provocative statements of Cisneros.

Chicanos, Latinos share a sense of pride in their Spanish heritage but are also capable of admitting and acknowledging the cruelty sanctioned and committed by our forefathers. The reluctance to acknowledge and disavow such history is the core reason for the schism amongst the Hispanic community and amongst the native and Latino cultures.

Chicanos, by definition, take pride in their native heritage and seek a brotherhood with native people.

Cisneros’ words prompted me to review a publication published in 1981, “Ceremony of Brotherhood, a commemorative anthology of the Pueblo Revolt,” published by La Academia.

The effort involved many “Hispanos y Indios”, including Rudolfo Anaya, N. Scott Momaday, Enrique La Madrid, Jack D. Forbes, R.C. Gorman and the late UNM sociology professor emeritus Tomas Atencio, amongst the talented contributors.

I would think that all of them and multitudes of others find merit in the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What a powerful concept! What an opportunity to find harmony by discussing the unspeakable.

First we must admit to past atrocities and speak the truth in order to reconcile and that truth includes the following words: “Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.”

– Martin Luther King




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