RIO RANCHO, NM (AP) – Statues of Spanish conqueror Don Juan de Oñate are now being saved after protesters in New Mexico threatened to topple them. Protesters in California have brought down sculptures by Spanish missionary Junipero Serra, and now schools, parks, and streets named after Spanish explorers face an uncertain future.
As statues and monuments related to slavery and other flawed moments in the nation’s history fall down by both Protestants and in some cases politicians’ decisions, the movement in the American Southwest has turned its attention to representations of Spanish colonial figures who have long been revered by some Hispanics but despised by Native Americans.
Protesters say that figures such as Oñate, who led early Spanish expeditions to present-day New Mexico, should not be celebrated. They point to Oñate’s order to cut off the right feet of 24 captured tribal warriors after his soldiers stormed Acoma Pueblo. That attack was accelerated by killing Onate’s cousin.
They say that other Spanish figures supervised the slavery of the indigenous people and tried to ban their cultural practices.
Some Hispanics who trace their ancestry back to the early Spanish settlers say that removing the parables of Oñate and others is tantamount to erasing history – a complicated one both marred by atrocities against the indigenous people and characterized by the arduous travels that many families made for the promise of a new life or to escape persecution in Spain.
That history remains firmly woven into the fabric of New Mexico, as many Native American Pueblos are still known by the names the Spaniards have given them and many continue to practice Catholicism – something even Pueblo leaders recognize.
“New Mexico is a special place for all of us. We are all neighbors. We share food, we work together, and in many cases our family relationships go back generations, ”said J. Michael Chavarria, President of the All Pueblo Council of Governors and Governor of Santa Clara Pueblo.
Earlier this month, demonstrators with chains and a pickaxe attempted to bring down an Oñate statue outside an Albuquerque museum. A fight that broke out resulted in gunshots that injured one man. The next day, Albuquerque removed the image and placed it in storage.
Another statue of Oñate was removed by officials from Rio Arriba County in anticipation of a planned protest seeking its removal, drawing praise from activists and some Pueblo leaders.
Albuquerque City Councilor Cynthia Borrego, who is Spanish, recognized the nasty aspects of history during a city-sponsored prayer and healing event resulting from the protests.
“We must also remember that it was wartime … but we can’t go back 500 years,” she said.
Daniel Ortiz, 58, a retired financial advisor in Santa Fe, can trace the roots of his family over 14 generations. He said the removal of the images amounts to an anti-Hispanic sentiment and a dismissal of Hispanics’ unique contribution to the area.
“This is the work of a small, radical Native American group, not our Pueblos,” said Ortiz. “They’ve hijacked the Black Lives Matter movement, and our Anglo leaders are too scared to stand up to them.”
Ortiz is leading an online petition calling for the return of the monuments.
Others have taken to social media to call vandalism a “Hispanicphobia” act, linking it to the anti-immigrant sentiment.
Even the Spanish Embassy in the US has weighed in, saying that defending the Spanish legacy is a priority and that educational efforts will continue to “better publicize and understand the realities of our shared history.”
Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to set foot in today’s American Southwest. It started with expeditions in the 1540s when the Spaniards set out to find the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. Decades later, colonization increased and Santa Fe was founded as a permanent capital in 1610.
Spanish rule over New Mexico territory lasted about two centuries before the area briefly became part of the Republic of Mexico before being taken over by the U.S.
Spain’s continued hold on the territory made it unlike other areas of the Southwest and opened the door for commemorating Spanish influence.
Some scholars say the memorial is linked to efforts that began more than a century ago when Hispanics tried to convince white Congressmen that New Mexico should become a state.
In the 19th century, white people entered the territory and had racist views of the region’s Native American and Mexican American people, according to John Nieto-Phillips, author of “The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish-American Identity in New Mexico, 1880s-1930s. ‘
“They particularly ridiculed the Mexican population as bastards and mixed blood who were unable to self-govern,” said Nieto-Phillips, vice provost for diversity and inclusion at Indiana University.
As a result, Nieto-Phillips said elite Hispanics in the region assumed an exclusively Hispanic-American identity about their mixed heritage as a means of embracing whiteness. Some Hispanics took notions of “pure” Spanish blood as part of the eugenics movement that peaked in the 1920s and 1930s to claim that they were racially different from other ethnic Mexicans in Texas and California, he said.
It is an identity that continues to this day. The conquistador image has appeared on college emblems, moving truck companies, and was once the mascot of the Albuquerque baseball team. Meanwhile, Latinos in other southwestern states often identify as Mexican American or mestizo, a mix of Hispanic and Native American ancestry.
Still, the Spanish conquistador and all associated images have received strong criticism in recent years thanks to a newly politicized coalition of Native American and Latino activists. Protests have forced the cancellation of Santa Fe’s annual “Entrada” – a reenactment of when the Spanish reconfirmed after the Pueblo Uprising.
In California, people have been defiling the statues of Serra for years, saying that the Spanish priest who is said to have brought Roman Catholicism to the western United States forced Indians to remain with the missions after being converted or subjected to cruel punishment . Protesters in Los Angeles and San Francisco recently shot down statues of Serra.
Recent violence in New Mexico has forced some elected officials to consider dropping public art and renaming schools associated with Spanish conquistadors.
Growing up in Grants, New Mexico, and the author of an upcoming book on colonial legacies in the Southwest, Vanessa Fonseca-Chávez said she understands how Hispanics can be excited about tracing their history to early settlements in New Mexico which is even older than the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
But along with those proud reflections, a critical investigation should come to the colonial legacy and the anger spurred by those monuments.
“These incidents did not happen in a vacuum,” said Fonseca-Chávez, assistant professor of English at Arizona State University. “This has been building for over 20 years … people are really getting frustrated with the lack of historical and social awareness about New Mexico history.”
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP team for racing and ethnicity. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras
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