OÑATE ~ REMOVE & REIMAGINE
Updated: Jun 19
I just signed the petition to remove the statue of - el Conquistador Oñate.
I support this effort because I don't believe in monuments, particularly those that glorify, even if symbolically, the violence of conquest and imperialism, and that perpetuate false narratives based on forgetting history more than re-membering it whole, here or anywhere in the world.
For the record, my scholarship and advocacy on this issue has been consistent for decades. I have long advocated for the removal of these false symbols, calling not only for the physical manifestations to be taken down, but for a deepening of our consciousness.
The symbol of the male conqueror is perhaps one of the most elevated representations locally, nationally and globally. Across the Southwest, it is visible on logos, monuments, and even on Chicano murals. It is one thing that it is employed in the early decades of the 20th century, but that it continues to circulate on social media is detrimental. Worse still, it is deeply embedded in individual and group consciousness at the heart of a sense of self, all of which reveals how deep the wounds are.
The fact that Oñate and other figures of conquest have been embraced as the symbol of identity reveals a lack of critical thinking and imagination. We are not static museum pieces and history has never stood still like these statues. Working to recover a more profound sense of identity, I have called upon us to begin recognizing true icons of identity, like the *mayordomos* (protectors of water), *curanderas* (protectors of health) and farmers (stewards of land), all of which reflect more deeply and meaningfully the essence of a living community.
For those that would say things like, 'you cannot judge the past by the present,' the difference between right and wrong is recognized in any era. In 1848, then a freshman congressman named Abraham Lincoln challenged President Polk’s justification of a war that would culminate in the conquest and annexation of the northernmost territory of Mexico. Abolitionists called for the end of slavery, knowing it was wrong. Countless examples of this exist.
Consider for a moment that Oñate was actually tried by his own contemporaries. Although he had been recalled from his position in 1606, by 1614 he was accused of 30 separate charges, eventually acquitted of 18 of those charges, but found guilty of 12 others, including those of excessive violence, cruelty, immorality, adultery and false reporting. This does not even account for being at the forefront of slavery, illegal or otherwise, that impacted both Africans and Native Americans. For the crimes he was convicted, he was fined and condemned to perpetual exile from New Mexico, a lenient sentence by all accounts. He lived the rest of his life working to unsuccessfully exonerate his name.
Certainly, Oñate was not alone and there were others that preceded and followed who served as the instruments of colonialism. Beyond the statue in Alcalde, there are several present day physical manifestations that mythologize Oñate, including schools and streets and even a towering equestrian monument that sits on the border in El Paso, a fact that would confound the 17th century King Phillip III as well as members of the expedition who served as character witnesses to his deeds. These visible manifestations and an entire landscape of other memorials are no different than the confederate statues that codified a heroic narrative and fixed it in singular monuments.
In an essay on historical consciousness, 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, distinguished three approaches to history: the *monumental*, the *antiquarian* and the *critical*. Monumental history emphasizes great deeds of singular heroes and events. Statues, buildings and anniversary festivals all serve as examples of this type of history. Antiquarian history reflects an admiration of the past and those who want to preserve it, though because it does not connect to either the present or the future, it is not generative, does not in and of itself, create something. Examples are static displays and buildings whose integrity and interpretation are guided more by what once was than what could be or even current or future needs for a community. Monumental and Antiquarian approaches are largely celebratory, infused with nostalgia and often reflect single and dominant perspectives; these are the approaches that have largely dominated the field of public history and exist in public spaces.
In reaction to the celebratory, the static, and the nostalgic, a third approach has emerged — critical history — which is about analysis. Deconstructive by nature, critical history can lead some to feel disquieted and uncomfortable. Some have gone so far as to refer to this method as judgmental, though as it draws from facts, if undertaken thoughtfully and sensitively, it should not read as condemnation, but rather as deep thoughtful analysis. This method actually has the potential to illuminate the erased and obscured and to include multiple perspectives, resulting in opening doors to connect past, present and future. It is an approach that usually emerges in writing, particularly in academic and scholarly monographs, though also can be made more accessible publicly (e.g. op-ed pieces, websites, blogs, films).
I would argue that paired with this critical and constructive approach, the work of artists is essential. Those creatives working particularly in the visual, performing, literary and media arts, have also long taken as subject matter, the past, offering counter and imaginative interpretations and helped us to look closer, see the past more clearly and to create openings toward healing in the present.
While our identity resides in action and struggle, I believe in a process that is grounded not in violence but in civic discourse that leads to transformation.
We have an opportunity in this moment and I call upon a renewed vision and leadership in government and cultural based organizations especially to work on the ground with community to effect change, to contextualize, to recenter these symbols, removing them from decontextualized settings and above all to work to recover and replace them with the full complexity of who we are.