Consider Oñate’s legacy thoughtfully and in proper context

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(Editor’s note: This is in response to Heath Haussamen’s column, “Let’s put Oñate in a museum with the Confederate flag.”)

COMMENTARY: I’ve mulled over the legacy of the conquest from time to time, but have never framed that legacy alongside the historical memory of the Confederacy. While on the surface this might seem like a valid and a timely comparison, it doesn’t adequately account for the complexity and the context of these respective eras.

Andy Hernández

Courtesy photo

Andy Hernández

On the eve of the Civil War, the Southern states were facing an emerging consensus, both in the United States and abroad, that slavery was no longer acceptable. Even within the Confederacy, there were misgivings and outright fractures over the legitimacy of treating other human beings as property.

Stonewall Jackson couldn’t move beyond the biblical justifications for slavery to embrace abolition, yet he ignored laws forbidding education for slaves, taught Sunday School classes so that slaves could learn how to read and study the Bible, and continued to fund those classes once he accepted a commission from the Confederacy. Elsewhere, farmers in Eastern Tennessee and German immigrants in the Texas Hill Country remained pro-Union and pro-abolition.

These contradictions and fissures, however, would not steer the Southern states away from secession and the defense of slavery.

The Spanish tried to learn

In the case of Don Juan de Oñate, I don’t want to try to sum up his life in a paragraph and claim that the question is resolved. The evaluation of Oñate’s legacy needs to continue in a thoughtful manner. What I would like to do instead is call attention to the events that shaped him and those who came after him.

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Oñate was acting under a much more defined set of instructions than many of the other conquistadores who had preceded him. It was within that framework of greater scrutiny that Oñate was convicted of offenses ranging from unjustly hanging two Natives to the use of excessive force in suppressing the Acoma Revolt — convictions made possible under a system that had tried to learn from the worst excesses of more than a century of conquests in the Americas.

At the same time, the reversal of most of these convictions came under this very system. In essence, Spanish colonial society was capable of a degree of self-reflection that we can’t appreciate if we dismiss it as solely a framework for avarice and conquest.

Oñate would not be the only royal official from New Mexico to be prosecuted for crimes, though the threat of punishment was not enough to prevent a level of exploitation that, when combined with disease and famine, would ultimately contribute to the Pueblo Revolt.

When Diego de Vargas reconquered New Mexico 12 years later, he did so in strict adherence to the instructions given him, and would further begin to create an environment in which his successors would have a healthy respect for the need for diplomacy and building relationships with the Pueblos. They didn’t create a utopia, but with very few exceptions they were able to leave behind a better world than had been bequeathed them.

The Po’pay statue in Washington

If we judge the past solely in terms of our modern standards, then we’ve done nothing more than create a straw man that can’t offer much of value. It has the same analytical flavor as dismissing our parents as clueless anachronisms instead of seeing that they have their own stories to tell and that we must learn from them.

Instead, when we’re looking at the Confederacy, or Oñate, or anything else worth taking the time to study, we must necessarily also understand them within the context of their times.

In the end, Oñate does indeed have statues and schools named in his honor. It is Po’pay, however, who is one of New Mexico’s two contributions to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. Interestingly enough, he can count Virginia’s contribution of Robert E. Lee and Mississippi’s contribution of Jefferson Davis as companions among the notable historical figures immortalized there.

Andy Hernández is an associate professor of history at Western New Mexico University. He teaches classes on the borderlands and inter-American relations.

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