COMMENTARY: While Americans debated whether the Confederate flag belongs atop a statehouse or in a museum last week, I pondered another controversial symbol.
In El Paso, Texas, I drove past a massive statue of Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate atop his horse. Oñate greets airport visitors holding the 1598 document proclaiming that Spain was taking possession of this region.
Two outside cultures conquered our area – first the Spanish, later the Americans. Both committed unconscionable atrocities against Native Americans, who are still feeling the effects.
For example, the Navajo Nation’s poverty rate, 43 percent, dwarfs New Mexico’s rate of 20.4 percent. New Mexico’s Native youth die by suicide at a rate at least twice as high as others. Native people nationwide are more likely to be killed by police than others, including blacks.
Oñate, who ushered in this region’s era of conquest, was especially brutal. His army slaughtered hundreds of people at Acoma Pueblo in 1599 after a skirmish left about a dozen Spaniards dead, including his nephew.
The Spaniards cut the right feet off surviving men 25 and over. They enslaved many women.
More recently, so-called peonage kept some Natives indebted to and essentially owned by Spaniards. The U.S. Congress targeted New Mexico by outlawing peonage in 1867, when an estimated 1,500-3,000 Natives remained in bondage here. Still, the practice continued into the 20th Century.
Today New Mexico, like El Paso, memorializes Oñate, who was eventually banished from the New Mexico territory for crimes including using excessive force. For example, public schools in Las Cruces and Gallup bear his name. A second statue stands in Rio Arriba County.
Española celebrates our Spanish heritage with fiestas that include portrayal of Oñate by a young man in ceremonies. The Fiesta Council’s offices are located on Paseo de Oñate.
In a conversation on Facebook, Chris Kientz, an Eastern Cherokee who grew up in New Mexico, explained the effect on Natives:
“This may be a stretch, but imagine you are Jewish. Now imagine you live in a state that has statutes of Hitler and schools named after him, and textbooks etc. that glorify his modernization of Germany and virtually ignore the millions he had killed or enslaved,” Kientz said. “That’s how it feels to be an American Indian in New Mexico.”
The fiestas aren’t about celebrating Oñate, said Marlo Martinez of Española.
“It is about paying homage to a culture so rich, so alive, and so important to the history of much of the United States that it deserves to thrive – and to be known – even after 500 years,” Martinez wrote on Facebook.
Statues, schools and roads, a man portraying Oñate during fiestas. To me, this isn’t equivalent to preserving the Confederate flag in a museum. It’s more like flying the flag atop the statehouse in South Carolina.
The South is recognizing that the Confederate flag is a barrier to racial healing and societal progress because many see it as a celebration of slavery. Similarly, all of us who have roots in the bicultural conquest of New Mexico need to acknowledge the pain of Native people.
We should memorialize Oñate in museums – not with statues, school and road names, and fiestas. Spanish culture is vital to our area. Let’s celebrate it, but without glorifying a man who slaughtered Native people.