Twelve years after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas marched into Santa Fe on horseback to reclaim the city.
Thursday morning, a statue of a man who is both honored and reviled was hauled away in the back of a flatbed tow truck.
At the direction of Mayor Alan Webber, a crane removed a statue of de Vargas, which had been part of a growing controversy over historical markers and monuments in Santa Fe.
The removal of the statue from Cathedral Park downtown came hours before a planned demonstration over historical monuments and hours after an unsuccessful attempt overnight to remove at least part of the obelisk on the Santa Fe Plaza.
The obelisk, a war monument erected more than 150 years ago, had been the focus of a planned protest led by indigenous activists until Webber announced Wednesday he planned to call for its removal, along with the de Vargas statue and another obelisk downtown dedicated to Christopher “Kit” Carson.
City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler accused the mayor of sparking more controversy.
“If the opportunity had been provided to discuss this matter, the decision may have resulted in the same conclusion to remove the statues,” she said Thursday.
“However, the unilateral removal and attempted removal of statues in downtown Santa Fe under the cover of darkness represents a lack of respect for the democratic process in this city,” Vigil Coppler added. “The city’s destruction applied to the obelisk amounts to unabated vandalism. Many believe the city councilors had a say in this, and I can confirm that is not the case. Without opportunity for the public and the City Council to weigh in and explore remedies, the mayor has created another controversy.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also had a role in the decision to attempt to remove the obelisk ahead of the planned protest.
After the mayor announced his intentions, Lujan Grisham reached out to Webber to offer help from the state.
“The governor dispatched state assistance in the inspection of the” obelisk, city spokeswoman Lilia Chacon wrote in an email, adding “state contractors determined the top of the obelisk was unstable and removed [it and] verified the remaining portions were stable.
But workers who were on the Plaza until about 3 a.m. said they planned to remove the top two tiers of the obelisk but were forced to stop the job because it would’ve damaged or destroyed the monument.
“We can’t do it with this crane,” one of the workers said. “The [monument] is too big. It’s all solid.”
In an interview after a peaceful demonstration on the Plaza in which some speakers reiterated their calls for the removal of the obelisk, Webber said the work on the Plaza in the wee hours of the morning was not an “undertaking” of the city.
“I think the governor recognized that we have a public safety issue and a risk and thought it would perhaps be a way to resolve the issue and simply create the space for a positive conversation,” he said.
Webber said he asked city workers to put the de Vargas statue in “safekeeping.”
“We saw what happened in Albuquerque where things started out peacefully but went badly,” he said, referring to a shooting at a protest over a statue featuring another Spanish conquistador, Juan de Oñate. “My feeling has always been there’s no statue that is worth any human life.”
Former City Councilor Ron Trujillo, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Webber, said he reached out to Webber to express his concerns about the removal of the de Vargas statue without public input. He also criticized the botched attempt to remove the obelisk under the cover of night.
“Why now is the governor getting involved in something right here? Yes, she’s the governor of the state, but Santa Fe needs to take care of its problems,” he said while standing at a descanso, or memorial, where the de Vargas statue once stood.
Trujillo said the surreptitious actions to remove the monuments breed mistrust.
“As much as people want to see it disappear in the middle of the night, it’s not going to happen,” he said, adding the obelisk is on historic property that is a National Historic Landmark and on the State Register of Cultural Properties.
The obelisk has been a long-running source of controversy, mostly over an inscription that says it was dedicated to the “heroes” who died in battle against “savage Indians” when New Mexico was a territory. The word “savage” was chiseled off years ago. In 2017, the word “courageous” was written in but is no longer there.
Around 2 a.m. Thursday, workers removed the tip of the obelisk.
Also missing from the monument is a plaque the city installed decades ago stating “monument texts reflect the character of the times in which they are written and the temper of those who wrote them” and that “attitudes change and prejudices hopefully dissolve.” It’s unclear whether the workers removed it.
The work crew was contracted by the state of New Mexico.
The governor’s communications director, Tripp Stelnicki, said Lujan Grisham contacted the mayor “offering the state’s assistance in getting that obelisk inspected or ultimately potentially removing it, just saying, ‘How can we be helpful and ensuring that this is a safe environment Thursday night?’ ”
Stelnicki said safety played a role in the decision.
“Our concern is if people try to take it on themselves to take it down, they might injure somebody because it’s old and it’s top heavy and it’s not as sturdy as you might think,” he said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know how heavy it is, but it’s a lot of concrete, and we’re worried about somebody getting crushed.”
Former City Councilor Frank Montaño, who attended part of Thursday’s demonstration on the Plaza, said he didn’t understand how anyone expected to remove the obelisk from the downtown square.
“That probably was not well thought out,” he said. “I think the intention was certainly a good intention.”
Montaño said the city is dealing with an extremely sensitive issue.
“When I see the speakers up here, I can feel their pain, the Natives and the pain that they are experiencing,” he said, referring to the speakers at Thursday’s rally. “I think that for a lot of Hispanic people, there is also a pain that they are feeling when they see that something that they grew up as understanding to be a good thing is now all of a sudden something that perhaps is evil. All these things need to be talked about. It’s not one way or the other. I mean, there’s reconciliation that needs to be done on both sides.”
The removal of the de Vargas statue touched a nerve among longtime Hispanics, many of whom credit the conquistador with the resettlement of Santa Fe after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta, a Santa Fe native, said de Vargas is part of his heritage but doesn’t “define me as a Hispanic trying to live my best life in modern America.”
“A statue of him definitely doesn’t,” he said. “I know that the removal of the statue and monuments makes some local Hispanics angry and heartbroken because they feel like they’ve already lost their neighborhoods, and they are now losing their culture, too.”
Abeyta said he was always taught that his culture is alive in how he thinks, speaks and passes on to his children.
“It’s in the music I listen to, the food I eat and the traditions I celebrate,” he said. “Statues cannot define who we are as a city, but they should tell the world what we value.”