An ongoing dispute over the removal of a statue of Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas from a downtown park three months ago spilled into the patio of a Mexican restaurant in Burro Alley during Tuesday’s lunch hour.
Mayor Alan Webber got into a heated argument with Virgil Vigil, president of Union Protectiva de Santa Fe, which bills itself as the city’s oldest Spanish cultural organization, over the mayor’s June decision to remove the statue ahead of a planned protest. The mayor has said he ordered the removal of the statue for safekeeping — a decision that has sparked backlash among some local Hispanics who consider the move an attack on their Spanish roots.
Since then, Union Protectiva de Santa Fe has called for the return of the statue to Cathedral Park next to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
In a statement obtained by The New Mexican, Vigil wrote the mayor became angered when Vigil “indicated that the feelings are that he [Webber] does not care for our history and culture.”
“He immediately went into a rage,” Vigil wrote, referring to Webber. “He pointed and kept pointing at me and said that I do not know what his feelings are, that I do not know.”
In a statement late Wednesday, the mayor said Vigil called him out on the street and “quickly raised his voice in anger.” Webber said Vigil accused him of “hating Hispanics” and “hating Hispanic culture.”
“I told him in no uncertain terms that, in attacking me personally, he had crossed a line,” the mayor wrote.
“We can and should have differences of opinion in our city on issues that are important to all of us, but we have to maintain mutual respect,” Webber added. “Otherwise we can’t find common ground.”
In an interview, Vigil, 66, called the mayor’s actions unprofessional and “a little threatening.”
“It was a nice conversation up until I told him that the feelings are that you don’t like our culture, our Hispanic culture, and don’t support our Hispanic culture,” said Vigil, a retired Army colonel who served 30 years in the military.
“He became very angry, very upset, and he started pointing his finger at me and kept on pointing his finger at me over and over again and told me that I don’t know him and that I don’t know what his feelings are,” he said.
Vigil said he was surprised by Webber’s reaction.
“He’s supposed … to be cool, calm and collective,” Vigil said. “He’s the mayor. He is … the highest position in the city, and for him to blow his head gasket, so to speak, for him to lose control, lose his temper, was very telling. It touched him. It touched him in a negative way that he didn’t like, and he wanted me to know that he didn’t appreciate that, and that’s why he kept on pointing his finger at me.”
Vigil said he “retaliated.”
“I pointed back at him — and he didn’t like that either — and said, ‘You know, your actions express your feelings,’ ” he said.
Richard Barela, who is Union Protectiva’s vice president and witnessed the exchange, confirmed that Webber became “upset” and pointed his finger at Vigil while talking to him in a loud voice.
“He says, ‘Don’t you tell me what I feel! Don’t you tell me what I feel!’ ” Barela recalled, adding that the mayor “got a little heated.”
“Virgil told him, ‘Well, it’s not what you feel, it’s your actions. It’s your actions. You’re saying something and then you act another way.’ And then the mayor, oh God,” he said, laughing.
In his statement, Webber said Barela “spoke calmly.”
“I offered [Barela] a follow up meeting so we could have a respectful conversation. He gave me his business card and I emailed him as soon as I got back to my office,” Webber wrote.
Vigil said he wrote about his run-in with the mayor after lunch so he wouldn’t forget details of the confrontation.
According to Vigil’s statement, which he called a “memorandum for record,” he and Barela were sitting outside for lunch when the mayor happened to walk by.
“I called out his name and he came to our location. I introduced myself and Richard and he indicated he knew,” Vigil wrote.
Vigil said he asked the mayor when he would appoint members to his proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Webber said in June would be formed to evaluate every statue and monument in the city and help determine their fate — continuing a process started by his predecessor, former Mayor Javier Gonzales.
Webber “indicated it is difficult because he needed funding to appoint such a committee. That he would appoint a director who had to be paid for his position,” Vigil wrote. “I indicated no one [needed to] be paid. It could all be done on a voluntary basis.”
Vigil then told the mayor that removing the de Vargas statue was “not right.”
“He said he did so because he had heard a protest was going to be conducted and he did so to protect the statue and the people because guns would be taken [by] people to the event,” he wrote.
Webber did not address Vigil’s assertions in his statement.
Vigil told Webber he was unaware of a planned protest but that Webber, “as the top city enforcer,” could have directed the police department to be present at a protest “to protect all.”
When Vigil asserted Indigenous activists with the Red Nation and Three Sisters Collective groups must have informed him of a planned protest, Webber denied talking to either organization, according to Vigil’s statement.
“Richard [Barela] then said, ‘Then how did you appear with them in the Plaza in support of the Red Nation and Three Sisters the following day?’ He did not respond,” Vigil wrote.
Barela also asked Webber why he didn’t attend a rosary Saturday morning in honor of de Vargas in Cathedral Park.
“I was at the Mass. Were you?” Webber reportedly asked Barela, referring to a ceremony held Friday known as the Prégon de la Fiesta, where Webber read a proclamation issued in 1712 when the City Council established the Fiesta de Santa Fe.
“Richard replied he, too, was at the Mass and he thought it was hypocritical for him to be reading the proclamation declaring a peaceful resettlement and being the one who ordered the removal of de Vargas,” Vigil wrote.
Vigil said he then expressed to the mayor that it was “not right that the Natives continually say that the Spanish committed genocide.”
“I told him in times of battle, all sides lose people,” he wrote. “I asked him if he knew that the Natives tied 21 Franciscan priests to horses and dragged them on the streets until they died. That the Natives killed over 400 women and children during the [Pueblo Revolt] and that we do not scream genocide as some Natives do.”
That’s when things got even more heated.
After the finger-pointing, Webber told Barela he would talk to him in a Zoom meeting, and they exchanged contact information.
“We [wished] each other a good day and he left,” Vigil wrote at the conclusion of his statement.