ALCALDE—Members of the Red Nation, a Native American social justice and activist organization, had planned to hold a demonstration Monday in Northern New Mexico at the site of a long controversial 3-ton bronze statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate that some say included a plan to bring the monument down.
Instead, the rally was what local Red Nation leader Elena Ortiz called a celebration.
Hours before the event, a Rio Arriba County official had ordered the removal of the nearly 30-year-old statue to protect it from damage during the protest.
Scores of spectators gathered at the Oñate Monument Resource and Visitors Center along N.M. 68 in Alcalde, north of Española, to watch a forklift lower the massive statue from its perch. A county work crew then hauled it to storage.
“For the first time in many years, we don’t have to stare at Oñate,” said Ortiz, chairwoman of the Red Nation-Santa Fe’s Freedom Council. “The presence of that statue was an act of violence upon Pueblo people from the moment it was put up and now, finally, it’s gone.”
During the afternoon rally, a Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputy got into a physical confrontation with one of the protesters. The woman was able to pull away from the deputy’s grasp, and the remainder of the rally was peaceful.
A similar event in Albuquerque, where a statue of the conqueror stands as part of a display outside the Albuquerque Museum, was marred by greater violence.
As protesters tried to remove the statue there, shots rang out and one man was wounded, KOB-TV reported.
Several members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a self-described civilian militia, were arrested, the TV station reported.
Oñate led an effort to colonize what is now New Mexico, creating a settlement near the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo, not far from Alcalde, in 1598. While there are many people in Northern New Mexico who celebrate his legacy and can trace their family roots to Oñate, New Mexico’s first colonial governor, many others decry the violence he inflicted upon Pueblo people.
He ordered the feet cut off of 24 Acoma Pueblo men after his nephew was slain.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham hailed the county’s decision to remove the Alcalde statue in a Twitter post, calling it “a step in the right direction” toward understanding the state’s “complicated history” and the “imbalanced Power structures within it.”
But not everyone was pleased.
The statue’s removal was done without consultation from Ohkay Owingeh or residents of surrounding Hispanic communities, Pueblo Gov. Ron Lovato and state Rep. Joseph Sanchez, D-Alcalde, said in a joint statement Monday.
“History is by its definition the past, we should learn from it, not try to erase it or think vindication comes by removing statues,” the statement said. “For hundreds of years, our communities have lived in harmony and continue to look ahead and plan to the benefit of the generations to come.”
A statement by the Rio Arriba County Commission, posted on Facebook, said County Manager Tomas Campos authorized the removal of the statue Monday morning, “based upon information that destruction or damage to the statue and County property” would occur at the demonstration.
The decision is not a final one for the monument, the statement said.
“Rio Arriba County residents need to understand that a final policy decision has not been made about the Oñate statue other than its removal today to protect it from damage or destruction,” the statement said. “The County Commission welcomes a respectful and civil discussion from its residents about the future of the Oñate statue.”
Campos later said he stood by his decision to remove the statue.
“It belongs to the citizens of Rio Arriba, and I did it to protect it,” he said.
The monument’s future will depend on a decision by the Rio Arriba County Commission, Campos said, adding people should contact the commissioners to offer their thoughts on what should become of it.
The two Oñate monuments are among many statues of controversial historical figures targeted in demonstrations across the nation in the last couple of weeks, leading to many being removed or toppled. The demonstrations are tied to protests that have erupted in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died May 25 in police custody in Minneapolis. The protests have led to calls for reforms to end to police brutality and overhaul a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets minority people. Some protesters also have demanded a dismantling of other types of deep-rooted systemic racism.
Luis Peña, who had started an online petition calling on local officials to remove the statue in Alcalde, said it was removed because people had spoken out against it — not just for its protection.
As of Monday afternoon, his petition had more than 2,800 signatures.
“I think with the death of George Floyd, people are finding their collective voice and they’re finding solidarity with each other, and I think it is crossing racial and economic boundaries,” Peña said. “I think people out in the streets right now are not asking for justice but demanding it.
“This is one piece in a much larger puzzle of collective liberation of people.”