Statues and monuments are not history. They are, however, part of history; they reflect the times when they were erected and the times when they are taken down.
In New York City, 1776, American revolutionaries took down a statue of King George III. For symbolism, they removed the statue’s head, then melted down the rest to be used in weapons against the British.
The statue was put up a few years before to honor and glorify not just the king but the British Empire. By 1776, the statue had outlived its usefulness and symbolism. Yet, history was not erased. We know who King George is, why the American Revolution happened and what caused it. That history is still with us.
In 1945, the U.S. military destroyed monuments to Hitler and the Nazi movement in Germany, as those symbols and images could not stand if Germany were to move forward into a new beginning.
History was not erased. We know and study the rise and fall of the National Socialist movement in Germany in the 1930s, as well as the disturbing rule of Adolf Hitler and the lessons of history.
In 2003, U.S. Marines brought down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq when his regime was toppled and Hussein’s reign ended. History decided the monument’s existence represented an idea and a person whose time had ended, so the image and symbol could no longer be tolerated. The statue no longer made sense.
Statues and monuments have been raised and destroyed throughout history to remind us that people and societies are constantly evolving and moving forward. What once was considered acceptable is later deemed unacceptable.
Bam! Statues, monuments and buildings are then destroyed, taken down or renamed.
Colonial New Mexico had no statues to any historical figures, save for the bultos (carved statues) or retablos (painted images) of santos or saints that populated the local adobe Catholic churches in centuries past. There were no bronze or marble statues of Juan de Oñate or Diego de Vargas in colonial New Mexico or even Mexican New Mexico; they were erected centuries later.
In 1868, an obelisk was put in the Santa Fe Plaza to commemorate Union soldiers who fought in New Mexico against Confederate invaders. In 1885, an obelisk monument was dedicated to Kit Carson commemorating his involvement in the Civil War battle at Valverde in 1862.
Part of the Plaza monument was dedicated to those who fought against “savage Indians” in New Mexico during the Indian Wars. In 1868, it was acceptable language. But history moves on and changes us. It is no longer acceptable.
A civil war was fought in the 1860s for the soul of our nation and made slavery unacceptable, where such a thing had been acceptable for centuries. This is what I call the correcting of history. It is something that must be done by the people, for the people.
At this time, the fate of the statues of Oñate and de Vargas is being decided. The obelisk is gone. Whatever fate decrees, these historical figures will not be forgotten. They will be studied, written about, lectured about and remembered for their actions.
Here in New Mexico, history is once again being corrected. Natives do not want to be reminded of those things that were once acceptable but no longer are. “Get over it” is not an option. History is taking place and people are making it. Reshaping it.
This is a historical opportunity to guide our future as a community, to rethink how we use our public spaces and the purpose of public art. Our ancestors did it in their time. Now it’s our turn.