Conquistador Don Diego de Vargas covered a lot of ground in his life — leaving Spain for Mexico and ending up in New Mexico as he led Spanish settlers back to Santa Fe after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.
For those actions, he is a hero to some and symbol of colonialism to others. His statue — in Cathedral Park since 2007 — was removed last year after his presence on city property became controversial given de Vargas’ role in leading attacks against Native people.
At the time the statue was removed, the nation was embroiled in protests and debates over racial justice; discussing how to heal past wounds and reconsidering just which historical figures deserve a statue.
For much of that nation, the debate focuses on slavery, the Confederacy and honoring those many believe were traitors to the U.S.
In New Mexico, as Native activists reminded everyone, the role of Spanish settlers has been romanticized, with the damage done to Indigenous peoples glossed over. The return of de Vargas in 1692 is heralded as “bloodless” by many, avoiding the reality of the bloody battles against the Pueblo people that followed.
Amid that atmosphere, Mayor Alan Webber ordered in June the statue be moved for safekeeping.
Boy, has it been safe. So safe, the city of Santa Fe didn’t know where it was. Turns out, the contractor who removed the statue simply took it with him, keeping it until the city told him what to do. A city employee charged with finding a place for it on city property failed to follow through, and his boss did not ascertain the whereabouts of the statue. Neither employee nor boss — former Parks Director John Muñoz — work for the city anymore.
The contractor put the statue away and only recently placed it outside, where it was visible. Former City Councilor Ron Trujillo and his wife, Amber, drove to the still undisclosed location, confirmed the statue was there and took a photograph as proof.
De Vargas — a statue built for the outdoors — seems just fine.
However, it does not speak well of city procedures and follow-up — with the buck stopping at the mayor’s desk — that no one realized de Vargas was out of city hands.
It’s one more misstep in what should be a success for Santa Fe, a decision by the city to expand how its story is told and who gets to be part of the narrative. It’s also bad timing.
After months of delay, the city-backed process to consider how to share its rich, multicultural history is ready to start. On Monday, the City Council’s Finance Committee endorsed a $62,000 budget adjustment request; the money would pay a consultant to coordinate the Culture, History, Art, Reconciliation and Truth process.
That’s the unwieldy name for what is designed to be a community conversation — with actions to follow — about how Santa Fe can confront its history while respecting different points of view and bringing diverse voices to the table. The discussions are long overdue, and we hope they start by considering what temporary measures can be taken to beautify the Plaza.
In October, another monument — the obelisk in the center of the Plaza — was taken down by force on Indigenous Peoples Day. It was one of three, along with the de Vargas statue and the Kit Carson monument, the mayor had promised to remove in June.
Kit Carson sits on federal property and the city has little say over it. Activists took the obelisk’s removal into their own hands; what remains is unattractive. Something temporary, inexpensive and inviting should be in place for warmer months.
That leaves de Vargas.
The Caballeros de Vargas, the group that tends his legacy, donated the statue to the city. Members say they want it back. The Caballeros — including Trujillo, an unsuccessful mayoral opponent of Webber’s in 2018 — should be at the table when the Santa Fe story is discussed during the CHART process.
For the moment, de Vargas is safe. Now, store him properly until his future is determined.