A year ago this month, what should have been a celebration of Indigenous people on the Plaza turned ugly, with a mob taking over and toppling the obelisk that anchored the space.
Santa Fe has not been the same since.
The Soldiers’ Monument obelisk is gone, a plywood box covering the base until its future can be determined. More lasting, perhaps, is the sense of grievance still lingering across the city.
People have been mourning, upset that their history was ripped out without input from across the community. Others have been angry, both at police who could not block the violence and at a justice system they believe has let the vandals off too lightly. Even many people who wanted the obelisk gone because of racist language on a plaque were disheartened by what had occurred.
What happens next on the Plaza remains undetermined.
It has taken nearly a year for a city-approved process — called culture, history, art, reconciliation and truth — to begin its work. CHART is designed to bring people together to decide not just what to do on the Plaza, but to try and heal community divisions while figuring out how Santa Fe wants to share its story. It’s a colossal undertaking.
Despite the frustration with seemingly endless delays, it’s exciting that this important work is beginning. CHART co-directors Valerie Martinez and Jenice Gharib have identified a team after sorting through some 150 applications from people who wanted to participate.
Team members, according to the website, chartsantafe.com, are to “coordinate community engagement activities over the course of the project. They are charged with listening to the residents of the city and county of Santa Fe through a wide range of programs designed to reach Santa Feans of all ZIP codes, backgrounds, ages, and neighborhoods.”
Next up will be the 12 months of the actual work of organizing meetings and discussions, collecting input and finding out what the community wants. The goal is to develop solid recommendations about what should be at the center of the Plaza, but also, how Santa Fe wants to honor its complicated past.
The central obelisk has been in place since the 1860s, built to honor soldiers who fought in New Mexico Civil War battles and in the Indian Wars of the late 19th century.
It was the plaque dedicated to “heroes” of those frontier battles, one that called Natives “savages,” that has been contentious. The phrase was scratched out decades ago. A past City Council voted in the 1970s to remove the entire monument, but the obelisk’s presence has continued to aggravate both Native and non-Natives alike. It is the sentiment of another time with no place in our world today.
Whether an obelisk honoring Civil War veterans can exist in that space, separate from controversy over the Indian Wars, likely will be part of the discussion. As the newly assembled team assists with conversations about what needs to happen next, we urge them to be open to possibilities.
Just a few questions to consider: How can the city use public spaces to share the story of a contentious, multicultural society that still, despite it all, manages to live together? Who gets to decide what version of history is told? How can the telling be spread in all parts of town? And perhaps most important, how can this process heal our divisions, focusing on what unites us?
On this year’s Indigenous Peoples Day, there will be no Plaza demonstrations, but it still is a time to honor the continent’s original peoples. On Saturday and Sunday, that will take the form of dance groups on the Plaza starting at 10 a.m., with the last group beginning at 3 p.m.
Monday is the official holiday in New Mexico, and there is more to celebrate. At the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Art downtown, events begin at 11 a.m. to honor the past, present and future.
In that future, we imagine a Santa Fe where tensions have decreased and people don’t see a plywood box when they gather in the Plaza. What’s there? That will be up to the people of the city, working through CHART, their elected officials and trusting one another to create a future that belongs to all of us.