The obelisk marking the center of the Santa Fe Plaza is no more.
Activists or vandals — choose your word — took it down Monday, appropriately on Indigenous Peoples Day.
Appropriately because, in addition to dedications to soldiers who fought in New Mexico Civil War battles, one side of the monument praised the “heroes” of the Indian wars in New Mexico Territory fallen in battle against “savage” Natives.
That language is and has been unacceptable, so much so that someone scratched it out back in 1974 while no one was paying attention.
Yet the monument remained, controversial up until the moment it was toppled. In rubble, it continues to divide.
We have said, more than once, delays in addressing the questions of Santa Fe’s past would be a mistake. Earlier this year, Mayor Alan Webber had promised activists the Plaza obelisk would be removed — workers attempted it during the dark of night, only to see the effort fail because of the structure’s weight.
It came down fast Monday, but its wreckers had no interest in preservation. They were intent on destruction. That can happen quickly, while the difficult work of discussion, removal and coming to consensus on a better way to honor the past takes time, long conversations and hard work.
Webber did have the statue of Don Diego de Vargas taken from Cathedral Park, likely preserving it, given the climate of the times. A third controversial monument, to Kit Carson — scout, soldier, killer — remains by the federal courthouse downtown.
We said at the time that unilateral removals generally are against the best interests of the community but that in this season of unease — racial unrest, pandemic, isolation and a harsh economy — protecting public safety was paramount.
But we urged city leaders to hurry toward a resolution, writing as recently as Sept. 21, “It’s important to show people on all sides that movement is happening.” As we also wrote, “Santa Fe must get to work figuring out what to do about public monuments and statues, not for symbolic purpose, but as a way to unite the city before its people turn on each other.”
That process will begin now; it’s important and essential. History can help guide us with perspectives from our past.
Several Santa Fe luminaries of yesteryear had wanted the obelisk gone or altered over the years. Famed architect John Gaw Meem, back in 1967, preferred a bandstand in the center, just as in earlier iterations of the Plaza. Historian Myra Ellen Jenkins called that idea bunk, writing in October 1967 in The New Mexican that “the soldiers’ monument … has been a historical landmark of Santa Fe for 100 years. With the interest aroused in recent years to save historical structures and street patterns, it seems scarcely fitting to destroy the character of the plaza.”
By 1973, when the City Council voted to remove it, Meem had changed his mind and believed it should stay put. Priest and historian Fray Angélico Chávez wrote in 1974 that the obelisk should be kept but statues representing the cultures of New Mexico added — he envisioned Pueblo, Spanish, Mexican and American figures to tell a fuller story.
By 1981, a city committee again wanted it gone, preferring a gazebo. Jenkins was still engaged in the battle, reminding all involved that property titles in Santa Fe are based on the obelisk since it was used as the center of the Santa Fe land grant in the 1890s. Removal also could mean the loss of the Plaza’s status as a National Historic Landmark, historians have argued.
And so the conversation has gone, over and over, into a new century. Inertia, federal and state protections, and a strong preserve-our-history sentiment had kept the monument intact. Until 2020 that is, when people demanded that during this year of Black Lives Matter that now — not later — is the moment to confront the sins of the past.
The removal of the obelisk has caused jubilation among some. Others are heartsick. Some are furious, wondering why police did not step in to stop the vandalism.
We want more answers, obviously, but do want to offer thanks for no one being severely injured or killed. A monument is not worth a life. By disengaging, our police did not turn on citizens, surely something to celebrate.
What next? There will be legal consequences, as investigators take apart the timeline of what happened and identify who took the monument down. That’s separate from what the rest of us need to do, including as a community turning down the flames of anger. Racist, ugly language has no place in this discussion.
The people of Santa Fe already have missed the opportunity to discuss collectively how best to honor our shared, difficult and often bloody past. We missed the opportunity to listen and collaborate. We missed the opportunity to preserve intact the Soldiers Monument, the original name, perhaps at a military or history museum.
Now, let’s decide — together — what happens next. Something beautiful can emerge. And it must.