New Mexico town reconsiders tribute to Spanish conqueror

SANTA FE, N.M. — A northern New Mexico city nestled among tribal lands is reconsidering its annual commemoration of the 1598 arrival of Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate, who is both revered as a Hispanic founding father and reviled for brutality against Native Americans.

Newly elected Espanola Mayor Javier Sanchez said this week that changes are in store for the city's summer pageant and community carnival that includes a costumed pageant of an armored Onate on horseback with a coterie of soldiers, royalty, Christian friars and an Indian scout.

To American Indians, Onate is known for having ordered the right feet cut off 24 captive tribal warriors and enslaved women and children after his soldiers stormed Acoma Pueblo's mesa-top "sky city," an attack precipitated by the killing of Onate's nephew soon after the Spanish arrival.

Sanchez has appointed a fresh slate of organizers to guide the next Espanola Fiesta — including women from the adjoining Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo Indian reservations — with the goal of designing a more inclusive celebration of the valley's history and culture.

That has set off alarm bells among traditionalists in the community who fear Onate might be forsaken as a symbolic forbearer of the area's unique blend of Native and Hispanic cultures.

"It's a form of ancestral discrimination," John Ramon Vigil said, a city council member who unsuccessfully voted to block the new appointments to the fiesta's organizing committee and sees no need for change. "We're not proud of what happened and transpired at Acoma, but I think we need to recognize the positive aspects of Onate. ... I'd like to highlight that he brought Christianity."

Porter Swentzell, a history professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts and resident member of the Santa Clara Pueblo that adjoins Espanola, said the havoc at Acoma has overshadowed evidence of famine at local Indian communities as Onate and Spanish soldiers requisitioned local food reserves.

"The fiesta could be an opportunity for all of the people who reside in the northern Rio Grande Valley to celebrate together," Swentzell said Tuesday. "Onate is not necessary."

Beyond Espanola, New Mexico civic leaders are grappling with how to address rising criticism over tributes and monuments to Spanish colonial conquerors and their brutal treatment of American Indians centuries ago. Similar controversies extend as far as California and Florida, with activists drawing ethical parallels to the simmering controversy over Confederate monuments.

In Santa Fe last year, police and protesters thronged the streets during a pageant that marks the return of Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas to New Mexico following a 17th century Indian revolt. Eight people were arrested on charges that were later dismissed.

In Espanola, members of the new fiesta council say plans are taking shape for a mediated forum in coming weeks. A briefing on Onate by a former state historian has been drafted.

Sanchez says he wants to inspire his home city to reimagine the fiesta around living traditions — and also to pose the question, "Does that revolve around the story of dominance?"

"This isn't about trying to appease anybody or trying to make up a story all on my own," he said. "I am starting by opening up the dialogue and conversations."

Artist and Acoma Pueblo member Maurus Chino, who has sought for decades to remove Onate statues from public display in New Mexico and Texas, said he is skeptical that Espanola can change elements of the fiesta he finds humiliating.

"We've been in this mode of thinking for 400 years," he said. "It's something that is going to be very hard to change."

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