Home New mexico state Return of Oñate pageantry ignites debate over colonial memory in New Mexico

Return of Oñate pageantry ignites debate over colonial memory in New Mexico


Despite years of pushback and protests, the portrayal of genocidal Spanish conquistador and war criminal Juan de Oñate returned to Fiesta del Valle de Española this weekend with a re-enactment that attempted to downplay his crimes and polish his legacy.

At the Bond House Museum in downtown Española on Saturday, Ray Griego, the man chosen to portray Oñate for the 51st annual event, took part in a 15-minute re-enactment titled “Juan de Oñate Responds to Accusations.”

He was joined by Roberto Valdez, Chairman of the Fiesta Corporation Speakers Committee.

In character and costume, Valdez began the presentation by saying that Oñate was “cleared” of 18 of the 30 criminal charges brought against him by his own government and that the remaining charges were “difficult to prove”.

In historical fact, Oñate was exiled in 1614 by the Spanish government and found guilty of cruelty and excessive force, according to Spanish newspapers and testimonies, and a tradition of oral histories maintained by the people of Acoma Pueblo.

The historical consensus states that Oñate’s siege on Acoma killed about 800 people in retaliation for Pueblo’s earlier murder of about a dozen Oñate men, who forcefully demanded supplies and raped a woman. After murdering hundreds of people, Oñate’s forces then cut off a foot from every man over the age of 25 and enslaved much of the Pueblo.

Ray Griego (left), the man chosen to play Oñate for the 51st Fiesta del Valle de Española, took part in a 15-minute re-enactment titled ‘Juan de Oñate Responds to Accusations’. He was joined by Roberto Valdez (right), chairman of the Fiesta Corporation Speakers Committee. (Photo by Austin Fisher/Source NM)

“We cannot deny these fundamental historical facts, said Matthew Martinez, former lieutenant governor of Ohkay Owingeh and professor of Pueblo Indian studies at Northern New Mexico College.

Saturday’s historical presentations included no women, no Pueblo historians, or any of the many local scholars critical of the pageantry.

“You have this conversation right in the center of the Tewa homeland with no one from those communities at the table to participate,” Martinez said. “And so it’s a very insular conversation, and it’s really based on half-truths and half-perspectives.”

There are local scholars who have dedicated their entire lives to understanding this part of history, he said, who are excluded from these conversations.

“It seems that the people chosen to speak were following much the same theoretical practices of really idolizing a particular figurehead that his own people ostracized and exiled,” Martinez said.

He said New Mexicans owe it to their ancestors, native and Hispanic, to recognize true history and struggles.

“Parties should be more than just dressing up in colonial attire, but serving as community events that recognize both the historic atrocities and the resilience that make us who we are as Valley people,” Martinez said.

Another speaker on Saturday, former state historian Robert Torrez, said that when people make up their minds about European settlement, they should be informed by “at least what sources are available – not by articles from contemporary diaries, many of which seem image-based and emotionally based”. loaded sources.

Torrez also slammed the anonymous protester who to cut the foot of the statue of Oñate in Alcalde in January 1998 because, according to him, it is unfair to judge the actions of people from the 16th and 17th centuries using the morals and ethics of a person living in the 21st century.

“Tact assumes, of course, that our contemporary morals and ethics are higher and more honorable than those of our ancestors,” he said. “You just have to watch the news today and see what this society is letting go of, at the risk of being political, with unborn children – that sort of thing.”

social studies

Part of Martinez’s work over the past year has been supporting the revision of New Mexico social science standards taught in K-12 schools. They haven’t been updated for more than 10 years, he said.

He was part of the original steering committee that provided feedback, which included educators, academics and community members. These recommendations are now adopted by the State Department of Public Education. Schools have one year to implement the new standards and adapt them to their local districts in the materials they choose, Martinez said.

This is an opportunity to supplement the curriculum using challenging perspectives, including women’s history, indigenous history and Latin American history, he said.

“It’s really a flat narrative, and teachers are really struggling, especially New Mexico history teachers, to get authentic voices and materials produced by people in those communities who can tell their own story. “, Martinez said.

Decades of protest

The pageantry of these annual events — not just in Spanish but in cities across New Mexico — and the historical perspective they promote have prompted scholars, community activists, and Norteños to rethink what it means to celebrate genocide and the conquest.

The events have again sparked outcry from activists and community members in 2017 because they glorify Oñate’s expedition to Tewa lands in northern New Mexico and the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Calls for change prompted the city of Española to remove Oñate’s performance from the 50th annual event in 2019 following public pressure from Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists.

But the speakers at the festival three years ago refuse historic Spanish atrocities against local Pueblo peoples.

Mayor John Ramon Vigil, then a member of the city council, distanced the festivities from one of the speakers, Al Borrego, who denied the 1599 Oñate massacre against the Acoma Pueblo. Borrego was not present at Saturday’s conference.

Since then, Fiestas is no longer run by the city government of Española. It has been moved under a private company, effectively insulating it from calls to make it less offensive and more inclusive, said Luis Peña, who started a petition to remove the statue depicting Oñate in Alcalde.

Monuments and extremists

Oñate’s return to the event is particularly troubling for Peña as it follows deep social unrest in 2020: the George Floyd protests, criticism of police brutality and the destruction or removal of more than 160 monuments to the Confederacy – including the removal of Spanish colonial statues in Alcade, Santa Feand Albuquerque after Steven Baca Jr. shot a protester.

An empty space remains in the middle of the “La Jornada” sculpture where the statue of genocidal conquistador Juan de Oñate once stood in Albuquerque. Local activists say the recent acquittal of homicide defendant Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin bears eerie similarities to a shooting that occurred outside the statue here last summer. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans/Source NM)

People from different communities repeatedly asked to get rid of Oñate, Peña said.

“They’re going to do it anyway,” Peña said. “They’re not willing to accept information or consider how offensive it is.”

There have been community-wide dialogues initiated by leadership, which weren’t perfect, Peña said, although at least it was an attempt.

“But it ended up being something where Oñate seemed to embody the entire culture of this fringe group of extremists,” Peña said. “These guys don’t think they’re part of the wider community. They think they are isolated from the dynamics of the world around them. They think they’re special, that they don’t have to look at the things they do and change anything.

Destroying monuments isn’t about erasing history, Martinez (Ohkay Owingeh) said, but about questioning men who owned slaves and were proven to have blood on their hands.

“Based on what we learn from the past, how do we come together as members of the community?” He asked. “I think Española are really struggling with that. But it’s wrapped up in a larger fabric of what’s happening in the United States and around the world regarding the removal of statues.

Holidays as we know them today are made-up traditions, he said.

“They’re really about perpetuating whiteness and performativity,” he said. “The natives, the Spaniards and all those who participate become props. It’s about putting people as props, as a performance. It’s not based on any historical reality.

New Mexico State Historian Robert Martinez said New Mexico is a microcosm of what is happening nationally when it comes to statutes and monuments. Some oppose the destruction of monuments while others say they remind them of a very difficult and painful past, he said.

“It’s the conflict that we deal with with each other and within ourselves,” he said. He said it is important to look at history honestly, with open eyes and hearts, and to be sensitive to the impact of historical events on others today.

“The people of Pueblo are our current New Mexican compatriots,” he said. “What they think of the statues matters, not just what we think. Their opinion matters too. »

The Jim Crow Legacy

Amado Guzman’s family moved from Albuquerque to Española when he was 13, and he lived in Santa Cruz. He sees the decision to bring Oñate back to the Spanish Fiestas as ‘a step backwards’.

He highlighted the origins of Fiestas: The first Española event was organized in 1933 – during the Jim Crow era – although it did not become an annual event until 1969.

Guzmán, a historian and doctoral student at the University of Arizona, said we need to understand Jim Crow both as a set of racial segregation laws and as an ideology in mass popular culture.

“The fact that the Colonial Oñate or De Vargas or Spanish parades date from that period is pretty clear evidence to me that it was part of that national Jim Crow culture,” he said.

While we think of the Jim Crow era as primarily anti-Black — which it is — Guzmán said it was also anti-Mexican, anti-Native, and anti-Asian.

For Peña, defending Oñate seems offbeat.

“We just proclaimed June 16 and Indigenous Peoples Day as federal holidays,” he said, “and here is this historic figure who embodies all things anti-black and anti-Indigenous.”

The Oñate family, Peña pointed out, became wealthy in Zacatecas from native and African slave labor—wealth they later used to fund the expedition to what would become New Mexico.

Why would we celebrate that? He asked.

“We can do better,” he said.