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Who Was Juan De Oñate? A Look At The Conquistador's Violent Legacy In New Mexico


The movement for racial justice is toppling statues across America - Robert E. Lee, Christopher Columbus and now the Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate. He was New Mexico's first colonial governor and a despot who inflicted misery on Native Americans. Tensions boiled over recently at a demonstration to remove his statue, where a statue defender shot a protester. NPR's John Burnett reports on how the confrontation has revealed fault lines over how Native and Hispanic history are told.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Time was when there were two bronze statues in New Mexico of Don Juan de Onate, who established the first European settlement in America west of the Mississippi. Both were removed last month after protests that they were culturally offensive to Native Americans. In Albuquerque, protesters wrapped a chain around the neck of the bearded, armored figure, chanting, tear it down.



BURNETT: The outrage that erupted over police killings has swept across the country and stoked longstanding resentments against symbols of Confederate and colonial oppression. Moises Gonzales, a professor at the University of New Mexico and a Chicano Native American activist, helped organize the protest at the Albuquerque City Museum.

MOISES GONZALES: I think it's triggered a lot of reflection on some of these monuments and how these monuments portray, at least in New Mexico, this idea of Spanish American white supremacy.

BURNETT: Historically, Native Americans say they were tyrannized by Spaniards. The Spanish say they were discriminated against when American settlers arrived. Melanie Yazzie, who's Navajo, asserts that original inhabitants deserve the greater voice. She's a professor of Native American and American studies at the University of New Mexico and a co-founder of the Indian rights group The Red Nation.

MELANIE YAZZIE: I mean, this is Albuquerque, and it's considered kind of an American city, but this is actually Tewa land. This is pueblo land. And so the people you should be listening to, first and foremost, when it comes to history, when it comes to the history of colonization, are the Native people whose land you're occupying.

BURNETT: New Mexico has a complex history. For instance, the Spanish were enslaving Native Americans there even before African slavery was widespread in the southern U.S.

TIM KELLER: Our history has not always been harmonious at all.

BURNETT: Tim Keller is mayor of Albuquerque.

KELLER: It has been filled with atrocities and with bloodshed and with challenges. And those scars are still very fresh. Essentially, they're like scabs over a wound, and they can be quickly picked off, and the bleeding begins again.

BURNETT: On a recent morning, New Mexico state historian Rob Martinez walks to the spot in front of the museum where the figure of Juan de Onate used to stand.

ROB MARTINEZ: Someone might look at the statue and say, I see the beginning of Hispanic culture. I see the Spanish language being brought. I see Catholicism starting here. But someone else will look at it and say, I see my religion being suppressed. I see my culture being eliminated.

BURNETT: Onate is one of the seminal figures in New Mexico history. He left Mexico in 1598 with a long caravan of settlers, missionaries and livestock to establish a colony, to subjugate and Christianize the Indigenous population, and to extract all the riches he could. He made land grants to his colonists and empowered them to collect tribute from the forced labor of Indians.

In the most infamous episode, Spanish soldiers who had demanded food and blankets from the Indians of the Acoma Pueblo were attacked by Native warriors. Twelve soldiers died in the fighting. In retribution, Onate declared a war by fire and blood against the Acoma. Soldiers returned, slaughtering at least 800 warriors, women and children. The Spaniards enslaved most of the survivors and cut a foot off of 24 young men as a warning to other rebellious pueblos.

State historian Rob Martinez says, even by the harsh standards of the day, Onate's actions were judged extreme.

R MARTINEZ: He was taken out of here around 1606 and put on trial in Mexico City for cruelty to the pueblo people at Acoma and for cruelty to colonists. So, yeah, he wasn't a heroic figure back then.

BURNETT: Over time, Acoma people escaped servitude and returned to their decimated pueblo. Today, the tribal population numbers just over 5,000. Current Acoma Governor Brian Vallo says his pueblo has always opposed monuments to Onate.

BRIAN VALLO: I am glad that the city has decided to remove the statues, and I hope that the mayor and others at the city will take a careful look at a direct dialogue with tribes and those individuals who are at the forefront of these protests.

BURNETT: But some Hispanic New Mexicans, many who trace their lineage to the founding colonists, are just as adamant that their history be told, not erased.

SONNY RIVERA: Sure, he wasn't a saint, but you can't put aside what the Spanish brought - you know, the horse, the pig, the sheep, the cow, the wine and the mining industry.

BURNETT: Sonny Rivera is the acclaimed sculptor of the two Onate statues - one in Albuquerque and one in Alcalde, north of Santa Fe. He sits in his studio, surrounded by his sculptures. Though he gave his OK for the city to remove the Albuquerque statue for safekeeping, he's fuming over the outcome.

RIVERA: Indian lives matter. But also, you know, my people - Hispanic lives matter. I matter. My art matters. I'm pissed.

BURNETT: Disagreement over the statues still smolders, but it's not always so strident, especially when it's in the same family. A teenager and his grandmother stand outside the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo after morning Mass. The reservation is located between Santa Fe and Taos. It was the home of Po'pay, the warrior who led the 1680 pueblo revolt that briefly drove the Spanish out of New Mexico.

Matthias Bowie is 16 and identifies as Native. He says he read about Onate in grade school, and he's glad the horse-mounted statue located just outside of his pueblo is gone.

MATTHIAS BOWIE: I did learn about Onate and what he did, and I didn't agree with it. And I definitely can see why there's the whole controversy around him. And I do agree with removing him.

BURNETT: His grandmother is Lynda Martinez, a retired junior college teacher who identifies as Hispanic. And she thinks the removal of the statue was wrong.

LYNDA MARTINEZ: We're mestizo. You know, it's not like we're Hispanic from Spain or we're Native - totally Native. We're not. We are a melting pot. And what people don't understand at this point in time is that we need to come together. What happened in the past happened. And, you know, what my grandson said is Onate wasn't a very good person, you know, but that doesn't give anybody the right to come in and blame the Hispanic, blame the Natives. It's not right at all.

BURNETT: The renowned Acoma poet Simon Ortiz wrote, time does have mercy. But it doesn't enumerate or wait. It moves. And we move with it.

In New Mexico, they're wrestling with how their history should be told as the times change.

John Burnett, NPR News, Albuquerque.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.