By Austin Fisher
Despite years of pushback and protests, the depiction of genocidal Spanish conquistador and war criminal Juan de Oñate returned to the Fiesta del Valle de Española over the weekend with a re-enactment that attempted to downplay his crimes and polish his legacy.
At the Bond House Museum in downtown Española recently, 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 Replies to Accusations.”
He was joined by Roberto Valdez, chairman of the Fiesta Corporation’s speaker’s committee.
In character and costume, Valdez started the presentation by saying that Oñate was “absolved” of 18 of the 30 criminal charges filed 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 journals and testimonials, and a tradition of oral histories maintained by the people of Acoma Pueblo.
Historical consensus states Oñate’s siege of Acoma killed about 800 people in retaliation for the Pueblo’s prior killing of about a dozen of Oñate’s men, who forcefully demanded supplies and raped a woman. After murdering hundreds, Oñate’s forces then cut off a foot of every man over the age of 25 and enslaved much of the Pueblo.
“We can’t negate such basic historical facts,” said Matthew Martínez, a former lieutenant governor of Ohkay Owingeh and former professor of Pueblo Indian studies at Northern New Mexico College.
The historical presentations on July 9, included no women, no Pueblo historians, nor any of the numerous local scholars critical of the pageantry.
“You’re having this conversation right in the center of Tewa homeland without anybody from those communities at the table to be a participant,” Martínez 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 like the folks that were chosen to speak were very much along the same theoretical practices of really idolizing a particular figurehead that his own people ostracized and exiled,” Martínez said.
He said New Mexicans owe it to their ancestors, both Native and Hispano, to recognize the real history and the struggles.
“Fiestas should be more than just dressing up in colonial garb, but serve as community-driven events that recognize both the historical atrocities and the resilience that make up who we are as people from the valley,” Martínez said.
Another speaker at the event, former state historian Robert Torrez, said when people form opinions about European colonization, they should be informed by “at least what the available sources are — and not on contemporary newspaper reports, many of which seem based on imagery and emotionally charged sources.”
Torrez also criticized the anonymous protester who cut off the foot of the Oñate statue in Alcalde in January 1998 because, in his view, it is unfair to judge the actions of 16th and 17th century people using the morals and ethics of a person living in the 21st century.
“The 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 look at the news nowadays and see what this society allows to take place, at the risk of being political, with unborn children — that kind of thing.”
Decades of protest
The pageantry of these annual events — not just in Española but in towns across New México — and the historical perspective they promote pushed scholars, community activists and Norteños to call for a rethinking of what it means to celebrate genocide and conquest.
The events drew outcry from activists and community members again in 2017 because they glorify Oñate’s expedition to Tewa lands in northern New México and the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Calls for change prompted the city of Española to take the portrayal of Oñate out of the 50th annual event in 2019 following public pressure from Native and non-Native activists.
But speakers at the festival three years ago denied historical Spanish atrocities against local Pueblo peoples.
Mayor John Ramon Vigil, then a city council member, distanced the festivities from one of the speakers, Al Borrego, who denied Oñate’s 1599 massacre of the Acoma Pueblo. Borrego was not present at the conference.
Since then, Fiestas is no longer managed by the Española city government. 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 especially troubling to Peña because it follows deep social unrest in 2020: the George Floyd protests, criticism of police violence, and the destruction or removal of more than 160 monuments to the Confederacy — including the removal of the Spanish colonial statues in Alcalde, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque after Steven Baca Jr. shot a protester.
There have been repeated requests by people from different communities to do away with Oñate, Peña said.
“They’re gonna do it anyways,” Peña said. “They’re not willing to take in any information or consider how this is offensive.”
There have been community-wide dialogues initiated by leadership, which weren’t perfect, Peña said, though at least it was an attempt.
“But it ended up being a thing where Oñate seemed to embody the entirety of the culture for this fringe group of extremists,” Peña said. “These guys do not think that they are part of the larger community. They think they are insulated from the dynamics of the world around them. They think they’re special, that they don’t have to look at the things that they do and change anything.”
The destruction of monuments is not about erasing history, said Martínez (Ohkay Owingeh), but really about calling into question men who owned slaves and have been proven to have blood on their hands.
“Based on what we learn from the past, how do we regroup as community members?” he asked. “I think Española is really struggling with that. But it’s wrapped in a larger fabric of what is happening across the United States and across the world regarding removal of statues.”
The Fiestas as we know them today are invented traditions, he said.
“They’re really about perpetuating whiteness and performativity,” he said. “Native people and Spanish people and anybody else that participates become props. It’s about putting people as props, as performance. It’s not based in any historical reality.”
New México State Historian Robert Martínez said New México is a microcosm of what’s been happening nationally as far as statutes and monuments. Some argue against taking down monuments while others say they remind them of a very difficult, painful past, he said.
“That’s the conflict that we’re dealing 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 how historical events impact other people today.
“Pueblo people are our current fellow New Mexicans,” he said. “It matters what they think of statues, not just what we think. Their opinion matters, too.”
The legacy of Jim Crow
Amado Guzman’s family moved from Albuquerque to Española when he was 13, and he lived in Santa Cruz. He considers the decision to bring Oñate back to the Española Fiestas “a step backwards.”
“That the Oñate or De Vargas or Spanish colonial parades date from that period to me is pretty clear proof that it was a part of that national Jim Crow culture.”
Amado Guzman, Historian
He pointed to Fiestas origins: The first Española event was organized in 1933 — during the Jim Crow era — though it did not become an annual event until 1969.
Guzmán, a member of the Partido Nacional La Raza Unida, historian and a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona, said we must understand Jim Crow as both a set of racial segregation laws and as an ideology in mass popular culture.
“That the Oñate or De Vargas or Spanish colonial parades date from that period to me is pretty clear proof that it was a part of that national Jim Crow culture,” he said.
While we think about the Jim Crow era as primarily being anti-Black — which it is — Guzmán said it was also anti-Mexican, anti-Indigenous, and anti-Asian.
For Peña, defending Oñate feels out of step.
“We just enacted Juneteenth and Indigenous People’s Day as federal holidays,” he said, “and here’s this historical figure who embodies everything that is anti-Black and anti-Indigenous.”
The Oñate family, Peña pointed out, became wealthy in Zacatecas with Indigenous and African enslaved labor — wealth they then used to fund the expedition to what would become New México.
Why would we be celebrating this? he asked.
“We can do better,” he said.
Austin Fisher is a Reporter with Source New Mexico. This article is republished from Source New Mexico under a Creative Commons license.
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