By Austin Fisher
People from Northern New México are organizing to oppose the local government’s intentions to resurrect a monument depicting genocidal Spanish conquistador and war criminal Juan de Oñate.
Outside the Rio Arriba County headquarters on Monday, activists, birth workers, parents and allies held a news conference next to a recently constructed concrete pedestal, upon which county officials plan to erect a statue of Oñate they had taken down during widespread protests here and across the country in 2020.
Dr. Christina Castro (Taos, Jemez), a member of Three Sisters Collective, said they “are not going to allow this monument to go back up.”
“This has not happened yet, and as far as we’re concerned, it’s not gonna happen,” Castro said. “We allow these folks to have power and move within our communities with impunity, and we have the choice to say no.”
Beata Tsosie (Santa Clara) said there is no space for upholding the values of colonialism anymore.
“This is not a past issue of historical violence; this is an ongoing issue of ongoing colonial violence,” Tsosie said.
That violence includes the overdoses from fentanyl ripping through the community, the lack of housing for people in the area, and attacks against Indigenous people who go missing or are murdered, said Luis Peña, one of the event’s organizers.
The political battle over the Oñate statue in Rio Arriba was already “fought and won by the people,” said Justine Teba (Santa Clara), a member of The Red Nation.
The statue is in storage out of public view where it’s sat since the summer of 2020, when county officials removed it from its original place at a different county building in Alcalde, about nine miles north of Española.
Activists on June 15, 2020 celebrated the removal and used red paint to leave handprints on the base the county left empty. The Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office later asked the county government to pay for riot gear in the event of future protests. The new location for the statue is feet away from the sheriff’s office.
That fall on Indigenous People’s Day, activists in Santa Fe tore down the obelisk in that city’s central plaza. They also left red handprints on the obelisk. The same handprints could be found on the Kit Carson monument outside the federal courthouse in Santa Fe that was defaced earlier this year.
What the red hands symbolize is the dialogue community members are hoping to have.
Tsosie asked the crowd on Monday if they are bothered that children “are born into a culture of violence, where they’re gonna be expected to fight for a military that does not love or care for them, or the issues they’re facing in their communities?”
Tsosie was a member of the state’s Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Relatives Task Force, where she learned about the root causes of violence. At the end of the news conference, she delivered the task force’s response plan to the county government.
She opposes any symbols or monuments to oppression “that are based and rooted in patriarchal violence and militarism.”
“We are currently occupied by Los Alamos National Laboratories, enacting violence on our lands and our bodies, creating economic disparities with classism in our communities, keeping us in an impoverished state, and subject to all of the disparities around our health and wellness,” Tsosie said.
Patriarchal violence teaches children and men that it’s OK to be violent against women and nonbinary people, Tsosie said, and that women and children are property.
Antonio DeVargas, a local activist with roots in the La Raza Unida movement of the 1970s, also announced a petition to remove county commissioner Alex Naranjo from office. Naranjo was elected to the commission in 2022 and is leading the push to resurrect the monument.
Celina Montoya-García (Ohkay Owingeh) brought her child to the news conference Monday, and asked why Rio Arriba County is teaching children to relive history by supporting a statue that symbolizes violence.
“Oñate is the direct symbol of slavery and murder,” Montoya-García said. “I do not approve of glorifying somebody who caused violence and murder to Acoma people. He colonized and murdered Indigenous people. He cut the feet off our Indigenous brothers.”
She asked why the money spent on fixing the statue’s foot wasn’t spent on social programs like support for unhoused people, substance use disorder treatment, MMIWR programming or given to Indigenous youth and families.
Castro suggested that the county government’s reinstatement of the Oñate statue is a response to her and others’ recent organizing in opposition to Santa Fe Fiesta reenactments in public schools.
Jennifer Marley (San Ildefonso), a member of The Red Nation, said Oñate “represents the death drive of colonialism.”
“He represents all of the sickness that we’re still dealing with today: the fentanyl overdoses, the violence against women and children,” Marley said. “Oñate is never coming back.”
Marley pointed to historical examples of solidarity between Native people, Nuevomexicanos, and genizaro people, including the Battle of Chimayo against the U.S., and the Battle of Taos.
“This is not about who’s from where, or whose ancestors did what, this is about us learning how to be good relatives to each other and the land now, today, in this day and age, for everybody’s sake,” Marley said.
Every summer, Tsosie said, Tewa and genizaro women get together to share seeds and exchange knowledge about how to care for the land.
The true culture of this place, Tsosie said, is a commitment to the protection of land, water, and seeds, not militarism and conquest.
Elena Ortiz (Ohkay Owingeh), also a member of The Red Nation, said Oñate doesn’t deserve to be elevated.
“If you’re a leader in this Valley, you should be leading. You should be stopping the drugs. You should be stopping the violence,” Ortiz said. “Instead, you’re sitting by and getting fat and filling your pockets, and that’s the legacy that Oñate has brought to this Valley. So no, we don’t want Oñate elevated. He is not someone worthy of respect.”
County officials expect to erect and commemorate the Oñate statue at 10 a.m. on Sept. 28. Commissioners from Rio Arriba county will hold a meeting at 1 p.m. after the event.
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