Oñate’s Right Foot – essay by Margaret Randall

History – reality and symbol – in New Mexico. 

How Much Coyote Remembered


O, not too much.
And a whole lot.


–Simon Ortíz.[i]


We’re driving through Las Cruces, New Mexico, on our way to the small community of Mesilla, once the largest and most important stop along the early San Antonio-Los Angeles wagon route. Lots of pioneer history here, deep traditions, meaningful stories.

Today Mesilla oscillates between some 2,000 regular inhabitants and up to 10,000 when the yearly Border Book Festival or other events take place. Mesilla is lovely, a little biscochito of Hispanic heritage and pride. Old adobes line its pretty square and several blocks in each direction.

Some have called this village the Santa Fe of the south, or another Santa Fe in the making. This seems specious to me. Mesilla has neither Santa Fe’s sophistication (in the more positive sense of the term) nor such a catastrophic distinction between the very rich and those who serve them. It is what it is: a sweet and inviting village with deep Mexican/American roots.

I set the scene in this way because I believe all cultures have value. We must know how to discern what is beautiful in our traditions and in the traditions of others. We must also learn what is worth preserving, what is ugly, and what we should remember only so we can effectively prevent a repetition of its poison. In our various indigenous cultures, in our Hispanic or Latino cultures. Whether we are of Asian, African, or European origin, we all face this challenge.

I remember years ago attending a reading of The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Someone in the audience challenged the author: “You’re lucky,” she said, “You have such a rich heritage. But what about those of us without ethnic backgrounds, what can we write about?” Alice got the young woman to reveal an interesting Italian grandmother: “We all have stories,” she noted.

As we approach Mesilla, I find myself face to face with a large sign proclaiming Oñate Plaza. The name’s obscenity grips me. As far as I know, I have no Indian roots. But as a human I am suddenly nauseous, revolted and very angry. Couldn’t the local inhabitants have thought of a forebear more worthy of giving name to this small shopping mall than the sixteenth century war criminal?

Don Juan de Oñate’s name adorns plazas, malls, schools and public buildings all over the American southwest. As I write, Oñate Elementary School in Albuquerque is in the local news. Its students and teachers are talking about violence: how to identify and prevent it. A worthy project. The irony, of course, is entirely invisible to the school or many in the community; if we have not been educated about the names we use and revere, we can neither know our history nor make the necessary connections in our present. In recent years two important monuments to Oñate’s memory have been erected, and another is nearing completion.

In my own Albuquerque, interest in Oñate resurfaced over the last couple of years within the context of planning for the city’s 300th birthday celebration.[ii] Not content with remembering the Spanish Duke of Alburquerque or other less controversial figures, the celebration planners revived indignation over the sixteenth century mercenary. Debate, however, has been anything but even-handed. Despite a 2004 poll by the Albuquerque Journal showing that 73% of those queried object to honoring the man, projects have gone ahead unimpeded.

The area’s first large statue to Oñate was erected near Española in 2002, in the small northern New Mexico town of Alcalde. The site was chosen because Oñate once had a home there. The statue was originally placed outside the building. Perhaps those behind the project thought it would increase civic pride and improve people’s lives. One point two million dollars of tax-payer money was used to underwrite the bronze.

When a brave protestor sawed off the conquistador’s right foot in tribute to the flesh and blood feet Oñate ordered cut from Acoma males in 1599, the statue was moved inside. Subsequently, because so few people visit, it was moved back out: currently standing right on the road where no passerby can miss it. Ten thousand dollars more was spent on repairing the damaged foot, and later another $12,000 went to cover the various moves.

According to Acoma artist and activist Maurus Chino, the Alcalde center pulls in a meager $700 a month. This is what citizens’ tax-payer dollars fund in an area of New Mexico heavily burdened by poverty, drugs, poor education and inadequate health care. And Alcalde’s wouldn’t be the final New Mexico tribute to Don Juan de Oñate. 

In 2005 a second statue was placed outside Albuquerque’s Museum of Art. The city’s proposal to honor the conquistador did not meet with unanimous approval: local artists, Indians from Acoma Pueblo – the site of Oñate’s most onerous crimes – along with people from other social sectors, brought Oñate’s murderous history to the attention of the Mayor, City Counsel, Tri-Centennial Committee and others. Public discussions were held. Newspaper articles and radio programs attempted to disseminate historical information about the events of 1598-99, as well as about the largely ignored 1680 Pueblo Revolution.

But once again those insisting on honoring Oñate had their way. Despite considerable protest, Albuquerque’s Hispanic community, or a large and powerful enough part of it,[iii] prevailed. Another monument to Oñate would rise to remind us of abuse and annihilation, as if there was no one else in our Spanish, Mexican or New Mexican heritage whose life is worthy of tribute.

In Mexico, if you ask around it’s difficult to find anyone who knows who Don Juan de Oñate was. In Spain he is but a minor footnote in the history of the conquest. It seems that only here, where he committed his atrocities, are statues commissioned in his honor. The Albuquerque statue was erected at a cost of $700,000 and occupies a central place in front of the city’s Museum of Art, close to historic Old Town.

Like its predecessor, it is ugly. Bad art. Figures and their limbs confront the viewer. They are meant to be realistic but lack even a semblance of proportion. A jarring absence of overall harmony assaults the eye. Bad art is always a mistake, compounding insult and mocking artist, subject and public alike.

Why not have placed this statue, if it had to be erected, at the multi-million-dollar Hispanic Cultural Center on the city’s south side? There, at least, it could be appreciated by the small but influential Hispanic community that wanted it and by the greater Hispanic community that did nothing to try to understand the sensibilities of the descendants of those Native Americans who suffered genocide at the hands of the conquistador.

The most the Hispanic community and city of Albuquerque were willing to do – an entirely inadequate concession to so many people’s indignant objections – was to change the monument’s name to La entrada (The Entrance). This “solution” honors the conquistador without explicitly naming him. As a compromise it reflects the failure to assume responsibility that has characterized every stage of this travesty.  

And this was not the end of our modern-day southwestern homage to Oñate. A third statue, this one four and a half stories high, is in the works for El Paso, Texas; it has been advertised as a monument to the border, today’s tribute to the carnage committed so many centuries ago. Its planners speak of the riches in land and resources won by the conquistadores. The monument will stand as well to today’s version of such commerce: violent men crossing borders motivated by a similar greed. This is a monument as tragically coherent with the times we are living as it is abusive to the sensibilities of all who care.

As I worked on this essay, I heard the following story. Someone reported having seen the legs and torso of this latest monstrosity at the Sandia Pueblo gas station at I-25 and Tramway in Albuquerque. She spoke with the driver of the large rig and he told her he was driving the immense pieces south to El Paso, from Wyoming where they were made. He was having trouble with his truck. Ironic that this rendition of Oñate the butcher travels to its final destination in pieces, and that its delivery truck breaks down at precisely the point along the route which is closest to Acoma.

I am reminded of another story of similar impact. In Mexico during the 1960s an immense statue of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, was being transported from its first home in the state of Veracruz to stand before the capital city’s new Museum of Anthropology. As the eighteen-wheeler carrying the transplant passed through the Zócalo – scene of Spanish abuse of native peoples – a clear sky suddenly unleashed torrential rain. We who lined the streets to welcome the majestic entity knew the god had spoken.

In El Paso, too, protest erupted. And once again those intent upon erecting the statue believed they could solve the problem by a simple name change. Rather than expressly honoring Oñate, this monstrous monument is now called “The Equestrian.”

Just so you know where I’m going with this, let me be clear about Don Juan de Oñate. He was a war criminal: no more, no less. Erecting statues in his honor is like immortalizing Custer, Hitler, Trujillo, Batista, Somoza, Pinochet, Savimbi, Milosevic, Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush.

Although descendants of the Spaniards owe an unpaid debt to descendants of the Native peoples against whom their ancestors committed genocide, our Hispanic community too has its history and the right to revere its heroes and heroines. There are many men and women who deserve the honor of remembrance. Why pick a war criminal? And why, in this time of unchecked violence, glorify the extreme violence done our indigenous sisters and brothers – and which reverberates in our national treatment of this country’s Native Americans to this day?

The Pueblo Revolution of 1680 was a heroic page in our history, and one that rarely receives its due. If taught at all in our schools, it is dispatched with a paragraph or two, more often than not inaccurate. I went to grade school, middle and high school in New Mexico. I remember a quickly glossed-over lesson and no discussion – certainly none from the Indian point of view.

Oñate supporters, not surprisingly many of whom refer to the events of 1680 as excessively violent, ignore the reasons behind the revolution. The violent oppression of the Spanish occupation forced the people to expel the invaders. Theirs was an act of self-defense. It not only allowed the Indians to survive, it is one of the primary reasons their cultures have remained intact. The Pueblo Revolution, like the nation’s early campaigns against the English or the courageous Underground Railway of Civil War time, belongs to all of us. We should all know the history. We should all be proud.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, at what is now San Juan Pueblo, a medicine man by the name of Popé was publicly whipped for practicing his religion. Humiliated, he swore his revenge and vowed to drive the Spanish from Indian lands. Popé was a powerful leader. Despite the many different languages spoken by the peoples of the Río Grande valley and other parts of the territory, he was able to unite Keres, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Diné, Apache, Ute, and Comanche against the invaders.

Maurus Chino points out that this was not simply a revolt,[iv] but a true revolution. And it was a revolution against what was then the most powerful nation in the world. The Indians succeeded in driving the Spaniards from their lands, all the way back to Mexico City, and for 12 beautiful years the people were free. Following their victory, people are said to have bathed in the rivers to purge themselves of forced baptism in the Catholic faith.

But with the enemy possessing such superior weaponry, freedom couldn’t last. De Vargas came back into New Mexico intent upon reclaiming what the Indians had won back. Today the state of New Mexico celebrates De Vargas’ campaign in the Fiesta of Santa Fe. Modern-day New Mexican apologists say they are commemorating the bloodless re-conquest of the territory. Of course it wasn’t bloodless at all. But white man’s history likes to refer to its sieges as bloodless, while portraying those who fight for their land and way of life as blood-thirsty savages.

Albuquerque has no monument to Popé. Several years back such a statue was proposed but was rejected out of hand because, it was said, it would have exalted violence. Yet these same decision-makers have no problem erecting statues to Oñate; his violence, in their eyes, must either have been exaggerated or it was justified.[v]

By any reasonable standard – whether one is Acoma, from one of the other Pueblo tribes, Navajo, Apache, Hopi, Hispanic, Mexican, Latino, Chicano, African-, Asian- or European-American, or of any other origin, honoring Oñate should provoke disgust. He was no hero, even by the conquest’s unequal standards. He came, occupied, converted, pillaged, raped, mutilated and murdered. He was hated by those he invaded, and wasn’t all that popular with the Spanish Crown or Mexican Viceroy.

Following his exploits in what is now New Mexico, Oñate was tried for his excessive abuses at Acoma, fined a large sum of money, briefly imprisoned, exiled from Mexico for four years and banished forever from New Mexico. His titles were taken from him. He would never again gain favor with the Spanish Court nor be allowed to take part in the conquest. He ended his days as a mining inspector with only his personal memories of misadventure for company.

Let me tell the story as I have heard it from an Acoma man.  

During the cold New Mexican winter of 1598, a small group of Acoma Indians lived peacefully some sixty miles west of what we now call Albuquerque. For as long as they could remember, the community had inhabited this land of multi-colored rock, yellow sandstone cliffs, wild sunflowers, and great open skies.

Their ancestors had come from the north, from Chaco and Mesa Verde. They spoke Keresan and still do. At Acoma, atop two striking mesas and in the valley below, they built stone homes with windows of mica to let the clear light in. They made decisions from within their kivas. They cultivated corn and beans.

The Native Americans are known to have shared resources with one another. Land was communally owned. When the Europeans came they were shown hospitality and treated with respect – until their vile intentions became clear.

As 1598 neared its end this peaceful life would change dramatically. In April of that year Oñate and his men, as well as a group of Franciscan friars, had set off from Zacatecas, Mexico in search of gold. They bore arms and the Christian cross, symbols to this day of invasion, occupation and death. When they reached the Río Grande they celebrated mass, and Oñate formally declared that all lands north of the river belonged to Spain and all peoples inhabiting those lands were subjects of the Spanish Crown.

Just as today’s criminals avoid mentioning oil when seeking to justify their invasions and occupations, La toma (literally The Takeover) – the Spanish document of April 30th, 1598 – did not mention the search for gold but rather the subjugation of the people, the taking of their land and their forced conversion to Christianity. Gold didn’t have to be explicitly mentioned in that document. Rumors of its existence attracted the Spanish to the southwest like Middle Eastern oil puts a glint in George W. Bush’s eyes.

In December of 1598 white men in leather and steel, accompanied by others in long dark robes, rode into Acoma on horseback. This band of Spanish conquistadores didn’t come in friendship or with respect. Their mission was to claim the land and its resources, enslave the people – mutilating or murdering them when they wouldn’t surrender – and to impose Christianity.

Emboldened by a racist sense of superiority, deceit, gunpowder and their always insatiable greed, the invaders raped and plundered with total disregard for the fact that an ancient belief system and communal harmony had served the people for generations. Modern-day Acoma people still bear the scars of this assault. A collective post traumatic stress is written into their DNA.

Although the Acomas were conquered by surprise, trickery and superior weaponry, and although most now practice Catholicism, what’s apparent to the outsider and what’s practiced privately differ. Public ceremonies combine a mixture of Christianity and the older religion, while the sacred ceremonies remain completely Indian.

There are many and varied tales of conquest. None are pretty. But few rival what was perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of the American continents. Acoma stands out as a particularly ugly chapter in this long genocide. When the people resisted, in a battle in which some 13 soldiers were killed (among them, Oñate’s nephew), the invaders retreated and regrouped.

In January, 1599 another large force came to the mesa. An epic battle lasted three days and, according to the Spanish themselves, more than 800 men, women and children were butchered. Many males had their right foot cut off (foreshadowing the retaliatory removal of that same foot from the statue at Alcalde). Of those whose lives were spared, young men and women between the ages of 12 and 25 were enslaved for 25 years. Sixty young girls were sent to priests in Mexico. They never returned. 

Once again Don Juan de Oñate led the 1598-99 expedition. Not a lot apart from his invasive tactics is known about this man, who wasn’t widely admired even in his own time and place. Some historians say he was born in Spain. Others claim he came from New Spain (Mexico) and had never set foot in Europe.

Whether from the Old or New World, there is no doubt about Oñate’s intentions. He was an opportunist who wanted honor, a title, and the riches successful conquest could bring. In the late sixteenth century the way to achieve all this was by leading an expedition into the New World’s uncharted territory and claiming its land and peoples for the Spanish Crown and Cross.    

Among the adventurers of the day, myths of glittering cities of gold had long since faded; and Spain had ceased promoting expeditions by maverick conquistadores. Unlike the other court-sponsored explorers – Cortéz, De Soto, Coronado, Cabeza de Vaca – Oñate was neither funded nor sent expressly by the Crown. But in northern Mexico his father had discovered and exploited some of the richest silver mines in the New World. The young Oñate had similar dreams. He underwrote his expedition with family money and money he was able to raise.

Oñate’s arrangement with the Spanish Court was as a contract developer. His job was to subdue native peoples through conversion to Catholicism and give Spain a foothold for further exploration and exploitation. If successful, his reward would be a royal title he would be able to pass on to his progeny, and a considerable share of the tax revenue paid by the Crown’s new subjects.

This is a history of treachery, vile abuse, extreme violence – spiritual as well as physical – in short, genocide. Between 1591 and 1638 two thirds of the indigenous population of North America were murdered or perished from the loss of a peaceful life and from diseases intentionally brought by the invaders – foreshadowing today’s germ warfare.

Rather than honor one of the leading local perpetrators of that genocide, why not promote meaningful reconciliation between descendants of the abusers and the abused? Meaningful reconciliation, however, can never work on an uneven playing field. The City of Albuquerque, its TriCentennial committee, and that part of the Hispanic community responsible for erecting the Oñate statues ideally should replace them with something less offensive. If this isn’t possible, moving them to less conspicuous places might be a good-will gesture. Then both sides of this dispute could come together to listen to one another.

Multiple indigenous and Spanish heritages are rich in our midst, but terrorism perpetrated by the invaders against the invaded is also well-documented. Healing will only begin when those who inherit the burden of aggression can begin to be sensitive to those whose ancestors lost their right feet at the hands of murderers and thugs.

When the human circle remains broken, racism is the legacy.

Oñate’s Right Foot[i] Woven Stone by Simon Ortíz, Tucson, The University of Arizona Press, 1992. p. 224.

[ii] The city was “founded” by the Spanish in 1706. The 2006 anniversary has given rise to all sorts of publicity and money-making schemes. Would that the date was being used to point us towards some truthful history.

[iii] Prime mover of the Oñate statues and other slaps in the face of New Mexico’s indigenous population has been the Hispanic Cultural Preservation League. Not all people of Hispanic descent are insensitive to the Indian genocide, but this committee clearly has power and influence.

[iv] When mentioned at all, it has been called The Pueblo Revolt rather than The Pueblo Revolution, as if use of the lesser word might diminish its import.

[v] In 2005 a statue of Popé created by Jémez Pueblo artist Cliff Fragua was added to the group of 100 statues of notable citizens – two for each state-installed in National Statuary Hall at the Capitol, Washington, D.C. No statue of Popé yet exists on his native land.


2 Responses to “Oñate’s Right Foot – essay by Margaret Randall”

  1. Henry Melito Says:

    If you read into the Taino masacre you will see that this genocide started with Columbus and was even more horendous.
    I say down with the statues of Onate AND Columbus…..how horribly disrespectful can people be to erect such garbage?

  2. Henry Melito Says:

    I am a stand for the removal of any and all statues of Onate and for changing the names of any public places to names that reflect respect and honor for ALL the people of new Mexico.
    I will participate in any legal and honorable proces to this end.
    Henry J Melito

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