The wife of Juan de Oñate, Isabel Tolosa Cortés Motecuzoma, will now be recognized through her own day of remembrance on July 12.
Last month, the Española City Council unanimously approved the Doña Isabel Tolosa Cortés Motecuzoma Day Proclamation written by Rio Arriba County resident, Ana Malinalli Gutierrez Sisneros.
Gutierrez Sisneros, a local nurse, said the proclamation is meant to educate.
“Health and education, to me, go together,” she said. “It’s to educate them about who the real feminine inspiration is for our Fiestas. I’m a feminist, so this interested me...(Locals) don’t know who she is. And now they’ll know her.”
She said this is the fourth time she tried to have the proclamation approved — first in 1996, then in 1998, in 2015 and now in 2018.
The document’s language remained the same each year, she said. She is not sure why it was not passed in previous years but does not take it personally.
The proclamation said the city of Española celebrates a fiesta each year to commemorate European arrival, and Oñate and his son, Cristobal, were part of a party of 400 that traveled 700 miles and claimed Nueva España and then Nuevo México.
Tolosa Cortés Motecuzoma was the mother of Cristobal de Oñate, the great-grandaughter of Motecuzoma II and the granddaughter of Hernan Cortés, the proclamation said, later referring to her as “our beautiful foremother.”
“No ‘queens’ ever arrived in New Mexico, and the true royalty of these fiesta celebrations is Doña Isabel and her children,” the proclamation states. “Her Indigenous and European descendants, nosotros, honor and celebrate her life by remembering her in this proclamation.”
Gutierrez Sisneros recalled a conversation she had with Roger Montoya, co-chair of Española’s Community Cultural Relations Commission, when she suggested to “re-center the matriarchy and give full credit to the mother of the first governor of New Mexico, the son of Juan de Oñate and her, Isabel Tolosa, just re-center the matriarchy in that way. It’s a good start.”
She said honoring a historic female figure affects people holistically.
“It’s at the core of our identity to honor a woman in our history,” she said. “It’s at the very core. Twenty three chromosomes from the man, 23 from the woman, we’re honoring half of our physical identity, plus our spiritual identity, plus our mental health.”
Montoya said he is a colleague and friend of Gutierrez Sisneros calling her a bright educator and healer.
“She is a very powerful advocate for women, for civil rights, for the Mestizaje, the mixed blood lines,” he said.
This recognition comes at a timely moment in United States history, he said.
In light of the #MeToo Movement, more women elected into political positions and the removal of confederate statues in the American South, now is the right time for the proclamation, Montoya said.
The proclamation is a welcome shift from a story of dominance to the matriarch, he said.
“De-centralizing Oñate as the figure and finding a more current and connective way to celebrate is really important today, globally, nationally and of course locally,” Montoya said. “We have a lot of healing to do in our community. Historic trauma is one of the biggest pieces that typically carry over, in a way, in our DNA...People can’t let go of the hurt and the pain and the separation instead of feeling unified and feeling that we have real work to do together today.”
Gutierrez Sisneros said the people of New Mexico have mixed roots.
“(The Spanish) came to baptize people and make them Catholics and all that, or Christians, I’m not sure which one it was,” she said. “We’re a colonized people, and our mothers are indigenous women, historically, and our fathers are Spanish...There were children of rape. That’s in our psyche, our Mexican psyche. You hear people that live here say, ‘I’m from Spain,’ they’re from Spain, but this is New Mexico.”
Similar to Malcolm X changing his last name to indicate loss of identity due to slavery, Gutierrez Sisneros legally changed her name to include an X to represent a loss of Native American ancestral identity, she said.
“The Navajos say that when you go somewhere or wherever you are, you represent your mother,” she said. “That’s a very maternal society...So for Cristobal to come here, he represented his mother, and how did he represent his mother? Was he a good person? I don’t know much about him, I don’t know enough, I should say. I only know he was the first elected governor of our state. That’s important.”
Gutierrez Signeros said locally, people deny they have Mexican ancestry.
“But that’s OK,” she said. “You can’t tell people who they are. They have to know it in their hearts.”
She said when people attend Fiestas, they believe the queen in the parade is the mother of Cristobal de Oñate, but it is the queen of Spain.
“No queen of Spain ever came here, I’m sure,” she said. “There’s nothing here for a queen.”
She said she does not want to remove Juan de Oñate completely but would like to recognize the mother of Cristobal de Oñate.
This proclamation seemed to unite the City Council, but discussions about Oñate do not, Montoya said.
During the City Council meeting, Councilor John Ramon Vigil said, “I wholeheartedly support this proclamation.”
During a later interview, he said he is also not sure why the proclamation did not pass in previous years.
He said he has been in touch with Councilor Manny Martinez, preparing for next year’s fiesta and hopes Tolosa Cortés Motecuzoma is discussed.
“Doña Isabela Tolosa, as far as they’re aware, she did not come with Oñate on the expedition, so she didn’t essentially even come to the Española Valley at all. Don Oñate was essentially married to someone of Aztec ancestry, I think that’s something really important to look at when you’re looking at culmination of cultures in the Valley,” Vigil said.
He said he applauds Ana for coming before the City Council.
“(Isabel Tolosa Cortés Motecuzoma) was essentially part of Spanish aristocracy,” he said. “But she had native ancestry, which is the Azteca in her, (and) I think that’s really nice, I think that people need to know no one is pure blood.”
During the City Council meeting Councillor Peggy Sue Martinez commented on the proclamation.
“I think it’s important to celebrate women, especially somebody like that, who came so far and brought her children. I can’t imagine her making the decision to embark on that trip, not knowing anything about what she was going to arrive to,” she said. “I appreciate you (Gutierrez Sisneros) bringing this back and your tenacity not to give up and to continue with teaching us our own history. I think that’s beautiful.”
During the City Council meeting, Manny Martinez also acknowledged Gutierrez Sisneros.
“I think you’re a wonderful lady, and I completely support this,” he said. “I think it’s very important that we honor the women that came in that expedition and came and settled this area as well, and I think she’d be a wonderful person to represent the women that did come."
Martinez also noted his thanks in hopes the proclamation would continue to add more future celebrations to be held on the plaza for Isabel de Tolosa Cortes Moctezuma.
Being that there were some different historic ideas among those cited, Michael Miller, former director for the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico, was contacted to clarify some information.
In an email, he said, “Juan de Oñate married late. The exact date is not known in the records according to historian Marc Simmons, but it was sometime toward the end of the 1580s. Juan was in his late 30s. His wife was Isabel de Tolosa Cortes Moctezuma.
“According to Gaspar Perez de Villagra, the chronicler of the Oñate expedition, Doña Isabel was ‘a lady of surpassing beauty, highest virtues and most estimable qualities,'" the email said. "It proved to be an extraordinary match, comingling some remarkably distinguished bloodlines. Isabel was the granddaughter of Fernando Cortés, known for the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish Empire. Cortés’ native mistress, was Isabel Moctezuma, who was the offspring of the Aztec emperor."
Miller noted that Isabel came from nobility on her father's side while descending from native royalty on her mother's.
"She was descended from native royalty, a pedigree illustrious enough ‘to overshadow the matter of illegitimacy.'" Miller said in the email. "The fact that she was of mixed blood, half-Spanish, half-Indian was not an impediment. In Spain, intermarriage between Christians and Moors was practiced during times of peace. When the Spanish came to the New World, Mexico and Nuevo Mexico, it was natural for men to seek wives, or openly take mistresses, among the Native population."
It is unknown whether Tolosa Cortés Motecuzuma actually entered or did not enter Española.
Miller also said, “In 1599, Oñate requested permission from the viceroy to bring his newborn daughter and other relatives to New Mexico. He did not specifically mention the name of his wife, Isabel, in the request. Whether his daughter and wife made the trip to New Mexico is uncertain.”
Gutierrez Sisneros said she hopes to see Tolosa Cortés Motecuzoma in the fiesta parade, and plans to celebrate the day of recognition with her comadres on July 12.
“We always find new ways to adapt and change new things at the Fiesta, obviously keeping to the tradition, but the whole intent of the Fiesta was to educate the community about their history, about our culture and be proud of it and I think that’s really unique," Vigil said.
He also said he would like to incorporate Tolosa Cortés Motecuzoma into Fiestas but is not sure in what way.
“We have a lot to celebrate,” Montoya said. “There are just elements of the way we’ve been doing it that are divisive to enough people. For some people, it’s not divisive — they want it to stay the same, it’s part of the population. The mayor’s charge is to govern the entire population, not just a fraction. Today, in 2018...it is not only a Hispanic Catholic community, and the bylaws have been constructed in a very archaic way.”