Since Rio Arriba County officials decided to temporarily remove the statue of Spanish colonizer Don Juan de Oñate in mid-June, County Commissioners have been largely silent about how they will proceed.
In an Aug. 25 Commission meeting, they briefly discussed the possibility of hosting public discussions with County residents about where to place the statue now, but they did not settle the matter.
At least one County resident, Luis Peña, has been asking the Commissioners since June to open the conversation between County government and constituents about the statue.
Peña began a petition in mid-June to ask County officials to remove the statue, which to many is a symbol of violent conquest and oppression.
Others hold it to be a symbol of their heritage.
Over time the petition gathered almost 4,000 signatures.
Peña wrote to County Manager Tomas Campos and Deputy Manager Leo Marquez on June 11, before County officials removed the statue, and asked them to make room on the June Commission meeting agenda for public comment from historians, scholars, community organizers and citizens on the matter of the statue’s placement.
He cited the fact that many similar statues around the country have been coming down and noted the gaining momentum of calls for racial equity throughout the United States, writing that the Española Valley should be no exception.
“The removal of a statue does not diminish any sense of cultural pride or history,” he wrote. “In fact, the removal of statues that glorify violence allow the healing to begin, and the time has come to begin this process.”
Campos replied on June 12 that he forwarded the message to the County Commission.
The Commissioners never responded.
Peña again wrote to Campos on Aug. 11, asking him how best to go about getting on the agenda for the August County Commission meeting.
Replying that day, Campos wrote only, “Who from your group will reimburse us for the removal of the red paint?”
He was referring to handprints that activists stamped in red acrylic paint onto the pedestal that once held Oñate.
Those handprints symbolize the legacy of missing and murdered indigenous women in what is now the United States, multiple activists have said.
“What he is not taking the time to understand is what those prints represent as far as missing and murdered indigenous women, how that plays into the whole situation with Oñate and Spanish colonial violence and how that’s portrayed,” Peña said about Campos in a Sept. 3 interview. “He hasn’t even tried to make that connection on, ‘This is what this action represented.’ This is an attempt at healing of some very old wounds.”
Peña replied to Campos by saying that the issue of the paint could be discussed in public and asked whether he should contact legal counsel.
“You are not answering my question,” Campos replied. “Thank you.”
Peña wrote that as a tax payer, he hopes for a more formal and respectful dialogue with the county manager, especially given the fact that the communications are covered under the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA).
“My intent is not to create an adversarial relationship, but to work with you,” he wrote. “I believe we have the same goals for a healthy community for our children.”
He again asked how he could get on the next County Commission meeting agenda.
“At your request I will forward the message string to Rio Grande Sun Reporter,” Campos replied.
He did not forward the message string to the Rio Grande SUN reporter.
But after the reporter obtained the emails through an IPRA request, Campos accused her of doing Peña’s “bidding.”
“You ipra s*** he already gave you,” Campos wrote in a Monday text message. “You ask me questions on his behalf.”
Peña had not given the reporter any emails, nor had he told her to ask Campos any questions.
When she explained this to Campos, he replied, “Lie to your boyfriend not to me.”
District Two Commissioner Leo Jaramillo responded to Peña’s emails the evening of Aug. 11, saying that he met with Ohkay Owingeh Gov. Ron Lovato and was planning to meet with Santa Clara Gov. J. Michael Chavarria and Jicarilla Apache Nation Gov. Darell Paiz about the statue.
The Commission will come up with a plan for hearing from the community and a timeline for when to add the issue to a Commission meeting agenda, he wrote.
Peña thanked him for his reply.
“I understand the pressure of having to mediate such a polarizing topic, as I’ve had to in my own family and community,” he wrote.
Peña explained that he was not trying to force a preemptive decision or discourage the
County from following its own internal processes.
His goal, he wrote, was to formally present the petition and clarify the intent of the organizing around the statue’s removal, which County Sheriff’s deputies have since described as violent and threatening, in an attempt to obtain riot gear.
“I need to express my concern that the events in Alcalde, that were meant to draw attention to historical & contemporary violence enacted on Native American women, has resulted in a desire to further escalate by purchasing riot gear,” he wrote.
He wrote that he would not need more than 10 or 15 minutes to present to the Commission.
He also noted that both Santa Fe and Albuquerque are “far along” in dialogue about statues that symbolize the conquest of the land that is now New Mexico.
Once again, the Commissioners did not reply.
“I just don’t know if they’re taking the time to educate themselves and understand the historical time that they’re in,” Peña said in the Sept. 3 interview. “Española is not immune to the political dynamics of the outside world.”
The Albuquerque Journal reported Tuesday that 53 percent of New Mexicans oppose removing statues of Oñate, while 27 percent were in favor and 20 percent had mixed feelings or did not know their position on the matter, according to a Journal poll completed last week.
There is currently a debate as to whether the question of statue removal should be settled by public opinion or whether it should be up to the descendants of those who suffered atrocities at the hands of Oñate and as a result of his actions.