Residents of Rio Arriba County are calling for the immediate removal of the Don Juan de Oñate monument in Alcalde.
Luis Peña, an artist originally from Servilleta, began an online petition Monday afternoon to demand that the statue of the conquistador come down.
As of Tuesday at noon, more than 650 people had signed the petition.
“Oñate perpetuated cruel and inhumane violence against the Pueblos and was prosecuted and exiled by the Spanish for war crimes,” it states. “He is not a symbol that fosters unity among our people and must be removed.”
The demand is made in honor of missing and murdered indigenous women and LGBTQ2+ relatives lost to continued colonial violence, and in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, the petition states.
Throughout the U.S., as protesters for racial justice march on, Confederate monuments are falling.
Since the protests began, government officials have taken down over ten Confederate memorials or have promised to do so.
“It’s very difficult for communities to move forward to address the violence when the symbols of historic violence are still allowed to exist,” Peña said. “We need to address issues of the past before we can move forward.”
The Oñate statue was erected in the early ‘90s as part of the County’s Oñate Monument Resource and Visitors’ Center, which, according to the County website, “promotes the Hispanic heritage of the Española Valley and Rio Arriba County.”
In 1997, an anonymous group removed the statue’s right foot, as a symbol of justice for members of Acoma Pueblo.
Oñate ordered his men to cut off the right feet of at least 24 men from Acoma Pueblo, according to historical accounts.
He also oversaw the killing of hundreds of indigenous people and sentenced many others to slavery.
After gathering as many signatures as possible, organizers will submit the petition to remove the monument to County Manager Tomas Campos for review and ask that County commissioners discuss the matter at the next commission meeting, Peña said.
District 1 County Commissioner James Martinez did not return a text message requesting comment about the petition.
District 2 County Commissioner Leo Jaramillo said in a Tuesday phone call that he is meeting with Campos on Friday to talk about how the County could remove the statue, and that members of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area Board, on which Jaramillo sits, have already been discussing the cost of removing it and where it might go.
District 3 County Commissioner Danny Garcia said he does not understand the reasoning behind removing the statue and that he will have to hear from more County residents before deciding his position on the matter.
He does not believe the statue honors anything or demonstrates pride in the conquest, only that it marks history, he said.
“History happened, and we don’t have control of what happened,” he said. “It’s not like we’re repeating history just because we have the statue there.”
Elena Ortiz, who is from Ohkay Owingeh and the chair of the Red Nation Santa Fe chapter, said the statue glorifies the Spanish conquest.
“Nowhere in that complex, that compound, is there any notification or notice of what he did when he got here, of his murder of Pueblo people, of his enslavement, and forced labor to build this so called capital of New Spain,” Ortiz said. “That is not recognizing history. That is choosing a part of history which upholds the value that you choose to uphold.”
She said Norteños choose to identify as Spanish because they believe the identity will afford them white privilege.
“The issue is so complex, but really I think it boils down to one question for me: why do people in Northern New Mexico want to define themselves as Spanish and elevate this Eurocentric ideal of Spanishness, of whiteness?” she said. “To elevate this figure to a point of worship because they’re defining their culture as what it was that he brought with him into Northern New Mexico is sad. It’s unfortunate, and it’s tragic.”
She said she wants people to realize that activists are protesting Oñate out of a sense of unity.
“We’re not doing what we do out of hatred,” she said. “We’re doing what we do out of love for all of our people. It’s an act of violence to have these sculptures and these fiestas in our homelands.”
Tewa Women United Environmental Health and Justice Program Coordinator Beata Tsosie-Peña, who is from Santa Clara Pueblo and El Rito, also emphasized the importance of solidarity between Pueblos and acequia communities in a Tuesday text message.
“It's important to know that Pueblos and surrounding Acequia communities share a land-based culture and unity that preceded these modern day ill-conceived attempts at colonial divide and conquer strategies," she wrote. "These pedestals to patriarchal violence and conquest contribute to diminishing our collective strength for the struggles we face today. We must dismantle these symbols of oppression and genocide so that our way forward together is cleared to focus on shared resistance, land-based survival, strengthening relations, and a return to the centering and protection of those most vulnerable in our communities.”