It's Time to Take Down Statues of Conquistadors
Art by Lia Kantrowitz
In 2006, the city of El Paso financed the construction of a 36-foot statue of the infamous Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate riding his horse into battle. For some reason, this bustling city on the US-Mexico border with an 80 percent Mexican American demographic was intent on erecting a monument to a European who attempted to conquer, Christianize, and loot the Americas.
As a 16-year-old, I largely missed the statue's political implications. I was more taken aback by the horse's jarring anatomically correct under-parts. But my mother—the daughter of an exiled Spanish flamenco dancer—was quite outraged when they placed the monument at the entrance of the El Paso International Airport.
"Qué asco!" I remember her hissing, "How could anyone dedicate a statue to a monster who cut off people's feet! It's—it's just so fascist!"
At the time, my mother was tuned into the loud opposition presented by Acoma Pueblo like Maurus Chino and local Chicanx activists, who were pointing to the gruesome truth of Juan de Oñate's life. In the days that Oñate marched into what is now northern New Mexico, it would have been hard to consider him anything less than a butcher. He is responsible for the unprecedented massacre of the Acoma Pueblo in 1599, for cutting off the feet of male survivors, and for selling the Acoma Pueblo's remaining women and children into slavery. The guy was so bad, he was even put on trial for excessive cruelty by the Spanish colonial government—an institution with fairly low standards in the 16th century.
Yet El Paso's statue of Don Juan de Oñate is not an isolated problem. The American Southwest is littered with monuments and annual celebrations commemorating key dates and figures in the history of Spanish colonialism. And much like the Confederate monuments in other parts of the United States, these statues and celebrations have been the source of debates and clashes over the legacy of racial violence and white supremacy in the Americas. On September 8, Santa Fe police arrested as many as 12 people associated with indigenous-led protests condemning the annual celebration of the "Fiesta de Santa Fe," otherwise known as "La Entrada"—a historical commemoration of Don Diego de Vargas's armed re-conquest of northern New Mexico in 1692 following the successful Pueblo Revolt 12 years prior.
As a person of both Mexican and Spanish heritage, I wholly condemn these statues and their accessory racist celebrations. But their history and extremely vocal supporters have forced me to grapple with some uglier truths within the Latinx community.
Whereas the history of Confederate monuments were weapons of propaganda wielded to reaffirm white supremacy after the South had lost the Civil War, the story behind the monuments to Spanish colonialism is a bit more complicated. These statues were not just erected by white folks who want to preserve their privilege; a host of mainstream Mexican American and Hispanic American organizations looking to commemorate "Spanish America" helped to bring these structures to life. In fact, this conundrum has baffled activists for years.
"The people who were most critical to my face, and with whom I lost relationships with, were Mexican American people," says Dr. Yolanda Leyva, a public historian and activist who was central to the indigenous Chicanx coalition in the 2000s. "There were a lot of Mexican American people at the [Oñate] statue's dedication who told us that we should not be protesting because it is about time that 'our history' was celebrated in El Paso. They viewed Oñate as a Mexican born in Zacatecas. They didn't see it as European history; they saw it as our history."
Indeed, Mexican American and Hispanic-identified people from the region represented some of the loudest advocates for the statue. One such group was the New Mexico Hispanic Cultural Preservation League, organized to "preserve the heritage, Spanish language, and history of Hispanic New Mexico." Their website is littered with colonial apologetics, ranging from the ethical defense of Hernàn Cortés to claims that the Spanish conquistadors demonstrated unprecedented concern for "the Indian."
There are also references to the Solutrean hypothesis, which argues that the first people to populate the Americas were actually from Europe—a controversial theory with significant popularity among white nationalist groups. Yet despite all the cringe-worthy content on their website, the New Mexico Hispanic Preservation League took a lead role in fundraising and campaigning for the Oñate statue—advocacy that is well documented in PBS's documentary on the controversy. They were joined by another loose cohort that annually commemorates Oñate's expedition through what is now San Elizario, Texas, with a staged reenactment of Oñate and his soldiers taking possession of indigenous land. Likewise, the controversial "Fiesta de Santa Fe" is co-organized by a group known as the Caballeros de Vargas. This explicitly Catholic organization is dominated by Latino men with a penchant for dressing up like conquistadors. They run a website that refers to Santa Fe as the "City of Holy Faith," which is a colonial allusion that invokes Santa Fe as a Spanish, Catholic bastion.
But for indigenous-led organizations like the Red Nation, a primary organizer of the protests against the "Fiesta de Santa Fe," these events represent the long history of genocide, settler colonialism, and racial violence in the Southwest.
"To be proud of a person who has committed a huge crime, of enforcing genocide on another people," says Cheyanne Antonio, a Diné (Navajo) organizer with the Red Nation, "that's not a history to be proud of. Each of these conquistadors who came committed genocide against our people, and these celebrations only uphold colonialism and US imperialism."
Some may wonder why some Mexican Americans—many of whom are of both indigenous and European ancestry—not only choose to commemorate Spanish colonialism, but also to hone in on some of its nastiest figures. Part of the answer leads us into deeper dilemmas of whiteness, colonial self-hate, and race relations in Latin America and among Latinxs in the United States. As a continent that was subject to centuries of Spanish colonial rule and US imperialism, Latin America has not remained immune from the pitfalls of colorism, leading some Latinxs to prefer the celebration of European over their indigenous, African, and Asian ancestry.
Likewise, in a society like the United States that suppresses non-white people, many have chosen to proximate themselves toward European heritage as a political tool of survival. A fine example of this positioning is the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) campaign in the 1930s to register Mexican Americans as white in the US census and not as Mexicans. In some sense, Mexican American support for these statues is a tragic continuation of that story.
Another complicated element at work is Hispanic or Hispanic-American identity itself. The term was originally popularized in the 1970s when the US Census Bureau added the term "Hispanic" to the census as a means of allowing Latinxs to choose something other than "white." Over the years, more and more Latinxs began defining themselves as Hispanic, drawing on linguistic, and in some cases historical bonds between Spanish-speaking countries. But the term also has its own history in the Southwest, where it is sometimes claimed as an identity by people who trace ancestry to the first Spanish colonists in the region. It is this latter group, which in some cases either rejects or downplays indigenous ancestry, that has been the most vocal in supporting these statues.
But as my mother recognized, the arguments Hispanics use to support these statues is eerily close to the language of fascism. My grandfather and his brother fled Spain in the 1930s during Spanish fascism's terrifying rise to power—a historical event that welded together Catholic militancy, imperial nostalgia, and bourgeois conservatism into a regime that lasted into the late 1970s.
Yet Spanish fascism was also rooted in a transatlantic appeal to the values of an imagined lost, "greater civilization" among Spanish-speaking peoples—an intellectual direction that led many Spaniards and right-leaning Latin Americans to the celebration of Hispanidad. Hispanidad itself was first introduced by Basque thinker Miguel de Unamuno as an allusion to the multiplicity of Spanish-speaking nations. But nationalist Catholic thinkers eventually contorted Hispanidad into a far-right defense of Spanish Catholicism as a civilizing force in history.
For example, in his classic work "Apologí a de la Hispanidad," Isidrio Gomá y Tomás, a Spanish cardinal and major partisan of the fascist movement, directly equates Hispanidad with Spanish Catholicism and colonialism. His work refers to the Americas as the "classical work of Spain," and depicts colonialism as "an immense creation" of benevolence, justice, and beauty. I can't help but see Hispanic American support for these statues and commemorations—with appeals to Catholicism, Hispanic heritage, and the blessings of Spanish "civilization"—as strikingly reminiscent of these early intellectual lineages within Spanish fascism. Although people who identify as Hispanic Americans might see themselves as honoring "our history," appeals to Hispanic greatness can only ring repugnant to the children of Spanish fascism's 20th-century exiles.
So for as much as my grandfather loved and missed Spain his entire life, I was taught to question this colonial vision of Hispanidad. I grew up to see the conquistador as a horrific apparition of the inquisition and a mirror image of the circa 1930s hyper-Catholic, fascist paramilitary Guardia Civil, which served as the punitive arm of Spain's nationalist regime. I was taught that if I wanted to connect with my Spanish heritage I could learn flamenco, eat paella, and maybe even read some Garcia Lorca. But I was never to sing praises of Catholic warriors and colonial butchers, and I certainly never wanted to build them fucking statues.
But In the end, I think there is a strong chance that these statues have seen their final days. I'm incredibly hopeful that the end of these statues will come from the inspiring indigenous-led organizing being done by groups like the Red Nation, and increasingly strong Chicanx/Latinx critiques of white supremacy, machismo, and colonial violence.
Even at the protest against the Entrada in Santa Fe, many Mexica Americans worked side by side with indigenous activists to decry the celebration. Similar coalitions were formed in the 2000s among Acoma Pueblo and local fronterizx chicanxs to protest the erection of the Oñate statue.
According to Joshua Heckman, a Chicanx student at the University of New Mexico and a member of MeCHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) and the Red Nation, it's time that Mexican Americans look to commemorate the other side of an already rich, anti-colonial history.
"For those who say Oñate or Vargas's campaign is part of our history, well that's not a heritage I want to celebrate," says Heckman. "I think think that instead we should celebrate Chicanx and mestizo resistance to colonialism. We should celebrate people like Pablo Montoya and Tomas Romero, two figures who aligned themselves with Chicanx people and Pueblo people to resist invading Anglo colonizers. That's the history we should celebrate, because that is the history that resists colonialism, not the one that perpetuates it."
I pray that his words come true. For me, Spanish colonialism, like Spanish fascism, is not something we can erase. But it's a history that ought to be mourned, not celebrated. And while I urge everyone to take concrete steps to support indigenous demands for restoration of treaty rights, the return of stolen lands, and an end to systematic violence disproportionately targeting native communities—I also hope we can couple those real-life demands with an end to the violence these statues and celebrations represent.
Here's to a world without conquistadors and their shitty monuments.
Read more writing by Gabriel A. Solis on VICE.