In New Mexico, Hispanic Pride Clashes With Indian Anger
By JAMES BROOKE
© 1998 N.Y. Times News Service
ESPANOLA, N.M., Feb. 8, 1998 -- One moonless
night in early January, just as Hispanic
Mexicans were starting to celebrate the
anniversary of the first Spanish settlement in
the American West, an American Indian commando
group stealthily approached a bronze statue
here of the first conquistador, Don Juan de
Oñate. With an electric saw, the group slowly
severed his right foot -- boot, stirrup,
star-shaped spur and all.
"We took the liberty of removing Oñate's right
foot on behalf of our brothers and sister of
Acoma Pueblo,'' read a statement sent by the
group, which later sent to news outlets a
snapshot of its hostage foot. "We see no glory
in celebrating Oñate's fourth centennial, and
we do not want our faces rubbed in it.''
The news quickly traveled from this lowland
reservoir of Spanish culture 120 miles to the
southwest to a mesa, where cheers echoed among
the adobe brick houses of Acoma Pueblo. Since
1599, the Acoma had passed from generation to
generation the tale of how Juan de Oñate had
punished the conquered Acoma by ordering his
men to chop off the right feet of 24 captive
"It was funny when it happened to the statue,
but it wasn't funny when it happened to the
real people,'' said Darrell Chino, an Acoma
At the Oñate Monument and Visitors Center,
Estevan Arrellano, the director, supervised
the attachment of a new foot to the
12-foot-tall statue in late January. He
groaned: "Give me a break -- it was 400 years
ago. It's OK to hold a grudge, but for 400
In recent years, some Americans have smugly
rolled their eyes heavenward when Serbs
obsessed over their rout in the Battle of
Kosovo in 1389, or Irish Catholics griped
about their defeat at the Battle of the Boyne
But here in northern New Mexico, Indian,
Hispanic and Anglo residents are discovering
that below their bland, homogenized landscape
of franchise motels and restaurants, ancient
history is exerting a powerful, subterranean
pull. Hispanic residents are clinging to Oñate
out of insecurities over losing their
language, culture and political and
In recent years, Hispanic residents have
slipped from majority to minority status as
New Mexico has become a Sunbelt magnet for
migrants from around the nation. Spanish no
longer echoes around Santa Fe as the 10th
generation of Spanish descendants has
assimilated to the point of losing its
ancestral language. The state's political
elite is dominated by names like Bingaman,
Johnson and Redmond.
In Peru and Mexico, Spanish ruling classes bow
to Indian sensibilities and keep to a bare
minimum statues of their conquistadors,
Francisco Pizarro and Hernan Cortes. But, in
the American Southwest, while Pueblo Indians
complain about the "butcher of Acoma,''
Spanish descendants are raising
larger-than-life statues of their
In one display of conquistador boosterism, El
Paso is to erect this fall a $650,000 Oñate
statue that is to be the largest bronze
equestrian statue in the nation.
In a year of anniversaries for Spanish
America, the 400th anniversary of the first
permanent European settlement in the American
West -- a few miles from here -- has become a
magnet for Hispanic pride.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of
the Spanish-American War, a conflict that
stripped Spain of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and
the Philippines. It is also the 150th
anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo, a peace treaty that
effectively reduced Mexico's territory by
one-half and increased U.S. territory by
Outside of academia, Hispanic people are
largely ignoring these two anniversaries.
"It's natural,'' said Patricia Limerick, a
history professor at the University of
Colorado. "You want to put the spotlight on
the moment when your people look the most
successful, enterprising and triumphant. After
so many decades of celebrating Plymouth Rock,
the Puritans and Jamestown, all this
genuflecting at the shrine of English North
America must get a little wearing if you are a
New Mexican Hispanic.''
Around April 30, the 400th anniversary of the
day when Oñate crossed the Rio Grande at El
Paso, a Spanish delegation, including an Oñate
descendant, is to view a model of the
equestrian statue in El Paso, and is then to
travel to Santa Fe by helicopter over the old
Camino Real, an ox cart track that was the
colonial link between Mexico and the new
villages. A platoon of Spanish soldiers,
dressed in 16th-century uniforms is to hike
In Santa Fe, Spain's vice president, Alvarez
Cascos, is to unveil an Oñate statue and a
fresco on the Spanish colonization. In
Albuquerque, he will break ground for a $25
million, federally financed Hispanic Cultural
But in New Mexico, the 400th anniversary
celebrations have highlighted the sometimes
uneasy coexistence of three cultures here,
Hispanic, Anglo and Indian.
Stephanie Kearny contrasts Santa Fe's $500,000
yearlong commemoration of Spain's colonization
with the official silence in 1996 on the 150th
anniversary of the arrival in Santa Fe of her
namesake and great great-grandfather, Gen.
Stephen Kearny. The American general's
bloodless occupation of Santa Fe on Aug. 18,
1846, marked the first seizure of a foreign
capital by American troops.
On the anniversary, Ms. Kearny, two of her
sisters, two historians, and a reporter
discreetly gathered in Santa Fe's central
plaza and sipped champagne from plastic cups.
Ms. Kearny, an Albuquerque financial
consultant, said, "We kept the bottle in a
paper bag because we were afraid of being
thrown in jail.''
While Hispanic New Mexicans tense at the
mention of Kearny, they also wince at the
mention of the Pueblo hero, a man known only
as the Pope. In 1680, Pope organized an
American Indian revolt that temporarily drove
all Spanish colonists from New Mexico.
Last summer, some Hispanic people objected
when American Indian representatives suggested
that a statue of Pope be erected in the U.S.
Capitol. Mr. Arrellano, director of the Oñate
Center, said, "Pope tortured and killed 20
priests, and murdered countless numbers of
women and children.''
A plea by Mayor Jim Baca of Albuquerque for
harmony fell on deaf ears at a city hearing
over a plan to erect an Oñate statue this
summer near Old Town, the city's historic,
"Don't dishonor those Acoma families who have
chosen to live in this city,'' warned Darva
Chino, an Acoma Indian opposed to using tax
dollars for the statue.
Millia Santillanes, a Hispanic organizer of
the Oñate festivities shot back, "Acoma has no
place in our memorial.''
With design work divided among two Hispanics
and an American Indian, the Oñate memorial was
approved. But Albuquerque's ethnic gridlock
remains so tight that the original site for
the statue, Civic Plaza, is to have a
Holocaust memorial. Jews account for about 1
percent of Albuquerque's 700,000 inhabitants.
At the same time, debate over the 400th
anniversary of Spain's founding of New Mexico
is degenerating into debate over late
16th-century foot-amputation practices.
"When I think of what Oñate did to the Acoma
Pueblo, I have a vision of Indian men lined up
to have one foot cut off,'' Andres Lauriano, a
Sandia tribal council member, wrote in The
Albuquerque Journal. "I see the blood pouring
from their legs as they crawled or hopped
away. I see the bloody pile of feet left
But the foot-chopping incident should not
overshadow Oñate's positive achievements,
argued Marc Simmons, author of "The Last
Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling
of the Far Southwest'' (University of Oklahoma
"In what is now the Western United States, he
was the founder of the livestock industry, the
mining industry, and he opened the first major
road, the Camino Real,'' Mr. Simmons said of
the 16th-century entrepreneur who was married
to a granddaughter of Cortes. "He brought
Christianity and Western culture.''
One century after the arrival of Christopher
Columbus in the Americas, the Acoma were an
isolated, unconquered people, living in a mesa
that one Spaniard called "the best situated
Indian stronghold in all Christendom.'' When
the Acoma first saw Oñate's horse-mounted
soldiers, they thought that the neighing
horses were talking with each other.
When Oñate visited the mesa, he was nearly
lured into an underground chamber where a
dozen warriors awaited him with sharpened
knives. A few days later, one of his captains
escaped an Acoma ambush, but lost his horse.
A few weeks later, in December 1598, Acoma
warriors killed 11 Spanish soldiers, including
Juan de Zaldivar, Oñate's nephew and field
marshal. The Spanish declared war on the
tribe, reasoning that if the slayings went
unpunished, an American Indian revolt would
wipe out their eight-month-old colony.
"Oñate was a Spanish military commander in the
late 16th century who was struggling to keep a
colony from collapsing,'' Mr. Simmons said.
"Seventy men went off, climbed hand-over-hand
up the mesa, fought for three days and
vanquished a pueblo of several thousand
Punishment of prisoners was designed for
maximum political effect. First, soldiers
amputated one hand from each of two Hopi
captives. Turning to the Acoma, the Spanish
spaced the foot amputations over several days.
Spain's King later punished Oñate for his
excesses and banished him from New Mexico.
But, four centuries later, the psychic wounds
remain fresh among the Acoma.
Last change: Feb. 8, 1998
To share your thoughts about this article or
any other in LatinoLink, send email to
firstname.lastname@example.org. Please indicate whether
your words are for publication. Gracias!
Return to Syllabus
© 1998 LatinoLink Enterprises, Inc.