The statue of Juan de Oñate, a figure entangled in the complexities of New Mexico’s history, is set to return to the Rio Arriba County Complex on September 28, 2023, in a ceremony slated to begin at 10 a.m.
Residents from the community have been invited to witness the statue’s reinstallation, with hopes that the event will proceed peacefully and without incident. The county office, situated on Industrial Park Road, will be the statue’s new home.
The Rio Arriba County Commissioners have made the decision to reinstall the statue, and Chairman Alex Naranjo has expressed that most individuals he’s spoken with are generally supportive of its return.
The statue, commissioned in 1990 or possibly 1989 for $100,000 from sculptor Sonny Rivera by the Rio Arriba County Commission, was removed in June 2020. This removal followed credible threats and assaults on other statues created by the same sculptor, including the Soldiers Monument in the Santa Fe Plaza. Interestingly, Alex Naranjo’s uncle, Emilio, led the effort to construct and erect the statue.
Throughout the 1990s, the United States witnessed controversies surrounding statues dedicated to historical figures, with many of these statues being defaced, destroyed, or removed due to protests. Even sculptures honoring famous Civil War generals were not spared from this turmoil. In late 1997, vandals removed the left foot of the Oñate statue, resulting in estimated repair costs of $10,000. Oñate has been accused of ordering the removal of the left foot from any man over the age of 25, according to the Office of the New Mexican State Historian. Some websites also accuse him of “sentencing hundreds of people to 20 years of ‘personal servitude.'”
This defacement of the sculpture was a protest against Oñate’s role in the 1599 Acoma Massacre. The year prior, in 1598, 12 Spanish soldiers were killed in a battle between Spanish colonizers and Native Americans. Oñate’s nephew and soldier, Juan de Zaldivar, lost his life in the conflict while attempting to meet with Acoma leaders.
Juan de Oñate served as the colonial governor of the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo, Mexico and ordered a retaliatory strike against the Acoma Pueblo in 1599.
The larger-than-life Juan de Oñate bronze sculpture, depicting New Mexico’s first Spanish colonial governor mounted on a horse, holds a unique place in the emotions and opinions of the people of northern New Mexico. Its significance and impact on various communities are intertwined with Juan de Oñate’s historical role.
Juan de Oñate, originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, was the son of a prominent owner of silver mines in central Mexico. In 1598, suspecting the existence of additional precious metal reserves to the north, he financed and led a lengthy caravan of soldiers, missionaries, civilians, and livestock through the deserts of northern Mexico and into Pueblo country. The Tewa people of Ohkay Owingeh, described as “gentlemanly” by the Spanish, vacated Yunque Yunque, an Ohkay Owingeh pueblo complex on the west side of the Rio Grande, offering it to Oñate and his party as a place of shelter upon their arrival.
They remained there for several years until the capital of the newly claimed “Kingdom of la Nueva Mexico” was moved to Santa Fe. Oñate’s penetration into Pueblo Indian territory and the establishment of the first Spanish Mexican colony led many Indo-Hispano individuals in northern New Mexico to regard Oñate as a hero and significant leader.
However, it is worth noting that the ordinary Indo-Hispano person had little knowledge of Oñate or his colony until Anglo historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists working in Santa Fe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries meticulously analyzed Spanish colonial archives across two continents. Their findings, published revelations, and interpretations significantly impacted the understanding of both Native and Indo-Hispano history and history combined.
The world’s largest equestrian bronze statue of Oñate remains in El Paso, Texas, where the Spanish colonial governor is responsible for naming the city El Paso del Norte. He was the founder of the Camino Real (Royal Highway) and the Hispanic Southwest in 1598.