Juan de Oñate statue returning to Rio Arriba County

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.


12 thoughts on “Juan de Oñate statue returning to Rio Arriba County”

  1. Happy to hear the statue will be reinstalled. Too many of our historic monuments have been destroyed or removed for ever changing political views.

    1. “Interestingly, Alex Naranjo’s uncle, Emilio, led the effort to construct and erect the statue.”

      Emilio Naranjo ran Rio Arriba county with an iron hand. If you were “A friend of Emilio’s” you got your street plowed; if not, you didn’t. He had his fingers in everything, so it’s not surprising that he had the statue commissioned.

  2. Thank you Onate for introducing the wheel, oxen, horses, sheep, the Spanish language and culture, and Christianity to the Southwest.

    1. To all the Oñate family descendants Congrats.

      In some Mexico history books this state was named Nueva España all thru to south Mexico.
      Nueva Mexico? If you say so dear authors.

  3. ALL statues should be returned. HISTORY is HISTORY, good or bad. Ignoring or hiding it away, only begs for the bad to be repeated. Educating all early on of our history is a must. I do feel cheated after learning about many shameful events that happened in America’s history that was never in MY history book (which was only taught in my Junior high school year). Surely there has to be a benefit to start teaching history from first grade all the way through twelfth grade. Alongside of civics, sciences, and the 3R’s. BUT, is this enough time to really get to know all of our history? Probably not.

  4. It is of interest that without Onate and others like him, the southwest would have been vastly different. The people railing against westerners are also still using technology developed by westerners to improve their lives. It’s very strange.

  5. Doña Isabel de Tolosa Cortés de Moctezuma (1568 – 1620), was the granddaughter of Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernán Cortés, AND the great-granddaughter of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II.

  6. I believe that history is what has us who we are today. Our native American bretheran need to leave the history alone. Let’s focus on the now for thier better future. The past may give the 15 minute famers something but the majority of the people don’t benefit from it.

  7. I am glad to hear the Rio Arriba County Commissioners voted to return this statue to its rightful place. New Mexican’s, especially Hispanics have a historical right to display their heritage.

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