Recasting New Mexico History

It'S Been More Than Four Centuries Since Don Juan De Oñate Led The First Group Of Spanish Colonists Into New Mexico, But The New Monument Commemorating The Spanish Settlement Has A History All Its Own.

Katy June-Friesen
20 min read
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Throughout New Mexico's proud but troubled history, Don Juan de Oñate has remained a divisive figure. Oñate brought Spanish culture to the region in 1598 when he led the first Spanish settlers to New Mexico and established the first capital. Yet by 1608 the Spanish Crown had removed Oñate from his position as governor and sent him back to Mexico City where he was tried for mistreating Pueblo Indians and abusing his power.

Four hundred years later, New Mexico has evolved into a state that prides itself on its cultural pluralism. Yet historical memory runs deep here. In a region with large Hispanic and Native American populations, history is a slippery subject, especially when it comes to Oñate. For many, Oñate is still the heroic founder who brought their ancestors to the area. For others, Oñate is still a brutal conqueror. Any mention of the Spaniard's name is likely to bring an emotional response from long-time New Mexicans.

The source of continuing controversy over Oñate involves Spanish treatment of the Pueblos. Soon after the Spanish arrived, the Acoma Pueblo Indians refused to submit to their power. To illustrate their defiance, Acoma warriors killed 13 Spanish soldiers, one of whom was Oñate's nephew. In response, Oñate and the Spanish army killed hundreds of Acoma people and amputated half of one foot from each of the male prisoners who were over the age of 25. Women and children were enslaved. These wounds, inflicted four centuries ago, have never entirely healed.

Now, after nearly a decade of controversy about a public art memorial to Oñate, the Cuarto Centenario memorial has been erected in front of the Albuquerque Museum. Paid for by tax dollars and private donations, it might well be the most contentious piece of public art in city history.

Native Memory

In December 1997, artist Nora Naranjo-Morse got a call from Gordon Church, Albuquerque's director of public art. He asked for her help in creating a memorial to commemorate the 400th anniversary of New Mexico's founding. Eight years later, she now realizes she had no idea what she was getting into. “It's changed my life,” she says.

To quell brewing controversy, the Albuquerque Arts Board had decided a Native artist must be included in the memorial project. Naranjo-Morse joined artists Betty Sabo, who is Anglo, and Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera, who is Hispanic, to create the memorial. Yet although the Cuarto Centenario memorial evolved into an expansive piece that represents both Hispanic and Native American perspectives, the process behind the piece was much less harmonious. The Cuarto Centenario was not actually a tricultural collaboration. Instead, Naranjo-Morse ended up working on her own piece while Sabo and Rivera worked on the bronze of Oñate and the settlers.

Naranjo-Morse, who was educated in public school, had been told as a child that Oñate was a hero. As an adult, she realized just how little she knew about New Mexican history. “I realized that if I didn’t know, maybe there were generations of Pueblo people like me who hadn’t been given the complete story of Pueblo colonization,” she says. “Sure enough, many of the Pueblo people who I’d spoken to had been given basically the same glorified, romantic and antiseptic version of what took place during that period of time. An Acoma woman in her 60s told me not only did she not get information in school, but she didn’t get it at home, simply because the historical trauma was so great. Her family didn’t speak of that dark period of time—as if to utter Oñate’s name would bring illness.”

Naranjo-Morse began to research the time period she was supposed to represent artistically. The more she researched, the more she realized how Pueblo history had been marginalized in textbooks.

A Hispanic View

Meanwhile, the New Mexican Hispanic Culture Preservation League, a group that had lobbied for the Oñate memorial, developed a different take on textbook irregularities. This group, headed at the time by Millie Santillanes, who is now the city's Cultural Services Director, saw the memorial as an opportunity to help correct a deficiency of Spanish history in New Mexico public education.

Santillanes says the League, along with groups like the Hispano Chamber of Commerce and the New Mexico Genealogical Association, read the textbooks being used to teach New Mexico history in the schools. They found that the section on the Spanish colonial period was biased; the ultimate idea was that the Spanish had failed. Santillanes worried that students were learning about how their ancestors were awful people. The League hoped the new memorial, and a change in curriculum, could help symbolize a positive version of Hispanic history and identity.

“We founded this city,” says Santillanes, speaking of her Spanish ancestors. She says the Spanish brought gifts to the region, including animals and fruit trees. “There wasn't even a wheel here,” she says. For Santillanes and the Hispanic Preservation League, the memorial was only supposed to be about the Spanish arrival in New Mexico, not about the experiences of Native Americans. It was supposed to be a celebration, says Santillanes, of “our courageous ancestors.”

The Cuarto Centenario

Nearly a decade since the memorial was first proposed, the result is now installed in front of the Albuquerque Museum. The public art piece, which includes two separate works, is called Cuarto Centenario, in reference to the 400th anniversary of Spanish arrival in New Mexico.

The genesis of the piece came in 1996, when a group of citizens led by Santillanes began advocating for a sculpture that celebrated La Entrada, the six-month walk of Spanish families to found the northernmost boundary of New Spain, which would become New Mexico. Santillanes says she approached then Mayor Martin Chavez with a proposal. Gordon Church, who was director of public art at the time, remembers that Santillanes approached him with the idea, which he then took to the Arts Board. The original proposal was a bust of Oñate to be placed Old Town, and the sculpture was to be completed in time for New Mexico's 400th birthday.

Today, the final form of the Cuarto Centenario hints at the years of controversy and compromise that shaped it. The memorial includes two separate works of art. One is entitled La Jornada. It portrays, in bronze, Spanish settlers traveling into New Mexico with Oñate, a Native guide from Mexico, soldiers and a priest.

The second piece is an earth sculpture called Numbe Whageh that represents the Native American experience and worldview. In Tewa, Numbe Whageh means the center place, or the place of the earth. The earth sculpture, on which native plants grow, spirals inward to a small spring at the center. Together, the two sculptures and the dirt courtyard between them occupy the north end of the newly remodeled Albuquerque Museum grounds, at the corner of Mountain and 19th Street.

Designing a Memorial

In 1997, the Albuquerque Arts Board, after approving the Oñate memorial project, mandated that a Native artist be hired. Sabo, who has done many projects for the city, and Rivera, who had done a sculpture of Oñate near Española, had already been selected for the project.

The board created the Cuarto Centenario Committee to carry out and monitor the memorial creation. This committee, according to the city's public art guidelines, was responsible for developing criteria for the project and approving artists' prospectuses. The committee included community members from different cultural backgrounds and occupations, including artists.

In January of 1998, the Arts Board approved a prospectus from the artists to make a $125,000 memorial. Soon after, the artists presented their model of the memorial to the Cuarto Centenario Committee at a public meeting. The model showed steps leading to the top of the monument, where a bronze of Oñate and the top of a bronze kiva appeared. Oñate was kneeling with a cross in one hand and a sword in the other. Moccasins led from the kiva and down the steps, but one moccasin was missing a mate. The missing moccasin was a reference to atrocities at Acoma.

The Arts Board rejected this design. In March, under recommendations from the Cuarto Centenario Committee, the board called for a redesign of the project, asking the artists to focus less on Oñate and more on the Spanish settlers who came with him. The board also specified the memorial should represent the Native experience before, during and after the Oñate-led settlement. The cost of the project at this time was reported to be $200,000. It was clear that the memorial would not be completed in the year of New Mexico's 400th anniversary.

During the public meetings about the memorial, a diverse group of Albuquerque residents gathered to voice their opinions about the project. The meetings were often tense and emotional, even nasty.

An Insult to Native Americans

As public discussion of the project escalated, Arturo Sandoval, who had been appointed by Mayor Jim Baca to head the 1997 Cuarto Centenario celebrations, began working with the group Circle of Voices. The group opposed the sculpture because of the Native experience with Oñate. Sandoval says, “My sense was that you can't celebrate your culture if it causes pain or injury to another.”

Circle of Voices was organized by Acoma members Darva Chino and her husband Conroy, a reporter for KOB-TV, Channel 4, at the time. He is now the state's secretary of labor. Circle of Voices was composed of Natives, Hispanics and other people of various backgrounds. Conroy Chino says he became involved in challenging the decision to honor Oñate because it seemed it was made without sensitivity to how Oñate and others conquistadors treated Native people.

Chino says Acoma Pueblo was very upset. It seemed like the Oñate memorial project was an intentional effort to open old wounds. The governor of Acoma even contacted Mayor Chavez to express displeasure. Chino says the Acoma people felt they'd moved beyond the tragedies of colonization and achieved some level of racial peace. New Mexicans had come to coexist as a blend of cultures. For Natives, says Chino, it didn't make sense to move forward in constructing something that wasn't a reflection of contemporary reality. Once the Native people got past tragedy and violence, says Chino, they chose tolerance and harmony over warfare.

Additionally, Tiguex Park, where the sculpture was to be installed, is a park dedicated to the memory of the Tiwa people, the ethnicity of both Isleta and Sandia Pueblos. To install a sculpture of Oñate in this park was an insult to many Native Americans.

Lori Weahkee, executive director of the SAGE Council, a self-described “people of color-led” advocacy organization in Albuquerque, recalls how the history of colonization was still very fresh for some Native elders. Her own grandparents still told her stories about the trauma of being trapped in Indian boarding schools. The effects of history were not in the past. The SAGE Council joined Circle of Voices, along with groups like the Southwest Organizing Project and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice in opposing the memorial. These groups organized protests and spoke out at public meetings.

Meanwhile, Sonny Rivera, the Hispanic artist working on the project, was about to learn firsthand just what a contentious figure Oñate remains to be. Back in 1992, he'd created a bronze statue of the Spaniard at the Oñate Monument and Visitors Center just northeast of Española. In 1998, to remind New Mexicans of Oñate's atrocities against the Acoma people, vandals succeeded in chopping off the statue's right foot.

Politics Turn Personal

By March 1999, the Cuarto Centenario Committee was nearing its decision on a new design when the City Council stepped in and took control. The Council bypassed the Cuarto Centenario Committee report and voted to place a statue of Oñate in Tiguex Park, thus taking over the Arts Board and Committee's role as project coordinators. Church says this had never happened with a public art project; the City Council usually has no role in such matters. Church believes the Council was trying to clean up the mess.

However, the Cuarto Centenario Committee had been working for months to come up with a culturally appropriate recommendation for the project. The City Council's vote showed the disconnect between Council members and the work of the Arts Board. Mayor Jim Baca vetoed the Council's decision.

At this point, the work of the Cuarto Centenario Committee was done. The City Council was now in charge, although they continued dialogue about the project with the Arts Board.

Then, in October, Albuquerque residents passed a bond issue that allocated more money for public art. Under the city's Capital Implementation Program, 1 percent of General Obligation Bond Funds are earmarked for public art projects. This is known as the “1% for Art Ordinance.”

Millie Santillanes says the people of Albuquerque voted “yes” to allocate money towards a memorial to Oñate. However, Conroy Chino says the bond issue, which did end up paying for the memorial, was deceptive. Albuquerque residents didn't vote specifically for a memorial to Oñate. Instead, the bond issue was more general, calling for greater taxpayer support for public art. Chino remembers people were shocked and surprised to find out their tax money would go directly to the Cuarto Centenario project. He says burying such things in bond proposals is an all-too-common practice by the city.

In November, after they were unable to reach a compromise about their art project, Naranjo-Morse, Sabo and Rivera entered mediation. Rivera recalls that they went into mediation because the arts board hadn't accepted the artists' design with Oñate, the kiva and the moccasins. Naranjo-Morse, on the other hand, says they went into mediation because she refused go along with a new design for a granite pedestal carving. She didn't feel it allowed her to appropriately represent Native experience. Naranjo-Morse believes the city originally hired her, in part, as a public relations move.

“The city was probably looking for someone who would be a token,” she says. “I was supposed to collaborate quietly.” In truth, she adds, the three artists had very different artistic and philosophical approaches. Rivera and Sabo do more realistic work, while Naranjo-Morse does abstract, conceptual work. They also had different interpretations of history.

When the idea of a collaborative design began to look impossible, Church suggested Naranjo-Morse do a separate, environmental piece. Rivera and Sabo continued with the portion dedicated to Oñate and the Spanish. Eventually, communication between the artists ceased. Naranjo-Morse says Rivera and Sabo stopped speaking with her.

After months of putting off another vote on the memorial and juggling a proposal between committees, the City Council voted in March 2000 to accept a compromise brokered by Councilors Alan Armijo and Tim Kline. The compromise amended the Council's previous vote and mandated that the Cuarto Centenario memorial focus on the Spanish settlers instead of Oñate. Second, the sculpture was to be moved out of Tiguex Park to a different site. Third, the memorial was supposed to exhibit a Native American aspect. Armijo says he and Kline took abuse from all sides for brokering the compromise that tried to repair the broken communication between the Cuarto Centenario Committee and the Council.

After the City Council vote, the artists proceeded with separate sculptures. Rivera and Sabo created La Jornada and Naranjo-Morse created Numbe Whageh. At this point, the total project was supposed to cost $480,000. Although La Jornada became the jurisdiction of the City Council, Naranjo-Morse continued to work under the Arts Board.

An Expensive Inside Job

Some of the controversies surrounding the Cuarto Centenario project are far from 400 years old. The feeling among some residents is that the project has been a personal, inside job from the beginning. Approved by the Arts Board during Mayor Chavez's first administration, the project was finished during his second. The original idea was proposed by Santillanes, whom Chavez later appointed to be the city's cultural services director. In the beginning, the sculpture was supposed to be placed in Tiguex Park, which is across from Santillanes' house. Mayor Chavez, his ex-wife Margaret Aragon de Chavez and Santillanes were used as models for the sculptures of Spanish settlers. Santillanes' grandchildren were used as models for the children. Sabo maintains that she asked Santillanes and the Chavez' to be models, not vice versa.

Additionally, the Cuarto Centenario project is one of the most expensive public art pieces ever commissioned by the city. Church says the final cost of the project is close to $700,000, while Santillanes and the city's chief operating officer, Ed Adams, say the cost, including installation, is $600,000. According to Rivera, he and Sabo received $150,000 total, but they barely broke even on the project. Naranjo-Morse says she was paid $22,000 for the project, and she also made little profit. She worked with a landscape architect to build her piece.

Santillanes says the money from the bond issue wasn't quite enough, so the Hispanic Culture Preservation League held fundraisers to help raise money. She says Manny Aragon, Richard Romero and Vince Griego all donated $25,000.

However, there seems to be confusion among city departments about where the taxpayer money for the memorial came from. Santillanes says the money is not 1% Arts money, but Cathy Gore, who is the new public art project manager, and daughter of Betty Sabo, explains that the money is from the 1% program, because 1% money comes from bond issues.

Some people are questioning whether the money for the project could have been better spent other places in the city. Weahkee explains that the SAGE Council was opposed to the sculpture for obvious cultural reasons, but also because of the cost. After the extension of Paseo into the Petroglyphs, the group saw the Oñate project as another example of how the city's spending habits are a slap in the face to Natives. Weahkee contends the city consistently spends money to look good but not provide actual services to citizens in need.

Debate and Dialogue Continue

The city wanted the Cuarto Centenario sculpture to be a solution to historical trauma, says Naranjo-Morse. “This particular project wasn't going to have that easy solution,” she says. “It was very difficult to navigate through this [territory] that had been started almost 400 years ago. We're wearing different clothing and living at a different time, but I truly believe many of the same issues still exist. That's why this project is epic; it comes back to remind us that historical trauma continues unless we actively and frankly seek solutions.”

Naranjo-Morse felt alienated by many Native people, who though no Pueblo person should be involved in the project. In an attempt to create a meaningful response to history, Naranjo-Morse used her sculpture to tell the basic truths of Pueblos' worldview, including earth, water and plant life. “The design is feminine because we come from a matriarch society,” says Naranjo-Morse. “Even the selection of rocks from different [Pueblo] villages have great stories that tell of the tenacity of Pueblo people. The slight suggestion of water at the center of the piece reminds us that water is a great gift to us, and the fact you can enter the piece illustrates our sensibility to experiential learning.”

Rivera is originally from Mesquite, which is right on the Camino Real. “History's always been there for me when I was growing up,” he says. Rivera eventually recast the foot that was severed off his statue of Oñate near Española, although the seam is still visible. In preparation for the Cuarto Centenario project, Rivera did research about Oñate and the route he took through New Mexico. Rivera himself travels the Camino Real route when he visits the foundry he uses in Mexico, which is where the bronze pieces for La Jornada were made.

For Rivera, politics are secondary to the art form. Still, he did feel honored to be able to represent the contributions of the Spanish. “I feel the Spanish presence here was justified,” he says. He adds that the Spanish brought mining, agriculture, fruit trees, silver-smithing, animals and knowledge we still use today. Although he acknowledges that Natives were here first, he also believes New Mexico is the only state with intact Pueblos because “The Spanish kept them from fighting each other.” Rivera is also skeptical about reports of Spanish atrocities. “There's nothing they can prove about cruelty … it's all hearsay.”

Yet with any ethnic group he depicts in sculpture, Rivera says he wants to make viewers proud of their own people. For example, he tried to depict the Native Mexican guide with Oñate as strong and proud. Additionally, Rivera is glad the Cuarto Centenario project ended up addressing the Spanish-Native conflict less overtly than in earlier designs. He says, “I wanted this to be a peaceful piece.”

In Rivera and Sabo's bronze sculpture, a group of Spanish settlers travel behind Oñate with children, animals and supplies. Rivera sculpted Oñate, the Native guide, soldiers, cattle, horses, oxen and the carreta (ox-drawn cart) with people struggling to push it up the hill. Sabo sculpted the women, children, sheepherders, Churro sheep, goat, donkey, pig, baby and priest in the group. The man with the lamb on his shoulders, made by Sabo, was modeled after Mayor Chavez and the older woman reaching out to the young children was modeled after Santillanes.

Despite the continued bitter debate over the sculptures, Circle of Voices' Sandoval says the Cuarto Centenario project also created useful dialogue among citizens. The most positive thing, he says, is the numerous calls he got from teachers who wanted to use the conflict in their lesson plans. He believes it was important to make Albuquerqueans consider state history and cultural relationships. “We tend not to look back or worry about our past,” Sandoval says. Similarly, Rivera thinks La Jornada is an interactive piece for families and children, and Naranjo-Morse is working on a teachers’ package on her piece for schools on the Pueblos.

The project turned into something more meaningful than ever expected, says Gore. By juxtaposing Native and Western worldviews, the Cuarto Centenario project speaks both to the situation 400 years ago and today. “There were many political decisions made … in the end the political process gave something great to Albuquerque,” she says. “As the controversy grew, so did the piece.”

Yet the city still appears to be nervous about residents' reaction to the artwork. On a light pole by La Jornada, a security camera aims down at the bronze figure of Oñate, focusing on his feet.

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