Oñate’s Henchmen In My Blood

Bringing It All Together

Carolyn Carlson
5 min read
Onate statue
The red paint was an addition made by protesters, yet somehow fits nicely. (Clarke Condé)
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Guess you never know whose skeletons are lurking in your genealogy closet until they start to do some rattling around.

Looking For A Better Life

In 1598, Pedro Robledo and Juan Pérez de Bustillo traveled with the expedition party of Don Juan de Oñate into New Mexico as military members. They brought their families with them, looking for a better life. Pérez de Bustillo may have been a Sephardic Jew as well. Shortly after traveling along the Camino Real, around Las Cruces near what we now call Radium Springs, Robledo died and was buried on the side of the road. He was supposedly so important that there is now a highway marker. His family carried on and made it further up the Camino Real, dropping off descendants along the way. Pérez de Bustillo and his familia made it to Santa Fe, spreading their genes along the way as well. The Oñate reign was marked by obscene violence against Acoma Pueblo and other Native Americans in the military leader’s path. The disgraced conqueror was banned from New Mexico after the Spanish Crown heard about his regime’s atrocities.


After doing the New Mexico DNA Project, Ancestry and 23andMe DNA things, my sisters and I were able to see in science what we were not able to really learn from our long-dead, Spanish-speaking maternal elders. We see on my mother’s side German, English, Spanish and Native American. My dad was Scandanavian and his lineage is easy peasy. I took on the task of tracing through the New Mexican database of Rio Abajo descendants to put some names to the science.

Beautiful names were sprinkled throughout my mother’s side of the family like Catalina de Villanueva, Isabel de Pedraza, Juan Antonio de Sotomayer, Nicolás Durán y Chávez along with Maria Eulutería Gallegos and Francisco Birner, my great-grandparents. There were other female names like Maria Sarracino and Maria Inez Candelaria that show no family or history prior to that marriage. Made me wince with the realization that not all the historical marriages were exactly consensual and were often akin to rape. Especially questionable were the unions that are responsible for the Native American blood in our maternal family DNA. But we don’t talk about that part of history in polite company, do we? I became obsessed, and going back more than 500 years, generation by generation, I came upon Robledo and Pérez de Bustillo. I did the tracing again. Then again. Same results.

Whispers Turn To Shouts

At first I found it sort of interesting to have prominent members of Oñates party in our family’s past. Then I hated it. Then I tried to make peace when I saw there were thousands upon thousands of descendants of the Oñate military settlers. I may have mentioned it quietly to my partner; then maybe I said something to a few family members and friends. I tried to forget about ancient history. Until all heckola broke loose in June in front of the Albuquerque Museum and its La Jornada, a public installation memorializing the Oñate expedition and its “settlers.” The Oñate figure of the installation was removed shortly after the protest that was held following the George Floyd killing by Minneapolis police. A man was shot at the protest taking it from peaceful to violent.

I started listening to the chatter, the conversations, the sides being taken, the passion for Native Americans, passion for Hispanic culture and history, and the anger screaming that Oñate and his men were bad hombres. I sat in and listened to a Zoom discussion hosted by New Mexico Press Women with some of the installation’s artists who felt the immense controversy back when the piece was commissioned then finished in 2004. The topic of Spanish conquistadors has never been an easy conversation, and art in general is often meant to make one uneasy. This one is epic in the uneasy department.

Our Difficult History

So what do we do with distasteful history? That is the conundrum facing just about all evolved humans on this planet. There is not a place on the big blue ball of green earth that does not have spilt blood tainting its people. But what about when it is boiling in all directions in your family’s bloodline?

I chat about it with a friend who wrestles with her ancestry. She is from the South and has a family lineage of cruel slave owners with some hushed family members from the slave side of history. We end up at the same lost place: hating parts of ourselves yet loving all of ourselves while conveniently denying select bits of ourselves. At the end of all that, we’re blessed with the fresh start of evolving knowledge.

The city of Albuquerque Cultural Services has put together a task force to decide what to do with the statue of Oñate, who is a piece of our distasteful history. They can put the statue out of sight in storage, but that won’t erase the mark on our history. Maybe, however, it can help us see past our distasteful history and come together if we can find a place, like a historical graveyard, to put these reminders where people can gather to have conversations instead of bullets flying.
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