Re-Making History

City Hall Brings Us Up To Date With Don Juan De Oñate Sculpture

Greg Payne
5 min read
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Christmas is the season for giving. At the first Yuletide, gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh were presented to a child in a manger. Two thousand years later, the tradition has evolved—there weren't too many folks receiving frankincense or myrrh last week—but gold is still a favorite followed closely, apparently, by bronze statues.

As city residents learned before the holiday, Albuquerque was granted a surprise gift (charged to the taxpayer's credit card) from some of our more important leaders. The massive $650,000 bronze artwork memorializing the 1598 arrival of Don Juan de Oñate and a group of Spanish settlers to New Mexico will include the likenesses of Mayor Martin Chavez, First Lady Margaret Aragon de Chavez and Millie Santillanes, the city's Cultural Services Director.

The Chavez administration has taken credit for many things, but not many were aware of its role in the colonization of New Mexico. Who, for example, knew that Mayor Marty carried a lamb over his shoulder while making the 600-mile trek from Mexico over 400 years ago? Or that our first lady rode atop a donkey as the Camino Real was blazed along the banks of the Rio Grande?

Thanks to the sculptor of the Oñate memorial, we know it now. In one of the more laughable works of self-idolatry this side of the Tigris and Euphrates, the visage of at least three City Hall bigwigs will be incorporated into a work meant to memorialize the Oñate settlers and their animals. Santillanes—a long-time advocate of the expensive sculpture—has already posed as a woman walking with a child. The youngster posing as the “child” is also one of Santillanes's own grandchildren.

Betty Sabo, the Oñate artist, had been complaining about having to incorporate the visages of Marty, Margaret and Millie into the memorial. At a recent city event, Sabo told a couple of attendees that placing Margaret on a donkey and sticking a sheep in Marty's arms was her way of making light of the situation.

However, Sabo absolutely denied these claims when the local media came knocking. Having all these city government muck-a-mucks pose for the memorial was her idea after all, she said. Sabo claimed she wanted to use the faces of people who were “direct descendants” of the original settling families and that's why the VIPs had gotten involved.

Maybe Sabo's behind the scenes complaints were inaccurate. Maybe she was just blowing off some artistic steam. Then again, maybe Sabo remembered she's received almost $200,000 over the years from City Hall for her artwork and that could come to a screeching halt if the wrong political toes were stepped on.

This VIP-friendly spin still raises questions, though. How did Sabo know Santillanes, Chavez and Aragon de Chavez consider themselves “direct descendants” of the original Oñate expedition? Did Sabo conduct here own genealogical research only to find—voila!—the Mayor, the First Lady and the head of Cultural Services all managed to fit into that convenient cultural niche? Or did that information reach her by other means?

Second, why did any of these three say yes to posing in the first place? Having your face and the faces or your progeny bronzed for time immemorial in a very high-profile sculpture has got to be a real thrill, but not one of these models had anything to do with the 1598 expedition. Would Sabo use the likeness of George Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney for the sculpture of soldiers planting the flag at Iwo Jima? At what point should political vanity leave center stage so that good sense and historical accuracy can take over?

The Oñate sculpture has already been incredibly controversial. Beyond the $650,000 price tag, Oñate (who didn't settle in Albuquerque, but just north of Española) receives only mixed historical reviews. King Phillip II of Spain banned him from New Mexico because of his barbaric treatment of the indigenous population—chopping off the left feet of Acoma Pueblo members, for example. Placing the mugs of the politically powerful in the memorial might unify them, but odds are it won't do much for anyone not on the City Hall payroll.

Instead of City Hall, why not have the Oñate sculptor seek artistic inspiration in the senior centers, businesses and schoolyards of Albuquerque? Spend a little time looking into the faces of ordinary citizens rather than the connected and self-important. And really—in a democracy!—does anyone have to provide proof of lineage in order to qualify for anything—let alone a memorial to people who lived four centuries ago?

While Christmas is known for gifts, it's also known as a time for angels. One can only hope the better angels of our mayor's nature will inspire reflection and reconsideration of his decision to pose for the Oñate memorial. The year 2004 would be the perfect time to alter a poor decision made in 2003 and the great thing is—at least until the bronze sets—there's still time.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at

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