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A Man on a Horse
More than thirty years ago I wrote a fluff piece after reading that Spain would only allow the sale of computers if the keyboards included tilde letters.The tilde is the little wavy line that floats above the ñ, for instance, giving it a y sound. It’s what makes Spanish, Spanish. At the time I lived in Doña Ana County in southern New Mexico where people were taking sides over naming the new high school after Juan de Oñate. (Since renamed Organ Mountain High School.)
Did I add to the debate? Did I object knowing full well of Oñate’s brutal 1598 entrada into New Mexico. Had I forgotten that he cut off the right foot of captive natives to keep them from escaping, or of the massacre at Acoma Pueblo?
Instead my concern, like Spain’s, involved the keyboard and the contortion required to type the ñ in Oñate’s name. (To type the ñ, I had to hold down one key, while stretching my pinky to reach the option key, at the same time with my other hand enter a set of three numbers.)
It all feels silly now, my obsessing over “special characters,” when the brutality of Oñate’s conquest shadows his likeness even today—a 12‘ bronze statue depicting Oñate astride his Spanish stallion, both in full conquistador mode. The bronze was created in 1994 to celebrate Hispanic Culture and installed at Alcalde in northern New Mexico. In 1997 protesters, in a symbolic act, sawed off the statue’s right foot (repairs cost $10,000). Then in the summer of 2020 when George Floyd’s murder set off nationwide protests for racial justice, officials moved the massive equestrienne statue to an undisclosed storage facility in Española.
Oñate's colonizing expedition in New Mexico needs to be told in context, not simply as a hero on a horse.
After 23 years in storage, the statue was scheduled to be reinstalled in front of a county building. On Sept. 28, an armed counter-protester, wearing a red MAGA hat, began threatening a group of protesters holding a vigil at the statue’s base. As the protesters scattered, the gunman shot a Native American man in the stomach. The man is in a hospital in Albuquerque and the gunman is in police custody.
In light of today’s all too-common gun violence, the whimsical article I wrote thirty years ago now seems insensitive. Here’s what I would have written instead.
Long ago, in a museum in Paris I stood next to a life-sized Genghis Khan, armored in all his terrifying glory. Should the founder of the Mongol Empire be erased because 40 million people died during his conquest? No, but neither should he be honored with a statue on the streets of Paris.*
Like Khan, Oñate has an important place in history. But the account of his colonizing expedition in New Mexico needs to be told in context, not simply as a hero on a horse. The Spanish conquistadors were bold and courageous, as well as cruel and exploitive. That’s the real story. As for the man on a horse, install it in a museum alongside a collection of bronze figures representing those who died at Acoma. Better yet, melt Oñate’s statue to create the figures—Oñate among them.
*A 33 ft equestrian statue of Genghis Kahn, created in 2008, sits atop the Chinggis Khan Visitor Center, Mongolia.