It’s Time to Take Down Statues of Conquistadors

Here’s to a world without conquistadors and their shitty monuments.

In 2006, the city of El Paso financed the construction of a 36-foot statue of the infamous Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate riding his horse into battle. For some reason, this bustling city on the US-Mexico border with an 80 percent Mexican American demographic was intent on erecting a monument to a European who attempted to conquer, Christianize, and loot the Americas.

As a 16-year-old, I largely missed the statue’s political implications. I was more taken aback by the horse’s jarring anatomically correct under-parts. But my mother—the daughter of an exiled Spanish flamenco dancer—was quite outraged when they placed the monument at the entrance of the El Paso International Airport.

Qué asco!” I remember her hissing, “How could anyone dedicate a statue to a monster who cut off people’s feet! It’s—it’s just so fascist!”

At the time, my mother was tuned into the loud opposition presented by Acoma Pueblo like Maurus Chino and local Chicanx activists, who were pointing to the gruesome truth of Juan de Oñate’s life. In the days that Oñate marched into what is now northern New Mexico, it would have been hard to consider him anything less than a butcher. He is responsible for the unprecedented massacre of the Acoma Pueblo in 1599, for cutting off the feet of male survivors, and for selling the Acoma Pueblo’s remaining women and children into slavery. The guy was so bad, he was even put on trial for excessive cruelty by the Spanish colonial government—an institution with fairly low standards in the 16th century.

Yet El Paso’s statue of Don Juan de Oñate is not an isolated problem. The American Southwest is littered with monuments and annual celebrations commemorating key dates and figures in the history of Spanish colonialism. And much like the Confederate monuments in other parts of the United States, these statues and celebrations have been the source of debates and clashes over the legacy of racial violence and white supremacy in the Americas. On September 8, Santa Fe police arrested as many as 12 people associated with indigenous-led protests condemning the annual celebration of the “Fiesta de Santa Fe,” otherwise known as “La Entrada”—a historical commemoration of Don Diego de Vargas’s armed re-conquest of northern New Mexico in 1692 following the successful Pueblo Revolt 12 years prior.

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