Juan de Oñate and the legacy of white supremacy in New Mexico

[ unseennewmexico.org ]

By Kurly Tlapoyawa

The controversy surrounding Española’s celebration of Juan de Oñate recently boiled over when a coalition of community activists and Indigenous rights groups demanded that representations of Oñate be removed from the city’s annual parade. This demand prompted an outcry from a small, but vocal segment of New Mexico’s white hispano community, who saw it as an existential threat to their cherished fiestas.

The thing is, very few people have a problem with commemorating the events that led to the establishment of communities in northern New Mexico. The history is well documented of how these communities were settled by a handful of Spaniards accompanied by a large number of Indios Mexicanos. It is the insistence that these fiestas serve as a platform for celebrating Juan de Oñate that people take issue with. Hell, the majority of people who live in Española don’t seem to have a problem with working out some sort of compromise.

So…why would anyone be opposed to celebrating Juan de Oñate, you might ask?

For starters, he was a career criminal who was tried and convicted of rape, murder, and theft – crimes for which he was exiled from the state of New Mexico for life. In fact, Oñate was such a shitty leader that 2/3 of the Spanish colonists he led to New Mexico deserted his settlement and fled. Perhaps most importantly, he is best known for having ordered the enslavement of Acoma women and children, and ordering that all Acoma men over the age of 25 have one of their feet chopped off.

Seriously. This is the murderous clown that a small group of New Mexican hispanos is rushing to defend.

The hispanos view their veneration of Juan de Oñate as a matter of European birthright, and perceive any criticism of Oñate and the parade held in his honor as an assault on their culture. And therein lies the problem: by framing Oñate as the embodiment of their culture, Oñate supporters have painted themselves into an ideological corner, creating an intractable situation in which even the slightest compromise would be seen as complete cultural surrender. In their minds, admitting that Oñate was a piece of shit is tantamount to admitting that their culture is also shit.

This fear of somehow betraying their heritage prevents them from ever doing the right thing in this situation, which would be to commemorate history without glorifying a murdering rapist. But perhaps creating such an immovable position was the plan all along. After all, it is far easier to mobilize your base against an imagined threat to your culture and community than it is to do credible research and admit that celebrating Oñate is a pretty fucking horrible idea. Unfortunately, people tend to have a hard time admitting when they are wrong.

Unsurprisingly, their position bears a striking resemblance to that of southerners who promote confederate imagery as “heritage” rather than symbols of white supremacy. If this seems like an unfair comparison, I joined the “Save the Española Fiestas” Facebook page to develop a more informed opinion of their views. Here is a response I received to one of my questions:



Things recently came to a head at an Española City Council meeting, where supporters of the fiestas petitioned to have the sponsorship of the event transferred to a non-profit to avoid city oversight of the parade. Their arguments for honoring Oñate were…interesting to say the least.

Many of the Oñate proponents in attendance made sure to reference the “common blood and culture” they share with New Mexico’s indigenous people, but this was little more than cover to excuse their abhorrent support of Oñate. After all, if they actually DID have any respect for this “common blood and culture,” they would take the concerns of Indigenous people into consideration. I mean, surely we can commemorate our shared history in a way that is dignified, inclusive, and respectful, right?


Apparently not.

The most telling moment of the evening came when a pro-Oñate historian (and I use the term “historian” loosely), argued that the Spanish colonization of New Mexico was inevitable, and that white hispanos should be seen as native to the area. Because, you know, all it takes to be native is to be born somewhere. This ahistorical argument is designed to gradually obfuscate who is and isn’t a “native” person, thus enabling white hispanos to lay some sort of ancestral claim to New Mexico. It is an intellectually dishonest tactic, demonstrating a clear disregard for New Mexico’s numerous indigenous communities.

What this reveals about the Oñate supporters is that they really aren’t concerned with “preserving culture” at all. Rather, they have embraced a pointedly ethnocentric position that seeks to privilege the legacy of European conquest by any means necessary. Framing European colonization as an inevitable form of “manifest destiny” and declaring that their descendants are now “natives” is a hallmark of settler colonialism. Australian writer and historian Patrick Wolfe calls this strategy “destroy to replace.”

Whatever settlers may say— and they generally have a lot to say—the primary motive for elimination is not race (or religion, ethnicity, grade of civilization, etc.) but access to territory. Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element.
– Patrick Wolfe

The underlying intent of the pro-Oñate fiestas is not to preserve any sort of cultural traditions, but to distort New Mexico’s history to the point that its Indigenous people are merely footnotes in a pre-ordained historical legacy written by and for white people. Glorifying men like Juan de Oñate is a central part of this process.

The formation of hispano identity

So, how did New Mexico get to this point? What prompted NuevoMexicanos to reject their mixed-blood Indigenous heritage and embrace an identity based on a European self-image?

The answer lies in a racial fantasy concocted shortly after the Mexican-American war.

When the United States forcefully acquired the modern southwest from Mexico, the newly taken land came with the people who lived on it. Lots of them. Overnight, Mexican citizens of mixed Indigenous blood along with Pueblo and Plains people who had lived in the Southwest for millennia were placed in a state of limbo. America now had a “Mexican problem.”

In the years following the war, Mexican Americans were commonly referred to as “half-breeds” and “mongrels” by an Anglo-operated press that viewed them as the enemy. As historian Mark Reisler has pointed out, the perception of Mexican Americans in the American mindset stressed a dual theme: “the Mexican’s Indian blood would pollute the nation’s genetic purity, and his biologically determined degenerate character traits would sap the country’s moral fiber and corrupt its institutions.”

In an attempt to overcome their status as “half-breed Indians,” NuevoMexicanos rejected their Indigenous heritage outright, and the image of the “noble” Spanish explorer was elevated as the source of their identity. By glorifying Spanish colonialism and adopting a “Spanish-American” (white European) view of themselves, New Mexico’s mixed-blood Indigenous inhabitants were allowed to “redeem” their ethnicity by recasting themselves from dirty, disreputable Mexican Indians into noble Spanish explorers. This transformation from racially inferior “half-breed Indians” to “Spanish elites” helped assuage Anglo hostility towards New Mexico’s mixed-blood character, and New Mexico was eventually granted statehood in 1912.

As historian Charles Montgomery observed:

“Spanish-American” took root in New Mexico only because of the territory’s unusual balance of power. The term became embedded in everyday conversation only because it served the interests of both Anglo and Spanish-speaking leaders to propagate it, to spread it from newspaper editorials to party conventions to political meetings of the smallest towns. What made the term so popular was its malleability. In the eyes of Spanish-speaking politicians and newspaper editors, “Spanish-American” evoked both a proud Spanish colonial past and an elusive American future, a future in which they might still realize the promise of equality amid Anglo intolerance.”
– Charles Montgomery

Of course, this did not completely eliminate Anglos perceptions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans as an Indigenous threat to the American way of life. While discussing the “Mexican problem” for the journal Foreign Affairs, nativist author Glenn Hoover said the following: “More Indians have crossed the southern border in one year than lived in the entire territory of New England at the time of the Plymouth settlement. This movement is the greatest Indian migration of all time.”

Such attitudes prompted the freshly minted “hispanos” of New Mexico to deny their Indigenous blood even more vigorously, and to demand that they be viewed as white. At a rally held in the town of Las Vegas, New Mexico in response to a newspaper article, poet Eusabio Chacon declared “The sense of said article is that we Spanish-Americans are a dirty, ignorant and degraded people, a mix of Indians and Spaniards…. I am a Spanish-American like the rest of you who listen to me. No blood runs through my veins other than the one Don Juan de Oñate brought, and the one later brought by the illustrious ancestors of my name.” This level of self-hatred and erasure of one’s own Indigenous past in exchange for white privilege is both heartbreaking and tragic. Especially when you consider that Oñate’s wife was of Aztec (Mexica) nobility, and his son was the great-great-grandson of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin.

This call for a white “hispano” identity was echoed by politician Antonio Lucero, who in 1915 declared the following “Spanish-Americans belong to the Caucasian race. If there is a trace of the Indian among us, it is so slight and so rare as to prove the exception rather than the rule. We are not only Caucasians but we belong to that branch of the white race, the Aryan, which, more than all the other, has made the history of the world. Ours is a past that can take its place in that grand procession of greatness that is no more – a past to be admired, honored, and reverenced.”

Sadly, in their struggle to be viewed as equals by Anglo newcomers, the “hispanos” of New Mexico were robbed of their true ancestry. A rich heritage of Pueblo, Plains, and Mesoamerican cultural inheritance was wiped clean (even if in name only) and replaced by a racial fantasy deeply ingrained in the minds of many NuevoMexicanos and reinforced through years of pseudohistorical indoctrination.

A Legacy of self-hatred

In a recent Facebook comment, an Oñate supporter asked “What do we call this group of awesome culture protectors now?” Whatever name they choose to go by, I think “hispano white nationalist” best describes their attitudes and objectives. In fact, this is the term I will be using from here on.

Sound like hyperbole? Consider a few other comments made by members of their group:


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Clearly these are people who cannot be reasoned with. Their contempt for Indigenous people is rivaled only by their sad devotion to a racist fantasy in which hispanos are “pure-Spaniards who speak an ancient form of the Spanish language.” Neither of which are factual statements. These twisted ideals only serve to feed a legacy of white supremacy, and have no place in our state.

Time will tell if the Española fiestas can survive under a non-profit, but one thing is certain: New Mexico’s Indigenous people will not sit silent while white supremacy is flaunted in our faces under the guise of “celebrating culture.”

Fuck Juan de Oñate.


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27067174_10155069830186283_3128871264205765212_n1.jpgKurly Tlapoyawa (Chicano/Nawa/Mazewalli) is an Indigenous archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica and its connection to New Mexico. His recent book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. Kurly lives in New Mexico.

Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa

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Interested in learning how the Nawatl language influenced the way Spanish is spoken in New Mexico? Check out my book “Totacho: Our Way Of Talking” available on Amazon.com. In it, I detail the major influence that the Nawatl language has had on the “Spanish” spoken by Chicanos and Chicanas in the Southwest.


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