New Mexico's Year of Fiestas Dampened by a Divisive Past Furor over a Controversial Historical Figure Mars Events Planned to Celebrate the State's Hispanic Roots

By Scott Baldauf, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

New Mexico's Year of Fiestas Dampened by a Divisive Past Furor over a Controversial Historical Figure Mars Events Planned to Celebrate the State's Hispanic Roots


Scott Baldauf, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


All year long, New Mexicans are celebrating the Cuarto Centenario, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Spanish colonists to the high deserts of a land they called New Spain.

But don't ask Damian Garcia, a Pueblo Indian, to help hang the crepe buntings. Four hundred years ago, his ancestors from the adobe village of Acoma rebelled against the Spanish, hurling boulders from their mesa onto the armored conquistadors below. When the pueblo was eventually captured, the Spanish governor, Don Juan de Onate, punished Acoma by chopping off the right foot of every adult male. It was an act that the people of Acoma cannot forget - or forgive.

"There's still a lot of animosity, especially with the celebration of the Onate anniversary," says Mr. Garcia, adjusting his Green Bay Packers cap. "People are still pretty angry about it." This was supposed to be a year of fiestas and celebration in New Mexico, a year to rewrite the history books and show the lasting accomplishments of Hispanic immigrants in the "Land of Enchantment." But history can be a two-edged sword, and the legacy of Onate has proved to be more divisive than anticipated for Hispanics and native Americans, who together make up the majority of New Mexico's population. The tone for this contentious year was set in January, when vandals sawed off the right foot of a bronze statue of Onate in Espanola, N.M. While most tribal leaders condemned the act, they have shown their contempt for the Cuarto Centenario by boycotting the year-long gala of seminars and symposiums, and by battling plans in Albuquerque to use $255,000 in taxpayer money to erect another Onate statue. "It's like asking the Jewish people to celebrate Hitler," says Lee Francis, interim director of the Native American Studies Department at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. But in the overall scheme, most native American people are more interested in issues of joblessness, health, and poverty, than they are in Onate. "He's dead. He did what he did. But we have more important things to worry about," adds Mr. Francis. Some scholars also note that Onate's actions were hardly sanctioned by superiors in Madrid. When they found out Onate was not converting "the heathens" but maiming them, he was stripped of his command and banished from New Mexico. And while native American tribes often rebelled, the overall relationship improved with time, and the cultures mingled. …

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