A Conquistador’s Legacy in New Mexico


To Hispanics, he was a gutsy trailblazer who bravely settled a New World. To American Indians, he was a ruthless colonialist who cut off the feet of their ancestors.

Now the city’s plans to celebrate the Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate’s arrival in New Mexico 400 years ago have hit a snag: The guest of honor isn’t welcome by all.

A proposal to spend $255,000 in taxpayer money to erect a statue to honor Onate has reopened long-festering wounds between Hispanics and American Indians and become a focal point in the dueling versions of New Mexico’s history.


While he is revered by New Mexicans who trace their heritage to Spain, Onate--pronounced o NYAH tay--is reviled by some Pueblo Indians whose ancestors were killed in battles with the Spanish colonizers.

Indians see no reason to honor a man who ordered his soldiers to cut off the right feet of 24 Acoma Pueblo Indians after the Spaniards defeated the Pueblo in 1599. He eventually was banished from the colony for his cruelty.

“The bottom line is people died,” said Conroy Chino, an Acoma who has criticized the Onate statue. “Hundreds of my ancestors died.”

“He is someone that really had a drastic impact on our people,” said Ron Shutiva, a former governor of the Acoma Pueblo. “The hurt, the feelings are still there.”

They’ve lingered for centuries. Earlier this year, vandals sawed off the right foot of another Onate statue in the town of Alcalde to protest the state’s celebration. Unsigned letters taking credit for the vandalism noted Onate’s amputation order.

And the All-Indian Council, which represents the state’s 19 Pueblo tribes, unanimously opposes using tax dollars for any statue glorifying the Spanish leader.


But Millie Santillanes, who traces her ancestry to the original Spanish settlers, is typical of those who say a memorial to Onate is overdue.

“There was no benevolent conqueror in our entire history,” said Santillanes, a former city clerk. “Are we going to be devoid of history to be politically correct?”

As the complaints piled up, plans for the memorial were changed from a statue of Onate to one that will recognize Spain’s contribution to New Mexico--representing Onate and the Indians before and after the colonization. Just what form the image will take still hasn’t been determined.

That compromise hasn’t satisfied some Hispanics, including Santillanes.

“The settlers didn’t come here without a leader, and not to acknowledge [Onate] is wrong,” she said. “We’re not canonizing him. We’re not declaring him a hero. We’re only marking a moment in history.”

Four hundred years ago, Onate led 123 families and eight Catholic friars to New Mexico to evangelize Indians and to declare the land for Spain. They arrived nine years before the English settled Jamestown in Virginia and 22 years before the Pilgrims.

Most New Mexico historians say Onate was no more barbaric than the Indians of the time.

Historian Tom Chavez says those bickering over a long-dead conquistador are missing the point: The 400th anniversary, or Cuatro Centenario, should be a celebration of Hispanics and Indians living together.

“We as human beings have cohabitated for 400 years, and nowhere else in North America has that happened,” he said.

Statues of Onate have gone up in Santa Fe and at the Albuquerque branch of the New Mexico National Guard this spring without incident.

Gordon Church, a public art program manager, says the debate in Albuquerque illustrates the city’s long tradition of inviting public comment on its art pieces.

“I think this is very healthy. It’s better to do it before it’s done than afterwards,” Church said.