Outside of Española, New Mexico, stands a statue of Don Juan de Oñate. For his direct descendants, and many Spanish-American New Mexicans who trace their ancestry back to colonization, he is symbolic of the spirit of exploration and of Spanish culture in New Mexico.
For the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico, however, Don Oñate has a far darker legacy. Oñate was the governor of New Spain from 1598 to 1610, in what is now New Mexico. In retaliation for the killing of several Spanish soldiers, including his nephew, Oñate ordered what became known as the Acoma Massacre, which killed 800 to 1,000 of the Acoma Pueblo Indians. He enslaved the surviving women, and Oñate commanded that every Acoma man’s right foot be amputated as a horrific warning against further resistance.
The statues of Confederate heroes such as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee occupy the same contentious place in the consciousness of the South as Oñate does in northern New Mexico. Both are symbolic of a romanticized past and simultaneously represent centuries of oppression. Among their respective communities these positions are deeply rooted and difficult to dislodge.
In an ideal world, none of these statues would exist. The wartime heroes of the Confederacy fought against and killed soldiers of the United States government. They fought for many causes, but among those causes was slavery, an evil so great it canceled out anything else they stood for. The idolization of these men is a betrayal of the dream of American society: a nation where everyone, regardless of race or heritage, has a chance of success. It also reveals a willful ignorance of the shameful history of American slavery and of the bloodshed required to keep our country in one piece.
Even the immortalized men opposed the erection of Confederate monuments. Robert E. Lee, in a 1869 letter, remarked, “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but follow the examples of those nations who endeavored… to commit to oblivion feelings engendered [by civil war].” He realized, as early as four years after the Civil War, that building monuments to the goals and ideals of the Confederates would only lead to the idealization of the rebellion and a continuance of the bitter post-war sorrows of the South.
The statues were built, however, and over the years they became part of the fabric of their communities, which now oppose the removal of their landmarks. A recent NPR/PBS poll showed national support for the survival of Confederate statues at 62 percent. Support in Southern states is even more entrenched: A Louisiana State University poll reports 73 percent of residents of that state oppose the removal of the monuments.
Taking the monuments down without the support of local residents would be nearly impossible and also a folly. If accomplished, this effort would do nothing but further divide communities. On the other hand, leaving Confederate statues to proclaim the nobility of rebellion is morally unacceptable. In this case, a compromise between idealism and practicality is necessary.
The best solution is the simplest one. Rather than taking down the monuments, local communities should make a small addition to them: a plaque, explaining the subjects’ role in the Civil War and the consequences thereof. This would add to the educational power of the statues for citizens on both sides of the conflict and ensure that the statues serve a constructive purpose.
The legacy of Don Oñate, like that of confederate heroes, is always going to be mixed. History is fact, but it is interpreted through emotion: the actions of individuals accumulate into the heritage of families. We can never expect to agree on what to make of our history. We can only agree that it belongs to all of us and try to understand that for some, the burdens of the past have been carried into the present, and show no signs of disappearing soon.
Madeline Hedrick is a sophomore studying the liberal arts. She is the vice president of College Democrats.