Friday, February 3, 2017

El Paso: History's Long Reach: Oñate

"You will tell your grandchildren: I remember 9/11. Well, we remember Juan Oñate. Send him back to hell."

Soon after I arrived in El Paso, I watched a 2008 documentary called The Last Conquistador, by Cristina Ibarra and John J. Valadez. You can watch it in its entirety here and the trailer below:

The documentary, albeit 10 years old, is as timely today as it was then, particularly when we consider the national debate about keeping or removing monuments that glorify the Confederate Union.

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes below are from statements made by people featured in the documentary. 

The documentary is about some people's vision for a world-sized statue that honors a man who "brought the entire Hispanic culture to New Mexico," a man named Juan de Oñate.  Installed in 2008, the statue stands outside the El Paso Airport.

How to blow off another person's history entirely
  • In response to Native American concerns about the statue: "... [the Spaniards] did come; they're here; deal with it; get over it."

How to discount another person's history

By discount, I mean: to reduce its importance, its relevancy, its influence.
  • "It's time to let it go [history]."
  • "Everybody's been screwed, go back far enough, let's face it ..."
  • "Rightly and righteously, today, we condemn conquests, imperialism, colonialism, and human bondage of any form, but we shouldn't go about damning people four centuries ago, who were doing what society did... and especially the idea of Indians crying victim will bring you immediate attention and it also leads you to believe that you have attained the moral high ground, and then to use that club to beat up people who are descendants 15 generations later, seems to me, all wrong." 
  • "Of course, what happened to the Native Americans was very unfortunate. It happened here; it happened all over." 

How to whitewash the severity of the history
  • "I understand what the Indians are saying, but ...."
  • "There was an altercation." [between Oñate and the Acoma Indians]
  • "[Oñate] was not politically correct."

  • "Oñate was a hero of the red man; he didn't come as a conqueror."

  • "We always see ourselves as bearers of good fruit; that fruit is poisonous to other people."
  • "[The artist] wanted everything to remain sort of Disneyfied, McDonalized, without really seeing the guts and the gore of history ... "
  • "I think the journey [Oñate led] north was heroic, but they had not come to till the soil themselves. They relied for shelter, for food, and virtually everything else on the people who were already there."
  •  "When you have someone coming in to your home [and demand scarce resources from you, then of course, you're going to fight back]."
  • "[The project] sounded very exciting until .... a glorification of Don Juan Oñate ... the Native Americans were devastated ... felt their roots don't matter ..."
  • "You're really commemorating that one group of white people took away the land of another group of brown people. Is that really the great mission, the great vision that America was founded upon?" many of us are part Indian on one side and part Spaniard on another side. So which side are you going to take?"
  • "... by focusing completely on these notions that make a lot of sense to you, and making no attempt to see the other person's point of view, that's how evil comes about."

So about Juan de Oñate

The fact is, Juan de Oñate's actions were so egregious, even for his contemporary times, that he was charged, tried, and found guilty by the Spanish-American system in Mexico City for mismanagement and extreme cruelty to both Indians and colonists.

After the statue's installation, the sculptor and advocate and fundraiser, after absorbing so much painful testimony from Native Americans in Texas and New Mexico, said this:
"Art does have power. And with that power comes responsibility. The inhumanity of the period was unrecognized by the perpetuators of those crimes. And we brought it out in the same way that Oñate did. There was a certain blindness in society of that time. And that blindness is still with us today. I had neglected the depth of the injury that he had done to the Native American people. And that point, now, is too late to rectify. I have to suffer this, to carry this, because it's not what I intended for people to get out of this work. I think it's something I should have been able to anticipate, and I didn't. And I'm sorry."

"And that blindness is still with us today."

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judy said...

thanks for your thoughtful comments and wonderful pictures!

Mzuri said...