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 , Staff writer of 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."

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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.

"New Mexico really has a lot to offer other states on how different peoples can get along," says Chris Garcia (no relation to Damian), a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Mexico. "In many East Coast states, Indians were driven off their land, and genocide was the standard policy. Here, many native Americans have Spanish surnames, and many Hispanics have native American ancestors. And through the intermingling of cultures, we're a lot better off."

Even native American politicians say the current rift between Hispanics and Indians is unlikely to be permanent.

"Personally, I feel people as a whole ought to participate in the Cuarto Centenario and perhaps learn from the past," says James Madalena, a native American legislator who represents Jemez Pueblo, north of Albuquerque.

While Onate's image has been tarnished of late, the onetime Spanish ruler still has his defenders. Onate planted apple, peach, and plum trees, introduced the livestock industry, and dug irrigation canals. And the Spanish introduced the language of Cervantes, an archaic Spanish dialect that is still spoken up north, and the Roman Catholic Church.

"The Spanish legacy is still found in the values people have," says Estevan Arrellano, director of the Onate Center in Alcalde, N.M. The values that were taught by the Catholic Church are one way in which "the Hispanic community and native Americans are almost like one."

While some Hispanics have toned down Onate celebrations, others say the native Americans should lighten up a little.

"Everything has been focused on Onate and that one misdeed," says Orlando Romero, a writer and archivist at the Fray Angelico Chavez Historical Library and Photography Archive in Santa Fe. "It was what they did, when one country conquered another, and there was cruelty involved. I don't approve of it, but it happened 400 years ago."

In Acoma, however, Onate's cruelty is recalled as if it happened yesterday. On tours through this mesa-top village high on the desert plateau, visitors are reminded of each visit of the Spaniards, first for gold, then for God, and finally, for glory.

"It was such a violent time, and it was not just our people who were killed, but the Spanish too," says Susan Sarracino, carefully painting reddish geometric designs on a small pot in her ceramics stall. "You don't celebrate something like that."

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