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US: Racist, brutal past or Hispanic history? Latinos clash over Spanish colonial statues

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Yolanda Leyva's protests 13 years ago against the erection of a statue of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador, cost her relationships and added to heightening division in her community. And in the end, it all seemed for naught: After months of having rallied with others, she learned that the statue would be installed in front of El Paso International Airport in Texas anyway.

"We were a coalition of Native Americans and Mexican Americans protesting the statue because we believed it represented cruelty, brutality and the horrors of colonization," said Leyva, an activist who is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso.

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Oñate, a divisive historical figure known for settling what is now known as the Southwest region of the U.S., ordered the destruction of the Native American Acoma Pueblo in 1599 in what is known as the Acoma Massacre. He ordered the amputation of Acoma men's feet and later their hands as punishment for having fought the Spanish; he was later convicted of using excessive force and banished from New Mexico.

a man jumping in the air doing a trick on a skateboard: IMAGE: 'Equestrian' statue in El Paso (El Paso International Airport) © El Paso International Airport IMAGE: 'Equestrian' statue in El Paso (El Paso International Airport)

"But some other Mexican Americans said that the statue represented Mexican history, not Spanish history, since Oñate was born in Mexico, and that we shouldn't be protesting it, because it was about time 'our history' was represented in El Paso," Leyva said.

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The decades-long debate over the Oñate statue connects with current widespread protests calling for racial justice and the removal of statues of Confederate leaders. It has led many to ask: What should be done with statues honoring Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, and what do these statues represent for Latinos — whose ancestry includes this Spanish legacy?

After the Oñate statue was erected in 2007 and renamed The Equestrian to make it less controversial, it inevitably fell out of the general public's consciousness, Leyva said. That is, until last month, when the 36-foot monument — purported to be the world's largest equestrian statue — was vandalized with spray paint. The phrases and obscenities written on the statue included "Your god is not my god."

"I don't even know how people were able to vandalize it, since the statue is in a very prominent place, but part of me is glad that people remembered the statue and what I think it means," Leyva said. "People argue that if you take down the statues, you're erasing history, but the statues don't teach history. People just say, 'Oh look, there's a man on a horse.'"

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For Leyva, the vandalization signifies a greater reckoning Latinos may be having over relics of the Spanish colonial past — and a reminder of the violence inflicted on Native people.

Not everyone agrees, including Daniel Ortiz, whose petition titled "Stop Attacking Our Hispanic Heritage!" had drawn almost 3,000 signatures this week. Ortiz maintained that the Spanish helped Native communities in New Mexico by "allowing intermarriage that led to shared culture" and that the Spanish "made peace with Native American pueblos long ago," so statues commemorating them shouldn't be removed.

"I wouldn't have a problem if the statues were actually considered offensive by Native American tribes, but the effort to remove the statues is led by Anglos and a small, radical Native American group, not the pueblos," said Ortiz, whose family has lived in the state for at least 14 generations. "They're hijacking and piggybacking off the Black Lives Matter movement to sow discord and erase Hispanics' history."

"Latinx people are both the protagonists in historical justice and the progeny of colonization," says historian John Nieto-Phillips.

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The Spanish Embassy in Washington has also decried the destruction of such statues, writing that it plans to continue defending the Spanish legacy by "intensifying" its educational efforts "in order for the reality of our shared history to be better known and understood."

Other colonial monuments have recently been targeted. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, protesters toppled statues of Junípero Serra, a Spanish priest and founder of the California mission system during the 18th-century Spanish colonization of the area. Serra has been accused of violence against Native people by forcing them to convert to Catholicism.

a group of people standing in front of a building: Syndication: Junipero Serra statue (Juan Carlo / THE STAR via Imagn Content Services file) © Provided by NBC News Syndication: Junipero Serra statue (Juan Carlo / THE STAR via Imagn Content Services file)

"Black Lives Matter has evolved into a nationwide movement to seek justice and equality for all Black and Indigenous people," read a petition calling for the removal of a Serra statue in Ventura, California, which had been signed by about 8,000 people this week. "The City of Ventura and Ventura Unified School District must take action and do their part to dismantle systemic racism in all its forms."

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, officials decided to pre-emptively take down a statue of Oñate after an altercation in Albuquerque attended by members of a right-wing militia, during which a protester was shot. Local officials are also considering renaming schools, parks and other public spaces that refer to Spanish explorers across the country, particularly in the Southwest.

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Latinos as 'oppressed' — and oppressors

While the tension over Spanish colonial monuments was precipitated by and is gaining momentum against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, experts said the actions are part of a particular local context — one that is made all the more complicated by "rigid" categorizations of ethnicity.

"Some Latinos claim indigenous identity, and so the unnatural, rigid categories of race and identity we've been fit into make the situation more nuanced and prevent Latinos from seeing their relational history," said Dulcinea Lara, an associate professor of criminal justice at New Mexico State University. "There's a lot of education being done and more that needs to be done involving teaching about internalized colonization: how people have been forced to speak Spanish instead of indigenous languages, convert to Catholicism and abandon indigenous religious practices and assimilate to a certain way of life."

For Hispanics in New Mexico, Lara said, recognizing themselves "as both oppressed and taking part in an oppressive system is an important and difficult journey." She cites the United States' making New Mexico a territory in 1848 as an example of how Hispanics were able to benefit from their European ancestry, while Native people were denied U.S. citizenship.

a group of people standing next to a fence: Image: Sculpture of Juan de Onate (Paul Ratje / AFP - Getty Images file) © Paul Ratje Image: Sculpture of Juan de Onate (Paul Ratje / AFP - Getty Images file)

Hispanics in New Mexico also embraced white identity versus mixed identity to avoid further discrimination at the hands of white people who moved into the territory in the 19th century, said John Nieto-Phillips, author of "The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish-American Identity in New Mexico, 1880s-1930s." In aligning themselves with whiteness, some Hispanics advocated for "pure" Spanish blood to be perpetuated by pushing a eugenics movement, treating those with mixed backgrounds as "mongrels who couldn't govern themselves," said Nieto-Phillips, an associate professor of history at Indiana University.

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"Whiteness figured very prominently into the creation of Hispanics, at least in the context of New Mexico," Nieto-Phillips said. "If we're to truly be in allyship to indigenous communities, I think we need to acknowledge our complicity in the roles that we've played historically, that our forebears have played, and understand that Latinx people are both the protagonists in historical justice and the progeny of colonization."

A 'starting point'

Gabriel Sanchez, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, said he believes it's a little too early to assess the results of efforts to topple statues and rename buildings representing Spanish colonialism. Recent events, though, point toward a reckoning among Latinos with Hispanic ancestry — particularly among those who are younger — about talking more openly about race and racism.

Sanchez referred to a recent Latino Decisions poll that showed that more than 80 percent of nearly 500 Latino parents said they used George Floyd's death as an entry point to discuss race relations with their children.

In places like New Mexico, "we're talking about multiple generations of Hispanic and Native American populations living alongside each other," said Sanchez.

"While there's been a shared reverence and solidarity on issues, particularly on police brutality, there's also been an underlying tension," he said. "I think this is an opportunity to address some of that, but it's really the starting point of a long-term discussion."

Lara said she, too, has observed a greater shift in urgency among Latinos with Spanish ancestry. She said she's finding it's more common for people to introduce themselves by apologizing for their ancestors' actions as a "public reparations statement."

Lara noted that in 2018, for example, Santa Fe canceled its Entrada tradition, the re-enactment of the 1692 Spanish reoccupation of Santa Fe by Diego de Vargas—after protesters argued that it glorified violence against indigenous people.

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Michelle Otero, Albuquerque's poet laureate, was part of a group of artists who banded to write a proclamation marking the update in the festival. Otero will be holding a series of conversations in the city about Spanish and Latino identity and the monuments that represent the Spanish colonial past.

"There's a tri-cultural myth of indigenous people, Hispanics and Latinx and white people living in harmony, and I'd only learned to realize later in life how white supremacy manifests in my world and in this place that I'm from," said Otero, whose family has lived in the state for several generations. "Thank God I had really patient people around me who challenged me in the best ways so I could expand my thinking."

Lara added that in the end, the statues shouldn't take the focus away from the overarching fight for racial and ethnic justice.

"There's a lot of crying in my classes, with students saying, 'Here I am in this body, talking about the discrimination my family and I have experienced, but at the same time, historically my ancestry has been involved in the oppression of indigenous people,'" Lara said. "We have to have these conversations in a compassionate way, because it's not so much about the statues. It's about challenging systems of oppression and its symbols."

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Congressional Democrats target Confederate symbols at Capitol, US military bases .
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