Matthew J. Martínez


This year, 2014, marks the 400th anniversary of Juan de Oñate’s exile from New Mexico. In 1598, Oñate traveled north from México, accompanied by a caravan of a thousand soldiers, colonists, missionaries and Tlaxcalan Mexican Indians, along with cattle, sheep, goats, oxen and horses, and arrived in Yungeh—Place of the Mockingbird—in present-day Ohkay Owingeh. It is said that Oñate’s dusty procession could be seen for miles and that even the odor of cattle preceded his arrival. I often wonder what Pueblo people at that time thought of this new wave of European arrivals to a relatively quiet farming community. I imagine there were emotions of curiosity, awe and fear.


Today, Yungeh continues to be my family’s residence, where I grew up as a kid, running and fishing along the banks of the Río Chama and Río Grande. Just like the confluence of the rivers, so too have new peoples, animals and cultures influenced the landscape of how we come to understand northern New Mexico. While the city of Española continues to celebrate fiestas and honor Juan de Oñate, it is imperative that we all commemorate and recognize a truthful history.


It was with the intent of broadening a larger historical discussion and bringing some light to the Española Valley’s history that I was asked to attend the city of Española’s City Council meeting last month. Prior to my being introduced, Mayor Alice Lucero read an official proclamation presented to the Fiesta Council Royal Court proclaiming “2014 Fiestas del Valle de Española” and introduced members of the royal court. The proclamation was entrenched with colonial language such as “when the lands of northern New Mexico were explored by Don Juan de Oñate and claimed by Spain” and that the Española Valley is “where cultures unite and live in harmony, as our ancestors did for many years. In spite of the atrocities, we learned to live peacefully in our community.” Following the proclamation were applauses and cheers of “¡Qué viva las fiestas!” and “¡Qué viva Don Juan de Oñate!”


I was next on the agenda to provide a historical context. Meanwhile, the Fiesta Council sat in the audience dressed in their “period clothing of royalty.”


I proceeded to state that, 400 years ago, in 1614, Oñate was exiled from what is now New Mexico and charged with mismanagement and excessive cruelty, especially at Acoma Pueblo in 1599, where he ordered the right foot chopped off of 24 Acoma warriors. Males between the ages of 12 and 25 were also enslaved for 20 years, along with all of the females above the age of 12. When King Phillip of Spain heard the news of the massacre and punishments, Oñate was brought on 30 charges of mismanagement and excessive cruelty in suppressing Indian uprisings. He was found guilty of cruelty, immorality and false reporting and returned to Spain to live out the remainder of his life.


To this day, Oñate remains a controversial figure in Native American history, as well as Latin-American history. Based on historical facts, it seems fair to state that Oñate’s own people would not tolerate such behavior and that banishment—at the least—would be a fair punishment. My question to the city asked how this year’s Fiesta Council plans to commemorate this monumental date in history. If we are a city of honoring all cultures and histories, what would be an appropriate way to recognize the 400th anniversary of Juan de Oñate’s exile during the city of Española Fiestas?


The council chambers were silent and awkward. Councilor Pedro Valdez chimed in to claim that “the past is the past and doesn’t matter today,” which was followed Mayor Lucero’s comment, “We need to celebrate the good things the Spanish brought; that’s why we are all here, even the Pueblos.” As I heard these comments, I wondered what the Royal Court was thinking, not only the young man who was portraying Oñate, but especially La Reina, who more accurately represents Oñate’s mistress. In 1598, Oñate was already married in México to Doña Isabel de Tolosa, who stayed behind while her husband was sent to colonize the upper Río Grande. Today’s La Reina, like other princesas,problematically remains nameless as a mere submissive backdrop toward a celebration of patriarchal colonization.


My comments to the council very much embraced both my Pueblo and Hispano roots in an attempt for all of us to better appreciate celebrations with a clearer historical context. From an indigenous perspective, 400 years is still considered relatively recent, in which the exile of Oñate continues to be remembered as a significant event in New Mexico history. In spite of historical atrocities, we must recognize that we are a people of complex—often violent—histories and, more fundamentally, that an indigenous solution involves taking the right steps for the next 400 years and beyond by exiling historical amnesia.



Matthew J. Martínez, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Pueblo Indian Studies and director of the Northern Pueblos Institute at Northern New Mexico College in Española.




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