NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – A statue that is a painful symbol of oppression to Native Americans is no longer in place in Rio Arriba county. Crews removed the Don Juan de Onate statue this afternoon, but it is not clear if it is gone for good. There was a protest planned this afternoon for the statue’s removal, but that protest turned into a celebration as the county took it down just a few hours before.

It is a statue that has been controversial since day one. “It is something that is a part of history,” one person said. “There is positives and negatives to it.”

A hero of the Spanish, Native Americans view Juan De Onate as a brutal conqueror who massacred as many as a thousand Acoma in the late 1500s and ordered the left foot cut off of the male survivors. People have protested events honoring Onate for years. “The presence of that statue was an act of violence upon pueblo people,” one protester said.

After years of activists fought to get rid of his statue in Alcalde, people lined the street this afternoon to take photos and cheer as it was taken down. “For the first time in 20 years, we do not have to stare at Onate,” one protester said.

The Rio Arriba county manager authorized the move, saying the county learned that destruction or damage to the statue was likely at a protest planned this afternoon. “That’s what prompted my decision,” Tomas Campos said. “The current time and the way people are acting and the fact that I actually believe they would have hurt it. It is unfortunate, but it is the current time and the way the nation is thinking.”

This comes as cities across the country take down monuments dedicated to confederate leaders and generals. An Onate statue at the Albuquerque Museum was also recently vandalized. “It is part of a much larger struggle for peoples’ voices to be heard,” a speaker said.

As law enforcement escorted the statue away to an undisclosed storage location, people stormed the area and stood where the statue once was to reclaim the land. “In the year 2020, our voices are finally being heard.”

The county stresses that this is temporary and no final decision has been made about the statue. Commissioners will discuss the statue’s future with the community. The county manager said it will be stored until commissioners make a decision on what to do with it likely at their July meeting.

Campos said the statue is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said when vandals once cut off the foot of the statue, it cost taxpayers $10,000 to repair. He said that was part of his calculation to remove the statue ahead of Monday’s protest. He said many people protesting are not from Rio Arriba county.

Message from the Rio Arriba County Commission website:

As many in our community have noticed, the County’s statue of Don Juan de Oñate was removed today and taken to storage. County Manager Tomas Campos authorized this controversial decision based upon information that destruction or damage to the statue and County property at this afternoon’s demonstration, and in the future, was highly probable.

Rio Arriba County residents need to understand that a final policy decision has not been made about the Oñate statue other than its removal today to protect it from damage or destruction. The County Commission welcomes a respectful and civil discussion from its residents about the future of the Oñate statue.

Thank you.

Video courtesy of Ryan Begay
Video courtesy of Ryan Begay