Russell Contreras, AP, October 10, 2019
The Spanish conquistador is an image found throughout New Mexico, the most Hispanic state in the United States.
Depictions of men such as 17th century explorers Don Juan de Oñate and Don Diego de Vargas have long adorned murals and been honored at commemorations as symbols of the region’s Hispanic heritage.
In recent years, however, the conquistador and all the effigies connected to it have come under intense criticism. A new generation of Native American and Latino activists is demanding that conquistador imagery and names be removed from seals, schools and streets. They say the figure’s connection to colonialism and indigenous genocide makes the conquistador outdated, highlighting the region’s changing attitudes about its colonial past.
Activists convinced organizers of the yearly Santa Fe Fiesta to abandon “the Entrada” — a recreation of de Vargas recapturing Santa Fe for the Spanish from Pueblo tribes. Under pressure, Santa Fe’s public school district also announced it would limit when conquistador reenactors visit. This month, the University of New Mexico said it’s looking for a new design for its official seal following protests from Native Americans over concerns about the current seal with a conquistador.
The demonstrations and protests have enflamed racial tensions between some New Mexico Latinos — who call themselves Hispanos — and Native American tribes. Both sides say the battle is over how to tell the region’s history.
Ralph Arellanes, chair of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico, said he understands the desire of the state’s tribes to tell their stories. But he called efforts to remove the conquistador attempts to erase history.
Each state has a few monuments, streets and cities named after Spanish conquistadors, but the conquistador has played a unique role in the celebration of Hispanic culture in New Mexico as many continue to identify as Spanish, or descendants of the first Spanish explorers. Latinos in other southwestern states often identify as Mexican American or mestizo, a mixture of Spanish and Native American ancestry.
The conquistador image has appeared on university emblems, moving truck companies and once was the mascot of Albuquerque’s minor league baseball team. At an annual festival in Santa Fe, some dress up as conquistadors and ride through town on horses while other conquistador reenactors visit local schools and dance with children.
All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman E. Paul Torres, who is a member of Isleta Pueblo, said he understands that some Hispanics revere their Spanish colonial past and images of the conquistador.
Nick Estes, an American Studies professor at the University of New Mexico and co-founder of The Red Nation, said activists want state leaders to stop lionizing the region’s violent colonial past and recognize the history of Native Americans.
This fight is worse than the battle over U.S. Civil War-era Confederate monuments in the American South, he said.