Confederate monument, Mt. Olivet and bust of Cabeza de Vaca courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
History is powerful or rather historical memory is powerful. It is divisive; it is healing. It separates and unites. We re-create it in every generation. It moves from the top down and the bottom up. Often, it is so invisible, so "natural," that we don't even see its influence on our worldview.
Recently, emotions have flared throughout the South and across the nation over the removal of monuments commemorating the Confederacy and Confederate political and military leaders. There are an estimated 750 Confederate memorials in the United States. Beginning last month, the New Orleans city government removed four monuments to the Confederacy: statues of Jefferson Davis, General PGT Beauregard and Robert E. Lee, as well as an 1891 obelisk. Workers wore bulletproof vests and hid their identities.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This week Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke about his decision to remove them and the speech has gone viral. In his eloquent speech on the meaning and commemoration of history, Mayor Landrieu said,
A piece of stone - one stone. Both stories were history. One story told. One story forgotten or maybe even purposefully ignored. As clear as it is for me today... for a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans' most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family's long proud history of fighting for civil rights... I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought. So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race…
To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.
And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans - or anyone else - to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person's humanity seems perverse and absurd. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart.
I encourage you to read the speech in its entirety. It is a powerful statement on the meaning of historical representation. You can read it here:
The Equestrian, El Paso. Photos by the author.
Over the years, I've given a lot of thought to historical memory and the ways in which we remember, re-create, and commemorate histories that are difficult and complex. What does it mean when we spend public money on monuments that celebrate oppression or when we place one side of history “on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor” resulting in “an inaccurate recitation of our full past?” As Landrieu says, only one story is told and the other perhaps purposely ignored.
In 2006-2007, I had the honor of organizing with the people of Acoma Pueblo and Mexican American and other Indigenous folks from the border to protest the placement of a statue originally named in honor of Juan de Oñate statue; later, the City Council renamed it the Equestrian in an effort to distance it from the history of the man Oñate and to placate its opponents.
As I've written in a previously published article, the love affair of Mexican Americans with conquistadores is complicated and rooted in our own experience of exclusion and discrimination. Identifying as Spanish rather than Mexican has given us a source of “whiteness” that we have used to try to gain equality, unsuccessfully. ("Monuments of Conformity: Commemorating and Protesting Oñate on the Border," New Mexico Historical Review, Volume 82, Number 3, Summer 2007),
On the day the statue was dedicated at the El Paso International Airport in early 2007, Indigenous people from Acoma and other Pueblos joined local Mexican Indigenous people to protest the unveiling. It was a loud and contentious event. We prayed, burned copal, drummed, danced, and chanted. One Mexicana elder told me to stop yelling “Shame on you” because being so rude was against our culture. One group screamed, “Go back where you came from!” My heart was racing and I yelled back, “I am from here and my people have been here thousands of years before yours!” The irony of me, a Mexican woman descended from Raramuri and other Northern Mexican Indigenous people, yelling that to other Mexicans who were, no doubt, also descended from Indigenous people, was not lost on me even in the heat of the moment.
El Paso City Council meeting, 2006. From left to right: Xoxi Nayapiltzin, abuela Bea Villegas, Yolanda Leyva, and Nicol Partida.
As a historian who looks at identity and historical representation, I tried to make my point to supporters of the statue in the months before and the weeks following the dedication. We should not celebrate a man whose left a history of atrocities everywhere he went, from ordering that the foot of each man at Acoma be cut off in retaliation for their resistance to his unreasonable demands for food to the destruction of pueblos. I told people that we should not honor him with a statue that was costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Why were we honoring a murderer and exploiter of Native peoples?
My relating the history of his actions, considered unusually cruel even for the time, didn’t change their opinions. It was frustrating to me since I have dedicated my life to the idea that education can change the world.
Their point to me, which I could understand in the context of two hundred years of exclusion and discrimination, was that he was one of us. We were still trying to identify with the conqueror in an effort to be included in the imaginary of this nation, this state, and this city. El Paso’s City Council gives out an award to honor individuals. It’s called The Conquistador Award.
But was he one of us?
Oñate was born in Zacatecas to a father who made a fortune in the silver mines using enslaved Africans and Indigenous people. People argued with me, “See, he is a Mexican like us! Finally, El Paso is honoring our history.”
“He was married to an Indian woman. He wasn’t so bad!” Oñate was married to Dona Isabel de Tolosa Cortés de Moctezuma, a wealthy woman who descended from both Moctezuma and Cortes. Her father was Basque, born in Spain, and her mother was the daughter of Cortes and the daughter of Moctezuma. Her father, like Onate’s was a wealthy mine owner and marrying her gave Oñate status.
“We can’t deny history. It happened,” they told me. It’s true, of course, that he existed and that history happened. What history do we choose to honor, however? There is a difference in learning the history of Onate and in erecting an almost-four-story statue to him.
Mexicans and Mexican Americans have been taught that we are half-Spanish and half-Indian—the essence of mestizaje. It is what makes us us. People have told me, “We carry the blood of the conquistadores and the conquered in our veins.” While we certainly are a mixture of peoples (as almost everyone in the United States is), I think it is dangerous to say we are descendants of the conquerors. Some of us may be, but the vast majority of us are not.
We are, however, descendants of people who lived within a colonial/ colonizing system of racial hierarchies and oppression, whether we have more European or more Native “blood.” With few exceptions our ancestors did not benefit from this system. This is the history that has in so many ways made us us.
Three hundred years of colonization meant that we speak Spanish, that most of us are Roman Catholic, that in the Mexican north we eat flour tortillas, and that when a baby is born we still say she is beautiful if she is white-skinned. The telenovelas that we watch (or our mothers watch or our abuelas watch) are filled with blonde, European-looking actors whose characters have money and education and mansions while the occasional dark-skinned person is usually the servant or the criminal in the story. While this love of whiteness and European-ness has a basis in later histories (the Porfiriato, for example), the deepest taproot of this is in the colonial period.
Few of us, whether we migrated here over the past century and a half or whether we were here when the new border was drawn in 1848, come from conquistadores or rich Spaniards. We come from the small villages where, as the late anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla wrote, Mexico profundo still lives. We come from the working classes of urban areas. In the early twentieth century, Mexico created Mexicanization schools to de-Indianize students. During the Bracero Program, some agricultural workers coming from Mexico learned to speak Spanish in the United States, having come here speaking an Indigenous language.
In his speech, Mayor Landrieu says, “To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed.” This applies to Mexican and Mexican American history as well. To put a conquistador (even if he did introduce horses and chile to the Southwest as scholars have argued with me) on a pedestal ignores the other part of history: enslavement, the cruelty towards workers in mines and on haciendas, the rape of women that is part of conquest, the destruction of peoples and cultures. It makes invisible three hundred years of colonialism that is still deeply embedded in us and from which we must heal.
To continue our love affair with conquistadores is indeed a “bad prescription for our future.” History is as much about the future as it is about the past. It gives us an understanding of how to move forward, how to shape our options and dreams. It is about our children and their children and how they think about themselves.
History and the ways in which we create and re-create the memory of history are part of what has damaged us and can be part of what heals us.