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Will “they” get over it… and should they?

13 September 2017

Something by way of a draft for an introduction to a new edition of Gods, Gachupines and Gringos.

Last night, I watched the 2008 documentary The Last Conquistador“... a study of the controversy surrounding the city of El Paso’s commission of a monumental sculpture of Juan de Oñate), one incident that stuck in my mind was a meeting of Hispanic historians and history buffs where one leader said that the Acoma tribe should “just get over it”.  “It” was Oñate’s massacre of an estimated 1000 Acomas in October 1598, followed by the enslavement of the rest, and having the left foot chopped off all the adult male survivors.

Oñate, founder of El Paso/Juarez, and Santa Fe, is undoubtedly a seminal figure in the history of New Spain.  That his impact on what is now part of the United States was largely forgotten by “official” history until quite recently does indeed have more to do with seeing history through a “white lens” (a term I have shamelessly stolen from Joaquín Ramon Herrera, who did the illustrations for, and designed the cover of, the first edition of Gods, Gachupines and Gringos).  Joaquín was referring to the tendency to interpret experience and to explain complex events  through the viewpoint of the privileged class  … in the United States, the “white” majority.  Especially in places like El Paso (a majority “Hispanic” city), paying homage to a Oñate would seem to be a corrective to this — never mind that he was of Jewish-Castillian ancestry (“white” by 21st century reckoning), and the majority of people in El Paso “people of color” — mostly of mixed European and indigenous ancestry.

To the Acoma, and the other Pueblo tribes of New Mexico Oñate was a terrorist and genocidal maniac.  He had more than a hand in wiping out about 80 percent of the communities that existed at his time, and evidently the Viceregal government back in Mexico City agreed.  Despite having “settled” huge new territories for the crown (his forces ranged as far afield as what it now Oklahoma and Kansas), he was recalled to the Capital in 1606, tried and convicted of cruelty but merely stripped of his title as Governor of the new territory, and banished from returning.

Certainly, it is to the credit of sculptor John Houser — who had worked with indigenous communities memorializing their own history — that he was conflicted about the meaning communities gave to his work, and wondered if it hadn’t been a mistake, despite which the 11 meter high monument (allegedly the largest equestrian statue in the world) was installed at the El Paso airport October 2006.

Then this morning, I read a small paean to Juan Garrido, the African born conquistador.  When I was writing my first edition, Afro-Mexican studies was a tiny field.  Most scholars paid attention to the impact of African influence and culture on colonial New Spain and in the early Republic, the contemporary Afro-Mexican community has only been receiving a wider recognition, both by scholars and the general public, in the last decade.  In my first edition,  Garrido got a one-sentence mention, as the first wheat-grower in the Americas.  But his history is hardly that of a benign farmer.  He had taken in active role in the genocide … or as he put it in a letter to King Felipe I, the “pacification” of Cuba, and, as an officer in Nuño Guzmán’s rampaging conquest of what is now Jalisco, an active participant in the reign of terror, enslavement, and genocide perpetrated against the indigenous communities.  Can he be seen as a figure of pride by Afro-Mexicans, or would that be merely substituting a “black lens” for an indigenous one… or is seeing him as a Conquistador, and celebrating his contributions to the creation of New Spain, to see him through the “white lens”?

No historian can guarantee that his or her work is free of all biases, nor am I completely convinced it is necessary to inject my 21st century white lens (even with corrective glasses, fitted by a wide-ranging number of scholars, writers, and ordinary people from various minority cultures) on historical figures.  That is, one has to accept that the often appalling attitudes and actions of our ancestors may not have affected them, or been viewed by them, the same way they affect us.  We’re grossed out by the thought of Aztec human sacrifice, of the (mis)treatment of women and sexual minorities, of slavery, of the whole nonsensical theory of “race”, of any number of things.  The most one can hope to do is say “X did this, and also did that” and let the heroes fall where they may.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 September 2017 7:44 pm

    An excellent post, properly ironic, especially in these days.

  2. 13 September 2017 9:19 pm

    An African conquistador? Oh my. That DOES complicate things, rather. But it seems that whether as slaves or conquistador “farmers”, the Africans in the Americas were all tools to somebody or another…

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