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In Alcade, New Mexico, in January 1998, the right foot of a bronze statue of Don Juan de Oñate (c. 1550-1626; known as “the last conquistador”) was removed by “vandals” in an effort to counterbalance the upcoming 400th anniversary of his settlement by dramatizing his infamous order to cut off the right foot of 24 Acoma Pueblo prisoners in 1599.
While Oñate's colonization of the American Southwest as an actual event is long since past, controversies surrounding its interpretation continue to occur because publicly articulated views of the past remain contested so long as dfferent groups remember different pasts and compete with others to shape public memory. As subaltern perspectives are encouraged to find voice in a shifting postcolonial discourse in the American Southwest, the reinterpretation of landscapes and memories reaches new audiences and becomes entangled in the larger questions associated with current debates over public memory and identity politics. This essay examines the fluid nature of the making of public memories, landscapes, and identities and the challenge of writing histories—on paper or in bronze—that are aware of these processes. History does not always adequately capture the multivocality and complexity of the Southwest's many cultures, their distinct places, myriad pasts, and evolving power structures that enable these groups to construct their own pasts. The significant challenge presented by these processes belies the seemingly clear-cut arguments espoused by many academic and public critics in today's climate of culture wars and other debates over memory and identity Although the sculptor repaired the Oñate statue in Alcalde, the amputated foot was never returned and is still missing. Oñate's foot is a powerful symbol of the legacy of conquest reclaimed and held hostage, not unlike the very history of the region, by those attempting to reinterpret a disputed past commemorated by others in bronze.