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School board made right call on name change


“Where do you draw the line?” my friend asked, as we watched a news clip of Confederate monuments being removed.

It’s a fair question, given the recent toppling of a monument dedicated to Ulysses S. Grant in San Francisco. The family of Grant’s wife owned slaves, and that apparently outweighed his service in leading the Union Army to victory in the Civil War, freeing all slaves, in the minds of some.

My answer was that all of us have our own line, depending greatly on what we were taught in history class, and what we have learned since then.

For me, the questions are these: Why is the person being honored? And who is doing the honoring? We honor Thomas Jefferson and George Washington for their leadership in our nation’s founding, despite the fact that they owned slaves.

With Confederate leaders, slavery is not a blemish; it’s the very reason for the honor. Monuments were erected decades after the Civil War ended in an effort to change perceptions about the war and intimidate black residents living and working next to those monuments. I believe they should all come down.

So where does that leave Juan de Oñate?

In 1598, Oñate led a Spanish expedition up the Rio Grande to the confluence of the Chama River, where he became the first colonial governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico.

Our history textbooks teach us that European explorers are responsible for all the benefits we enjoy today. They founded new lands and developed new settlements. But of course, those lands had been founded and settled for centuries.

The people of Acoma Pueblo were living here long before Oñate’s arrival. Settling the territory meant subjugating those who already lived there.

In 1599, Oñate retaliated for an ambush that killed 13 Spaniards by destroying the Acoma Pueblo and slaughtering 800 to 1,000 of its residents. Those who survived were forced into servitude.

It has been reported that Oñate punished all Acoma men over the age of 25 by cutting off their left foot. Later research suggests it was only toes that were removed, for whatever difference that makes. He did not want to completely disable his new servants.

Oñate’s time in New Mexico was marked by greed and cruelty. He came seeking gold. Failing to discover wealth, he settled for power instead. His brutal reign finally ended when he was convicted by the Spanish government of using excessive force against the Acoma people, and he was forever banished from New Mexico.

Four centuries later, in the 1980s, the school board in Las Cruces decided to name its new high school after Oñate. The current board recently voted 3-1, with one abstention, to reverse that decision and rename the school.

Board member Carol Cooper, who voted for the name change, now says she regrets that decision and would like to vote again. She said the action was rushed and went against the wishes of most community members who oppose changing the name. And she noted the school pride and spirit that has been built over the years.

School board member Ray Jaramillo cast the lone vote against the name change. Jaramillo said the timing was not right, given the ongoing pandemic and its impact on the budget. But he’s not defending the memory of Oñate. Nor is Cooper.

Jaramillo said it was students who led the effort to get the name changed. I hope that means they are getting a more balanced and complete version of our history than the one I was taught in school.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com