I was raised on the northern border of the Navajo Nation in the 1980s, the final stronghold of the old Indigenous world. Without the internet, I relied on television, books and the top branches of trees to glimpse the edges of my world. My Farmington classmates and I spent our school years studying the story of Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower, while New Mexico’s violent history went virtually unmentioned. We received only a cursory glance at the Pueblo Revolt, the Catholic Church’s hunt for “Indian witches,” the New Mexico slave trade, and the eventual emancipation of Indigenous and mestizo Genízaros. We were not taught about the region’s caste system, much less the murderous reign of Juan de Oñate, the Spanish conquistador and New Mexico’s first governor, who subjugated local Natives by mutilating their feet and enslaving their children. 

Settler colonialism was the unofficial rather than the official story, and this silencing of our communal origins was problematic, even disorienting. Nearly all old families in the state are mestizo, of mixed race, whether they acknowledge it or not. My mother was a light-skinned mestiza from the Lopez-Herrera family in Socorro, who married and loved my father, a full-blood Indigenous man from Laguna Pueblo and the Quechan (Yuma) Nation. Yet throughout my childhood, she refused to identify as anything but Spanish. Her chosen identity was built on cultural cringe. 

Other Americans confused our state with Mexico, asking if they needed passports to enter. It was built on naive obedience. Our textbooks fed us knowledge through an ethnocentric lens, making it difficult to understand our own history. It took me years to put all the pieces together and come to terms with my family lineage; to realize that my Socorro relatives also had Indigenous bloodlines; to see why my mother sought to emphasize her connection to Spain.  

The hierarchy of American thought holds that England is a more sophisticated country than Mexico. East Coast pilgrims overshadow Spanish conquistadors in our collective imagination. Manifest Destiny tells of a westward rather than a northward expansion, and this centering of European power creates a desire to be white in many New Mexican families. For years, Oñate has been celebrated as a hero for his connection to “civilized” Spain. If people realize that his offspring were the great-grandchildren of both the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, and the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II, I rarely hear them talk about his intermarriage. 

Southwestern history was so whitewashed in my childhood, I once considered the confusion over my mother’s identity a personal story. Rather, it is a common story. The war over our New Mexican ancestors is buried deep in our collective culture. For years I’ve seen it play out in daily micro-doses before roaring to life in outsized violence that is too frequently described as random. It’s not. It’s rooted in centuries-old prejudices that have never been exorcised.

A truth-and-reconciliation movement is needed, I thought, when I heard that another activist had been shot at a rally to stop the reinstallation of an Oñate monument in Española in September. Oñate statues trigger hostilities and pain, dividing the people of New Mexico. For some, the statues rouse grief over genocide. For others, the removal of the statues lessens visibility of Spain’s impact in the state, thereby reducing their claims to a respectable European lineage. 

An Española activist and self-trained historian named Luis Peña was present at the shooting and he put it clearly as anyone: “I believe the old way of thinking — ‘I am not Mexican, I am Spanish’— harms Chicano people more than anything else. This identity isn’t healthy for us because it’s not reflective of who we are.” 

Over the last three years, effigies of Oñate, a murderous silver baron who was declared a war criminal by the Spanish government long before his death in 1626, have been removed from pedestals across the state. Yet more than 400 years after he was laid to rest, he still serves as a wedge between brothers. Once again, the people of New Mexican have witnessed what happens when his spirit is conjured. This time it was at the rally in Española, where protesters gathered in a peaceful, prayerful protest. According to court documents, kids ran around playing and Indigenous activists, who had been sleeping on site for days, offered food to everyone, including the smattering of Oñate supporters in attendance.  

Among those supporters was Ryan David Martinez, a 23-year-old Hispanic man who, according to court documents, had earlier that day loaded two guns, donned a red MAGA hat in support of a man with a well-documented contempt for Mexicans, and slipped behind the wheel of his white Tesla for the 90-minute trip to Española from his gated Sandia Park community. He hoped to see the Oñate statue restored to its vaunted pedestal — I assume to see his ancestral ties to Spain once again honored. If his social media accounts are any indication, his anger over the protesters’ victory led to the violence that came next. 

Hours later, he was arrested for shooting Jacob Johns, a Hopi and Akimel O’odham activist who was there with other Indigenous activists to protest the possible return of Oñate’s statue. Martinez shot Johns in the stomach, damaging his diaphragm, liver and spleen, before running to his Tesla to try to escape.  

When I saw pictures of Martinez in his orange jumpsuit at the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla a few weeks later, I was taken aback. His skinny frame and ponytail gave him the appearance of a child. When he was told that he was being charged with aggravated assault, attempted murder and possible hate-crime charges, he reportedly broke down and cried. 

It’s unthinkable that we fail to see ourselves as a historically Mexican and Indigenous state. Our ignorance about the brutalities of Spanish rule and the old classist colonial system must be remedied. Otherwise, our desire to honor our European ancestry, while spitting on our humbler origins, will continue to create violence in a nightmarish déjà vu. Remembering my mother, who refused to vote for Trump, I know that some self-identifying Spanish don’t mean to be racist. Perhaps the problem involves education. Maybe if the Latin American caste system was taught in school we could find a way to exorcise our demons. 

Tensions around this issue have been rising since the summer of 2020, when gunfire broke out at an Albuquerque rally calling for the removal of yet another monument honoring Oñate. It erupted when Steven Ray Baca, a retired Bernalillo County deputy sheriff’s son and himself a former Republican candidate for city council, shot an unarmed protester four times at close range. Though the shots that struck Scott Williams were caught on camera, Baca wandered around until recently, the date for his criminal trial repeatedly delayed. 

When former District Attorney Raúl Torrez became New Mexico attorney general in 2022, he punted the politically polarizing case to his replacement, Sam Bregman, who in turn assigned it to a private Albuquerque attorney named David Foster. Last April, Foster offered Baca a plea deal: a misdemeanor in place of a felony. He was sentenced last week to two years of supervised probation, meaning that he will spend no time in jail.

Tensions took yet another turn when Rio Arriba County Commissioner Alex Naranjo announced a few weeks ago that he intended to spend $100,000 in public funds on the reinstallation of an Oñate statue in front of Española’s government building campus. It was, he said, a way to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month — no disrespect of Native peoples intended.

“I have relatives in Santa Clara [Pueblo],” he told reporters when he first announced his intention. “I also have relatives in San Juan [Pueblo]. I’m probably more Indian than they are.” 

Naranjo’s admission reflects his identity as a descendant of Native and Hispanic ancestors. The people of New Mexico barely blink an eye at his pride in a brutal conquistador. Yet again, there are plenty of Hispanics who willfully side with our Spanish colonizers, even knowing that their decisions create suffering and pain for the 23 tribal nations in the state of New Mexico, I assume because they have been conditioned to relate to power and nobility. 

As Luis Peña reminds me, bloodlines are not culture. Despite his claim to have Indian blood, Naranjo is not culturally Indigenous, a fact that’s determined by actions and values. Even so, Peña says it’s no secret that Alex Naranjo is the descendent of a famous Indigenous freedom fighter. Thinking I misunderstood his claim, I asked Peña again. “His family lineage is common knowledge in Española,” he says. 

Even though Alex Naranjo prides the power of his European forebears, he is widely recognized as a descendant of Domingo Naranjo. Domingo fought alongside Tewa spiritual leader, Popé, in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, a rebellion that gave Indigenous families a 12-year reprieve from brutal Spanish rule. When the Spanish reconquered the region in 1692, one of Domingo’s sons initiated a new rebellion, while another put a stop to it by chopping off his brother’s head, a twisted and unimaginable act that reveals the cruel pressures of the time. He then sent the body to Diego de Vargas, the new Spanish governor, presumably in a bid to save himself and his family. 

Back in the Spanish colonial era, European authorities made a distinction between Criollos, white Spaniards who had been born in the Americas, and Peninsulares, white Spaniards who had been born in Spain. Criollos were considered inferior to those who had taken their first breath in Europe. If a wealthy Spaniard married and bore a child with a Criollo, and that child was born on Mexican soil, their child was considered lower in status than a newly arrived immigrant from Europe. North Americans were, by their very nature, inferior, often lacking the authority to assume political and managerial positions. Class was determined by birth connection to another continent, and this racist system has contributed to the unfair distribution of power and wealth in our region for centuries.

In our state’s history, people who were of openly mixed race, the mestizos, were considered barely above the Indigenous. Since the early 1500’s, this social dynamic has fed the unrest, from the War of Independence to the War of the Castes, from the Zapatista Movement to the Make America Great Again violence at Indigenous rallies. These racist policies, systemic, pervasive, and widespread, played into the original intent behind La Día de la Raza, a holiday established throughout Latin America at the beginning of the 20th century. Latin American leaders exalted the Spanish race with the holiday, emphasizing the continents’ white history, considered to be key in gaining acceptance as “civilized” nations. 

It’s difficult to fault our Hispanic ancestors, given the oppression they themselves endured through the decades. The Dia de la Raza was a direct response to the fear many Central American and South American countries experienced in an era of CIA meddling in their democratic processes. The history of coups and violence in countries such as Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Columbia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic was never discussed in our schools, and this means we lack context regarding the origin of our cultural fear, and our cultural cringe regarding our Indigenous bloodlines. Settler colonialism created a chronic feeling of inferiority in our grandparents. It seems natural that our Hispanic ancestors sought to differentiate America’s whiteness from the Anglo-Saxon race which, in a true racial war, might wrest away our freedoms.  

Here in New Mexico, L. Bradford Prince, a territorial governor in the late 1800s, emphasized this “path toward whiteness.” Prince established the Spanish American Normal School in Española, now known as Northern New Mexico College, where he taught students to articulate a Spanish-American identity to leverage whiteness and contest discrimination. 

Thus, the wounds of colonialism remain a current event. I feel compassion for Ryan David Martinez. Knowing my own history, I can’t be sure that he’s educated enough to understand the way power-hungry forces have shaped New Mexican history. I don’t mean that as an insult. Given our state’s lackluster educational system, it wouldn’t be his fault. I don’t know how many times I’ve bristled at comments made by friends who live in urban areas along America’s coasts. On one hand, I can’t blame them for wondering how a person with a Hispanic last name from Albuquerque, New Mexico — clearly a Mexican in their eyes — can go to prison in support of a white supremacist like Trump. On the other hand, I feel we’ve all been injured by silenced histories involving complex world politics.

As a mixed blood offspring of the state, I feel saddened by the ignorance of our youth. Like poor Southerners pledging allegiance to powerful men who claim to be populists and use their votes to make more money for the 1 percent, these men are merely attempting to bolster their confidence and status in a world that steps on the small. Who can blame them for wishing to claim the King of Spain as their sovereign, when they think it may confer some superiority upon them in their weakened status.

Want to join the discussion? Come to our next event!

When: Monday, November 13, 2023, 6:00 pm

Where: Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St, Santa Fe, NM 87501

Searchlight New Mexico & Collected Works Presents: Race & Class in New Mexico – Unraveling the complexities of identity in light of the recent shooting at an Oñate rally in Española, as explored in a personal essay by Deborah Taffa (Kwatsaán/Laguna Pueblo), director of creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Deborah Taffa will be joined by Luis Peña.

Peña was born in 1977 to a loving family in the isolated mountains of northern NM and was raised among hard-working people. Luis is happily married to his high school sweetheart and is a father to three young leaders. As a child, Luis bore witness to the struggles of his gente against erasure and the continued occupation of the commons. Through self-expression and spiritual devotion he has managed to navigate an ever-changing world and is committed to justice for all living things. He is a self-educated historian.

Deborah Jackson Taffa ​​(Kwatsaán/Laguna Pueblo) is director of the graduate program in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her book, “Whiskey Tender,” is being published...