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Juan de Oñate by Reynaldo Rivera
Don Juan de Oñate Salazar (1552 – 1626) was an explorer, colonial governor of the New Spain (present-day Mexico) province of New Mexicomarker, and founder of various settlements in the present day Southwest of the United States.

Oñate was born in the New Spain city of Zacatecasmarker to Spanish-Basque colonists and silver mine owners. His father was the conquistador/silver baron Cristóbal de Oñate, and his mother Doña Catalina Salazar y de la Cadena . His Cadena ancestor fought in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosamarker, and was the first to break the line of defense (slaves) protecting Mohammad Ben Yacub. The family was granted a coat of arms, and thereafter were known as the Cadenas. (Ref. La Calle de Cadena en Mexico," pps. 1—46, Guillermo Porras Munoz). Juan de Oñate began his career as an Indian fighter in the northern frontier region of New Spain. He married Isabel de Tolosa Cortés de Moctezuma, granddaughter of Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztec Triple Alliance, and great granddaughter of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin.

In 1595 he was ordered by King Philip II to colonize the upper Rio Grandemarker (Río Bravo del Norte) valley (explored in 1540 by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado). His stated objective was to spread Roman Catholicism and establish new missions. He began the expedition in 1598, fording the Rio Grande (Río del Norte) at the present-day Ciudad JuárezmarkerEl Pasomarker crossing in late April. On April 30, 1598, he claimed all of New Mexico beyond the river for Spain.

That summer his party continued up the Rio Grande to present-day northern New Mexico, where he encamped among the Pueblo Indians. He founded the province of Santa Fé de Nuevo México and became the province's first governor. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, a captain of the expedition, chronicled Oñate’s conquest of New Mexico’s indigenous peoples in his epic Historia de Nuevo México (1610).

Oñate soon gained a reputation as a stern ruler of both the Spanish colonists and the indigenous people. In October of 1598, a skirmish erupted when Oñate's occupying Spanish military demanded supplies from the Acoma tribe—demanding things essential to the Acoma surviving the winter. The Acoma resisted and 13 Spaniards were killed, amongst them Don Juan Oñate’s nephew. In 1599, Oñate retaliated; his soldiers killed 800 villagers. They enslaved the remaining 500 women and children, and by Don Juan’s decree, they amputated the left foot of every Acoma man over the age of twenty-five. Eighty men had their left foot amputated. Other commentators put the figure of those mutilated at 24.

In 1606, Oñate was recalled to Mexico City for a hearing into his conduct. After finishing plans for the founding of the town of Santa Fémarker, he resigned his post and was tried and convicted of cruelty to both Indians and colonists. He was banished from New Mexico but on appeal was cleared of all charges. Eventually Oñate went to Spain, where the king appointed him head of mining inspectors for all of Spain. He died in Spain in 1626. He is sometimes referred to as "the Last Conquistador."

Oñate is honored by some for his exploratory ventures, but is vilified by others for his cruelty to the Indians of Acoma Pueblo. In the Oñate Monument Visitors Center northeast of Españolamarker is a 1991 bronze statue dedicated to the man. In 1998 New Mexico celebrated the 400th anniversary of his arrival. That same year individuals opposed to the statue or what it was perceived to represent, cut off the statue's right foot and left a note saying, "Fair is fair." The sculptor, Reynaldo Rivera, recast the foot but the seam is still visible. Some commentators suggested leaving the statue maimed as a symbolic reminder of the foot-mutilating incident.

In 1997, the City of El Pasomarker hired a sculptor, John Sherrill Houser, to create a statue of the conquistador. In reaction to protests, two city councilmembers retracted their support for the project; The $2 million statue took nearly 9 years to build and was stationed in the sculptor's Mexico City warehouse. The statue was completed in early 2006. In pieces and transported on flatbed trailers, it was brought to El Paso during the summer and was installed in October. The controversy over the statue prior to its installation was the subject of the documentary film The Last Conquistador, presented in 2008 as part of PBS' P.O.V. television series.

Official Scenic Historic Marker: Paraje de Fra Cristobal

The City of El Paso unveiled the 18-ton, 34-foot tall statue in a ceremony on April 21, 2007. Oñate is mounted atop his Andalusian horse while holding the La Toma declaration in his right hand. The statue was welcomed by segments of the local population and also by the Spanish Ambassador to the United States, Carlos Westendorp. According to Houser, it is the largest and heaviest (bronze) equestrian statue in the world. Acoma tribal members from New Mexico were present and protested the statue.

Onate High School in Las Cruces, New Mexicomarker is named for Juan de Onate.


External links

  • Porras Munoz, Guillermo, "La Calle de Cadena en Mexico," pps. 1-46.

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