Researching Oñate: A Working Decolonial Bibliography

by Vanessa Fonseca Chávez, Ph.D. and Estevan Rael-Gálvez, Ph.D.

In 1901, 33 year old lawyer, Eusebio Chacón, already a noted orator, poet and New Mexico’s first novelist, rose to a platform before hundreds in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The crowd had gathered in protest of an inflammatory article by Nellie Snyder, a local missionary school teacher from Illinois, who had noted her aversion to Hispano Catholicism and had articulated a notion that Nuevomexicanos were part Spanish and part Indian, resembling their ancestors in every way. The organizers of the event invited the man who had already begun to research and write about New Mexico history and knew he had the capacity in speech to counter the slight. Chacón challenged Snyer’s portrayal in the language of blood, noting, “No blood runs through my veins other than the one Don Juan de Oñate brought, and the one later brought by the illustrious ancestors of my name.”

The young orator thus opened up the twentieth century in the territory of New Mexico, countering the representation of others about his community and solidifying what would become a sense of identity, one that was rooted, however, in a mythic past. That Chacón imbued Oñate as the mythic founding father, bearer of culture and a symbol of memory and heritage may have been puzzling to those who knew this conquistador 300 years before in the first decade of the seventeenth century. Oñate, after all, had been found guilty of excessive violence, among other crimes, against Indigenous peoples and his fellow settlers and was forever banished from New Mexico.

Facsimile title page of Gaspar de Villagra’s Historia de la Nueva Mexico, From Ralph Twitchell’s copy printed in Mexico (Imprenta del Museo Nacional), 1900

In spite of Chacón’s best intentions to counter the representation, his particular articulation of a founding father and a Spanish identity would continue to be cemented into the narrative and consciousness for generations of Nuevomexicanos. For many Nuevomexicanos, Oñate is pivotal to their cultural heritage. It is not uncommon for families to seek out genealogical connections to Oñate’s, and later Diego de Vargas’, sixteenth and seventeenth century expeditions to la Nueva México.

Oñate’s venture into present-day New Mexico is documented in Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá’s epic poem, Historia de la Nueva México, published in 1610. In the late nineteenth century and in celebration of three hundred years of Spanish settlement, sections of Villagrá’s poem were published in Spanish language newspapers, including El Progreso and Las Dos Repúblicas, spearheaded by Eusebio Chacón (Meléndez 1997). Undoubtedly, Chacón’s access to and publication of Villagrá’s poem influenced the problematic 1901 declaration of his conquistador bloodline. Perhaps, it was part of a larger strategy to connect Nuevomexicanos to their proclaimed country of origin and to adapt the epic poem as the foundation of what would become a sizable body of Nuevomexicano literature.

By 1900, Spain, Mexico, and the United States would claim Historia as their own. Its publication throughout the twentieth century almost always connected to anniversary celebrations of the original publication date in 1610 or to commemorate colonial endeavors. The first published English translation of Villagrá’s epic poem appears in 1933, edited by F.W. Hodge and translated by Gilberto Espinosa, a Nuevomexicano folklorist who believed he descended from Marcelo de Espinosa, a soldier who accompanied Oñate and whose name appeared in the epic poem (Martín-Rodríguez 2010). This work is published by the Quivira Society, of which Hodge and Espinosa were members. Other members of the society included George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey. Hammond and Rey would later write, in our estimation, the most comprehensive historical account of the Juan de Oñate expedition.

In the same year that Gilberto Espinosa’s translation of Historia de la Nueva México is published, we see one of the first instances in which the epic poem is utilized as a foundation for pageantry and the performance of colonial memory during the Española Fiestas, wherein members of the community play the roles of Don Gaspar, Oñate, and Captain Velasco. One woman is tasked with impersonating the women of the colony. This is the same kind of pageantry that Chacón took on when he declared that only Oñate’s blood ran through his veins in 1901.

The 1933 Española Fiesta Royal Court

Another version of Villagrá’s epic poem does not appear in the United States until 1992, and coincides with the five hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World and likely planned in advance of the Cuarto Centenario in 1998, celebrating four centuries of Spanish settlement. Indeed, the late twentieth century efforts to make visible the Spanish colonial history of New Mexico would lead to the creation of three statues portraying Juan de Oñate.

We cannot ignore or dismiss the steady tensions that exist as a result of efforts to elevate Spanish colonial history at the expense of Indigenous and mixed-race histories and stories. Most recently, in the calls for the removal of the bronze representations of Juan de Oñate, there has been a persistent assertion that the move erases history. The reality is that historical interpretation is regularly interrogated and rewritten, especially in response to new information, new questions, and new methodologies. There is a difference between myth and history and certain interpretations of the past are not defensible and cannot withstand any standard of historical credibility. In the middle of all of these debates, one thing that has been clear is that people simply don’t know these histories.

While Chacón was not alone in his efforts to define the parameters of this identity, what is more notable was that there were early progressive detractors of this narrative. In the 1930s folklorist Arthur Campa criticized the fixation on Spanish origins, particularly at the expense of Indian and Mexican influences and worked tirelessly to deepen New Mexican’s understanding of a more complex history. From that moment to the present, there have been protests and opposition to the colonial narrative that move us to rethink and recenter these narrative representations.

Nearly 120 years have passed since Eusebio Chacón rose up to defend his community, even if doing so by invoking myth. That young poet was just then learning the history of his land and people. Since that moment, we have begun to pull back the layers, to lean into the stories and memories passed from one generation to the next. When the statue to Juan de Oñate was removed less than a month ago, the young dancer Than Tsídéh rose up and drawing from the depths of both resilience and a deep remembering, he danced on the pedestal, reminding us that we are not museum pieces, that our history is more dynamic than a statue. It is our responsibility to continue to illuminate these stories, to rise up, dance, sing and write those stories and to keep them alive.

Underneath these stories is a tremendous body of historical documents and interpretive research that has been completed for well over a century on Juan de Oñate, the 1598 expedition, and the period in which he begins to be mythologized. We believe that a more complex understanding of Oñate’s historical narrative, the legacies it celebrates, and the myths it perpetuates can lead to understanding, healing, if not reconciliation, rather than glorification.

In this spirit, we have developed this working bibliography to share that body of research that may be helpful in contextualizing both the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries, bookends of the period in which Juan de Oñate lived and was subsequently memorialized. We hope that this list can encourage reading and research about the very complicated legacy of Oñate.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store