March 2, 1999
 

Open Letter to the
New Mexico Council of Teachers of English

Dear Colleagues,

I read the book review in the current issue of our newsletter with astonishment and outrage. Though surely not intended, its disregard of up-to-date scholarship effectively advances racist disrespect for living people and historical fact; in an organization of teachers, this must be challenged and corrected. Perhaps we do need a book that "inspire[s] us with compassion for [Oñate] and appreciation of his legacy." But that book is incompetent history if it fails to report that this first European governor of New Mexico was removed from that position because of the atrocities he and his men committed against the native population. Why whitewash this with, "he resigned before hearing of his recall?" Why heap sympathy on him and completely ignore those he brutalized: "The details of the wait for permission to proceed with the expedition break your heart" and "the velvet clothes that the optimistic affluent had brought along 'were in tatters' along with their dreams." Unintentional or not, this is profoundly insulting to Oñate's victims and their descendants. In our classrooms we fight destructive propaganda like claims that the Nazi Holocaust didn't happen; we are bound to do the same with efforts to "forget" the American Holocaustabove all, that part of it that occurred here in the Southwest.

The issue is crystal clear. Juan de Oñate, like other historical figuresColumbus and Cortéz; Washington, Jefferson and the other Signers come to mindare certainly to be studied and admired for their many achievements, but for us to strip them of their faults and present them, especially to students, as heroes and moral exemplars is intellectually dishonest and morally destructive. And just what is the point here? Should we pity a man who traveled with a small army of servants and slaves, who "disciplined" human beings by cutting off their feet, who couldn't prevent his men from killing, raping, and stealing, even when he was warned that he would lose his position if he didn't control the mayhem? (By the way, he did receive those official letters before he "resigned.")

Can the dark side of Oñate possibly be news to any of us in 1999, especially here in New Mexico? Very briefly, let's look at the relevant historical context. Oñate's position and wealth rested on the enslavement and abuse of native peoples of Mexico, and on a violently imposed government which allowed Europeans to seize land and exploit its resources without any regard whatsoever for the lives and well-being of the local peoples. Indigenous people were neither asked nor compensated; they were turned out of their towns and cities, relieved of their farmlands and possessions, stripped of the most basic resources necessary for a decent lifefood, shelter, and clothingand, as if poverty and want were not enough, they were also stripped of their history, culture, and religion; they and their children were terrorized, massacred, tortured, raped, worked to death, and starved to death. This is a horrible legacy, but surely one we are all aware of by now (for documentation and bibliography see David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, 1992, Oxford UP: New York). We need a balanced understanding of history to have any hope of confronting the problems bequeathed to us by that same history; a sanitized version insults our intelligence and handicaps our thinking, especially during our impressionable school years.

In the second place, Oñate's expedition was for the sole purpose of acquiring wealth through appropriating more land and resources farther north, this was the basis on which he recruited his group of raiders and conquerorsnot pioneers and settlers: call a thief a thief. Did he think the native peoples were of no more value than the trees one might clear in an unpeopled land to build a town and plant crops? But the land was populated: if he thought the people were of no value, that only demonstrates his profound ignorance; on the other hand, if he was aware that these were people as whole and vital as himself, that only proves his moral cowardice in frankly exploiting the advantage of superior arms.

Undoubtedly, Oñate had admirable qualities, determination, ingenuity, intelligence, organizational skill, stubbornness (sometimes a virtue), and perhaps physical courage. These should earn him an honest place in historyafter all, he was not responsible for the world he was born into. However, he was manifestly not a person of high moral character: he was born into a savage tradition that valued rape, pillage, and slavery, and he became good at them. Instead of being civilized and humbled by the message of his religious teacher, Jesus, he perverted Christianity and used it as a justification for his personal greed and disregard of human life, and he committed his crimes in the face of contemporary warnings and protests.

To make of this man a hero is wrong in another way too. His descendantspeople of European descentremain the dominant and privileged social group, at immense cost to millions who are daily denied an equal opportunity to create a good life for themselves and their families. False reverence for Oñate can only serve to reinforce this injustice and contribute to a society where only a few can utilize the gifts that all are born with.

Perhaps I can clarify the reason for my protest with an example: the framing of the American Constitution. Admitting Native Americans and African Americans to citizenship was considered, as was the abolition of (Native and African) slavery (for documentation and bibliography see James W. Loewen, 1996, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, Simon & Schuster: New York). Had these ideas been incorporated into the Constitution, we would likely have a nation today fit to lead the world. As it is, America is powerful and rich precisely through the tactics of Oñate, and morally bankrupt for the same reason. History is painfully clear on this: the framers of the Constitution, in the end, preferred a life of ease based on the unpaid labor of the African slave, and on genocide of Native peoples and appropriation of the land and its resources. Let us indeed give full credit to the framers for their considerable accomplishments under difficult conditions (though we can dispense with tacky awe at the "architects" of mansions built by skilled slaves). But were the framers admirable in their character and morality? No, not one; they were faulty human beings. How can we win the many battles they have left us if we lie to ourselves and teach that the battles have already been won?

For teachers, which is what we are, the gravest fault is to willfully fail to see what needs fixing; for learning to learn means learning to see what is there, not blinding ourselves with lies, or covering over uncomfortable facts with self-serving fairy tales. Do we not face the legacy of a violent and racist past every day in our classrooms, (and streets and neighborhoods)? This discussion is neither trivial nor academic, it is central to our professional role in a democratic, pluralistic nationthat is why I risk ruffling some feathers to help us acquire tools that will aid us in our work.

Is there a counterexample to Oñate in history? Yes, there are many, if we go beyond unquestioning worship of the victors and shameful forgetting of the vanquished to find them. One was a Spaniard and fellow voyager to Columbus: Bartolomé de Las Casas. He (and others) saw from the beginning that the Native Peoples of the Americas were fully human and on a cultural level with the Europeans. Las Casas saw that Europe had more to gain than gold. His efforts to speak out and convince others did not failthey mitigated, though they could not stop, the untold suffering and loss of human life, the loss of scientific, psychological and spiritual knowledge, and the loss of cultural and artistic treasure. A fair reading of history shows that Las Casas was more of a hero than Columbus, or than Oñate. Oñate deserves his small place in history, if we do not omit the crimes he committed; but the real heros, Native, African American, and European, are those who resisted brutality and fought for the human birthright of self-determination. We need to honor them so that the next generation knows whom to look up to and why.

Sincerely,

Stephen De Giulio
Assistant Professor,  English/ESL
New Mexico State University at Alamogordo, NM 88310
Tel. (505) 439-0797
Fax: (505) 439-3643
e-mail: <degiulio@nmsua.nmsu.edu> <sdegiulio@artoflearning.com>

cc: Stacey Somppi, President, NMCTE
Heidi Huckabee, Editor, NMCTE Forum
Barbara DuBois, author of the review discussed


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