Decolonizing New Mexico

Remembering, Reimagining and Recovering


In New Mexico, there are as many stories as there have been and are people, places and events, and recognizing that the story depends upon its teller is essential. Here, multiple and overlapping themes evoke origins, prophesy, innovation and convergence. Some are tales spun to excite, enchant or lure and others to inform and elevate.

History, however, is not only something that is told and represented, but also something that is lived, something that gives the world shape, that both engenders a contemplation of the images of the past that can deepen awareness of the present.

As poet, musician and playwright, Joy Harjo writes, “the story depends upon who is telling it.” Lew Wallace, a New Mexico governor and also a storyteller once wrote, “Every calculation based on experience elsewhere, fails in New Mexico.” True though this often-quoted phrase may be for some, it simply and erroneously presumes that one’s experience is not based on being born and raised in New Mexico. The dilemma then of telling the story of New Mexico, is connected, I think, to the difficulty outside observers have had not just in seeing, but listening to place and to the people who have known it for generations.

Telling these stories can be difficult no matter who tells them and revealing the truths about the past and the present is among the greatest challenges to this project. The present in New Mexico retains traumas born from the past, a spiritual, emotional and psychological wounding that radiates across the generations and has contemporary implications, including internalized wounds that are only beginning to be measured. Today, the communities of northern New Mexico are more susceptible to poverty, despair, homelessness, high rates of suicide, hunger and a devastating dependence on drugs and alcohol, and as such are often at the bottom of many national indicators. This report makes the case that these present day realities are bound to something much deeper, a trauma that has evolved from the cumulative impact of transgenerational experiences of displacement and loss.1

The cataclysmic violence born from Spanish colonialism caused the original wounds, resulting in genocide, slavery and calamitous losses to Native American peoples. Racial mixture also resulted from this moment of encounter and centuries of convergence of cultures, leaving an aching consciousness in many of its heirs to this day, primarily those who would come to be called Indo-Hispanos. Harms were further exacerbated by U.S. imperialism, where conquest led to a loss of land, language and cultural traditions, as well as the obfuscation and erasure of truth from the historical narratives, a reality impacting both Native American and Indo-Hispano communities. While there have been points of reconciliation, the original racial fault lines have only widened over the ages, fueling tensions and shaping present day inequities.

In spite of this past and the seemingly insurmountable statistics, I believe in the dignity and resilience that has long characterized the people of this landscape. Beyond the epic and grand, including the terrible and traumatic, there are also the small everyday stories, all reflecting survival and endless honor and strength, as well as beauty and joy. While it is critical to trace the jagged edges of what New Mexico tells, it is also important to recognize that its collective identity is both born out of the past and nourished by it as well. There is a delicacy, but also strength, in what we do to collectively change what we are. Recovery, healing and transcendence begin with a critical remembering, but also frame a creative reimagining of the present and future.

The stories told of this place and its people are manifest in many different ways. In this section, the focus is upon two main ideas: the language, words, vocabulary and speech to represent or communicate ideas and symbols that represent New Mexico.

Words that Wound

Language, including words and speech, is among the most important factor by which humans are defined, including the world in which they live, their consciousness and the means to understand their relationships. It is also the foundation for communication and speech. It holds the potential to reveal the breadth of understanding or could narrow it. In this way, language is a powerful tool that can both create and sharpen divides, as well as create openings for dialogue and understanding.

Some have suggested that in the colonial setting, the success of the laws and policies as the perfect instrument of empire, was because of what it could hide in language. For instance, when scholar Antonio de Nebrija’s Spanish Gramática handed the first-ever grammar of any modern European language to Queen Isabela, she purportedly asked, “What is it for?” “Language,” he reportedly resonded, “is the perfect instrument of empire.” Nebrija’s astute observation accentuated not just the generative power of language, but perhaps its capacity, indeed the power of language to obscure, hide and deflect. In this way, legal discourse, especially Spanish legal discourse, as a product of language and empire would likewise become the ‘perfect instrument’ twisting realities with the twinned ideologies of logic and language. Legal scholar Robert A. Williams goes on to note that “law’s utility in generating legitimating arguments for the acquisition, maintenance, and defense of colonial spheres of influence was also seized on as a principle instrument of empire.” In this way, the use of language, including claiming and naming places, by agents of empire were part of this reality.2

Although the power of language was an essential element of conquest and domination, it continues to be deployed in a contemporary society, particularly in a society that remains deeply defined by racist speech. As Critical Race Theory scholar Richard Delgado notes,

In addition to the harms of immediate emotional distress and infringement of dignity, racial insults inflict psychological harm upon the victim. Racial slurs may cause long-term emotional pain because they draw upon and intensify the effects of the stigmatization, labeling, and disrespectful treatment that the victim has previously undergone. Social scientists who have studied the effects of racism have found that speech that communicates low regard for an individual because of race ‘tends to create in the victim those very traits of ‘inferiority’ that it ascribes to him.3

Image of the inscription of the Obelisk that shows where the word “savage’ had been removed and where someone had written in the word, “courageous.” A close up of the inscription of the Obelisk that shows where the word “savage’ had been removed and where someone had written in the word, “courageous.” In the same article, Delgado notes that, “Most people today know that certain words are offensive and only calculated to wound.”4 Examples of these types of words or phrases such as “spick” or “dirty Indian” continue to reflect the supremacy of some groups or individuals over others. The Obelisk that once stood at the center of Santa Fe provided yet another example of offensive words. When it was erected, one of the panels included the phrase “savage Indians,” the Spanish reflected the more commonly used phrase, “Indios bárbaros” which had been chiseled out in 1974 yet, the harm somehow lingered in the very structure.

There are also a class of words that continue to be used in places like New Mexico that are equally as harmful, even if, perhaps they are not necessarily “calculated to wound.” In New Mexico, the harms and hurt is sometimes conveyed simply in the words that we use to describe and to celebrate history. For instance, a part of the dissent of the Santa Fe Fiesta revolves around the vocabulary used — “celebration of reconquest,” which places the icon of the conquest and conqueror in a positive light, rather than more conscientiously or critically, at the very least complex. The protests around the Santa Fe Fiesta have addressed how harmful it is for Native American/Tribal peoples to hear this type of language, the language that makes explicit the loss that transpired in the conquest. Ironically, proponents of these celebrations across New Mexico, often respond with the idea that ‘what is past is past and should be left in the past,’ even as celebrations of the historical conquest are fore fronted.

Another example prevalent in our era is the use of the word “illegal” to classify undocumented immigrants to the United States. In his support of the dignity of human rights and immigrants in the U.S., Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Holocaust survivor and refugee, has explicitly warned against the use of this word for people, noting, “No human being is illegal,” reminding us that “once you label a people ‘illegal,’ that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.”5 In spite of dismissal of racial insults as somehow adhering to some sort of political correctness, words matter and can be deeply harmful, but Wiesel’s contention is that it could lead to more drastic and devastating consequences. Although a well-known simple children’s rhyme implies that physical harm is greater than the emotional and psychological harm that comes from speech, new research in science has begun to reveal that the effect of verbal abuse is as consequential as physical abuse.6

There are also a class of words that continue to be used in places like New Mexico that are equally as harmful, even if perhaps they are not necessarily “calculated to wound.” In New Mexico, the harms and hurt is sometimes conveyed simply in the words that we use to describe and to celebrate history. For instance, a part of the dissent of the Santa Fe Fiesta revolves around the vocabulary used. The phrase,“celebration of reconquest,” places the concept and icon of the conquest and conqueror in a positive light, rather than more conscientiously or critically, at the very least complex. The protests around the Santa Fe Fiesta have addressed how harmful it is for Native American/Tribal peoples to hear this type of language, the language that makes explicit the loss that transpired in the conquest. Ironically, proponents of these celebrations across New Mexico often respond with the idea that ‘what is past is past and should be left in the past,’ even as celebrations of the historical conquest are forefronted.

Although the harm wrought by the vocabulary underlying the celebration of victorious conquest of Spanish colonialism upon Native American communities is patently clear, the reality is that colonialism harmed everyone. In this way, this language is also harmful to Indo-Hispanos, including children who begin to define their sense of self and others based on what is communicated. In this same way, language also fails wholly to capture the complexity of history and identity. Ethnic terms like “Spanish” and “Spanish American” — intentional verbal constructions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — are part and parcel of the vocabulary that obscured and erased more than it reflected the reality of centuries of ethnic mixtures resulting from Indigenous, European and African cultural convergence in New Mexico history.

In the creation of this binary of ‘Spanish conqueror’ and ‘Native American conquered,’ the multiple cycles of conquest that are actually the reality of New Mexico history are lost. The language of empire can also be found at the heart of U.S. imperialism. New Mexico Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski, championing charter schools and school choice, reflected how this language continues to frame a sense of history, when he argued in December 2016, that these schools and policies were “quintessentially American.” He punctuated his point by noting: “This is a country built over the last 250 years on things like freedom, choice, competition, options, going west, Manifest Destiny — these are the fundamental principles of this country.”7 Though accused of being insensitive, the statement made by New Mexico’s highest ranking educational official reflected not only poor comparative analysis, but his own lack of understanding of history and its complexities. Referring to ‘Manifest Destiny” as a “fundamental principle” of the United States, alongside freedom, was absurd and inappropriate; more than a phrase, it was nonetheless fundamental as a policy that defines U.S. history, one that has not fully been assessed for its impact upon places like New Mexico. Assessing language requires interrogating history, which is challenging in the climate in which we are living, since it positioning the critique as “un-American.”

Interrogating the language of conquest and dominance, as well as the words that continue to reflect patriarchy, racism and homophobia, is a necessary part of a decolonial project. Thinking critically of the language that is used to define New Mexico, its events, places and its people is part of this imperative. Just as language can be used to divide, it is also the tool that holds the potential to preface the importance of different perspectives; it is the means by which dialogue across the divides can happen; and it is the primary way to begin fore-fronting truth, toward transformation and its ultimate reconciliation.

The Shadow of Symbols

Zia Symbol - A Case Study in Appropriation

The most recognized of New Mexico symbols, the zia can be found on the New Mexico state flag, as well as on letterhead, license plates, tattoos and numerous other products. Archeologist Harry P. Mera, a Pennsylvania-born physician and resident of New Mexico at the time, often receives the credit for what is a distinctively Indigenous design. Responding to a 1923 competition issued by the Daughters of the American Revolution, he took the motif from a nineteenth century pot on display in the Museum of Anthropology in Santa Fe, where he worked with his spouse, Reba. He also incorporated in the flag, “red and yellow . . . the colors of Isabel of Castilla that the Spanish Conquistadors brought to the New World,” according to the Office of the New Mexico Secretary of State, . again reflecting the romanticization of Spanish conquest, this time embedded in the iconography of New Mexico. Further, Zia Pueblo continues to claim, as it rightfully has for decades in a trademark battle, that the State appropriated its sun symbol without the tribe’s permission.8

Municipal Seals

While municipalities should conduct a fuller analysis of their official seals I have examined those of the following four cities as a start: Albuquerque, Española, Santa Fe and Taos.

A more in-depth analysis of seals of New Mexico municipalities and their origins, including design motivation and ethics, should be undertaken; for even this cursory analysis, reveals how these governmental symbols begin to reflect a sense of community identity and yet because they draw from myth, there is harm that continues to be perpetuated for residents and visitors.

A University Seal and its Murals

The University of New Mexico (UNM) provides an interesting case study. For instance, the official seal for the university, created by University President Edward Gray in 1910, drew from the tri-cultural motif, and in form, is similar to the Española seal.10Just as the Española seal uses an object to represent the Native American, the UNM seal includes a stylistic bird, while two human armed male figures the Spanish conquistador and buckskin clad the American frontiersman, complete the tripartite representation. Native American student groups such as Kiva Club and Red Nation led vocal resistance to the in 2016, including byAlicia Romero, who analyzed the symbolism, such as the “heroic figure of whiteness . . .” embodied by the male figures.11 The seal was ultimately discontinued and continues an active process to replace it.

Resistance to public displays of colonialist iconography has existed for decades at the University of New Mexico, however. In 1938, University of New Mexico’s President, James Zimmerman commissioned Kenneth Adams to create the “Three Peoples” paintings to be exhibited on the walls of the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman library for its opening. Adams was a Kansas born artist who had become a member of the Taos Society of Artists. The representation of Native American, Hispanos and Anglos in paintings draw from the most stereotypical motifs and serve as classic examples of how these cultures come to be raced, gendered and classed. Historian Chris Wilson has noted that the Adams paintings “constitute the foremost distillation of the visual iconography of triculturalism.”12 As resistance to these paintings has re-emerged, historian Samuel Sisneros has recently documented the two decades of student activism on campus that has surrounded these paintings, from 1970 to 1995.13

La Conquistadora- What is in the Name

While most of the symbolic icons of conquest lean toward a gendered male figure, there is one exception: that of the small wooden figure of the Virgin Mary that sits in the Santa Fe Cathedral Basilica. One of the most iconic symbols in Santa Fe, for some it represents the manifestation of a sustained and profound connection to their Catholic faith as well as to their cultural heritage. As Ronald Grimes has argued, the saint emerges as a “symbolic mother” and “source of cultural identity” and “is the symbolic matrix of genealogical lines which lead to some of the most prominent families in Santa Fe and the Rio Grande valley.”14 While the devotion to this patron saint of Catholic Santa Fe is broader than old Santa Fe Indo-Hispano communities, it is important to recognize what it means to hold this devotion for multiple generations that date back centuries. While it has been thought that the origin of this Marian image is of Spain, this claim is not documented, and in fact, may be part of the mythology to whiten the origins. However, it is known that Fray Alonso de Benavides first brought the wooden saint to Santa Fe in 1625, a a community then of one thousand residents.15 Although the saint would arrive in New Mexico in 1625, with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 the figure would be carried with Spanish survivors to El Paso del Norte (present day El Paso, Texas) until its return in 1693.

The depth of this particular symbolism of the Virgin Mary, however, is poignantly embedded in its most popular name — La Conquistadora. Originally, Benavides referred to the saint as “Tránsito de la Virgen,” a name that Historian Fray Angélico Chávez would translate as “Assumption of the Virgin.”16 Many titles would be attributed to the saint through the centuries such as ‘Our Lady of the Assumption,’ ‘The Immaculate Conception,” and eventually, ‘ Our Lady of the Rosary.’ Following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and Reconquest, the governor of New Mexico, Diego de Vargas, renamed the icon in 1693 as “Nuestra Señora de la Conquista,” or as the Marion figure would come to be known more popularly, “La Conquistadora.” Even though he is credited with this new baptism, the name must not have yet been widely recognized, for on his own deathbed, Vargas called for masses to be said in honor of “Our Lady of Remedies.”17

On March 19, 1973, someone stole La Conquistadora was stolen, setting off a search that extended across multiple agencies, culminating a month later, when police recovered the figure. Nearly twenty years later, because of significant protests, Archbishop Robert Sanchez added (not replaced as is often stated) a new name to La Conquistadora, “Our Lady of Peace” as an effort noted then to “heal all hurts of the past and bring all people together.”As experienced by Archbishop Sanchez a quarter of century ago, any effort to change the name of this figure is not easy. While many have expressed concern about the association of the Virgin in terms of the military and the rhetoric of subjugation, including most recently by Archbishop John Wester, devotees like Fray Angélico Chávez argued that she received her name because she came with the first conquistadores, not because of any conquests, bloody or unbloody.”18

This logic simply does not hold as the name is set in the reality and symbol of violence and subjugation. This figure, more than 400 years old, has held many titles; and this most recent one does not fit what is core to the devotion underlying the spiritual connection people in Santa Fe and New Mexico feel toward this saint, as referenced in conversations I have had with Archbishop Wester. In this way, I think of the symbolism of a mother, of a woman in a field of men who have named and designed who can represent what for whom. Not all people, including Indo-Hispanos of New Mexico are Catholic, but honoring the symbol of a mother is something that is perhaps worth considering in the effort to heal and transcend what this figure has been used for in years past.


  1. While there is a large amount of research on present day realities facing communities of color, the efforts to link this to historic trauma has only begun. There are several studies that have emerged toward this end, however. Taos County has the highest rates of opioid use in the State of New Mexico and Professor Sherman makes a direct correlation between this particular issue and historic trauma for Taos. See Dana K. Sherman, “Opioid Overdose in Taos, New Mexico,” The Journal of Global Health, April 1, 2017 See also, Goodkind,J.,Hess,J., Gorman, B., and Parker,D. (2012). “We’re Still in a Struggle”: Dine Resilience, Survival, Historical Trauma and Healing. Qualitative Health Research, 1019-1036. ↩︎

  2. See Robert A. Williams, Jr. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 74 and 59 respectively. ↩︎

  3. See Richard Delgado, “Words that Wound: A Tort Action for Racial Insults, Epithets, and Name Calling,” in Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, ed. Richard Delgado. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995). p. 163. ↩︎

  4. Delgado, Ibid. ↩︎

  5. See ↩︎

  6. There is an old English language children’s rhyme that is reported to have first appeared in 1962 in The Christian Recorder, persuading children to ignore name calling and taunts. The refrain follows: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.”See Naomi Eisenberger. “Broken Hearts and Broken Bones: A Neural Perspective on the Similarities between Social and Physical Pain” (2012) ↩︎

  7. ↩︎

  8. See Stephanie B. Turner, “The Case of the Zia: Looking Beyond the Trademark Law to Protect Sacred Symbols,” (2012). Student Scholarship Papers. Paper 124. ↩︎

  9. Email shared with author from Santa Fe City Clerk on April 17, 2018. ↩︎

  10. For more information on the Seal of the University of New Mexico see: “Abolish The Racist Seal: An Open Letter to UNM Administration,” ↩︎

  11. See Alicia Romero, “ Violence of Colonization Represented in UNM Seal,” The Red Nation ( ↩︎

  12. Wilson, Chris. “Ethnic/Sexual Personas in Tricultural New Mexico,” The Culture of Tourism, The Tourism of Culture. Hal K. Rothman ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003. ↩︎

  13. Samuel E. Sisneros, “Student Activism and the “Three Peoples” Paintings at the University of New Mexico (1970-1995): A Pictorial Essay.” ↩︎

  14. F Ronald L. Grimes, Symbol and Conquest: Public Ritual and Drama in Santa Fe (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976) p. 234. ↩︎

  15. See Peter P. Forrestral, trans., Benavides’ Memorial oof 1630 (Washington, D.C, 1954) pp. 23-24. ↩︎

  16. For a detailed explanation of this translation see Fray Angélico Chávez, Our Lady of the Conquest, p. 34. no46. ↩︎

  17. Kessell, Remote Beyond Compare, p. 87. ↩︎

  18. Grimes, Symbol and Conquest. p. 220. ↩︎

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