Oñate’s Foot

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

On January 7th, 1998, an envelope landed on the desk of Larry Calloway. He was a columnist with the Albuquerque Journal.

LARRY CALLOWAY: It was sort of a combination of a press release and a ransom note, and a photo. And the photo was a Polaroid of a cut off riding boot with a huge Spanish spur all in bronze, and I read the note.

RM: The note hinted that the bronze foot came from a statue of a man named Juan de Oñate, seated on a horse. It was part of a monument on the side of a rural highway near where Oñate founded the first Spanish colony in New Mexico; back in 1598.

SA: Larry figured this was probably a hoax.

RM: This is Stan Alcorn, a reporter with the investigative podcast Reveal. They’re our collaborators on the story today.

SA: So he handed the tip-off to the newsroom. And a reporter called up the visitor center at the Oñate monument…

LARRY: And asked, “Is your Statue missing a right foot?” And [laughing] the guy said “What?” He went out and checked, came back and he was you know, in shock. He said, “It’s gone.”

SA: Oñate is one of the world’s lesser-known conquistadors, but his name is all over New Mexico. There are Oñate streets, Oñate schools, for decades there was an annual fiesta where one lucky guy would get to be Oñate, complete with cape and helmet. There’s even a song:

Viva Oñate! (Viva!) Viva oñate! (Viva!)
Viva la historia de este gran señor!

SA: In parts of New Mexico, he’s treated as a kind of founding father.

RM: But history is not all song and dance and wearing capes. He was a conquistador, after all.

SA: The envelope Larry got also included an excerpt from a history book on Oñate’s treatment of New Mexico’s native people. It described an incident that ended with Oñate sentencing a group of men from Acoma Pueblo to each have one foot chopped off.

RM: If the symbolism of removing the statue’s foot was unclear, the note made it explicit.

LARRY CALLOWAY: It said “We took the liberty of removing Oñate’s right foot on behalf of our brothers and sisters at Acoma Pueblo. We will be melting this foot down and casting small medallions, to be sold to those who are historically ignorant.”

RM: The statue’s sculptor cast a new right foot and reattached it. The medallions never turned up. But the story stuck. It got picked up by NPR and the New York Times.

SA: I was a 7th grader in Albuquerque at the time, and what I remember is how the subject I found most boring, history, was suddenly this exciting mystery that remains unsolved to this day: Who stole Oñate’s foot? And then there was the timing.

RM: 1998 was the 400th anniversary of Oñate’s arrival. There were “cuartocentenario” celebrations planned all over the state. There would be theater, parades, a commemorative stamp. In a second note to the paper, the so-called “Friends of Acoma” wrote: “We see no glory in celebrating Oñate’s fourth centennial and we do not want our faces rubbed in it.” In other words, the point of cutting off the statue’s foot was to spoil the party.

SA: And the centerpiece of that party that got a mention in all the foot cutting stories was a cuartocentenario memorial being planned for Albuquerque’s historic center. The proposal: another bronze statue of Juan de Oñate. This one right in the middle of New Mexico’s biggest city.

RM: But with all this new attention on Oñate, the second statue wasn’t going to get built without a fight.

CL: I still didn’t see the storm that was comin’. It was still in its infancy.

RM: Conchita Lucero was one of the organizers of the 400th-anniversary celebrations in Albuquerque, and one of the most passionate advocates for a new Oñate statue.

SA: A passion that goes back to her childhood growing up in 1950s New Mexico, knowing almost nothing about Oñate or the state’s two centuries as a Spanish colony.

CL: When I was a child at 10 years of age I asked my grandmother, who was a schoolteacher. I was reading American history books, I said, “Didn’t our people do anything?” You know, that’s how I felt. She didn’t know New Mexico history.

SA: All Conchita knew was that her Spanish ancestors had come to the state centuries before the Anglo classmates who called people like her “dirty Mexicans.” Or the Anglo teachers who kept her out of a leadership club. And she knew that racism and ignorance of history were somehow connected.

CL: If we make you feel like the underdog, and we take away your history, and take away your knowledge, you’re starting from scratch. Conversations, you don’t even know how to participate. You just let the other guy put you down.

RM: Conchita thought if she could just search out her own European roots, it would help her fight back.

SA: None of this is uncommon in New Mexico, where people have been reaching back to their colonial roots and identifying as Spanish since the 1800s. After Conchita retired, she found a lot of like minds in local genealogical and historical societies. She learned how to use birth and death and baptism records to trace her family tree. There was the occasional Native American ancestor, but she was most excited to find branches like the one that extended back to a Spanish captain who brought his wife and kids through the Chihuahuan desert on Oñate’s 1598 expedition. She saw them as having transformed the region by bringing livestock and Catholicism and the Spanish language.

CL: You’d start finding your family members and you’re going “Wow! I never knew they did all this!”

STAN: Did it change how you saw yourself?

CL: Yes. I never argued that one person wasn’t as good as the other. But sometimes you were made to feel inferior. And at that point, that inferiority left.

SA: And so it was that Conchita was on the cuartocentenario committee when they met with the Albuquerque Arts Board to discuss their request for a prominent new statue of Juan de Oñate, the man they called, ”the father of the Hispanic culture and our state.”

RM: And who the “Friends of Acoma” accused of destroying native peoples’ way of life.

SA: Was what happened at Acoma brought up?

CL: No.

STAN: And was it on your mind?

CL: No.

SA: Was it something that you knew about?

CL: I wasn’t as versed in it as I have become.

S: For people who don’t know Acoma. Um. What is…

TS: What is Acoma?

SA: This is Aleta, or “Tweety” Suazo, an Acoma woman who would become an outspoken opponent of an Oñate statue in Albuquerque.

TS: Acoma is the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. And it sits on a mesa 375 feet above the valley below.

RM: She actually carries a postcard of Acoma to show people when she travels. It’s a village built on top of a mesa, which if you’re not from the desert is like a huge rock pedestal. And that mesa just towers over the flat, empty plain below. All of it a hundred shades of brown, from light tan to deep rust. It’s incredible.

SA: The tough thing with radio is you don’t have pictures. Yeah. like how to help people visualize it because it’s like no other place on Earth.

TS: No, it’s it’s not. It’s beautiful. It’s desert and rocks, and sandstone and, that’s where I come from, you know?

RM: And unlike the dozens of pueblos that disappeared after the arrival of the Spanish, Acoma is still here.

SA: Each year, tens of thousands of tourists drive an hour west of Albuquerque and then take a tour bus up a steep road to the top of the mesa.

STEVEN: If you happen to fall over the edge this is the end of your tour, and no refunds will be given so just keep that in mind.

SA: On top, you can see buildings made of mud and sandstone, that tour guides say date back to the 1100s.

STEVEN: So if you think about it, these houses have been passed down through the same family for almost a thousand years now. So now we’re going to be walking by some of the older houses right up here folks.

SA: All along the tour there are tables where Acoma artists sell their wares, mostly pottery.

GORDON YELLOW CORN: These pots are made from the clay from the area here.

SA: But it’s not just a tourist attraction. There are 15 families that live up top year round, and hundreds more like Tweety’s who go there for special occasions.

TS: Funerals, deaths, religious Fiestas…. We were always there.

SA: What did you know about the history of your people and that place?

TS: That we came from the underworld, on the back of grandmother spider.
We wandered the Earth, and when we got to where Acoma was, we were told this is where we’re supposed to be. That’s what I knew, you know? That we’ve been there forever.

SA: Tweety also knew that when the Spanish arrived they did terrible things to her ancestors, but she didn’t know the details.

RM: Historians know many of those details today because they were written down by the Spanish, in letters and legal documents. These documents, to quote Oñate’s best-known biographer, “skim the surface of events” and sometimes present Oñate “as he wished to be seen, not as things actually were.”

SA: Which makes their description of what happened at Acoma all the more shocking. After 13 of Oñate’s men came looking for food and were killed, Oñate declared a “war of blood and fire.” In the most brutal account of the battle that followed, Oñate’s soldiers killed hundreds of men, women, and children, stabbed prisoners and threw them off the mesa; and set fires that suffocated women and children who’d taken shelter in sacred rooms known as kivas.

RM: They then rounded up five hundred prisoners and put them on trial. Oñate sentenced those over 12 years old to twenty years of slavery. Those under 12, he separated from their families, giving the girls to the church, and the boys to the captain who had just destroyed their village.

SA: And then, there’s the most infamous detail, in a document signed by Oñate himself. It says, “The males who are over 25 years of age, I sentence to have one foot cut off.”

RM: His cruelty to the innocent of Acoma was one of 12 crimes for which Oñate himself would later be tried and convicted by the Spanish crown. As punishment, he would be banished, permanently, from the territories of New Mexico.

SA: This is the history that Tweety and I, and many other New Mexicans were learning for the first time, as news of the stolen foot ricocheted around the state.

TS: That was the beginning of it. That was everybody’s first awareness.

SA: And at the same time, we were also learning that the city of Albuquerque was planning to build this new, much more prominent statue of Oñate.

TS: He had been cast out of New Mexico forever. And now you want to bring him back and put him on a statue? It’s still mind-boggling.

SA: How Oñate went from a banished conquistador to a “Father of New Mexico” that people wanted to put on a statue, is a story for another podcast. But the simple answer is: He was first. The first to build a European colony in the region, even if that colony was soon abandoned. He was among the first to bring wheat and sheep and Catholicism. And because every people needs a founding figure, Spanish New Mexico made Juan de Oñate its George Washington. Even if he had been cast out forever.

RM: But it did not take long for Albuquerque Arts Board to realize that Juan de Oñate was not everyone’s idea of a founding father. They could see that another triumphant statue of him on a horse would be a bad look for the city. And so by the time the foot was cut off the OLD statue on the side of the highway they’d made a few changes to the plan.

SA: The memorial would need to depict not just Oñate, but also the peaceful settlers who came with him, and the Native Americans who preceded and survived him. And the exact form the memorial would take would be up to a team of artists.

RM: They had a team of two, but right before the newspapers got wind of the missing foot, they decided to add a third.

SA: When Nora Naranjo-Morse got the call, she was in the place where she’s most comfortable; her studio.

NNM: I mean who wouldn’t want to be here right? In this studio with the fireplace and the rain.

SA: On the phone was the Director of Public Art for the city of Albuquerque asking if she wanted to be part of a “tricultural collaboration.” It would be the Hispanic artist who had built the statue that had its foot stolen, an Anglo artist, and her: A Tewa Indian artist from the Santa Clara Pueblo.

NNM: The call was so out of the blue. This was a public art project, I’d never done public art really. This was with other people. I had been working solo, so I didn’t really know, I was listening…

STAN: And did you say yes right then, or do you remember how the phone call?

NNM: I said yes. I said yes right away because um, I opened my mouth and I said yes. And then afterward I thought, ‘Oh. I wonder what this is going to be like.’

RM: She’d find out when she showed up for the first meeting, in an institutional room with fluorescent lighting and a chalkboard. The other artists wheeled in a model of a statue they’d already put together. It was another triumphant statue of Juan de Oñate on a horse.

NNM: And that’s when they began to talk about the granite pedestal and how I could use it…

SA: The pedestal beneath Oñate’s horse’s feet

NNM: Right. I felt insulted, I felt hurt, I felt marginalized. I didn’t think I could do that. Although in myself I was thinking that there was a solution. That art could tell a story that was truthful.

RM: Nora, quite literally, refused to put Oñate on a pedestal. And the artists went back to the drawing board.

SA: But now Nora was in the public eye and soon she started getting calls from other Pueblo people who wanted her to leave the project entirely in protest.

NNM: I didn’t do that. And When I refused, I got some um, I think people were disappointed.
But I realized that um, by me staying in the game. I would at least be able to fight for that voice that I think was so important. Not just my artistic voice, but the voice of these people had gone through this incredible experience that changed their culture completely. And I kept going back to those things.

RM: The year of the 400th anniversary 1998 came and went. And there was still no plan for the memorial.

SA: But the city would not give up. All the attention had made the memorial a very public test of whether the state was the land of tricultural harmony that it claimed to be. And so every time the process hit an impasse, the city just threw more time and money at it, hiring mediators and forming committees.

RM: At one point, one of those committees came up with a plan that would have restarted the whole artistic process. A plan Conchita’s side couldn’t tolerate. It called for a memorial without Oñate.

SA: It would focus on the coexistence of Hispanics and the indigenous.

CL: Well then we said it wasn’t our celebration. You know, it’s your celebration now, it’s not ours. You know? You don’t get invited to a wedding, you don’t start telling the bride and the groom you shoulda had it this way or that way or… and that’s what it was. It was our celebration.

STAN: But it was your celebration with public money, in a public space, that’s in a city that has people of all different backgrounds.

CL: The grant was for our celebration. Not for the Acoma celebration or for anybody else’s. [laughing]

RM: As far as Conchita’s group was concerned, the presence of Oñate was non-negotiable. Which made it hard to negotiate. In the end, there simply was no single design that everybody could agree on. In fact, eventually, the artists stopped talking to each other.

SA: Instead, they proposed a memorial made up of two separate artworks: A series of bronze statues of Spanish settlers, including Oñate in full armor. And Nora’s response, an abstract land art installation made out of the desert itself.

RM: It had gone from a small bronze statue to a memorial that would take up most of a city block and cost over half a million dollars requiring the city to issue special bonds. Now the question was: Would the city approve it?

SA: Conchita and the pro-Oñate forces lobbied the city council; while Oñate opponents like Tweety, took their case to the people.

TS: You know, finding out, well who’s for us and who isn’t, and how do we target the people in that area for them to call their councilmen. And that’s the first time I’d ever done that, you know?

SA: You were like becoming an activist for the first time?

TS: Yeah! I was. I’d never done that.

SA: The statue, and also a highway the city was trying to build through a national monument of ancient petroglyphs was making first-time activists out of a lot of Pueblo people.

T: It’s the first time that we really rallied around something.

SA: Activists, artists, citizens and city councilors were headed for a final showdown.

This is GOV 14 / And now from Government Center in downtown Albuquerque, the Albuquerque City Council.

RM: In a series of meetings, the city council auditorium was divided, like a pep rally or Congress. On one side was the pro-Oñate crowd: Mostly Hispanic people around Conchita’s age. On the other side was the anti-Oñate group. They tended to be younger and more diverse– Native Americans, but also Anglos and African-Americans. And a lot of people who identified as Chicano or Mestizo, explicitly embracing their indigenous as well as European ancestry.

SA: The city council tried to give the two sides equal time to speak and in hour after hour of public comment they went back and forth but not over the design of the memorial, really. They were fighting over something much bigger and much more personal: their place in American history.

Millie Santillanes: Our colony was the first in what is today the United States of America. You can’t pretend that we didn’t come here 400 years ago.
Ruben Salaz: This is really a matter of denigrating the Hispanic people of New Mexico.
Do I have to stop? [YES!] No no no have some courage and listen.
Juan Abeyta: First of all soy Chicano. And unlike some Hispanics that are here in the audience, I didn’t just get off the plane from Spain. [laughing]
Anne Caton: Oñate does not represent the best of my culture. You are not representing me, and I just want to say that I’m sorry that you and a small group of Hispanics in this room feel like they have to slam another people’s culture in order to feel pride.

RM: There were dozens of speakers, but the leaders were women from Acoma. Like Tweety.

TS: I didn’t know that the awful things that happened to my people happened to my people until this statue became an issue. I’m really tired of being used as a tourist and our wares are the only things that matter in this community. I’m begging you, don’t do this to my people. I’m begging you don’t do this to my people. don’t hurt them this way. It’s not right.

COUNCILOR BRASHER: Thank you very much.

CLERK: Last speaker, Eyal Sanchez Davis.

SA: It seemed like most people were on Tweety’s side. But if the city voted against the memorial, it wouldn’t just be saying no to this statue of Oñate and the settlers and to Nora’s landscape art. It would be admitting that this whole very public process that had dragged on for more than two years had been a failure. The committees, the design iterations, the debate, all for nothing. So when it finally came time to vote…

BRASHER: All those in favor please signify by saying “aye.”


BRASHER: Those opposed


SA: They voted 7 to 2 to build the memorial.

BRASHER: That motion passes.

SA: After the vote, Conchita Lucero told a reporter “I think our kids will finally learn about their ancestors.” Tweety Suazo and other anti-Oñate activists formed a prayer circle in the City Council chambers and wept.

TS: We worked so hard. And it just it, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what we said. It didn’t matter what we do. It didn’t matter that we educated. It just didn’t matter.

SA: If it all happened again today, do you think it would happen the same way? or….

TS: No. Mmmm.

SA: What would be different?

TA: I think Indians I think Pueblos are just a little bit more politically astute now.

SA: Tweety thinks what they learned was the right arguments aren’t enough, you need the right decision-makers. She’s one of several anti-Oñate activists who went on to get involved in electoral politics. She’s now the chair of the Native American Democratic Caucus of New Mexico and this last cycle she helped raise money and get out the vote for Deb Haaland, one of two Native American women who just became the first ever to be elected to Congress.

RM: Today, if you go and visit the finished memorial, what you see isn’t Oñate on a horse. It’s a compromise. It’s really two memorials crammed into one.

SA: The first you can grasp without getting out of your car: It’s more than two-dozen life-sized bronze figures. Men and women, oxen and sheep, trudging up a hill. Juan de Oñate is in front, on foot, no plaque with his name and under the watchful eye of a security camera that may or may not be pointed at his feet.

RM: The second memorial, right next to it, looks from above like a huge dirt spiral. But from ground level, you really just have to experience it.

SA: it’s a striking contrast to the kind of art that that’s really in your face and didactic and says this is what I mean…

NNM: I think that reflects Pueblo thinking it’s much more subtle. It doesn’t articulate in the way we’ve become used to as you know civilized people, colonized people.

STAN: When I met Nora Naranjo-Morse to get a tour, she’d just been picking up trash left inside her part of the memorial. She was holding a donut wrapper as we walked down a dirt path that spirals slowly downhill, into the ground. The street disappears behind the berms of Chamisas and junipers on our right and left. Then the buildings, then Oñate himself. Until finally, at the center of the spiral, all you can see is the land, and water trickling across a rock.

NNM: And I like that very much. Because I think that’s what it was like a long time ago. That’s how I interpret the past.

SA: If you sit low to the ground you can almost get a glimpse of a world before Oñate arrived. It’s an escape, but it’s also intended as a confrontation between two totally different worldviews. Because as you walk back out of the spiral…

NNM: This is what you see. The telephone lines, the sculpture of Oñate coming here, looking North, the stoplight. It’s all there. And so you see that in some ways, when they came, they brought us great opportunity but at such a high cost. The brutal colonization was forever affecting to us and I think we should never forget that.

SA: She hopes her piece of the memorial will remind people of that, but honestly, not that many people come here. The memorial doesn’t attract nearly as much attention as the conflict over the memorial did.

NNM: I think that’s why it’s important stewardship. Not only to pick up the trash, but also to keep that story alive. Because yeah, there are going to be a lot more generations of people coming wondering, “What is this?”

RM: And that’s where our story was going to end. Until last year, when an old mystery reemerged. Remember that old statue we told you about? The one that got it’s foot stolen? Well, for almost two decades, the foot thieves had remained in the shadows, their identities unknown.
And then one day, Chris Eyre, the director of Smoke Signals and Skins, possibly the best-known Native American filmmaker was at La Choza, this great little New Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe.

CE: I was sitting there eating a taco with my business partner and someone came up to me and said, “I have a story to tell you.” as I’m eating my taco, and I said, “Oh shit, not another story.” [laughs] And you know, I heard a few keywords but I wasn’t listening intently. And all of a sudden it dawned on me I said wait a minute, And I turned and I said, “Are you talking about what I think you’re talking about?”

SA: It was the guy who cut the foot off the first Oñate statue.

RM: Or at least, he claimed to be a spokesman for the group that did the deed.

CE: And the truth of the matter is, that I could never verify it. Other than I believed it in the end.

RM: Chris believed the guy, in part, because he was presented with a very solid piece of evidence.

SA: When Chris met him for a second time, in a forest of piñon trees, he unwrapped a piece of black velvet to reveal something no one had seen for 20 years.

CE: Lo and behold there appeared probably a 28-inch long bronze patinaed boot of a Spanish conquistador. And I said to myself, “Wow.” Um, then I looked around and I said to myself, “Where the hell am I? and what the hell am I doing here?”

SA: A few chunks of the foot had been shaved off, where they’d made a half-hearted attempt to follow through on those “medallions for the historically ignorant.” But otherwise, it was still intact and still had the power to grab people’s attention.

RM: If Chris knows the identity of the foot thieves, he is not revealing it. But he did talk about their motivations.

CE: You know, the party involved is not speaking from an activist position, and doesn’t feel like an activist. This person feels like a historian.

SA: He wasn’t trying to start a movement or affect policy, just to write what Oñate did to Acoma men in 1599 into the history of the colonization of New Mexico.

RM: That story still doesn’t have a statue. And maybe it never will. But in the meantime, the “Friends of Acoma” are holding on to Oñate’s foot.



Reporter Stan Alcorn spoke with Larry Calloway of the Albuquerque Journal; Conchita Lucero, Aleta “Tweety” Suazo; Nora Naranjo-Morse a New Mexico-based artist

A version of this story appeared on the podcast Reveal from the Center of Investigative Reporting.

Comments (2)


  1. Mark Schirmer

    I’ve been listening for years, and for some reason, this is the story which really made the concept of 99 percent invisible click for me. Our society is infinitely intricate, and there are corners of it which are hugely important to some people, and go completely unnoticed to most.

  2. Emily

    I really enjoyed the last extra bit about the American Civil war statues that you added at the end. For some reason, it really called to mind the unremarked casual racism of movies and musicals I saw as a child. A particular scene that never made sense to me from ‘The Music Man’ all of a sudden did. I believe in the movie they’re having some kind of celebration for the Descendants of the Glorious Dead. As a New Dutch immigrant, my family and I are invisible as ‘not belonging’, but we often don’t have the historical background to understand details like this. I’ve always been more concerned with studying the effects our colonization efforts had on countries my people oppressed, but suddenly understanding more about race tensions and history in the United States is helpful. I often see things like this in movies, especially old ones and have no idea what they’re referring to. Thank you for yet again bringing me new and useful knowledge to use when looking out at the world around me. I always appreciate your efforts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories