A Conquistador Monument Has Been Removed in Albuquerque After an Attempt to Topple It Was Met With Violence

The head of Albuquerque Cultural Services Department explains why this can only be a temporary solution.

Reynaldo Sonny Rivera's La Jornada. Courtesy of City of Albuquerque Public Art on Flikr.

Last night, a protest over a controversial monument in Albuquerque turned violent as a man opened fire, injuring a demonstrator before being arrested by police. 

The violence erupted as protesters were attempting to topple a bronze statue, La Jornadaon the grounds of the Albuquerque Museum. The protesters included Native activists who had long opposed the statue, and expressed solidarity with the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, according to KUNM.

The chaotic scene was met by armed members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a militia who has patrolled recent Black Lives Matters demonstrations claiming to defend private property, and were evidently there to defend the statue. Video circulating online shows the shooter, a 31-year-old man named Steven Ray Baca, throwing female protesters to the ground and hitting others with pepper spray before opening fire and wounding a protester.

Members of the militia then surrounded Baca to protect him before the authorities arrived. Police arrested Baca as well as several militia members.

Baca is currently being held under suspicion of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, according to a statement released by the Albuquerque Police Department. (The Department did not immediately respond to Artnet News’s request for comment.)

The sculpture depicts Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador who governed the region of New Spain now known as New Mexico. Known for his despotic rule, Oñate ordered the murder of over 800 indigenous people in 1599.

In New Mexico today, the colonialist ruler symbolizes a cultural rift between Native Americans, who see him as a symbol of oppression and brutality, and Hispanics, who trace their ancestry to Spanish settlers. The current incident is part of a wave of protest against memorials associated with racial injustice and colonial violence touched off by recent racial justice protests. 

The victim, who was identified on Tuesday afternoon as artist Scott Williams, remains in critical but stable condition, according to the Albuquerque Police Department. A GoFundMe, set up by the SouthWest Organizing Project, is raising money for both Williams and the several women who were violently assaulted during Baca’s attack.

Hours after the shooting on Monday, Albuquerque mayor Tim Keller announced that the statue would be removed “until the appropriate civic institutions can determine next steps.” 

“Last night the sculpture became more than a symbol,” the mayor said in a press conference afternoon. “It became a matter of public safety. And it’s being removed today.” The statue has since been removed and placed in storage.

Keller doesn’t have the right to remove the public artwork permanently, Dr. Shelle VanEtten Sanchez, director of the Albuquerque Cultural Services Department, told Artnet News in a phone interview. However, the mayor was able to do so temporarily on the grounds that it represented, as he put it, an “urgent matter of public safety.”  

“It’s a temporary solution while we engage in a public process about what will ultimately happen with that statue,” Dr. Sanchez said, explaining that her department had announced Saturday—before the violent incident—that it will create a group of community members to recommend future steps for the statue and the land on which it sits.

“This has to be a community-led process for us,” the director continues. “It has to be a dialogue that’s rooted in the cultural traditions and very diverse heritage of this state. We don’t want it be a bureaucratic process; we want it to be a community dialogue that’s authentic, that’s about healing, and talking about our shared past and our present.”

La Jornada has been the subject of fiery public debate in Albuquerque since it was commissioned by the city in the late 1990s and installed in 2004. It depicts Oñate leading a group of settlers on their way to New Mexico. It’s been vandalized on numerous occasions, including several times over the last week. 

In this afternoon’s press conference, Dr. Sanchez also announced that yesterday, prior to the incident, one of two artists behind the Oñate sculpture, Reynaldo Sonny Rivera, reached out independently to the Cultural Services Department asking for it to be taken down.

Installed next to La Jornada and commissioned at the same time is an Earthwork created by Nora Naranjo-Morse, an artist from Santa Clara Pueblo, which was conceived as a space of solace and reflection. 

Last week, the board of trustees for the Albuquerque Museum voted to remove La Jornada. However, Sanchez explains, the museum board actually does not have the legal right to do so. The sculpture belongs to the city’s public art collection and is under the city’s jurisdiction. 

La Jornada. Courtesy of Flikr.

La Jornada. Courtesy of Flickr.

According to the Albuquerque Journal and KUNM, Baca was a 2019 candidate for City Council who ran denouncing local elected officials as “complete wimps when it comes to fighting crime.” He previously started a Facebook page called “Citizens Who Stand With APD,” supporting the Albuquerque Police Department after the 2014 police killing of James Boyd. Baca’s father is a former Bernalillo County sheriff.

“We are receiving reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence,” police chief Michael Geier said in a statement issued by the APD. “If this is true we’ll be holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group designation and prosecution.”

Geier added that over 20 guns were taken from four members of the militia group after the incident. 

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