In New York City, a statue of Christopher Columbus in Central Park was vandalized, and the City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, has even suggested that the explorer’s statue in Columbus Circle be removed.
In New Mexico in recent days, Oñate emerged yet again as a target of scorn, when the village of Alcalde awoke to find the statue’s left foot painted red and the words “Remember 1680” — the year of the Pueblo revolt — written on the monument’s wall. And in the saga’s latest twist, the man who claims he purloined Oñate’s foot decided to come in from the cold.
Twenty years ago, protesting the coming celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the first Spanish settlement in what is now the American West, operatives in a shadowy group called the Friends of Acoma took aim at the towering statue here honoring Oñate.
In the dead of night on Dec. 29, 1997, they sawed off the foot, unleashing a debate over Oñate’s atrocities. While some in New Mexico admire the conquistador in ballads and pageantry, others are re-examining the brutality of Oñate’s conquest.
Scholars have documented how Oñate oversaw atrocities that included the killing of 800 people in Acoma Pueblo, an ancient adobe aerie atop a 357-foot-tall sandstone mesa where the Acoma people still live today. Dozens of Acoma girls were parceled out to convents in Mexico City, and adolescents were sentenced to decades of servitude. In a notorious act of cruelty, Oñate is said to have ordered his men to cut a foot off at least 24 male captives.
Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne-Arapaho filmmaker who is well known in Santa Fe, said that the foot abductor recently walked up to him while he was at a local eatery, La Choza, digging into a bowl of posole. “He handed me a note, and I thought to myself, is this one of those Roswell types?” said Mr. Eyre, 48, referring to the conspiracy-minded U.F.O. trackers who convene in the New Mexico desert.
Still, Mr. Eyre, the director of “Skins,” a 2002 film that ends with a depiction of red paint being thrown on George Washington’s face at Mount Rushmore, was intrigued by the story of the foot. Now Mr. Eyre is developing a documentary exploring how the amputation triggered an exploration of New Mexico’s complex history.
“Trump asked if all this stops with Washington or Jefferson,” said Mr. Eyre, referring to the president’s comparison in August of removing statues to “changing history.” “For me, that’s actually where it starts because we need to go back a whole lot further to examine the crimes upon which these lands were claimed.”
Mr. Eyre arranged an encounter in September between this reporter and the thief, a wiry figure who trekked to the remote meeting point carrying his piece of Oñate. Chafing at celebrations of the Spanish conquest while describing his own Iroquois ancestry, the thief said he carried out the amputation in 1997 with just one comrade, a native New Mexican, in solidarity with the Acoma people.
He requested that their identities remain secret, explaining that he had no desire to go to jail. “Mysteries are sometimes best kept a little mysterious,” he said. “I smile at the possibility that this tale of defiance could someday be told from campfire to campfire.”
The theft of the foot already resonates among scholars and writers who have explored the ramifications of the act. Maurus Chino, 63, an Acoma artisan, said, “The Oñate statue is simply racist and obscene.”
“When the foot was cut off, I didn’t hear one person from Acoma disagree with that act,” Mr. Chino said. “If monuments like these can’t be taken down, maybe it’s time to cut some more feet off.”
Others, however, argue that criticism of the statue drives a wedge between peoples who lived side by side, sometimes in discord but often intermarrying, for centuries.
For some Hispanics, statues of Oñate and other conquistadors amount to their own symbols of resistance, in the face of the dominance that Anglos have often wielded in New Mexico since the 19th century. Emilio Naranjo, at the time the powerful Democratic Party boss here, secured funds to build the statue in the 1990s as part of a project to honor Hispanic culture. After the dismemberment, its sculptor, Sonny Rivera, cast a replacement foot for Oñate at a cost to taxpayers of $10,000, and it was welded on.
Thomas Romero, executive director of the Northern Rio Grande Heritage Area, whose office is in the same complex as the statue, even wondered if Oñate’s cruelty had been a bit exaggerated. Mr. Romero speculated whether Oñate’s men could have meted out retaliation by cutting off toes instead of feet.
“Some people have pointed out that it would be foolish to cut off the whole foot of people who would be your servants,” Mr. Romero said. Still, he contended that the intensifying discussion over the statue shows why the complexities of Oñate’s era, as well as our own, need to be examined.
Mr. Romero said he was seeking to forge stronger ties between Hispanics and Native Americans by flying the flag of the nearby Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo above the Oñate statue, alongside the flags of New Mexico, Rio Arriba County and the United States. He said he was also promoting exchanges that exemplify the historical bonds between Native Americans and Hispanics, including an event featuring the Genízaros, descendants of captured Indians who were raised in Hispanic culture.
Scholars, meanwhile, are unearthing new details about Oñate himself. Unlike the first conquistadors, Oñate wasn’t born in Spain, but in 1550 in what is today Zacatecas in north-central Mexico, and is thought by some researchers to have indigenous ancestry on his mother’s side, according to Michael Trujillo, a professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico.
Either way, Oñate’s methods were contentious even in an era known for its excesses. Mounting criticism forced the conquistador to resign as New Mexico’s governor in 1610 and, in 1614, he was found guilty by the viceroy on charges of abusing his power. Centuries later, the divisiveness around Oñate persists.
“While visitor bureau types like to sell Northern New Mexico as a mix of cultures, it’s far from that,” Robert Trapp, the publisher of the Rio Grande Sun in the nearby town of Española, wrote in September. “The racism here is real, multidirectional and simmers just below the surface.”
Forget the 21st century, Mr. Trapp suggested. “These separate cultures, maintaining covert contempt for each other, is one of the many things that keeps us from moving into the 1980s,” he said.
The foot thief smiled when discussing how his act of sabotage was stirring ghosts. He has melted down a portion of the foot to make medallions for Pueblo leaders, but otherwise it remains mostly as it was when he sawed it off. “I always wanted to walk the foot all the way to Acoma,” he said. “Or maybe it’ll get buried as a time capsule.”
“Not the spur, though,” he said, explaining how he planned to keep a trophy from his act. “That will be mine forever.”