LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A southern New Mexico school district blocked efforts Tuesday to repeal a vote to change the name of a high school named after a brutal Spanish conquistador.
After hours of debate and a dizzying display of parliamentary procedure, the Las Cruces School Board did not take a vote to annul their decision last month to drop the name of Don Juan de Oñate y Salazar from a high school, the Las Cruces Sun-News reports.
Instead, the board voted to rename it Organ Mountain High School, referencing a mountain range near Las Cruces that is part of the skyline. The range was originally called Sierra de los Organos by early Spanish settlers who thought the pinnacles resembled the pipes of organs in European cathedrals.
The long meeting was sparked by a board member who said she regretted her vote to change the name and some Hispanic advocates who were angry over the renaming.
“I really regret allowing myself to be rushed. And when you’re rushed, you don’t think things through,” said board member Carol Cooper, who voted for the renaming on July 14.
About 40 minutes after the vote to change the name to Organ Mountains, the school board voted again, this time on Organ Mountain High School, without the “s” at the end of “mountain.” The vote on Organ Mountain High School passed 5-0.
“I don’t think Organ Mountain killed anybody,” board president Terrie Dallman said.
The range outside of Las Cruces was originally called Sierra de los Organos by early Spanish settlers who thought the pinnacles resembled the pipes of organs in European cathedrals.
The proposal to change the name of the school comes amid a national conversation about monuments and names of institutions honoring historical figures linked to racism, slavery, and genocide.
Indigenous leaders and some younger Latino activists say figures such as Oñate, who led early Spanish expeditions into present-day New Mexico, shouldn’t be celebrated. They point to Oñate’s order to have the right feet cut off of 24 captive tribal warriors after his soldiers stormed Acoma Pueblo.
They say other Spanish figures like Oñate oversaw the enslavement of Indigenous populations and tried to outlaw their cultural practices. Oñate was eventually expelled from present-day New Mexico for “excessive force.”
Some Hispanics who trace their lineage to the early Spanish settlers say removing the likenesses of Oñate and others amounts to erasing history — a complicated history both marred by atrocities against Indigenous people and marked by the arduous journeys that many families made for the promise of a new life or to escape persecution in Spain.
Spanish rule over the New Mexico territory lasted for about two centuries until the area briefly became part of the Republic of Mexico before it was taken over by the U.S.
Some scholars say the phenomenon of conquistador commemoration is linked to efforts that originated more than a century ago as Hispanics tried to convince white members of Congress that New Mexico should become a state.
During the 19th Century, white people moved into the territory and held racist views toward the region’s Native American and Mexican American population, according to John Nieto-Phillips, author of “The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish-American Identity in New Mexico, 1880s-1930s.”
As a result, Nieto-Phillips said some Hispanics in the region took on a solely Spanish American identity over their mixed heritage to embrace whiteness amid the racist eugenics movement.