Cover Stories

After the Obelisk

The monument’s been gone a month, but police crackdowns continues as do Santa Fe’s cultural fissures

The Plaza obelisk is pulled down with a tow rope and a chain by protesters on Oct. 12. (Katherine Lewin)

The stones, cracked and scattered on the Plaza, pointed the way forward.

A month and change have passed since Indigenous Peoples Day protesters yanked down the so-called "Soldiers Monument"—known more readily as the obelisk—and Santa Fe feels perhaps more fractured than ever along lines of reconciling the city's history of settler-colonialism.

The local political and arts establishment have ample criticism for how Mayor Alan Webber and his police department have handled the obelisk destruction and its aftermath, whether they believe the administration's touch has been too soft or too stiff.

Indigenous activists say there's a slim chance to start healing generations of oppression, embodied by the 150-year-old obelisk, but that the city must exchange continued dawdling for bold, swift action.

READ MORE >> Read the obelisk timeline

The City Council had planned this week to discuss Webber's long promised answer: a Cultures, Histories, Art, Reconciliation and Truth committee—known, risible as the acronym is, as CHART. As of presstime, the matter had been tentatively bumped to the Dec. 9 agenda.

Its proposed mission includes determining what to do with other controversial monuments and creating new public art for the Plaza, as well as attempting to suture the city's wounds by convening "listening sessions." Even the committee's composition has spurred hours of debate. Yet councilors are also freshly aware of the consequences of taking too long in the process.

Public opinion about the obelisk varies greatly, though many Santa Feans agree that Webber could have done more to prevent a group of people from tearing it down Oct. 12.

READ MORE >> Read about the police response

The mayor's failure to act swiftly on promises he made in June—an extension, really, of a vow from the previous administration made in 2017—to create a committee and start talking about removal of monuments, the city's botched attempt at a community art project to adorn the plywood box constructed around the obelisk, and the administration's perceived disinterest in communicating openly about it has left many people frustrated.

Webber acknowledged this sentiment at a media briefing on Monday, but said he was not convinced earlier action would have stopped the destruction.

"I don't know if we can say with any certainty that if we'd appointed a committee over the summer that the people who toppled it on Indigenous People's Day would have been forestalled," he said.

The CHART committee will need public buy-in.

For Councilor Mike Garcia, the biggest issue is making sure the city's diverse fac- tions perceive the final committee as legitimate. At a Quality of Life Committee meeting earlier this month, he worried that lack of Native representation on the City Council could lead to bias from the start, adding that the governing body had already "lost all credibility" in the eyes of the public.

Garcia later proposed an amendment aimed at independence in CHART committee selection. His concerns are valid.

Take the similar, but opposite reactions from an Indigenous activist and one of the city's Hispanic leaders to how Santa Fe officials are going about the work ahead.

Elena Ortiz of The Red Nation says she's felt sadness, mostly, since the obelisk came down. The city's mood and dialogue have exposed deeper problems, she says.

"Santa Fe, with its pseudo-liberal, left-leaning politics, thinks it's somehow above" racial tensions that have gripped the nation this year, Ortiz tells SFR. "But when you look at the vitriol that has come out since the obelisk, we're peeling back this onion and we're showing the racism that is endemic in Santa Fe. And we're showing that, hey, Donald Trump doesn't have anything on Santa Fe and this racism is so systemic."

Former City Councilor Ron Trujillo says it's about representation, too, when it comes to Santa Fe's path forward.

"In my opinion, the mayor only heard one side of the story," Trjujillo says. He ran against Webber in the race for mayor and tells SFR he is not aware of Webber contacting some of Santa Fe's oldest Hispanic cultural organizations to discuss CHART or other plans.

"He's got to make sure that all voices are heard, that all people, all parties that have a stake in this are brought to the table," Trujillo continues, "If he just stacks it with only the people that he wants to hear from…what's the use of putting it together?"

It's not just Webber's political rivals who have concerns about the makeup of the CHART committee or who felt frustrated after the destruction of the obelisk because they felt they had not been heard.

At an Art Commission meeting in October, commissioners said they had sent the mayor a long list of concerns and recommendations about how to proceed with the obelisk in August, and never received a response. They also worried that the Art Commission might not have enough involvement in the new CHART committee process.

Concerns about who would be on the CHART committee were echoed in public comments.

"This really has to be led by people of Santa Fe, from Santa Fe, the complex conversation you're all having is the same conversation we have to have as a town," said Chris Jonas, director of Littleglobe, a local community art organization that has engaged in oral history projects such as ¡Presente! Stories of Belonging and Displacement in Santa Fe.

"One of the biggest dangers I believe is that if this is led by a political initiative it will stay within the political realm and that people will speak from a strategic perspective rather than from a heartfelt town perspective," he says.

Matthew Chase-Daniel, a member of the Arts in Public Spaces subcommittee and co-owner of Axle Contemporary mobile gallery, says he believes the mayor's silence on the issue was really his biggest downfall.

"That was, I think, a big failure that led to people feeling like they had been misled or lied to—though I don't think that was the mayor's intention," he says.

This impression was furthered by the "community art" the city put up on the plywood box surrounding the obelisk this summer.

The project, advertised as a way for Santa Feans to start the dialogue and spread messages of unity, turned into a few poems handwritten in pen or Sharpie, and handmade drawings by children.

Chase-Daniel, who was recruited to help applicants wheat paste their artworks to the box, says he believes the project failed because it did not seem to invite art reflecting the genuine mood of the moment's hard truths or disagreements.

For his part, Councilor Roman "Tiger" Abeyta is concerned that the diversity of the CHART committee doesn't just represent diverse cultures, but diverse ages as well.

One of his proposed amendments would add a member or person nominated by the mayor's youth advisory board. Abeyta, who has worked for years as chief professional officer at Boys and Girls Clubs of Santa Fe, says he's been talking with his own kids and the youth he works with about the issue, and their perspectives have surprised him.

"Our children are growing up in a much more diverse community than we did," he says, "They are much more open minded than we were as kids. Each generation has a different perspective, and they need to be heard too."

He says the youth he works with are much more likely than their parents to agree that offensive statues and monuments should be torn down.

But Abeyta also points to concerns that precede the obelisk destruction and are likely to extend beyond the work of CHART.

He comes from a long line of Hispanic New Mexicans with varying understandings of ethnicity and race. His grandparents were insistent upon their Spanish heritage due to the pressures of early statehood in a country where people of non-European lineage occupied a lower social status. His father, on the other hand, identified more as Chicano, which he defined as mixed Spanish and Indigenous blood.

Abeyta believes in his own generation, the attachment that many Hispanics in Santa Fe feel to the obelisk has to do with nostalgia for the city they grew up in and a sense of erasure.

Losing the Entrada and Fiesta day in the schools, which the city ended due to their celebration of conquest and offensiveness to many Native people, riled many Hispanics. So did the removal of the Diego de Vargas statue from Cathedral Park.

READ MORE >> Read about the other obelisk

Some Hispanics, says Abeyta, feel as though the decision to end these traditions was made by outsiders at a time when locals are quickly losing ground in the capital. Over the last 50 years, many Hispanic families have been priced out of downtown historic neighborhoods where their relatives had lived for generations.

From this perspective, the debate about the obelisk is not just about historical wrongs, but also about present-day gentrification—or as Abeyta puts it, the process of "unbelonging."

Yet Corrine Sanchez, executive director of Tewa Women United and resident of San Ildefonso Pueblo, tells SFR that monuments to an unshared past do nothing but further divisions in the city.

"It is time to reconcile the violent past of this state and country and embrace healing and story-sharing that does not glorify such tactics, attitudes and behaviors," Sanchez says. "We can correct historical mistruths but we cannot change the reality that peoples died because they were not seen as human, as equal, as worthy. We, here now, have the ability to learn from these mistakes."

Part of moving ahead will be up to CHART, which, with varying perspectives, everyone interviewed for this story supports.

Councilor Jamie Cassutt Sanchez takes a broader view, saying she believes a "restorative justice approach" may be best.

The term is most commonly used in reference to a method of addressing the impacts of crime by requiring offenders to take responsibility and find resolution with affected victims and communities.

However, Cassutt Sanchez says the process has also been successfully used to address cultural conflicts between different groups elsewhere. "I wouldn't say that there's any process that I thought was perfect…I think that there are components from each that are lessons we can learn," she says. "But at the same time, our situation is different and we need to look at what is unique to Santa Fe. I think that the [restorative justice] model really strikes a chord with this idea that it's not just about compromise, it's not just about coming up with solutions, but it is part of healing."

Katherine Lewin contributed to this story.

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