It was darn considerate of the Las Cruces school district to ask community members their thoughts about dropping the name of embattled Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate from one of its high schools. Considering it had been in place for more than three decades, seeking the input of students, parents, faculty and staff was a good idea. Thousands have had connections with and received diplomas from Oñate High School since it opened in 1988. Given 30-plus years of community relationships, the district’s decision was going to be consequential, so getting community input was wise.
So Las Cruces Public Schools commissioned a survey, in which 1,350 voted in favor of changing the name of Oñate High School and – wait for it – 4,129 opposed it. That’s 75.4% opposed, a landslide in political terms. A total of 119 students voted to change the name, while 435 students voted to keep it. A whopping 78.5% of students said “No,” essentially asking to graduate from the same high school they started in, perhaps the same one their siblings and parents graduated from. The vast majority of parents, faculty and staff also voted not to rename the school.
The community input was presented to the school board by an associate superintendent for equity, innovation and social justice during a virtual meeting of the school board on July 14. Even before the vote was taken, Maria Flores, the vice president of the board, and another board member were already suggesting getting grants to fund the renaming.
Then, the board voted 3-1 in favor of changing the name.
Ray Jaramillo, the lone board member who voted against dropping the Oñate name, said he thought the name should be changed but opposed it because of budgetary concerns. “If we listen to the survey, it was overwhelmingly no, not at this time,” he said. Other school board members expressed buyer’s remorse. Shortly after the vote, Teresa Tenorio, who abstained from voting, said she should have voted her conscience against the change and for first educating students about Oñate and his treatment of New Mexico’s Native Americans in the 16th century. “It would’ve hurt me because I want Oñate to be changed (but) I would’ve waited until the students were ready and there was a majority that was willing to do it,” she said.
Board member Carol Cooper told the Las Cruces Sun-News she wished she could reverse her vote after receiving “countless calls” from residents expressing their disappointment in the board’s decision. Cooper asked the school board to annul the July 14 vote. But on Aug. 4 the board didn’t take a vote to annul its decision, instead voting unanimously to rename Oñate High School Organ Mountain High School, referencing the nearby mountain range and saving money by keeping the “O” in the logo.
The days of recognizing Oñate as part of the first group of early Spanish settlers who braved harsh conditions to settle the region are obviously over. Does anyone really think the bronze statues of Oñate will ever be back on the pedestal in Alcalde or rejoin the La Jornada sculpture outside the Albuquerque Museum? As the colonial governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, Oñate ordered the attack on Acoma Pueblo in 1599 and was eventually banished from New Mexico.
Principal Jim Schapekahm says the issue has popped up every couple years and continues to divide the school community, so it’s understandable the board wanted to put the issue to rest. But it’s unfortunate members made a pretense of caring about public input when their minds were made up long before a survey was tallied.
The newly christened Organ Mountain High now stands as a poor lesson in how democracy is supposed to work.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.