Olivia E. Juarez: Set aside Hispanic Heritage Month clichés to examine Utah Hispanic heritage

Our Spanish ancestors had a role in the attempted erasure of Indigenous peoples.

Crystal Zamora, 27, of Albuquerque, N.M., performs with the Ehecatl Aztec Dancers on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M. as part of New Mexico's first Indigenous Peoples Day. A handful of states celebrated their first Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday as part of a trend to move away from a day honoring Christopher Columbus. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

America is exiting the first Hispanic Heritage Month, during which a U.S. president celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than recognizing Columbus Day. Let that sink in.

Christopher Columbus sailed and pillaged through the 1490s at the behest of the Spanish crown, funded by Spanish investors, by the labor of Spanish crews. It was their journey that led to the desecration of the so-called “New World,” which was inhabited, stewarded and cultivated by hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people.

Utah history parallels this moment in time. Spaniards were the first Europeans to encounter some of Utah’s indigenous residents during the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776, and during the Rivera Expedition of 1765. Just like Columbus and others’ ventures into the tropics made way for Spanish conquering of Mesoamerica, Domínguez and Silvestre de Escalante’s expedition set the path for westward expansion. Spaniards often broke the trail, and the evidence is all over the map. La Sierra de Sal, known as La Sal Mountains in Moab, San Juan River, Virgin River, San Rafael Swell and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monuments are just a few of the many iconic places in Utah named by, or in honor of, Hispanics.

But, surely, all of these places have names in the native languages of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. This acknowledgement, and many more, is one that can make Hispanic Heritage Month more earnest and valuable for all Americans.

Hispanic Heritage Month is full of clichés about celebrating the diverse food, culture, music and traditions of Latin America, and their integral place in the U.S.A. As Hispanic Heritage Month ends today, let’s remember that it is also a time to understand what kinds of relationships our Spanish ancestors had with Indigenous Americans.

We must recognize the role of our ancestors in the oppression and attempted erasure of Indigenous Americans — in Utah, specifically, Puebloans and Diné. Without this recognition we will never have the grace of reconciliation and healing our relationships with indigenous people today. We should also remember that Utah’s first Hispanic ancestors endured their journeys due to the food, supplies and guidance given by Ute and Paiute community members in 1776. Utah’s Hispanic heritage survived thanks to some of the region’s original inhabitants.

Having celebrated an official Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the first time this week, we also have recourse to examine our own Indigenous roots in Utah as Hispanics and Latinos. A study of scarlet macaw feathers found near Canyonlands National Park and in Bears Ears National Monument found that Ancestral Puebloans persistently acquired live macaws from Mesoamerica between A.D. 900 and 1150. Two hypotheses explain how the macaws made their way to canyon country. They were bred somewhere like Paquimé in the Chihuahuan Desert of México then carried to the Colorado Plateau. Or the macaws were carried directly to the Colorado Plateau from the Gulf Coast and tropical forests. Either way, this archeological treasure speaks to the long history of Latino ancestors connecting and relating with the land that we call the Four Corners region today, and its original inhabitants.

Hispanics and Latinos in the Southwest carry a long and complex legacy started by some of our Indigenous and European ancestors. They have shaped Utah to the place we know it as today. Now is a great time to scrutinize them, especially so Utah can celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month more authentically and earnestly than ever before.

Olivia Juarez

Olivia Juarez is a Utahn, activist and organizer committed to nourishing Latinx leadership and joy in wilderness conservation.

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