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Hispanic group sues Santa Fe mayor over destroyed obelisk

On Oct. 12, 2020, demonstrators secure a rope around the centerpiece of a solid stone obelisk before tearing it down in Santa Fe, N.M. The Hispanic cultural association Union Protectiva de Santa Fe sued the city’s mayor Wednesday, June 16, 2021, over the destruction of the obelisk by activists last year and plans to move the memorial permanently. The lawsuit argues that the obelisk, which honors Hispanic soldiers that fought and died for the Union in battles with Confederate soldiers and Indigenous tribes, is a protected historical site. (Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press file)

SANTA FE – A New Mexico Hispanic fraternal order is suing the mayor of Santa Fe over damage to a historical monument by activists last year and the city’s proposal to permanently remove it.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in state district court, the Union Protectíva de Santa Fé argues that the 152-year-old stone obelisk is a legally protected historical site under state law and that its removal dishonors Hispanic veterans.

A group of around 40 mostly white activists tore down the stone obelisk last year after other statues and monuments across the U.S. were toppled over concerns about racism.

Union Protectíva de Santa Fé president Virgil Vigil and Vice President Richard Varela sit in front of the covered remnants of the Soldier’s Memorial obelisk at the center of the Plaza in Santa Fe, N.M. Their Hispanic cultural association Union Protectíva de Santa Fé sued the city’s mayor Wednesday over the destruction of the obelisk by activists the year before, and plans to permanently move the memorial. The lawsuit argues that the obelisk, which honors Hispanic soldiers that fought and died for the Union in battles with Confederate soldiers and Indigenous tribes, is a protected historical site. (Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press)

In Santa Fe, inscriptions at the base of the monument honored Union soldiers who died fighting Indigenous tribes and Confederate soldiers. One inscription that described Indigenous people as “savage” was chiseled out in 1974 and never repaired.

The lawsuit asks a judge to prevent the city from spending any time or money on modifications to the historic downtown park until the stone obelisk is restored.

That would hobble Mayor Alan Webber’s plans to have the monument permanently removed and replaced with something that city officials deem more culturally inclusive. A proposal for a commission to take on that task is being considered by the City Council next month, with an estimated budget of $265,000.

The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the legal challenge.

In addition to being a 19th century war memorial, the obelisk is a marker of the land grant issued from Spanish colonial royalty to Hispanic families that conquered the area in the 1600s.

It’s a reference point that anchors heritage and religious processions for traditional Hispanics and serves as a reminder of genocide for Native Americans.

“We’re protecting our history, culture and our traditions, and our religion also,” said Virgil Vigil, president of Union Protectíva de Santa Fé.

For Vigil, a Vietnam War veteran and helicopter pilot, honoring the veterans is a major focus.

“This is respecting our soldiers that gave their lives to maintain the freedom that we have and to end slavery,” he said in an interview Monday, near the gray wooden box that covers the remnants of the obelisk.

Vigil has been an outspoken critic of Webber’s handling of protests over the obelisk and the removal of a statue of Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas from a downtown park. He said his organization has been shut out of conversations over the monument’s future.

A heated argument between the two during a chance encounter at a restaurant near the Plaza was reported by the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Webber called for removal of the obelisk last year, months before activists tore it down on Oct. 12 during a protest marking Indigenous Peoples Day.

The daytime destruction happened after police left the area in a move the mayor said was meant to prevent physical violence.

On Oct. 12, 2020, demonstrators celebrate on the base of a stone obelisk torn down in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Hispanic cultural association Union Protectiva de Santa Fe sued the city's mayor Wednesday, June 16, 2021, over the destruction of the obelisk by activists the year before and plans to move the memorial permanently. (Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press file)