The Equestrian, the giant Conquistador that greets El Paso visitors at the entrance of the El Paso International Airport is a statue of Don Juan de Oñate who some have labeled the Last Conquistador. To say that the statue has evoked much controversy is an understatement. Except that most readers may only be aware of the controversies at City Hall in 2003, where the name was changed and the ugly truth of Oñate’s treatment of the Native Americans was put on full public display. The statue has caused much controversy since 1986, when it became apparent that funding of city arts projects with public monies would be used to help erase Mexicans from the El Paso scene.
This is the condensed version of the long story of how the Juan de Oñate statue is part of the erasure of the Mexican heritage from El Paso.
As readers may have noted there is an ongoing national public discussion, sometimes violent, of what history teaches about the communities in the nation. The Confederate flag and other symbols are being placed in museums, where they belong to teach history, and in many communities are no longer used to commemorate culture in America.
NASCAR has ordered the Confederate flag out of its events. The U.S. military has made it impossible to fly the Confederate flag on military bases. The Washington Redskins are changing their name. Las Cruces voted to change the name of Oñate High School. Statues of Oñate are being removed across the nation.
This national reckoning continues as you read this.
El Paso tried to reconcile its history with Juan de Oñate but failed in the end to keep it out the community.
Oñate has been a part of the narrative in New Mexico where much of the Hispanic population traces its heritage to the Spanish who came to America. In El Paso, on the other hand, Oñate was nothing more than a footnote in the history books.
That is until 1989 when a movement was born in El Paso trying to proclaim that the First Thanksgiving was in El Paso and not in Plymouth Rock. It was an imaginative rewriting of history by Sheldon Hall, who repurposed the work of Gaspar Perez de Villagra’s work on Juan de Oñate in Historia into the First Thanksgiving. Sheldon Hall founded the El Paso Mission Trail in 1986. The Sheldon reenactments of the First Thanksgiving began playing annually each April.
It was the narrative of the First Thanksgiving that helped to create the illusion of Oñate as a significant part of the city’s history.
El Paso was being reimagined into an illusion of the successful melting pot of different cultures into one heritage – the El Paso one. Except that the El Paso heritage being pushed forth was one absent of Mexican influences which were to be replaced with those of Spain.
In the 1960’s El Paso’s economic progress was being left behind as migration and geopolitics further reduced its place on the national stage. Instead of the renaissance that other American cities were experiencing, El Paso was facing an ethnic reckoning with the rising Chicano movements of the time. Community leaders saw the tradition of history telling via public murals, carried over from México, as an obstacle to bringing the city up to the American success stories other cities were experiencing.
To counter the Chicano mural storytelling, El Paso leaders embarked upon an arts program as urban beautification projects to enhance the city. El Paso taxpayers were now going to pay the bills to erase Mexicanisms from the city.
In 1982, the City of El Paso launched an urban renewal program targeting downtown El Paso. It set it in motion by designating several downtown blocks as Tax Increment Districts (TIF). [This was before the Caballero use of TIF districts for the BHI project]
Taxes for properties in the TIF districts were frozen at the 1982 levels. Additional taxes raised by increasing property values were planned to fund $40 million of projects to beautify the El Paso downtown. It was an uncommon use of TIF districts, and these set the stage for the next round of TIF districts targeting the Mexican communities around the county hospital by a later administration. Gentrification through TIF districts was now part of the city’s arsenal.
The citywide arts project evolved from Tom Lea’s (father & mayor) City Beautiful, which encouraged civic ambition leading to community improvement. This concept led the way towards the XII Travelers. Juan de Oñate was one of the 12 travelers envisioned by John Houser, the sculptor and ultimately the second statue commissioned by city council. Lea, the father cast the die that began to marginalize the Mexican heritage as the city was starting to reinvent itself by excluding the Mexicans from its narrative.
Tom Lea’s administration of the city can best be characterized by xenophobia and intolerance towards Mexicans.
Houser presented the idea of the 12 travelers in 1989. Eventually, $1 million were allocated by city council from TIF district funds to fund the 12 travelers. He derived the idea for the Twelve Travelers from Tom Lea’s work.
The TIF district designation and funding mechanism provided a layer of protection to the project. The TIFs effectively negated any influence art commissions had over the project. Houser effectively took control over the whole XII Travelers project. (Suzanne Azar, mayor, email correspondence with Houser, September 1989)
Soon controversy erupted over the funding and the project itself with the art community fighting over control of public spaces in El Paso. On one side of the arts funding debate were supporters of Houser and on the other side were artists like Chicano sculptor Luis Jimenez who was arguing for a more inclusive arts project.
The project was kept on perpetual hold as the fighting over funding and control intensified. Houser threatened to sue the City and when that failed, a letter campaign was organized to move forward on the project with John Houser being the sole one to control the project.
On April 4, 1991, the City Council released funds for the first two projects for the XII Travelers. They were to be Cabeza de Vaca and Benito Juárez, not Juan de Oñate. But the controversy continued and letter campaigns and political pressure continued to be applied.
Finally, on September 26, 1996, the first statue was ordered by the City, Fray Garcia de San Francisco, the founder of the Juárez Mission.
But it wasn’t until 1998 that Juan de Oñate became part of the broader El Paso debate about inclusive arts projects. Mexican Americans argued that the Mexican heritage was being replaced with a reimagined view of historical figures. The original two of the 12 travelers, Cabaza de Vaca and Benito Juárez had been lost in the ongoing debate over art projects representing the community.
Multi-culturalism was being cast aside for a mono-ethnic heritage as envisioned by the Anglo minority of the city.
Deal with it, get over it is the mantra of those who supported the Juan de Oñate statue.
The Oñate statue was originally slated to be placed in downtown near the Camino Real Hotel, today it has been relabeled as the Paso del Norte Hotel. On November 4, 2003, the El Paso City Council allocated $713,189 from El Paso International Airport revenues to put the statue at the airport. (link) It has been weaved into the historical narrative that the City did not spend taxpayer funds to erect that statue at the airport. Yet, airport revenues are used to fund community needs. Furthermore, the TIF district funds – taxes – were used to fund the statue.
At that City Council meeting, the controversy over the statue exploded on the national scene. Native Americans fought against the statue. Noticeably, the Tigua’s were absent on the debate over Oñate. Then State Representative Norma Chavez implored the city council not to “immortalize a tyrant”.
Henry Jurado, the chairman of the XII Travelers argued that the demonstrators were a “minority of the true will”. Historian Leon Metz, as expected, fully supported the project, arguing that “there is no shred of evidence” that Oñate cut anyone’s feet off.
Eventually the City Council voted to allocate the funds to place the statue at the airport. The motion was made by Dan Power and seconded by John Cook. Susan Austin amended the motion to drop “Oñate” from the name of the statue. This led the Twelve Travelers representatives to argue that dropping Oñate from the statue would invalidate the $390,000 McKee Foundation grant that required that Oñate be on the statue.
Nonetheless, City Council adopted the amended motion on a four to three vote, with Vivian Rojas abstaining.
In total, the statue cost $2.3 million, with $1.3 million raised from private funds. It was dedicated in April 2007.
Although the Oñate legacy is more important to New Mexico, it, nonetheless, ended as a very controversial project in El Paso, Texas which had little legacy invested in Oñate. The First Thanksgiving was nothing more than an imaginative tourist scheme to get people to pay attention to El Paso.
Houser himself knew that the statue would be controversial. He knew it was going to be “politically charged”. He argued that slavery “was the only way the human race could get ahead,” while he defended the project. Jaime O. Perez, in a strategy meeting before the city council vote said about the Oñate statue:
“It’s in your face reminder of who is in charge.”
But Houser argued later that once the statue is up, “the battle will be over…there would be no point in people trying to fight it anymore.”
Meanwhile, in the background and away from the public eye, the secretive Paso del Norte (PDNG) group was organizing to cement the new narrative upon El Paso. In March 2004, William Sanders took what was Woody Hunt’s El Paso Business Leadership Council and repurposed it as a copy of Chicago’s Commercial Club.
The fight over Oñate forced the minority to begin working behind the scenes to continue their plan to erase Mexicans from the face of El Paso. From there, the infamous Glass Beach Study began.
As Houser had stated, “the battle is over” because the statue now welcomes El Paso visitors at the airport.