Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Who Was That Horseman?

Visitors to the El Paso, Texas, airport find the largest equestrian statue in the world at the entrance gate. If they approach it on foot, they can see that it’s a stallion with a Spanish soldier mounted. It is 36 feet tall and contains some 16 tons of stainless steel and metal. The sculptor was John Sherrill Houser. They can read the dedications and information plaques, but they won’t find who it is or what it means. They don’t even find its name.

Those who want to know more could view the “Point of View (P.O.V.)” program on educational TV, part of which is on-line at http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2008/lastconquistador/.

The man on the horse is Don Juan Oñate de Salazar, conqueror of indigenous peoples and “founder” of El Paso del Norte in 1598. Among his accomplishments were cruelty to the conquered peoples, including cutting off one foot from every potential warrior, according to some versions of the story. There’s another statue of him in Northern New Mexico, where the people took their revenge on one of his feet, the story goes.

The El Paso statue was supposed to be named “El Conquistador,” (the conqueror) and was supposed to be mounted prominently over the city. It was supposed to celebrate an aspect of the class struggle in which the stronger imperialist power asserted itself over the weaker locals. But the statue itself set off another class struggle in 2007. Local people protested the statue, and the compromise resulted in placement of the nameless and unexplained statue at the entrance to the airport.

Filmmaker John Valadez, who made the TV documentary, “The Last Conquistador,” comments on-line, “The most remarkable thing that has occurred since “The Last Conquistador” was completed back in November 2007 is that nothing has happened. People were divided over the statue when it was completed, and they are divided now.” He ends his commentary with, “I have made a lot of films during my career, but I have never made a film with this much sadness.”

Among the locals, one person told this reporter that Oñate may have been a bad historical character, but that he was no worse than others of his time, and that Spanish conquerors were not nearly as evil as the English. The Spanish wanted to get gold and force the natives into Christianity, he said, but the English wanted to exterminate them and take their lands. Another local El Paso man, driving by the statue, admitted that he had no idea who it was or what it might represent, but, “It cost a lot of tax money, man!”

--Jim Lane

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