John Valadez, along with Cristina Ibarra, is the co-director of The Last Conquistador. After the film aired on July 15, viewers wrote in with questions for John and Cristina on the POV Blog. Read on as John answers questions about John Houser, handling angry reactions from viewers and what’s happening in El Paso now.
Anne Linn asks: Thank you for a thoughtful and relevant program. How did you maintain your equanimity in light of the reactions of the rich white folks to the people protesting the sculpture? How did you get such an intimidate portrait of Houser? Did you have lengthy discussions with him off-camera? I admire your professionalism and artistry. Thank you for a fine show.
John Valadez: Hi Anne Linn. Thanks for your kind words. I think we were able to “maintain our equanimity” because fundamentally, we respected the perspectives of everyone we filmed. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being either rich or white (in fact I wouldn’t mind being a bit more prosperous myself!) and I really think it is important to acknowledge, listen to and try to appreciate the perspectives of folks who we may not necessarily agree with. We came with the approach that our job is to help folks express their perspectives regardless of whether or not we may have agreed with what they were saying. I tend to think that if we spend more time listening to one another we might glean some pretty important insights.
How did we get such an intimate portrait of Houser? We spent a lot of time with him. We really like him, appreciate his talent and intellect and greatly enjoyed his company. He is a wonderful person. In fact that is what is so interesting about the statue. Houser is a really wonderful person who had the best of intentions who built a monument that is so deeply offensive to so many people. To me that was really interesting. Showing that was far more complicated and real than it would have been to demonize him.
Adele asks: This was obviously a sculpture project and a film that stirred up a lot of passions. What’s your response to people who are angry at you for having made this film? Is there anything you’d like to tell them?
Valadez: Well Adele, a lot of people are angry with us for making this film. Many Hispanic folks, who look at Oñate as a hero, feel that we maligned his good name. Some Native folks felt we “let Houser off the hook and did not hold him fully accountable for his monument.” Some folks who funded the monument felt that they were misrepresented, that they come off looking like insensitive rich people. Some folks from El Paso felt we spent too much time with the Native Americans and Hispanics and not enough time exploring the perspective of folks who live there. In spite of all this I think we did our job. We gave everyone a fair chance to express themselves and we did so without malice. With as little bias as possible, we tried to portray events in a fair and even-handed way.
If I could tell folks anything it would be that we are all brothers and sisters. We are all neighbors. We all share this terrible and painful and divisive history. It is our common legacy and it binds us in grief. And while we have inherited it, we should not be bound by it. We should rise above it. After all we are all children of god and we should all reflect upon how we can span divides of difference to find new connections for change and understanding. This means that we need to have far more compassion. In many ways the statue has become a very selfish monument. I would ask everyone to think not of themselves but of the community. How can we re-imagine the monument so that it includes everyone? Until we embrace our Indian brothers and sisters with respect and humanity we will all be diminished, living under the shadow of Oñate.
Tom asks: Was there ever a discussion about creating a sculpture that honors Native Americans and placing it close to the sculpture of Oñate as a counterpoint?
Valadez: Oñate is only one of twelve proposed statues, but I doubt that any of the other monuments will ever have the grandeur or power that the Oñate memorial possesses. I really hope that El Paso can summon the moral leadership to lend some kind of balance, wisdom and humanity to the Oñate site. But to date there seems to be little if no political will to do so. In my view all El Paso residents should be deeply embarrassed and humiliated by this lack of moral conscience.
Gary asks: Are the two opposing groups reaching out to each other now? Or are they still in a stalemate?
Valadez: It is very sad, but there seems to be very little humanity or understanding of the painful legacy that Oñate represents in El Paso these days. The American Southwest is a broken land. I guess what El Paso needs is a prince of peace. Someone with the courage to take on an indifferent city hall and fight for El Paso’s redemption. Who among us will arise to heal a divided people?