It sounded like a perfect partnership. Renowned sculptor John Houser dreamed of building the world’s tallest bronze equestrian statue, a stunning monument to the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate that would pay tribute to the contributions Hispanic people made to building the American West. The city of El Paso, Texas, was looking to improve its economic fortunes and thought Houser’s statue would increase revenues by creating a significant tourist attraction that would celebrate the city’s Hispanic heritage. What both partners failed to consider was that different segments of the community remembered Juan de Oñate in very different ways.</p?
The Last Conquistador documents the conflict that resulted when Native Americans and members of the Acoma Indian community brought to attention the fact that Juan de Oñate nearly wiped out their ancestors and sold them into slavery. Though violence was associated with nearly all conquistadors, Oñate was so brutal that he was actually recalled to Mexico City, put on trial and convicted for the acts he committed.
El Paso quickly divided along lines of race and class, forcing the artist to face the unanticipated moral implications of his work and city leaders to wrestle with a decision to spend public money on a tribute to such a controversial man. After completion of the statue, everyone was forced to come to terms with a landmark that is viewed by some as a monument to culture and others as a glorification of genocide.
Houser says about Oñate, “It’s not up to me to defend him
or accuse him.” What is the role and responsibility of the artist to the community when creating public art?
Maurus Chino says, “Violence is violence; genocide is genocide, and there has to be recognition about what really happened.” In response to suggestions that it is time for the Acoma to “let go” of the past or “get over it,” a Native American man says, “Our city is thinking about putting up a statue
of an individual that massacred or tried to wipe us off the face of the eart… You’re going to tell your
grandchildren, ‘I remember 9/11.’ Well, we remember Juan de Oñate.”
In response to criticism of the monument’s subject, Conchita Lucero asks, “Which one of us hasn’t had a benefit of the things that the Spanish brought?”