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Background

Find out more about Don Juan de Oñate, the Acoma Pueblo Indians and the history of El Paso, Texas. Read about public art and how it's being used in the XII Travelers Project to drive tourism to El Paso.

Don Juan de Oñate

Juan de Oñate statueJuan de Oñate was born in Mexico around 1550. His parents, aristocrats Cristóbal de Oñate and Catalina de Salazar, were Spanish colonists and owners of a prosperous silver mine in Zacatecas, in what is now northern central Mexico. From an early age, Juan de Oñate (the title "Don" is an honorific) was involved in efforts to protect his father's mines. In his 20s, he worked to defend and expand Spanish settlements in northern Mexico by helping subdue or conquer Indian communities.

In 1595, King Philip II of Spain chose Oñate to lead an expedition north into what is now New Mexico. Years earlier, in 1542, a series of new laws, called Leyes Nuevas, were put into effect, preventing colonizers from promoting feudalism by way of enslaving American Indians. Oñate was obliged to these laws, though they were often broken rather than observed. Though Oñate's primary mission was to spread Roman Catholicism, the discovery of new sources of silver, with the potential for personal enrichment, was also a significant motive for him to participate in the expedition.

Oñate set out with a group of 600 to 700 people early in 1598. With guidance from the American Indians who lived in the region, Oñate crossed the Rio Grande, where the group encountered native settlements at El Paso del Norte. On April 30, Oñate issued a declaration claiming the territory as a Spanish possession, Nuevo Mexico. He then brought his colonists to northern New Mexico. The settlements he and his colonists established were the first European settlements in what is now the southwestern United States. Oñate demanded that the indigenous population pledge loyalty to Spain and the Pope, an edict enforced by Spanish soldiers.

As subjects of Spain, the indigenous population was required to pay taxes and tribute to the Spanish crown. In 1599, the Acoma refused to deliver the required "food tax" to the Spanish. An altercation ensued, and the Acoma killed 13 Spaniards, including Oñate's nephew. Oñate ordered that the village be destroyed. There were only about 200 Acoma survivors out of a population of nearly 2,000. Indian men of fighting age were sentenced to foot amputation, followed by 20 years of servitude. Others were sentenced to the amputation of their hands. Children were sent to Mexico to be raised by missionaries, but some scholars believe they were eventually sold on the slave market. Years later, Oñate was tried in Mexico City and convicted on a dozen charges, including using excessive force against the Acoma. He was banished from New Mexico for the rest of his life and was exiled from Mexico City for five years. He lived the rest of his life in Spain.

The Acoma remained under Spanish control until a revolt by an alliance of Pueblo peoples in 1680 that briefly reestablished tribal sovereignty. However, by the late 1690s the Spanish government had reclaimed New Mexico and established permanent settlements there.


Acoma Pueblo Indians Today

Built atop a 370-foot sandstone bluff, Acoma Pueblo is the historic core of the Acoma community. It lies 60 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited municipalities in the United States. The pueblo structures of Acoma Pueblo date to at least 1150 C.E., but may in fact be much older. First contact with the Spaniards occurred in 1540 and was initially peaceful.

The pueblo of Acoma has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark since 1960. Most of the Acoma Pueblo community resides in other small towns nearby, including Acomita, McCartys and Anzac, with only 50 people living in the core of the pueblo year-round. Most members of the community gather atop the mesa on special feast days. According to figures from the 2000 census, about 2,800 people reside in the Acoma Pueblo community and another 4,700 Acoma live off the reservation.


El Paso, Texas

American Indians had lived along the Rio Grande for centuries when Juan de Oñate arrived with the first European settlers in 1598. Settlements shifted location over time as the course of the river changed, but eventually settlements stabilized around the current location of El Paso and its twin city on the Mexican side of the border, Juárez. The first use of the name El Paso del Norte came in 1610, in an account of Oñate's expedition. The travels of Oñate followed some native paths that led to the extension of the Camino Real by 600 miles, the first major road that connected Mexico City and New Mexico. This 1,800-mile route was for several centuries the longest-running road in North America.

Today, the city of El Paso has a population just under 600,000. A large majority of the population identifies as Mexican American -- 63.8 percent in the 2000 census. Just over 3 percent claim black or African American heritage. American Indians constitute 0.8 percent. Twenty-six percent of the population is foreign-born, and 71 percent speak a language other than English at home.

In the past, El Paso thrived as a trading center, an entry point for goods brought from Mexico into the western United States and vice versa. Manufacturing, once a staple of the El Paso economy, has largely shifted across the border to Juárez, where more than 327 assembly plants employ more than a quarter of a million people. Mining was a key industry for centuries, and the local state university, the University of Texas at El Paso, was originally founded as the College of Mines; but little of the mining industry remains. Fort Bliss, a U.S. Air Defense Center, generates $1 billion for the local economy annually. Tourism has always been a significant industry, with El Paso providing a stopping point for American travelers headed to Mexico.


Public Art

Public art differs from art that is displayed in a gallery or a museum in that it is generally designed by an artist specifically for public display. It can be a way to spotlight local artists, encourage communities to come together over a shared history or prompt people to question urban environments in relation to artistic visions. Public art can be funded by numerous sources, including through public and private collaborations, government/taxpayer dollars, developers and other funding resources specifically set aside for public art projects.


The XII Travelers Project

The statue known as The Equestrian, depicting Juan de Oñate, is one component of a planned series of a dozen sculptures intended to attract tourism and development to El Paso. City leaders formed the idea of a significant historic project to attract people and business to the downtown region in 1988. John Houser's proposal, known as the XII Travelers Memorial of the Southwest, was selected in 1992. The project was intended to honor the history of the region's population, featuring the likenesses of historic figures from the communities that came together to make up El Paso's population. Among the figures included were John Wesley Hardin, a 19th-century gunfighter, and Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary.

Two of the 12 proposed sculptures have been completed -- the statue of Juan de Oñate, titled The Equestrian was dedicated in April 2007. Fray García de San Francisco, Founder of The Pass on the North, 1659, finished in 1996, portrays the Catholic missionary who established the first mission in the region and is considered the founder of El Paso and its Mexican twin city, Ciudad Juárez.

According to the initial plan, the costs of the project were to be split between public and private funds. As the scope of the project changed, so did the sources of funding. Controversy over the statue of Juan de Oñate and delays in completion warranted additional fund-raising. Altogether, The Equestrian cost more than $2 million, with about 40 percent of the funds coming from the public, in the form of $713,000 granted by the El Paso City Council from airport revenue funds. About $1.25 million in private money was donated, including $400,000 from the McKee Foundation of El Paso, a foundation endowed by construction tycoon Robert E. McKee and his wife, Evelyn McKee, to encourage the arts in El Paso.

Currently John Houser is working on the next two statues of the XII Travelers project: Benito Juárez and Susan Maglauflin. He has a clay maquette of Benito Juárez in progress.





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