John Houser is a man with monumental sculpture in his blood. He can remember his father working as an assistant carver on Mount Rushmore. Enthralled with the power of art, he has dedicated himself to making history come alive in large-scale public sculptures. So when the El Paso City Council commissioned a larger-than-life statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, Houser conceived his grandest project yet: the largest bronze equestrian statue in the world. He envisioned a magnificent and long-overdue tribute to the contributions of Hispanic culture and history to the United States.
But as recounted in the new documentary The Last Conquistador, all was not well as the statue’s dedication approached. The area’s Native Americans had their own very personal memories concerning Oñate. They recalled massacres, slavery and terror. They remembered that Oñate’s foray into New Mexico in 1598 led to the deaths of two out of every three Indians there and nearly caused the extermination of Native culture across the region.
As the film shows, the prospect that a murderer’s image would be looming over El Paso, Texas, drew increasing anger and protest. One artist proposed a companion sculpture of a giant severed foot, commemorating Oñate’s method of cutting off feet to terrorize the native inhabitants. Houser saw his grand conception transformed in a way he had not intended, caught up in a whirlwind of unresolved conflicts between races, classes and historical memories.
Neither Houser nor El Paso’s city councilors had intended any offense or controversy. The statue of Oñate was intended as part of a sculpture walk through history that would memorialize the region’s dramatic but often unrecognized history. When the storm of protest arose, they were taken by surprise. But should they have been? Had they too easily accepted a conqueror’s version of history in which the daring exploits of pioneers and colonists are celebrated, and the sins of violence are avoided or excused?
In that history, Oñate set out in 1598 from Mexico on a thousand-mile journey seeking new lands and Christian converts for Spain, along with riches for himself. He was the first governor of New Mexico and the bringer of wheat, horses, metalworking and Western civilization to what became the American Southwest. But Oñate’s brutality was well understood by his contemporaries. He was eventually recalled, tried and convicted by his own government for what today would be called crimes against humanity. He was banished forever from New Mexico, and ended up moving to Spain.
Native Americans are deeply offended by the sculpture, but many wealthy whites and Hispanics throughout the region — who trace their ancestry back to the Oñate expedition — welcome the monument and defend the bloodshed, saying that the Indians were the aggressors and that Oñate brought peace and stability to the region.
The Oñate statue sparked protests from Native Americans.
Caught in between are the Mestizos, Mexican Americans like El Paso City Councilman Anthony Cobos, who make up about 75 percent of El Paso’s population. The sons and daughters of both the Spaniards and the Indians they subjugated, Mestizos must struggle with a conflicted heritage that is both prideful and humiliating. Councilman Cobos eventually withdraws his support for the statue and pays a heavy political price.
John Houser, who had worked on his labor of love for 10 years, learns that he has glaucoma and may eventually lose his eyesight. Haunted by the heavy moral burden of his own creation and his failing health, he apologizes for being blind to the social implications of his work. “I have developed my own trap,” he says, “and I think about it day and night.”
But the damage is done. Deep wounds have been opened, and a bitter divide has deepened. In the end, many Hispanics are elated, Mestizos are frustrated that valuable public money has been used for the sculpture, and Native Americans feel that the genocide of their people matters little to the city of El Paso or to white people who walk the corridors of power.
John Houser is proud of his work, but dismayed by how it is perceived. But resilient and determined as ever, he is planning to make up for it with a statue commemorating
pre-Columbian Indian life — a human figure 28 times life-size and five feet higher than the Statue of Liberty.
“It was a challenge to try to step back and not bring our own bias or prejudice to the mix, to try to be fair to all sides and to try to recognize that everybody’s perspective is legitimate… ” says filmmaker John Valadez.
The Last Conquistador is a co-production of the Independent Television Service (ITVS), produced in association with American Documentary | POV