From filmmaker John Valadez
The most remarkable thing that has occurred since The Last Conquistador was completed back in November 2007 is that nothing has happened. If you go to El Paso you will see the stunning likeness of Oñate towering over the U.S. border with Mexico like a Roman god, dominating the sky, singing of the power and glory of empire. All the while, most people who see it have no idea who Oñate is or what he is doing in this dusty, isolated border town.
What you won’t see today or anytime soon is any kind of a plaque or explanation putting Oñate and his — either bloody or glorious — career, depending on what truths you choose to embrace, in a historical context. His image is there, dominating the landscape, but it stands devoid of illumination, elucidation or education. There is no exploration of what that history has meant to different peoples, nor is there any clue that his legacy is still bitterly disputed and that the statue has reopened terrible wounds that have festered and divided Native and Hispanic communities in very hurtful ways for hundreds of years. The folks who believed from the beginning that Oñate was a hero who brought democracy and civilization to the untamed Southwest still hold those beliefs dear to their hearts. The people who believed that Oñate invaded a land that did not belong to him and used the sword and the cross to brutalize indigenous people into submission have remained equally steadfast in their beliefs. For the most part, those two groups of people refuse to speak with one another. They refuse to listen to one another. They refuse to acknowledge one another. There is just too much anger and distrust. There is an ongoing low-intensity conflict that continues to simmer. And with this intercultural cold war there seems to be a renaissance of misunderstanding flourishing along the nation’s ragged southern edge.
Some of the people in the film are doing interesting things.
Sculptor John Houser is working on a new project he is calling “The Puchteca.” The statue will be more than one hundred and fifty feet high and will depict the ancient Native American merchants who walked between South America and North America trading goods between civilizations at a time when the hemisphere had no borders. When it is complete, it will have one foot on the U.S. side and the other foot on the Mexican side of the border. It will also be about five feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.
Former City Councilman Anthony Cobos was elected El Paso County judge and continues to be involved in local government and politics.
Acoma artist and activist Maurus Chino continues to produce extraordinary and beautiful drawings, paintings and ceramics. He also continues to be an advocate for human rights and to speak out on Native issues.
Conchita Lucero is currently president emeritus of the New Mexico Hispanic Culture Preservation League (NMHCPL) in Albuquerque. The NMHCPL feels strongly that the film is too critical of Oñate and does not treat his legacy fairly. They had hoped that the film would be more of a celebration of Hispanic heritage. They have demanded that PBS pull the film from television, and they want all the funders of the program to demand their money back.
For its part, the city of El Paso has tried to sidestep the hurt that the monument has resurrected and the racial, cultural and class divisions that its dedication has exposed. They took Oñate’s name off the statue and simply refer to it as “The Equestrian.” It is a solution that has angered both Oñate supporters and critics alike.
Over the course of the past seven years, we have had the extraordinary opportunity to spend time with folks from every side of this issue. Mostly what we did was listen. We listened very closely and carefully, with an open heart and an open mind, and we tried to understand where each person was coming from and to do it in a respectful way. More than anything, I would hope that the film could be used as an educational tool, showing that rather than judge one another, we should really listen to and understand one another’s perspectives and experiences and, most of all, that we should have compassion.
I have made a lot of films during my career, but I have never made a film with this much sadness.