POV: Why is Juan de Oñate such a controversial figure?
John Valadez: Juan de Oñate founded the city of El Paso. A generation before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, he was the first governor of New Mexico. He explored much of the continent, from the plains of Kansas to the Sea of Cortez. To North America, Oñate brought Spanish culture, Christianity, the horse and Spanish civil government. But he also brought genocide.
For many Hispanics, Oñate is a kind of founding Hispanic father of the American West who helped forge the foundations of this nation. But for Native Americans, Oñate’s entrée into North America was devastating. When he first came to New Mexico, there were about 90 Indian pueblos along the Rio Grande valley. Eighty years later, there were only about 21 pueblos there, and probably about 70 percent of the native population had been wiped out because of slavery, disease and outright murder.
POV: What about John Houser, the sculptor? Tell us about him and where he stands on the Oñate monument at the beginning and at the end of your film.
Cristina Ibarra: John Houser is so passionate about his artwork. He is someone I identified with in some ways. He believes art has the power to educate people, and he has very noble ideals. His charisma, drive and ambition got him to make the Oñate monument project happen.
He does, however, go through a journey and transformation through the process of creating the monument. When he began, he wanted to portray a part of history that many people don’t know much about. Even when he learned more about Oñate, I think he was still very disconnected from a certain part of Oñate’s history — specifically, the Native American genocide. When Houser came face-to-face with that history, when he met people who breathed that history every day, I think that really took him by surprise, and it became a moral dilemma for him. He is committed to the project, but he is torn. I believe he made his decision by finishing the monument, but he does have a change of heart as well.
What’s the film’s position on the controversy surrounding the Oñate monument?
Valadez: I don’t think the film is trying to say one person is right or another person is wrong. I think what we are trying to say is that it’s all very complicated and that when you look at the statue, what you’re really looking at is a kind of historical, intrercultural Rorschach test: What you see in the statue reflects your own values.
The film is less about the statue and more about people seeing the statue and peoples’ inability to see the perspectives of others in their community. It’s as though they’re blind to one another: They share the same geography, but they live in completely different worlds, and in a multicultural, multiracial society, that is ultimately a recipe for disaster.
POV: What was your initial reaction to the monument?
I grew up a Chicana in El Paso, Texas, just along the border, and when I was growing up I felt that there was this unspoken, invisible history that had to do with our Indian ancestry. There wasn’t this romantic notion of being Native American that you might have further north. It was more of this idea that the more Indian you are, the more ignorant you are. So when I saw this monument, I felt that it was further evidence of that idea that there was this kind of shame around the Native American part of our mestizaje, our mixture.
I felt that the monument was absurd, and I wanted to go and show the world how it just didn’t make any sense that this monument should exist. But through working with John Valadez and meeting John Houser, I began to see that things are not as they seem and that there are different ways of looking at the monument.
POV: How were you able to represent all sides of the controversy in the film?
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, and to try to put ourselves in their shoes. Whenever we talked to someone, we tried to respectfully acknowledge where they were coming from and suspend whatever ideas and opinions we may have. I think we did that successfully, and I feel good about the fundamental fairness of the film.
Do you think the opposing communities around the monument can make peace with each other about the monument itself? What do you think will happen in the future?
I think there are solutions, and I think there are ways to alter the landscaping of the monument, without changing the statue, to reflect multiple perspectives on history. There are different solutions — that’s the easy part. The real problem is that people become so invested in their own perspectives, and they think that if they give in a little bit, then they’re going to lose. When there is that kind of moral inflexibility, it perpetuates misunderstanding and anger. The bronze statue of Oñate will stand for a thousand years; the feelings of the opposing communities are not going to go away either. They’re just going to fester and get worse if nothing is done.