El Paso confronts its messy past
El Paso confronts its messy past
A naming controversy over a statue of a brutal Spanish conqueror grips the
March 25, 2007
MOVE OVER St. Louis El Paso is the true gateway to the modern American
West. Lewis and Clark may have been the first Anglo Americans to explore
the vast area between the Mississippi and the Pacific, but two centuries
earlier, Juan de Oate, born in New Spain, forded the Rio Grande at El Paso
on his way north to establish the first Hispanic settlement in what is
today the Western United States.
Last Saturday afternoon, St. Patrick's Day, I found myself outside the El
Paso airport marveling at a magnificent bronze statue of the man historian
Marc Simmons has called "the Last Conquistador." At 36 feet tall and 34,000
pounds, the sculpture of Oate, atop a rearing Andalusian, is a fitting
symbol of a city that's played a critical role in American history. Just as
New York has its Statue of Liberty and St. Louis its Gateway Arch, El Paso
now has its proud symbol of its role as a gateway. Or does it?
When organizers officially unveil the world's largest equestrian statue
late next month the very time of year when Oate and his band of 500-odd
settlers entered the region it won't carry the explorer's name. Four
years ago, in an attempt to quash the project, Native American activists
successfully persuaded the El Paso City Council to name the statue "The
Equestrian." It seems ironic that in an overwhelmingly Mexican American
town (80%), the city council is so willing to cave to pressure and paper
over its Spanish colonial origins.
Yes, of course, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have had their own internal
struggles with their mixed Spanish-Indian heritage, often glorifying one
side and demonizing the other. But whichever side one favors, to deny
Oate's pioneering presence in the Southwest is to deny history.
The Native American activists who demanded that Oate's name be withdrawn
argued that he was a brutal conqueror. And no one disagrees with them. From
almost the beginning, New Mexico, the site of Oate's settlement, was a
disappointment to the Spaniards, and not long after they arrived,
disgruntled and mutinous soldiers began to prey on the local Pueblo
Before the first year was out, the Indians of Acoma rebelled and killed 11
Spanish soldiers, including Oate's nephew. Oate's response was swift and
harsh, wiping out their village, killing hundreds of men, women and
children and famously severing one foot of each adult male survivor.
Sculptor John Sherrill Houser, who worked 10 years on the Oate statue,
says his goal was never to honor the man as an individual. "People think
monumental sculpture is supposed to glorify heroes," he told me, "but I
wanted to find a figure to represent a stage in history. It's not a value
judgment but a way to make people aware of the past."
And that it has already done. One month before the official unveiling,
there is renewed debate in El Paso over the merits of giving the statue its
name back. The nonprofit organization that raised the money for the
sculpture commissioned three historians to prepare permanent storyboards
that could be placed at the base of the statue. They name Oate and give a
balanced interpretation of his expedition.
Antonio Pea, the president of the nonprofit, insists that the sculpture is
not a symbol of any kind of ethnic triumphalism. "For better or worse, this
is the historical figure that brought a culture here that spread throughout
the Southwest. You could say he represents the first wave of migrants who
Indeed, three centuries after Oate, El Paso would become the primary entry
point for what was at that time the largest wave of Mexican migrants to
come north. In the 1880s, the arrival of the railroads from both the East
and the South facilitated the collision of two waves of migration one
Mexican, the other Anglo. By 1900, the Southwest was almost entirely
dependent on Mexican laborers, most of whom also arrived through the
booming metropolis of El Paso, which was half Mexican by 1920.
Mayor John Cook has thus far adopted the storyboard approach to the
controversy Oate is named but not formally, not on the statue. Cook
courted the approval of the Acoma, whose governor, Jason Johnson, has
tacitly approved the storyboards and agreed to send a representative to the
But it seems to me that the city council should deal with the latest
version of the controversy head on and call for another up-or-down vote. If
council members need any encouragement, they should get in touch with the
woman I met under the statue last week.
Arlene Towle, 45, who teaches Spanish at a local high school, is outraged
by the naming controversy. The El Paso-born daughter of a Mexican American
mother and an Anglo father, Towle feels that her hometown's identity is at
stake. "History is not clean, and it's not pretty," she said, "but it is
how we came about. This city is here because of this man and the expedition
he led. And if we can't remember the past because parts of the story are
barbarous, then why study history at all?"