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El Paso confronts its messy past

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-op-rodriguez25mar25%2C1%2 C1444478.column El Paso confronts its messy past A naming controversy over a statue
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 27, 2007
      http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-op-rodriguez25mar25%2C1%2
      C1444478.column

      El Paso confronts its messy past
      A naming controversy over a statue of a brutal Spanish conqueror grips the
      Southwest city.

      Gregory Rodriguez

      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 O–ate, 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 O–ate, 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 O–ate 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
      O–ate's pioneering presence in the Southwest is to deny history.

      The Native American activists who demanded that O–ate'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 O–ate'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
      Indians.

      Before the first year was out, the Indians of Acoma rebelled and killed 11
      Spanish soldiers, including O–ate's nephew. O–ate'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 O–ate 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 O–ate and give a
      balanced interpretation of his expedition.

      Antonio Pe–a, 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
      came north."

      Indeed, three centuries after O–ate, 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 — O–ate 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
      unveiling.

      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?"

      *

      grodriguez@...
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