El Paso confronts its messy past

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 Onate, 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 Onate, 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 Onate 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 Onate’s pioneering presence in the Southwest is to deny history.


The Native American activists who demanded that Onate’s name be withdrawn argued that he was a brutal conqueror.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 Onate’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 Onate’s nephew. Onate’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 Onate 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 Onate and give a balanced interpretation of his expedition.


Antonio Pena, 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 Onate, 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 -- Onate 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?”