As a Sculpture Takes Shape in Mexico, Opposition Takes Shape in the U.S.
By GINGER THOMPSON
MEXICO CITY, Jan. 16 — In a tumbledown studio here barely big enough
for his work and far too small for the magnitude of his crusade, the
sculptor John Houser is putting finishing touches on an American monument that he hopes will break records and uphold tradition.
The son of a sculptor who worked on Mount Rushmore, Mr. Houser, 63,
envisions his monument — a 36-foot bronze equestrian statue of a Spanish
colonizer who founded the first European settlements in the Southwestern United States — one day towering over the border between the United
States and Mexico with the power of the Statue of Liberty.
But in a time when popes and presidents apologize for past crimes against
humanity, the project faces hostile questions over how to honor the
contributions of a founding father without dishonoring the descendants of those he brutalized — the Spaniard, Don Juan de Oñate, is said to have once
cut off the right feet of Indians who opposed him. Plans for the monument have sparked demonstrations and angry letters to newspapers by those who
argue that the monument glorifies a man of privilege who maimed Indians and snubs the life-and-death struggles of minorities and women in the
establishment of the American West.
The monument, set to be completed by the end of this year and dedicated
in 2003 in the Southwest capital of El Paso, was designed to memorialize
first European explorations of a region called El Paso del Rio del Norte. It depicts Oñate astride a rearing horse as he claimed the land north of the Rio
Grande for Spain.
Oñate, the Mexican-born scion of some of Spain's wealthiest families,
blazed the Pass of the North in 1598, more than two decades before English
Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. And the celebrations of the arrival of Oñate's convoy of some 500 settlers and 7,000 animals are considered the
United States' first Thanksgiving.
When it is completed, the Oñate monument will be the largest
bronze equestrian statue in the world and an engineering marvel. Oñate's
horse — an
Andalusian that is as powerful a figure in the monument as its rider — will be defiantly rearing on its hind legs. It is a pose that has confounded the
world's great monumental sculptors.
During treatments for a failed kidney about five years ago, Mr. Houser
sat in a dialysis chair and worked out the vexing physics of erecting a
statue of a man astride a rearing steed. "Even da Vinci had a hard time doing a horse like this," he said.
Its size, he explained, conveys the impact of Oñate's arrival in the region and the explorer's influence in the development of Hispanic culture.
"Size is an aesthetic quality to me," Mr. Houser said during an interview.
"When you see a monument like Mount Rushmore, the first thing that comes
to your mind is a sense of wonder. It's awe-inspiring, like the history I am trying to portray."
But there are always two sides to history. Indian people throughout
Texas and New Mexico revile Oñate for an incident in 1599 when,
most scholars, he terrorized the rebellious Acoma tribe by cutting off the right feet of dozens of young warriors. Though evidence of the account is
sketchy, historians generally accept that Oñate ordered the brutal punishment and that his orders were probably carried out. In the wake of growing
protests over the Oñate monument, at least two El Paso City Council members have rescinded their support for the project, though one has said he
Historians like Oscar Martinez at the University of Arizona argue that
erecting a statue to Oñate — particularly the largest statue of
its kind — is a lot
like flying the Confederate flag over the South Carolina state capital.
"The Pueblo people have never gotten over the cruel treatment and oppression
they endured under Oñate," Mr. Martinez wrote in a letter to the
Paso City Council. "Oñate's behavior can actually be compared to Nazi officers who directed campaigns against the Jews in the 1930's and 1940's,
including extermination drives.
"Who would ever consider building a statue to some Nazi personage and placing it the town square?"
Mr. Houser rejects accusations that he has a "white man's view" of history.
He says he developed into an artist by living among circus performers in
Italy, Lacandon Indians in the rain forest of southern Mexico, the Appalachian mountain people of North Carolina and the Gullah people of the sea
islands. The first five years of Mr. Houser's life were spent at the foot of Mount Rushmore, where his father, Ivan, worked as chief assistant to the
sculptor Gutzon Borglum, helping to carve faces some six stories high into the side of a cliff.
To Mr. Houser, comments about Nazis and Indian butchers sound like a
lot of new-age babble. If monuments were erected only to honor saints,
argues, then there would be no monuments to Jefferson or Lincoln. There would be no Mount Rushmore or Vietnam Memorial. Mr. Houser said his
goal with the Oñate monument was to commemorate a human struggle, one characterized by great hardship and even greater cruelties, but one that
indisputably and indelibly marks the culture of the New World.
"The difference with this project," he said, "is that it honors history,
not heroes. We are not telling people to look at the statue and ignore
all the bad
sides of the individual. We are hoping this monument will get people interested in history and encourage them to explore all sides.
"To ignore Oñate's influence," Mr. Houser added, "would be to falsify history."
Simmering resentment over Don Juan de Oñate erupted several years
ago when cities across the Southwest celebrated the 400th anniversary of
explorer's arrival at the Rio Grande, mirroring Mexican protests over Hernando Cortés. Vandals cut off the right foot of an Oñate statue in Alcalde,
N.M. And city officials in Albuquerque were forced to abandon plans to erect a statue of the rugged colonizer in favor of a memorial that depicts
Spain's positive contributions to the region, including horses, cattle, irrigation and fruit trees.
Marc Simmons, a historian who has written three dozen books on New Mexico,
said that last year residents of that state were mired in a debate over
whether to erect a statue of an Indian leader named Popé in Statuary Hall in the Capitol in Washington. Historians say that in 1680, Popé negotiated
treaties among several Indian tribes and led a massacre of some 500 Spanish settlers that temporarily ended the colonizing of New Mexico. (The
statue has since won approval.)
"With all the fuss, we might as well just forget history," Mr. Simmons
said. "People are stuck with Hollywood images of the West, where Indians
peacefully in some kind of Garden of Eden until white men came along. The truth is, those times were rough and bloody. And violence came from both
sides. We may regret it, but we can't ignore it."
Still, Mr. Houser said he was "thunderstruck" by the conflict over his
project. He began work on it in 1988 when the El Paso City Council began
seeking proposals for urban beautification projects to dress up its colorless downtown. El Paso is a largely poor city of blue-collar laborers and
government workers in the West Texas desert, and its main attractions are discount megastores that draw thousands of shoppers from its sister city in
Mexico, Ciudad Juárez. There is little public art, except for a cross that looks down on the city from a peak of the Franklin Mountains. A fiberglass
sculpture of alligators was commissioned for San Jacinto Plaza after the city removed a decades-old live exhibit.
Mr. Houser proposed creating a sculpture walk through downtown El Paso
that would include larger-than- life statues of the region's first explorers.
Together, the statues would enshrine the epic achievements of some 500 years of travel on the old trade route between Mexico City and Santa Fe that
was known as the Camino Real, or Royal Road.
The project was named "The XII Travelers Memorial of the Southwest."
Its name is a modified version of the title of a 1946 book of illustrations
Tom Lea, an El Paso author and painter.
In 1996, the first statue, a 14-foot sculpture of Fray García
de San Francisco, who opened the first mission of the Pass of the North
and is considered
the founder of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, was dedicated in the predominantly Roman Catholic, immigrant-filled city without much fuss. But there was
an immediate storm of protest over other figures Mr. Houser had offered to immortalize in bronze, including the gunfighter John Wesley Hardin and
the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
The project has also won support from important cultural figures, including
the late James Michener and the sculptor Walker Hancock, who created
the statue of MacArthur at West Point and took over carvings at Stone Mountain, Ga. Mr. Houser's project has also received the support of Don
Manuel Gullon y de Oñate, a descendant of the Spanish explorer. And the late Alex Haley was interested in Mr. Houser's plans to erect a statue of
Estevanico the Moor, a slave who arrived in the Pass of the North with a shipwrecked expedition from Portugal.
The Oñate statue was conceived as the centerpiece of the project.
Next to a monument of the Sioux chief Crazy Horse being carved into the
side of a
600-foot ridge in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mr. Houser's Oñate would look like a toy action figure. But the monument will be a dominating
figure in downtown El Paso, a giant addition to a series of urban restorations and gallery openings.
Protests have not deterred Mr. Houser from his work. Four years ago
he moved to Mexico, where he believed costs for a studio, a crew and a
foundry would be cheaper than in the United States. With the help of a committee of supporters in El Paso, he has raised 90 percent of the $1.2 million
needed for the statue. His son, Ethan, works as chief assistant on the project.
"Whether they like it or not," said Ethan Houser, taking a break from his work on Oñate's sleeve, "we are going to give El Paso a gorgeous statue."
Mr. Houser, whose kidney problems gave him a frightening glimpse of death, said he hoped the project would give him a kind of immortality.
"The main challenge for us is to create something powerful enough and
of such artistic quality that people want to keep it around," Mr. Houser
"The bronze will endure over thousands of years. All the political squabbles will perish."