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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

From the NY Times:

January 17, 2002

As a Sculpture Takes Shape in Mexico, Opposition Takes Shape in the U.S.


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 Oņate, 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 the first European explorations of a region called El Paso del Rio del Norte. It depicts Oņate astride a rearing horse as he claimed the land north of the Rio Grande for Spain.

Oņate, 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 Oņate's convoy of some 500 settlers and 7,000 animals are considered the United States' first Thanksgiving.

When it is completed, the Oņate monument will be the largest bronze equestrian statue in the world and an engineering marvel. Oņate'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 10- ton 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 Oņate'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 Oņate for an incident in 1599 when, according to 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 Oņate ordered the brutal punishment and that his orders were probably carried out. In the wake of growing protests over the Oņate monument, at least two El Paso City Council members have rescinded their support for the project, though one has said he may reconsider.

Historians like Oscar Martinez at the University of Arizona argue that erecting a statue to Oņate — 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 Oņate," Mr. Martinez wrote in a letter to the El Paso City Council. "Oņate'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, he 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 Oņate 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 Oņate's influence," Mr. Houser added, "would be to falsify history."

Simmering resentment over Don Juan de Oņate erupted several years ago when cities across the Southwest celebrated the 400th anniversary of the explorer's arrival at the Rio Grande, mirroring Mexican protests over Hernando Cortés. Vandals cut off the right foot of an Oņate 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 lived 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 by 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 Oņate, 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 Oņate 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 Oņate 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 Oņate'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 said. "The bronze will endure over thousands of years. All the political squabbles will perish."


Another Oņate statue drawing scorn

A sculpture of Spanish explorer and convicted criminal Don Juan de Oņate is drawing opposition from scholars and others who don't want the monument erected.

John Houser is creating the 36-foot bronze sculpture, to be located in El Paso, Texas, and to be dedicated in 2003. It will be the largest bronze equestrian statue in the world when completed.

Oņate is known among Pueblos and other tribes in the Southwest as being particularly brutal. He ordered every adult male in Acoma Pueblo be rounded up and their toes cut off because they resisted his attempts to stamp out their culture and convert them to Christianity.

The New York Times says the incident is "sketchy." The paper doesn't mention Oņate was convicted under Spanish law for human rights abuses.

Rob's comment
A few comments on these postings and why the Oņate statue gets mentioned in a Native stereotype contest:

Conclusion:  I'm betting Houser's statue will never debut in Albuquerque, and Houser will die without being "immortalized." He and his statue will be forgotten long before the "political squabble" over Oñate is.

More on Juan de Oñate and his statue
A modern-day Oņate
Monument to a murderer
Jamestown, Oklahoma, and now Santa Fe
Pueblos protest on anniversary of 1680 revolt
Pueblos decry war criminal

Related links
Two versions of history:  Juan de Oņate
Best Indian monuments to topple

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