Letter from the Editor
By Emanuel Anthony Martínez
Posted on November 13, 2003
El Paso's history is America's History. And it is México's history. We tend, too often, to remember the first and forget the latter. Worst, at times we tend to isolate our history, separate our stories and our icons as if they only existed within the sphere of our own border consciousness.
In order for us understand the full meaning of the Juan de Oñate statute, we need to cover some Mexican history.
Why you might ask? The reason for this is clear -- the majority of El Paso history is Mexican history; the same history Mexican school children learn in secundarias and preparatorias throughout México.
This immediate controversy, concerning the Oñate statue, has previously surrounded around events most historians agree on: in the process of his conquest, Oñate displaced indigenous communities, tortured native Americans, and allowed for other atrocities committed by his soldiers. Even the majority of statue supporters do not dispute these events, however they found their support upon a alternative morality -- the value of history for the sake of history [and more recently, art for the sake of art].
We'll get back to this later. For now, let's get on with telling El Paso's Mexican history:
When in 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla ignited his indigenous parishioners to fight for the independence of México, it was also for the liberation of El Paso del Norte. Almost a year later, when Father Hidalgo was captured and executed in the city of Chihuahua, he was likely on route to El Paso del Norte, from then on the perennial refuge of revolutionaries, socialists, and other reformers.
About fifty years later, in 1863, when Conservatives and French interventionists fought to insert Maximilian von Hapsburg as Emperor of México, Benito Juárez and his government escaped from the capital to head north. The next year, Juárez established the constitutional government in Chihuahua; and as imperialist forces advanced against the Juaristas, Juárez fled to El Paso del Norte in 1865. The Republic was finally restored in 1867 and Juárez was elected President with 72 percent of the vote.
(In 1873, six years after the Republic's victory - and 275 years after Oñate's expedition - El Paso, Texas became an incorporated city of the United States of America.)
Perhaps the most glorious role the "El Paso/Juárez region" -- by now the two-country, three-state region we recognize -- has played in Mexican history was during the Mexican Revolution. On May 21, 1911, the thirty-four year Presidency of Porfirio Diaz ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez, right across this border. Legendary figures, such as Francisco I. Madero, Venustiano Carranza, Pascual Orozco, and Pancho Villa, roamed these streets.
A few years later, in 1913, Villa would find refuge from prison and the tenacious General Victoriano Huerta (now buried at Evergreen Cemetery) in El Paso, Texas. El Paso was also the refuge for anarchist brothers, Ricardo, Enrique, and Jesús Flores Magón; and for revolutionary author, Mariano Azuela -- all of whom lived and worked in Segundo Barrio.
Now, 82 years later after this revolution, we look back and struggle to make sense of this history -- our history. This is our history, if no longer our country. Yet, in the same breath we use to acknowledge this history, we deny it -- in this case, with a statue of Don Juan de Oñate.
But before we get to that -- given the great impact Mexican history has on our community -- we should explore how Mexicans themselves view their own history and identity.
We will explore how we viewed ourselves, before 1873.
ALEMÁN VERSUS SIERRA: TWO VERSIONS OF MEXICAN HISTORY
History is not something that just happens to us. While City Council Representative Paul Escobar refers to our historical figures as a "family" that we must accept whether we like them or not -- he fails, incredibly, to understand that not all family members are treated the same; and that not all family members get the respect they deserve.
Mexico had to fight a war to have its indigenous ancestry recognized. Imagine a Mexican history without a México. It might have been written that way.
Mexican schoolchildren might never have heard the names Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla or Benito Juárez. They might be reading the Spanish legend of "El Cid" in class, instead of Octavio Paz's "Labyrinth of Solitude." And they might recognize the family crests of the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons before a symbol so obscure as an eagle perched on a nopal cactus holding a writhing serpent in its beak.
This would be the popular version of Mexican history had the Conservatives and their historian, Lucas Alemán, been victorious in 1821 -- it would be a Spanish History. Alemán believed that with the Conquest came the salvation of the New World. He believed Spain brought God, grace, and civilized government; and that when Father Hidalgo gave the Grito of 1810, inciting a Indian rebellion, it was the beginning of a fall that only the glory of Spain could reverse.
For this reason, the Conservatives entreated and enticed Maximilian von Hapsburg -- descendant of the same Hapsburgs whose conquistadors defeated the Aztecs -- to establish the second Mexican Empire in 1864. Unfortunately for the monarchists, the Liberal armies defeated the Empire in 1867. Maximilian was executed and Benito Juárez -- a full-blooded Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca -- was elected President.
Now with this victory, México could write its own history -- mold its own identity.
The father of Mexican history is Justo Sierra. Sierra asserted, contrary to the Conservatives, that only with independence had the national character begun to take shape -- and that character was greatly indigenous.
INDIGENOUS MEXICO. INDIGENOUS EL PASO?
Underpinning these important political events, a cultural process hardly experienced in the world before and not experience since, forged the foundation of modern Mexican identity -- mestizaje.
The people of México wove together the faith and blood of Indigenous Americans, Sephardic Jews, Visigothic Spaniards, Moors, US consuls and diplomats, and others, to become a an original people. From religion to food, from music to language -- through mestizaje -- almost every aspect of life emerged reincarnated from its Spanish and indigenous roots.
When independence was gained in 1821, the new nation could not look anywhere but to itself for a sense of identity. Instead of reinstating a third Mexican Empire, the new country took its name from the original tribal name of the Aztecs: the Mexicas. For the emblem on its flag it did not chose a European-styled crest or emblem. The new country, instead, chose the mythical symbol of the foundation of the city of México -- Tenochtitlan: an eagle on top of a nopal cactus, gripping a writhing serpent in its beak.
The indigenous influence on Mexican institutions and public life has continued since.
In 1810, indigenous soldiers prepared to fight for independence by placing the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe on sticks and wearing a print of the Virgen on their hats. The Virgen had appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531 -- at a site where the indigenous goddess, Tonantzin, had been revered -- and she became México's strongest symbol of perseverance and fortitude.
In politics, Porfirio Diaz, himself the son of a full-blooded Mixtec mother, often identified the State with the powerful and centralist Aztec Empire and its strongest symbol, Cuauhtémoc, the last emperor. Diaz further fomented this association with a monument to Cuauhtémoc on the Paseo de la Reforma in August of 1887.
The indigenous influence on language and names has also been great. Some of what we call "Spanish" in México is unrecognizable to Spaniards. Words like elote (green bean), cacique (political boss), and escuincle (child) all derive from indigenous words. And places like Chihuahua and Tlahualillo were given indigenous names.
Native Americans themselves have also played integrally important roles in México.
It has already been mentioned that Juárez was a full-blooded Zapotec Indian. Juárez was born in the Zapotec town of Guelatao and grew up as a sheep herder. It was not until after he turned twelve and he left for the capital city of Oaxaca that he spoke his first word of Spanish. Even General Victoriano Huerta, who fought against Emiliano Zapata's struggle for indigenous land rights, was a pure-blooded Huichol from Nayarit.
In addition to its national leadership, much of México itself continues to be largely indigenous. According to Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, in 1910, one-third of the total population of 15 million was still indigenous. Tarahumaras of Chihuahua; the Mayos and Yaquis in Sonora and Sinaloa; the Huicholes of Nayarit; and the Tarascos of Michoacán. The Nahuas of central México; the Tzeltales in Chiapas; the Zapotecs in Oaxaca; the Totonacos in Veracruz; and the Mayans in the Yucatán peninsula -- to name a few.
Most of us learned in grade school that México was indigenous. That was wrong. México is indigenous.
Perhaps this explains why a visitor who wants to see a monument to Hernán Cortés might be surprised to learn that not a public image, not a street name, not even a plaque exists to commemorate him. The only image of the conquistador is a small bust, tucked within the walls of the Hospital de Jesús, founded by Cortés himself nearly four hundred years ago.
In México, Cortés is considered the greatest villain in the history of the country.
But if only he had the fortune to pass through El Paso -- if he had simply stopped for a meal. Then perhaps he would have enjoyed the same fate as Juan de Oñate.
You see, for Oñate, El Paso will build the largest equestrian statues the world has ever seen.
THE JUAN DE OÑATE EQUESTRIAN STATUE
In light of this history and evolution of identity in México and on the border, why now has El Paso chosen to erect this statue?
Briefly I would like to address the reasoning held by statute supporters who contend that judgment has no place in historical recollection and commemoration; those who assert that this statue represents nothing but a honor of "history for history's sake." While this phrase might work for art -- succinctly captured in the Latin ars artis gratia -- it does nothing to inform us of the complicated choices which must be made when creating a history.
Not every action can be recorded. Not every man or woman can be remembered. And not every man or woman remembered can be commemorated with such a statute . No, this is not a case of "history for history's sake." Choices were made; and there are reasons for this statute.
Given the above discussion, I believe most would agree that it is absurd, though not impossible, to think that a Mexican would champion a statue for a Spanish conquistador. It goes against everything México has struggled to become. Therefore, the answer to this question -- "why this statute" -- cannot be found in México, nor in the neighboring city renamed after a Zapotec Indian. And not in El Pasoans who culturally identify as Mexican. The answer lies somewhere else.
A cynic might assert that statue supporters wish to make that point exactly -- this isn't México. We don't think like them. We don't have the same values. And we have our own heroes. This is America.
This is the same point the Ku Klux Klan made when they took over the El Paso Public School System in 1922. They changed the names of schools from their original names to the names of Texas War Heroes. El Paso High became Sam Houston High (they changed it back later). Manhattan Heights High School became Austin High School. And then new schools were adorned with names like Bowie and Burleson.
Now the Mexican schoolchildren would have daily reminders of who won the war and which side they were on -- just in case they forgot.
Whether or not the Juan de Oñate statue is a deliberate attempt to marginalize El Paso's culturally Mexican population is an open question. Most likely it is not. However, there is an eerie parallel in form and function between those events of 1922 and the erection of this statue.
A more innocent explanation for this statute is that our leaders simply do not know the historical identity of El Paso and México. Who knew a significant portion of the Mexican people were still native American? Who knew Mexican identity was so indigenous? Who knew conquistadors were so vilified by Mexicans? When all efforts of recollection are focused on gunslingers and shady ladies, it seems reasonable enough that this history would be overlooked. When two museums are created to separate our histories -- the Wilderness Museum (later renamed) for the Indian period and the Museum of El Paso History for the post-Columbian period -- it seems reasonable that an indigenous identity would be easy to separate as well.
And then, we also have the economic development interest -- tourism -- supporting this statue. But really this interest sheds little light on our question, why this statue? The Juan de Oñate statue could just as easily be a multi-use sports arena or an amusement park. Just as long as people stop, spend their money, stay awhile, and tell their friends what a great time they had. If the statue serves this end, great. If not, bad news. (But really, is there such a great demand in the tourism market for men on huge horses that El Paso must fill it?)
And there is John Houser, the artist himself. Perhaps he has played the greatest con in Southwest history, living off of all of us at $40,000 a year in Mexico City for ten years. And to top it off, he's sculpted a statue to himself, of himself. I mean really, who can't tell that Houser is Juan de Oñate? The cheeks. The wrinkle at the top of the nose. Those lips. That bushy beard. Or is this our real-life Pygmalion? Take a very close look.
(The party line is that no images of Oñate exist, so the face was sculpted based on a distant relative currently living in Spain. I'd really, really like to see a picture of that guy.)
Who knows exactly why this statue has to be built by El Paso. The truth is, it may be all of these reasons and it may be none of them. Again, the issue is complicated -- political, social, and economic.
What is clearer, however, is why this statue should not be built. It goes against who we have been and changes who we are.
THE FORGOTTEN PRISONER
Some people might believe that when the indigenous are changed -- as occurred with mestizaje -- the indigenous leave their past, their culture, their history. They become something new, or worse, nothing.
But that is only one view.
Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that when the indigenous are changed, the indigenous changes -- but remain indigenous. In other cultures and nations, this is a fact of life and history. For example, the face of the United States is vastly different today than it was in 1863, but all continue to be called Americans. The same could be said of the British and Germans. What has been done to the indigenous, and to no other peoples, is a denial of the fact that culture and identity is a continually evolving process.
In the same way that it would be unjust to deny an American his identity for failure to play baseball or eat apple pie, it is unjust to deny an indigenous American her identity for failure to speak Nahuatl or worship in a kiva. Who would deny a Mexican or Mexican-American who identifies as indigenous? It stands against reason.
So, if we are indigenous, in varying degrees and in multiple aspects, in El Paso -- what do we say, what do we become when we build this statute in honor of a conquistador who mutilated and tortured the indigenous? Who are we when we glorify a man who viewed our own people as subhuman -- as a resource to be exploited?
Who cares that the Tiguas wrote a letter supporting the statue. They sold out. There is a whole lot more community to consider and dammit, we have a voice too.
Did not the Conservatives lose their war over one hundred years ago? In the Western World, have we not turned our backs on empires and imperialists in favor of republics and democracy?
The unfortunate choice -- and it is always a choice -- to honor Juan de Oñate means one thing: El Paso's contempt for itself now has a monument to commemorate it.
This statue project is the symbolic equivalent of placing a statue of Hitler in Jerusalem and a statue of Osama Bin Laden in New York. (And imagine, adding salt to the wound, by having the people of Jerusalem and New York finance these statues).
El Paso would be better served if the project were ended today -- if the uncompleted statue were left a forgotten prisoner in México City, as the statue in El Paso would leave the indigenous a forgotten prisoner of history.
Simply because the grave has been dug three-fourths down, does not mean we are obligated to finish it and then throw ourselves into the darkness.
It would be a brave and noble choice to terminate this particular statue project. There is still time -- but not much.
For the respect of the people of El Paso, we should end this project.
* * *
I know. I know. It's called the Equestrian now. Whatever. It's Juan de Oñate/John Houser.
Emanuel Anthony Martínez
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