Sculptor John Houser’s Monumental Bronze of Juan de Oñate
Exposes Raw Feelings and Sharp Divisions in the Southwest —
And the Perils of Public Art in a Multicultural Society
A Co-production of Independent Television Service (ITVS);
A Co-presentation With Latino Public Broadcasting, Native
American Public Telecommunications and KERA Dallas/Fort Worth
John Houser is a man with monumental sculpture in his blood. He can remember his father working as an assistant carver on Mt. Rushmore. Enthralled with the power of art, he has dedicated himself to making history come alive in large-scale public sculptures. So when the El Paso City Council commissioned a larger-than-life statue of the Spanish Conquistador Juan de Oñate, Houser conceived his grandest project yet: the largest bronze equestrian statue in the world. He envisioned a magnificent and long-overdue tribute to the contributions of Hispanic culture and history to the United States. But as recounted in the new documentary The Last Conquistador, all was not well as the statue’s dedication approached.
But as recounted in the new documentary The Last Conquistador, all was not well as the statue’s dedication approached. The area’s Native Americans had their own very personal memories concerning Oñate. They recalled massacres, slavery and terror. They remembered that Oñate’s foray into New Mexico in 1598 would eventually lead to the deaths of two out of every three Indians there and nearly caused the extermination of Native culture across the region.
John Valadez and Cristina Ibarra’s The Last Conquistador has its national broadcast premiere on Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 10 p.m., on PBS during the 21st season of P.O.V. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, P.O.V. is public television’s premier showcase for point-of-view, nonfiction films and winner of a 2007 Special News & Documentary Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking.
As the film shows, the prospect that a murderer’s image would be looming over El Paso, Texas, drew increasing anger and protest. One artist proposed a companion sculpture of a giant severed foot, commemorating Oñate’s method of cutting off feet to terrorize the native inhabitants. Houser saw his grand conception transformed in a way he had not intended, caught up in a whirlwind of unresolved conflicts between races, classes and historical memories.
Neither Houser nor El Paso’s city councilors had intended any offense or controversy. The statue of Oñate was intended as part of a sculpture walk through history that would memorialize the region’s dramatic but often unrecognized history. When the storm of protest arose, they were taken by surprise. But should they have been? Had they too easily accepted a conqueror’s version of history where the daring exploits of pioneers and colonists are celebrated, while their sins of violence are avoided or excused?
In that history, Oñate set out in 1598 from Mexico on a thousand-mile journey seeking new lands and Christian converts for Spain along with riches for himself. He was the first governor of New Mexico, and brought wheat, horses, metalworking and Western ideas to what became the American Southwest. But Oñate’s brutality was well understood by his contemporaries. He was eventually recalled, tried and convicted by the Spanish Crown for what would today be called crimes against humanity. He was banished forever from New Mexico, and ended up moving to Spain.
While Native Americans are deeply offended, many wealthy whites and Hispanics throughout the region — who trace their ancestry back to the Oñate expedition — welcome the monument and defend the bloodshed, saying the Indians were the aggressors and that Oñate brought peace and stability to the region.
Caught in between are the Mestizos, Mexican-Americans like El Paso City Councilman Anthony Cobos who make up about 75 percent of El Paso’s population. The sons and daughters of both the Spaniards and the Indians they subjugated, they must struggle with a conflicted heritage that is both prideful and humiliating. Councilman Cobos eventually withdraws his support for the statue and pays a heavy political price.
John Houser, who had worked on his labor of love for 10 years, eventually feels the pressure: he learns that he has glaucoma and may eventually lose his eyesight. Haunted by the heavy moral burden of his own creation and his failing health, he apologizes for being blind to the social implications of his work. “I have developed my own trap,” he says, “and I think about it day and night.”
But the damage is done. Deep wounds have been opened and a bitter divide has deepened. In the end, many Hispanics are elated, Mestizos are frustrated that valuable public money has been used for the sculpture, and Native Americans feel that the genocide of their people matters little to the City of El Paso or to white people who walk the corridors of power.
John Houser is proud of the art but dismayed by how it is perceived. But resilient and determined as ever, he is planning to make up for it with a statue commemorating pre-Columbian Indian life — a human figure 28 times life-size and five feet higher than the Statue of Liberty!
The Last Conquistador is a production of the Kitchen Sync Group, Inc./Valadez Media in association with Independent Television Service (ITVS), Latino Public Broadcasting, Native American Public Telecommunications, and KERA Dallas/Ft. Worth. Funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Sundance Documentary Fund, Humanities Texas and the New York State Council on the Arts.
About the filmmakers:
John J. Valadez
John Valadez has been producing and directing award-winning documentaries for PBS and CNN for the past 14 years. His credits include the critically acclaimed “Passin’ It On,” which aired on P.O.V in 1994. He also was a producer for three PBS series: Making Peace, Matters of Race, and Visiones: Latino Arts & Culture. He was a producer of “Beyond Brown” for PBS, and produced “High Stakes Testing” for CNN Presents. Valadez is currently working on two PBS projects: writing and directing the third hour of the four-hour series Latin Music USA and producing “The Head of Joaquin Murrieta.”
Valadez is a founding member of the New York City Chapter of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP). He is a Rockefeller Fellow and a PBS/CPB Producers Academy Fellow, and currently sits on the Board of Trustees of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. He has twice been a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow and is a graduate of the film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; Valadez lives in Warwick, N.Y.
This is Cristina Ibarra’s first feature documentary. For the past eight years, she has been making short films that have been seen on public television and in galleries, museums, schools and film festivals across the United States including at the Guggenheim Museum, Exit Art Gallery, and the Queens Museum. Her award-winning directorial debut, “Dirty Laundry: A Homemade Telenovela,” aired on the PBS series ColorVision. She has also produced interstitials for Latino Public Broadcasting, the New York International Latino Film Festival and fulana, a Latina multimedia collaborative. Some of her credits include “Grandma’s Hip Hop,” “Amnezac,” and “Wheels of Change.” Ibarra is a Rockefeller Fellow, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow and a CPB/PBS Producers Academy Fellow. She is a founding member of NALIP; fulana; and SubCine, the first Latino self-distribution collective. Ibarra, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., is currently developing two projects: a documentary entitled “Another Martha” and a feature film entitled “Love & Monster Trucks.”
Executive Producer: John J. Valadez
Producer/Director: John J. Valadez, Cristina Ibarra
Writer: John J. Valadez
Director of Photography: Elia Lyssy
Editor: Keiko Deguchi, Jean-Phillipe Boucicaut
Original Music: Richard Martinez
Running Time: 56:46
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