In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin, observing the degree to which history is written by the rulers, called for a new form of narrating the past that would “brush history against the grain,” in essence a history from below. I found myself thinking about Benjamin often as I was watching The Last Conquistador, a new documentary by John J. Valadez and Cristina Ibarra, that depicts the controversy that arose when the city of El Paso approved the construction of a giant bronze statue commemorating Juan de Oñate, a sixteenth century conquistador who brutally killed hundreds of Native Americans. The statue is intended by its creator, John Hauser, to be a part of a larger twelve-piece project commemorating the history of El Paso, one that would serve not only as a tourist attraction but that could also provide residents with a better sense of their past (at one point he refers to public art as a “project of history”). However, as Hauser quickly discovered, such commemorative histories run the risk of obscuring what one Native American woman refers to as “generation after generation of grief” at the violence and genocide associated with the colonial project.
When Hasuer first embarks on making the statue, he sees it as a means of remembering an important figure from El Paso’s past, and he is able to glean support not only from a city council hoping to promote tourism but also from the town’s elders, many of whom are white. While some are aware of Oñate’s brutal history, others choose to diminish his legacy, emphasizing the fact that the colonial era had a far different moral code. The Last Conquistador, which will be broadcast on P.O.V. on July 15, takes care to remind viewers about the atrocities committed by Oñate, who killed over 800 Acoma (Pueblo) Indians and had all of the surviving women and children sold into slavery. He also decreed that his soldiers amputate the left foot of every Acoma man over the age of 25, actions that hardly seem to be worth commemorating, particularly in a 42-foot tall statue of a man on a rearing horse, the largest equestrian bronze in the world according to Wikipedia.
But the film is also careful to provide us with a fairly sympathetic of the sculptor who designed the statue, John Sherrill Hauser, who is clearly committed to the social role of public art. His father worked as an assistant carver on Mt. Rushmore, and he felt that he had inherited a sense of the power of public art in bringing history to life. And as fate would have it, Hauser develops glaucoma over the course of building the statue and realizes that he may never see the complete version of his work. In addition, Hasuer gradually begins to realize the wounds that a statue of Oñate might open up, and he is even willing to engage with the Native Americans who are offended by the statue at a public lecture. The artistic drive that motivates Hasuer is fascinating to watch, and his moments of self-criticism seemed genuine. By humanizing Hauser in this way, Valadez and Ibarra show the complications involved whenever we seek to memorialize the past. Even though Hauser’s intentions may have been quite good, he helps to perpetuate the moral “blindness” that he diagnoses in the past.
I’ll admit that I knew little about Oñate before seeing this film and absolutely nothing about the controversy over the statue, a debate that clearly crossed class and ethnic lines, as we see in several scenes that contrast the city’s wealthy elite and its working poor. But the primary question that the film introduces, without fully answering, is the role of public art. It is no doubt true that we need to remember our past and that public art can provide a means of doing that, but the biggest challenge comes in narrating that history in such a way that we understand the complexity of our history and its legacy in the present moment.