The Last Conquistador

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.

5 Comments »

  1. Tommy Romero Said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

    I have not seen this film yet, but I am very interested in seeing it when it airs locally on the last day of July. I am a product of Onate’s expedition. I live a few miles away from where he ultimately settled, about 30 miles north of present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico. As I write this, the closest city to me (the city of Espanola), is celebrating their annual fiestas, which commemorate the arrival of Onate on July 11th, 1598. Most of the Hispanics in this area, including myself, are direct descendants of the settlers that came with Onate. Many Hispanics here, including myself, are distant relatives of Onate. The city of Espanola is very small compared to El Paso, and it is flanked by two Native American Pueblos (none of which is Acoma), but I think Espanola and it’s neighboring Pueblos can teach others about acceptance and forgiveness. The Pueblos and Hispanics here live in harmony with each other. In fact, three of the surrounding Pueblo casinos (yes, we have casinos!) were major sponsors of this year’s fiestas! Also, the grand ball of the fiesta was held last night at the casino owned by the Pueblo formally known as San Juan, the very same Pueblo that Juan de Onate established his headquarters in back in 1598! Ironic isn’t it (or is it?)!

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

    You’re right to point out that this history is, indeed, very complicated. I certainly understand the objections that many Pueblos had to a statue honoring Onate, and yet the statue and (hopefully) the documentary have provoked an important discussion of his history.

  3. Tommy Romero Said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 9:49 pm

    You’re right about the statue. There is a vistors’ center here across the highway from where I live that is called the Onate Monument and Visitors Center, complete with a statue of Onate on horseback. The statue is life-size and, for the longest time, it was located behind the building, away from the highway. Anyway, in 1998, somebody cut off the statue’s right foot and it was never recovered. The statue was repaired and was moved to the front of the building, right next to the highway. Nothing has happened to the statue since then. Let’s see what the El Paso statue evokes from people in the long run…

  4. Chuck Said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 12:06 am

    Interesting. I’d imagine the public location of the El Paso statue will protect it to some degree from vandalism, but it’s clear that Onate continues to provoke incredibly strong reactions.

  5. Tommy Romero Said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 7:05 pm

    Chuck, I just thought I’d let you know I saw this film on Tuesday, the original air date (I don’t know why our local PBS station announced it’s airing on the last day of July). I thought it was interesting and a well made film, although I did find myself talking back to the T.V. on several occasions when I agreed or disagreed with some statement being made. Usually these statements were made by someone that was not Native American or Hispanic. I think it takes someone that is closely related to this contoversial history to put things into context by looking at the overall picture. For example, most people outside of New Mexico probably don’t know that the Pueblo people were successful in driving the Spanish out during the revolt of 1680. During this revolt, over 400 Spanish men, women, and children were killed by the Pueblos. The Spanish were able to re-establish themselves 12 years later in part because the Pueblos realized that the Spanish provided them protection from neighboring invading nomadic tribes. So, as you can see, throught this history, there have been many casualties on both sides, as well as the realization that both groups needed each other to some extent. I disagree with the statements that the Spanish purposely wanted to commit genocide. I think it was a matter of survival. The Spanish did what they thought they had to do to survive in a new land, just as John Smith and his followers, and the Pilgrims had to do what they had to do in this new land we now call America. Overall, it was a good film, although, I think the Spanish, in general, were portrayed in a darker light than they should have been.

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