John Valadez and Cristina Ibarra

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John Valadez and Cristina Ibarra

Outside of southwestern America and Mexico, the life of Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate is somewhat unknown.  The man commissioned by Spain in the 15th century to colonize and spread Catholicism in the area is seen by some as a conqueror or a hero--or ruthless destroyer by others.

When El Pasoan and filmmaker Cristina Ibarra, 35, read a New York Times article about the El Paso City Council approving money to erect a statue of conquistador (conqueror) Oñate, she knew she had a compelling project. 

Ibarra, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., was looking for something that would bring her back to her hometown and allow her to join forces with fellow filmmaker John Valadez, 38, who also had family in the area. The two engaged on a seven-year journey documenting the work of John Houser, the sculptor hired to craft a monument to Oñate, and the controversy surrounding the project in The Last Conquistador, which premiers on PBS’ P.O.V. later this month.

“I just had this question, this burning question: Why?” said Ibarra. “Why would El Paso spend all this money, all these public funds, to make this monument?”

For those unfamiliar with Oñate, he was a Spanish explorer who was contracted in 1595 by King Phillip II to colonize the region for Spain. Upon his arrival, he traveled through El Paso del Norte (The Pass of the North), which is now known as El Paso, Texas, near the Rio Grande, and followed the river north to what is now New Mexico. According to historical reports, Oñate established the first colony near San Juan Pueblo and became the first governor of the region, but brutally tortured and killed indigenous people in the process.

Looking for a way to revitalize the downtown area, the El Paso City Council originally commissioned the Twelve Travelers project in 1992 as a way to promote tourism and allow visitors to take a walk through history among various historical figures.

In 1997, the city council approved $275,000 for the Oñate project. Since then, the city council has commissioned a nonprofit organization to manage funding and oversight of the project, and approved $750,000 of revenue from the El Paso International Airport to fund the project instead of using of tax dollars.  According to Jody Schwartz, a member of the advisory board for the Twelve Travelers, the organization eventually raised the remaining $1.25 million to complete the monument privately.

Shortly thereafter, Houser began work on the Oñate project, completing it nearly ten years later in 2006.  Houser said the monument to Oñate, which is referred to as the largest bronze equestrian statue in the world standing at 36-feet and weighing 16 tons, was to honor the conquistador’s place in history.

“We never wanted to glorify anybody, that was never the idea,” Houser said, in a recent phone interview. “(The statues) were not selected to represent great men. Because who the hell is a great man anyway? Anybody you pick these days is going to have clay feet, but I wanted to select someone who was historically pertinent.”

Houser said he feared the meaning of his project would be misinterpreted--the Oñate sculpture is meant to be a part of a series of monuments; an accurate portrayal of an era marked by both Spanish and native American bloodshed.

“They are intended to be more like chapter headings for periods in history,” Houser said. “I think that idea has not gotten across yet.”

Yet Houser has his supporters, including the New Mexico Hispanic Culture Preservation League in Albuquerque. Conchita Lucero, president emeritus of the league, said the statue acknowledges Oñate’s contributions to southwest America and Hispanic history.

“We (Hispanic people) brought the first Europeans west of the Mississippi.  Don’t they deserve recognition?”  Lucero asked.  “I think (Oñate) has a place in history.”

But filmmakers Valadez and Ibarra, who each have both Spanish and Native American roots, feel that a dedication to historical events could have been done in a more appropriate way.

Protestors of the monument.  Photo credit: Valadez Media“How can two people look at the same thing, look at the same facts, look at the same history, look at the same reality and see two completely different things?” Valadez asks.  “To me that’s really interesting and it’s terribly frightening because on all sides they are people of good will.”

“They chose to depict the triumphant Oñate who is going to conquer Indian people,” Valadez added.

Mauris Chino of Acoma Pueblo, who protested the creation of the statue from the start and is interviewed in the film, also questioned why so much reverence was given to a war criminal who was perpetually banished from New Mexico. 

“It really shows the underlying racism in that state,” Chino said. “With political power and money they can do whatever they want.”

Although the film will air as part of PBS’s P.O.V. (Point-of-View) series and both producers have their opinions, Ibarra and Valadez say their film provides views from all sides of the controversy.

But while there are several inclusive voices, it hasn’t stopped Native Americans, Mexican-Americans and the New Mexico Hispanic Culture Preservation League from criticizing the film.

In a posting on the Culture Preservation League website, Lucero refers to the producers as “cons” and states that the film “shows great editing skills with deliberate attempts to bias.”

“The film was nothing like what we expected,” said Lucero, who had her organization pulled from the film’s sponsors list.

In a letter to filmmakers, P.O.V., congressional leaders, NAPT and other granters, an attorney for the New Mexico Hispanic Cultural Preservation League stated that the film fails to mention that Oñate was pardoned of cruelty charges by the king of Spain.

Simon Kilmurry, P.O.V. executive director, said that although he understands that this can be a very emotional issue for many people, he stands by the film.

“We actually appreciate the letter because that means people are giving consideration to the issue,” Kilmurry said.

John Houser working on his sculpture.  Photo credit: XII Travelers CommitteeThe filmmakers also say the documentary opens the doors for discussion for such touchy topics as poverty, racism and classism.

“Different people with different perspectives and from different sides of the issue will be together watching it,” Ibarra said.  “I think that’s really exciting because everyone is being asked to have an open mind.”

“(The film) is for people two, three, four, five generations from now so that they can understand that once upon a time this thing happened in El Paso and these are the reasons why so they can understand why this history transpired the way it did,” Valadez said.

Although there is some level of respect stemming from all sides, anger still lingers in El Paso. Despite the renaming of the statue in November 2003 to The Equestrian and moving the statue’s location near the airport, dozens of people showed up in protest at a dedication ceremony last spring, including many Mexican-Americans and Native Americans.

“I’m sorry that it has been interpreted the way it has been,” said Houser, who has spent various years living on reservations. “Although I can understand how that happened and I think that’s reasonable given the circumstances, I certainly did not intend to upset people--that was not my goal.”

While Ibarra and Valadez enjoyed the making of Conquistador, the two don’t have immediate plans to work on another film and will continue with their separate projects. Ibarra, director of PBS’ award-winning Dirty Laundry: A Homemade Telenovela that appeared on the ColorVision series, is currently working on a full-length feature film set on the U.S-Mexico border. Valadez, who lives in Warwick, N.Y., and has been producing for PBS and CNN for the past 14 years, is currently producing the third hour of PBS’ four-hour series Latin Music U.S.A., a history of Latin Music in the United States.

But they hope their work together will have a lasting effect in opening up the dialog of how historical events impact contemporary communities.

“We hope The Last Conquistador contributes to the awareness, not only the triumphs of history, but the failures, the tragedies and the humiliation,” the filmmakers said in a statement. “We believe that viewers must be trusted to examine historical and contemporary questions in all their complexity, including legacies of prejudice and discrimination, resilience and courage. This trust encourages people to develop ongoing civic conversations in their community and in the nation.”

by Zach Oliva

Outside of southwestern America and Mexico, the life of Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate is somewhat unknown.  The man commissioned by Spain in the 15th century to colonize and spread Catholicism in the area is seen by some as a conqueror or a hero--or ruthless destroyer by others.

When El Pasoan and filmmaker Cristina Ibarra, 35, read a New York Times article about the El Paso City Council approving money to erect a statue of conquistador (conqueror) Oñate, she knew she had a compelling project. 

Ibarra, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., was looking for something that would bring her back to her hometown and allow her to join forces with fellow filmmaker John Valadez, 38, who also had family in the area. The two engaged on a seven-year journey documenting the work of John Houser, the sculptor hired to craft a monument to Oñate, and the controversy surrounding the project in The Last Conquistador, which premiers on PBS’ P.O.V. later this month.

“I just had this question, this burning question: Why?” said Ibarra. “Why would El Paso spend all this money, all these public funds, to make this monument?”

For those unfamiliar with Oñate, he was a Spanish explorer who was contracted in 1595 by King Phillip II to colonize the region for Spain. Upon his arrival, he traveled through El Paso del Norte (The Pass of the North), which is now known as El Paso, Texas, near the Rio Grande, and followed the river north to what is now New Mexico. According to historical reports, Oñate established the first colony near San Juan Pueblo and became the first governor of the region, but brutally tortured and killed indigenous people in the process.

Looking for a way to revitalize the downtown area, the El Paso City Council originally commissioned the Twelve Travelers project in 1992 as a way to promote tourism and allow visitors to take a walk through history among various historical figures.

In 1997, the city council approved $275,000 for the Oñate project. Since then, the city council has commissioned a nonprofit organization to manage funding and oversight of the project, and approved $750,000 of revenue from the El Paso International Airport to fund the project instead of using of tax dollars.  According to Jody Schwartz, a member of the advisory board for the Twelve Travelers, the organization eventually raised the remaining $1.25 million to complete the monument privately.

Shortly thereafter, Houser began work on the Oñate project, completing it nearly ten years later in 2006.  Houser said the monument to Oñate, which is referred to as the largest bronze equestrian statue in the world standing at 36-feet and weighing 16 tons, was to honor the conquistador’s place in history.

“We never wanted to glorify anybody, that was never the idea,” Houser said, in a recent phone interview. “(The statues) were not selected to represent great men. Because who the hell is a great man anyway? Anybody you pick these days is going to have clay feet, but I wanted to select someone who was historically pertinent.”

Houser said he feared the meaning of his project would be misinterpreted--the Oñate sculpture is meant to be a part of a series of monuments; an accurate portrayal of an era marked by both Spanish and native American bloodshed.

“They are intended to be more like chapter headings for periods in history,” Houser said. “I think that idea has not gotten across yet.”

Yet Houser has his supporters, including the New Mexico Hispanic Culture Preservation League in Albuquerque. Conchita Lucero, president emeritus of the league, said the statue acknowledges Oñate’s contributions to southwest America and Hispanic history.

“We (Hispanic people) brought the first Europeans west of the Mississippi.  Don’t they deserve recognition?”  Lucero asked.  “I think (Oñate) has a place in history.”

But filmmakers Valadez and Ibarra, who each have both Spanish and Native American roots, feel that a dedication to historical events could have been done in a more appropriate way.

Protestors of the monument.  Photo credit: Valadez Media“How can two people look at the same thing, look at the same facts, look at the same history, look at the same reality and see two completely different things?” Valadez asks.  “To me that’s really interesting and it’s terribly frightening because on all sides they are people of good will.”

“They chose to depict the triumphant Oñate who is going to conquer Indian people,” Valadez added.

Mauris Chino of Acoma Pueblo, who protested the creation of the statue from the start and is interviewed in the film, also questioned why so much reverence was given to a war criminal who was perpetually banished from New Mexico. 

“It really shows the underlying racism in that state,” Chino said. “With political power and money they can do whatever they want.”

Although the film will air as part of PBS’s P.O.V. (Point-of-View) series and both producers have their opinions, Ibarra and Valadez say their film provides views from all sides of the controversy.

But while there are several inclusive voices, it hasn’t stopped Native Americans, Mexican-Americans and the New Mexico Hispanic Culture Preservation League from criticizing the film.

In a posting on the Culture Preservation League website, Lucero refers to the producers as “cons” and states that the film “shows great editing skills with deliberate attempts to bias.”

“The film was nothing like what we expected,” said Lucero, who had her organization pulled from the film’s sponsors list.

In a letter to filmmakers, P.O.V., congressional leaders, NAPT and other granters, an attorney for the New Mexico Hispanic Cultural Preservation League stated that the film fails to mention that Oñate was pardoned of cruelty charges by the king of Spain.

Simon Kilmurry, P.O.V. executive director, said that although he understands that this can be a very emotional issue for many people, he stands by the film.

“We actually appreciate the letter because that means people are giving consideration to the issue,” Kilmurry said.

John Houser working on his sculpture.  Photo credit: XII Travelers CommitteeThe filmmakers also say the documentary opens the doors for discussion for such touchy topics as poverty, racism and classism.

“Different people with different perspectives and from different sides of the issue will be together watching it,” Ibarra said.  “I think that’s really exciting because everyone is being asked to have an open mind.”

“(The film) is for people two, three, four, five generations from now so that they can understand that once upon a time this thing happened in El Paso and these are the reasons why so they can understand why this history transpired the way it did,” Valadez said.

Although there is some level of respect stemming from all sides, anger still lingers in El Paso. Despite the renaming of the statue in November 2003 to The Equestrian and moving the statue’s location near the airport, dozens of people showed up in protest at a dedication ceremony last spring, including many Mexican-Americans and Native Americans.

“I’m sorry that it has been interpreted the way it has been,” said Houser, who has spent various years living on reservations. “Although I can understand how that happened and I think that’s reasonable given the circumstances, I certainly did not intend to upset people--that was not my goal.”

While Ibarra and Valadez enjoyed the making of Conquistador, the two don’t have immediate plans to work on another film and will continue with their separate projects. Ibarra, director of PBS’ award-winning Dirty Laundry: A Homemade Telenovela that appeared on the ColorVision series, is currently working on a full-length feature film set on the U.S-Mexico border. Valadez, who lives in Warwick, N.Y., and has been producing for PBS and CNN for the past 14 years, is currently producing the third hour of PBS’ four-hour series Latin Music U.S.A., a history of Latin Music in the United States.

But they hope their work together will have a lasting effect in opening up the dialog of how historical events impact contemporary communities.

“We hope The Last Conquistador contributes to the awareness, not only the triumphs of history, but the failures, the tragedies and the humiliation,” the filmmakers said in a statement. “We believe that viewers must be trusted to examine historical and contemporary questions in all their complexity, including legacies of prejudice and discrimination, resilience and courage. This trust encourages people to develop ongoing civic conversations in their community and in the nation.”

by Zach Oliva

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