Column: Controversy over statue in El Paso

"El Paso is the true gateway to the modern American West. Lewis and Clark may have been the first Anglo Americans to explore the vast area between the Mississippi and the Pacific, but two centuries earlier, Juan de Onate, born in New Spain, forded the Rio Grande at El Paso on his way north to establish the first Hispanic settlement in what is today the Western United States.

Last Saturday afternoon, St. Patrick's Day, I found myself outside the El Paso airport marveling at a magnificent bronze statue of the man historian Marc Simmons has called "the Last Conquistador." At 36 feet tall and 34,000 pounds, the sculpture of Onate, atop a rearing Andalusian, is a fitting symbol of a city that's played a critical role in American history. Just as New York has its Statue of Liberty and St. Louis its Gateway Arch, El Paso now has its proud symbol of its role as a gateway. Or does it?

When organizers officially unveil the world's largest equestrian statue late next month — the very time of year when O–ate and his band of 500-odd settlers entered the region — it won't carry the explorer's name. Four years ago, in an attempt to quash the project, Native American activists successfully persuaded the El Paso City Council to name the statue "The Equestrian." It seems ironic that in an overwhelmingly Mexican American town (80%), the city council is so willing to cave to pressure and paper over its Spanish colonial origins.

The Native American activists who demanded that Onate's name be withdrawn argued that he was a brutal conqueror. And no one disagrees with them. From almost the beginning, New Mexico, the site of Onate's settlement, was a disappointment to the Spaniards, and not long after they arrived, disgruntled and mutinous soldiers began to prey on the local Pueblo Indians."

Get the Story:
Gregory Rodriguez: El Paso confronts its messy past (The Los Angeles Times 3/25)