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El Paso airport statue draws increased scrutiny as part of national conversation

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Public outcries on racial issues have been on the rise with renewed questions around buildings and landmarks honoring Confederate soldiers. In El Paso, debate has rekindled about a statue honoring Spanish conquistadors.

Artist John Houser created a 36-foot statue  called “The Equestrian,” which was installed at El Paso International Airport. The statue originally was meant to honor the controversial Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate, but the El Paso City Council in 2003 opted to change the name to “The Equestrian” because of longstanding controversy surrounding Oñate and his brutal treatment of indigienous people in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

Las Cruces Public Schools decided this month to change the name of Oñate High School. In Albuquerque last month, a gunman shot and wounded a person who was protesting an Oñate statue. In El Paso, debate has picked up about the future of the airport statue. 

Frank G. Perez, a communications professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said Oñate was celebrated for centuries by many as part of a “fantasy heritage.” Perez and his UTEP colleague, Carlos F. Ortega, recently published the book “Deconstructing Eurocentric Tourism and Heritage Narratives in Mexican American Communities: Juan de Oñate as a West Texas Icon.” 

“Oñate helped bring Catholicism up through the north but he also killed people along the way,” Perez said. “As Oñate went north, they took supplies from the natives living in the region to protect them from cold weather that they would be encountering.”

Yolanda Leyva, an associate professor of history at UTEP, has been an outspoken opponent of the Oñate statue for years.

“If people could read history with an open mind, it would be helpful,” Leyva said. “Many feel afraid of the potential societal changes going on right now. I hope people will start to listen.

Leaders of the El Paso County Historical Society walk a fine line when discussing “The Equestrian” statue.

“In the case of Don Juan de Oñate, we would argue he is not worth celebrating, though he is worth understanding,” Historical Society President Melissa Hutson said. But a statement from Hutson and former society presidents Brad Cartwright and Robert Diaz said removing or demolishing the statue isn’t the right approach.

“Though statues are rarely effective in teaching history, they are themselves historical artifacts,” the statement said. The group also rejected arguments that removing statues is an attempt to erase history. saying “the history of Spanish colonization and Oñate’s role in it will not be erased by removing these statues from their current locations. Countless books, articles, and other media offer enlightened discussions of Spanish colonization and Oñate.”

Perez said removing statues and renaming streets and schools that honor Confederates or colonizers is only one step in better understanding history.

“Oñate had an impact and we can talk about him in a civil way, but he’s not a saint and he was found guilty of crimes against humanity,” he said. “I’d say get rid of statues, rename streets and schools, and also have a discourse around the brutality of conquistadors.”

Leyva said educators could make history more relevant for people by connecting it to the times we are living through. “We need to have people stop thinking of history as something outside of their experience,” she said.

Cover photo: The statue “The Equestrian” at El Paso International Airport was originally meant to depict Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate. (Michaela Román / El Paso Matters)

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Joe Rutland

Joe Rutland is a freelance journalist who lives in El Paso. He's a former assistant city editor with The El Paso Times and has worked for newspapers in Texas and Arizona as a reporter, columnist, and copy editor.

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