Airports & Horses: Jimenez & Hauser

Every time I drive to the El Paso airport I am startled by John Hauser's don Juan Oñate rearing up on an oversized Spanish mustang—“the world’s largest equestrian statue.” Hauser was into exact realism, so driving almost under the hooves of the thing, it’s impossible to ignore the mustang’s gargantuan package hanging like a wet dream gone terribly bad. What is that thing doing there? That’s a good question too. Public art, especially a piece of this enormity and expense, speaks about a city’s cultural vibes. El Paso has endured a 10-year-plus name-calling debate about this bronzed humongous conqueror. For a number of years the thing couldn’t find a home--nobody wanted it downtown, nobody wanted it on the river, nobody wanted it at City Hall--so the airport became the home of last resort. The debate teams had the usual suspects. On one side have been the conservatives (a buttoned-down assortment of Republicans, traditional Catholics, old-school and well-heeled Mexican-Americans, etcetera) and the other side is populated by the progressive community (a more vociferous hodgepodge that includes artists and intellectuals, the left side of Democratic Party, political activists, old-school Chicano activists, etcetera). This political and divisive history of Hauser’s statue has been documented in a number of places, including a long piece in the New York Times that as usual denigrates El Paso and a POV PBS documentary, The Last Conquistador. More important to the history of arts funding in El Paso and a critique of Hauser as an artist are Richard Baron’s articles, one of which is archived here at newspapertree.com (others are buried in archived pre-online fishwraps like The Bridge Review and Stanton Street).

And of course by now you can guess which side I’m on.

Sometimes when I see the Hauser I get angry. But when I’m lucky I laugh. El Paso got suckered again. Tom Diamond wiggled his finger and wagged his tongue and John Hauser patted the ricos on the back and smoothed their tail feathers and sweet green money slimed into their coffers by the millions. Why not? Oñate was a good Catholic boy, even if in 1599 he earned the nickname of “the Butcher at Acoma” for ordering the masacre at the pueblo, killing 800, enslaving 500 women and children, and cutting off the right foot of every remaining able-bodied man in the pueblo. Not to worry. He boasted pure Spanish blood.

Not like that Benito Juárez indio guy.

Not like that meztizo vato Pancho Villa.

I grew up in Memphis where huge statues of Confederate generals on horseback (Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest and others) dominated a number of public parks. Those pieces of public art left a bitter taste in my mouth. I didn’t have to be told what the underlying message of those statues of men on horseback meant—those guys were heroes because they fought to preserve slavery. So from the beginning I didn’t like the politics of the Oñate thing and I didn’t like how its funding was rammed through city council back in the 90s. Now that it’s done I don’t like it as a piece of art and I certainly don’t like the symbolism of having this huge statue of the Butcher at Acoma becoming part of our cultural landscape. I have a friend, poet Simon Ortiz of the Acoma Pueblo, who talks about how the dark shadow of Oñate and his butchery still reverberates through the oral history of his people’s language and stories.

In Denver a few weeks ago with Lee on business, I made sure I saw that city’s public art at their airport: the Blue Mustang by paseño Luis Jimenez (1940-2006) that has finally been installed. It had consumed much of the last years of Luis’ life and, with a final bit of irony, as he was working to finish the project the almost-finished head toppled over and killed him. As I approached the airport, I saw it from a half a mile away. Before the airport itself comes into view, the mustang rears up grandly on its hind legs out in the prairie, its mysterious red-orange eyes glowing in the cloudy dusk.

Luis grew up in El Paso in the 1940s and 50s. As a young man he left El Paso burdened with that rage that so many young Chicanos of his generation—especially the artists, the writers, the intellectuals—grew up with in their hearts and minds. El Paso is a Mexican city, a Mexican-American city, but the übercultur of his growing up was Anglo-American topped with a boring salsa of conservative Mexicano. The political structure, the banks, the big businesses—all were in the hands of the Anglo-Americans and a handful of rico Mexican-Americans. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the public school systems in the 40s and 50s. Spanish was not allowed. And kids in high school didn’t hear the Mexican history of El Paso, especially the stories of El Paso as the political and intellectual center for the early stages of the Mexican Revolution, they didn’t take field trips down to Monument Marker #1 to see where Francisco Madero crossed over the river to launch the historic revolution, and they didn’t learn about Pancho Villa living over in Sunset Heights, waiting for his return to Mexico. Instead, they learned about the Anglo-American history of the city and the state of Texas (the gun fighters, the Texas Rangers, the Alamo, etcetera). Artists and writers like Luis, Arturo Islas, John Rechy, Antonio Burciaga, Ricardo Sanchez and others realized early on that they had been deprived of their heritage and they learned to express their anger and resentment through their work.

Sometime in the early 80s I heard Luis speak at UTEP as a guest of the art department. Lee and I had moved to El Paso in 1978, but I knew Luis’ work from traveling from our home in Albuquerque to Santa Fe to see his cutouts, drawings and prints at the now defunct Hills Gallery. It was the first time since leaving El Paso (he was then over 40 and had received national acclaim) that he had been asked to speak in El Paso. His speech was hesitant at first, uncomfortable to be in El Paso, but, feeling the good reception of the standing-room only crowd, he warmed to the task as he showed slides of his work. Somewhere in the middle of the speech he started talking about his anger, and he spoke about how in the first part of the century the city government had outlawed the use of adobe as a building materials for homes. Adobe, of course, is the indigenous building material of the American Southwest. It’s a cheap material (you can make it yourself with the dirt in your backyard if you have the right dirt), and the result is buildings that, if properly maintained, can last forever. Indeed, the ambience of cultural boomtowns Taos and Santa Fe is rooted in adobe buildings. But the local power-brokers here made their anti-adobe law, and of course one of those helping to make the law was the local brick-maker. The story of bricks and adobe in El Paso was symbolic to Luis of his hometown, much like the stories of his and Hauser’s sculptures have become to me.

To take a picture of the Blue Mustang, I had to park the car illegally on the muddy shoulder of the road and run across the half-frozen ground to get close enough for a decent photo. I was happy to do it. Luis’ Blue Mustang is an incredibly potent piece of work, married perfectly into the landscape of the prairies to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west. It represents the power of the Western mythos in our national psyche. Horses, of course, were introduced on this continent by the Spanish, but it wasn’t long before they became the symbol of the indigenous horse cultures of the prairie Indians. By staying away from historical particulars, the Blue Mustang synthesizes many disparate parts of our history to give us a symbol of the American West.

So I get back home and go to the El Paso airport. There is don Juan Oñate riding through the parking lot on his over-sized Spanish mustang. Even in its enormous presence it seems inconsequential. I can’t help it—I remember myself five-years-old playing with toys and realize this thing is like a blow-up of those little pot metal Indians and cowboys I used to play with. The Indians were on one side, the cowboys on the other. The cowboys were always rearing up and shooting their guns, the Indians were slinking down behind their little horses, they were running away. That hokey scene. Except that hokey scene speaks about one people’s conquering and domination of another people. It’s a complicated history that should contemplated and discussed, especially in classrooms, but it’s certainly not a history that should be romanticized with a monstrous and well-hung macho statue.

Oh well. Hauser’s Oñate has become a fact of life for us here in El Paso. It’s not going to come down. Still, I have a secret wish.

I wish we could cut off Oñate’s right foot. Not in the dead of night. No, I want to have a huge ceremony and invite the Governor of Acoma to El Paso. I want to invite Simon Ortiz to write and read a poem for the occasion. A poem that will honor the dead of Acoma, a poem that will honor the history of the pueblo peoples, a poem that will honor the land we live on, a poem that will honor our common future. After Simon has read his poem and we all have tears in our eyes, I want the mayor of El Paso to give the Governor of Acoma a large blowtorch and I want him to cut off the statue’s right foot. I want it to fall thud to the ground amid cheers and sadness and prayers. Then I want a powwow to begin. Maybe we can call it “Cutting Off the Butcher’s Foot Powwow.” Or maybe we can call it the “Asking for Forgiveness Powwow.” We’ll figure out something. The important thing is that we invite all the Fancy Dancers, the Traditional Dancers, the Grass Dancers, the drummers and the singers—the drums will pound and the songs will wail at the moon and the beating of feet will pound into the desert night. Vendors will be selling snow cones and churros and elotes, tacos and hamburgers and sodas and Oñate piñatas. No booze, no dope. Those are the rules. That’s because all of the Kachinas and the holy clowns will be there, watching us. Our Lady of Guadalupe too. She’ll be wearing cowboy boots and a big smile. We’ll invite Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed. They'll be hanging out in the shadows, mumbling about the uselessness of words. At midnight, holding hands and dancing around the circle, the big drums still pounding, we will melt the Spaniard’s foot. The molten bronze will seep steaming into a cauldron.

Hauser, like Sisyphus doing his existential but very sacred chore of pushing the rock up the hill, will recast and re-attach the foot so that the next year we can re-enact the ceremony. He will be well-paid and he will have a studio to work on other projects. The festival will become a huge annual fair. El Paso will become known as the City of Forgiveness. The federal government will tear down its ugly fence, the drug war will become history and peace will be declared in Juárez.

I wish.


Richard Baron said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Richard Baron said...

Nice piece, Bobby. Thanks.

Although it's largely being kept under the radar, I have been told that Houser is already working on his next irrelevant statue for El Paso, one of Susan Magoffin, yet another Anglo who never did anything for El Paso but pass through it. It is being supported by the El Paso Community Foundation and its founder Janice W. Windle who wrote about pioneer Texas women and includes a chapter on Magoffin, but we can be certain that more El Paso tax money, money that could be used to support far more relevant public arts pieces, is going to go to Houser. Nobody in the world except Windle could care less about Susan Magoffin and there is no reason why El Paso should be supporting this endeavor. El Paso has no obligation to the continued pursuit of the 12 Travelers or of John Houser's career.

It would be nice if there could be some organized opposition to any public funding of Houser's 3rd travesty against the citizens of El Chuco.

Richard Baron
Santa Fe

Helen Marshall said...

Bobby, could you provide a reference of some kind in your next post about the anti-adobe legislation, I never heard of that and would like to know more...immediate search on line just brings up your piece! Sito has already provided us with the anti-marijuana legislation of a century ago, fueled by fear of Revolutionary Mexicans. Thank you.

Helen Marshall
El Paso

Bobby Byrd said...

Miguel Juarez, an arts and politcal activist in El Paso, sent out an email with this note from Roberto Calderon. It links to an article in the Wall Street Journal about a rumble of local dissatisfaction in Denver about the Blue Mustang--

LUIS JIMENEZ (1940-2006): One of the late great Chicano sculptor's giant art installations at the Denver International Airport (DIA), which he called Mustang / Mesteño, is causing some in the Mile High City to organize to take it down, move it, away from the public's consciousness or from such a public place. Presumably the sculpture of the blue horse would be moved to a less public locale. There are those in Denver who are standing up for the view of leaving the horse just where it is, thank you. The slide series available if you click on the Wall Street Journal link below and follow its thread shows dramatic fotos of the horse in question, great and dramatic art it is. Commissioned in 1992 (or 1993 depending on the source) by the DIA as a would-be "symbol of Denver and the West," the 65-year-old Jiménez died in an accident suffered while working on this sculpture in 2006. At a cost to the City of Denver of $650,000, the 32-foot tall fiberglass sculpture of the blue horse was finally finished with the intervention of Jiménez's widow and children. Its eventual completion led to its being installed toward the front entrance of the DIA in February 2008. This was apparently the tallest sculpture ever made by Jiménez in his long artistic career.

I have copied some photos and text from the City of Denver's Public Art Program Web site following the WSJ article for you to get a close-up view of the sculpture which Jiménez called as noted above, Mustang / Mesteño.

I recall that during the year I spent teaching at the University of Texas at San Antonio, at the North Campus location, there was a beautiful sculpture by Luis Jiménez, with its amazing colors, angles, looks, shines, shadows, and its massive size, the works. He called it "Border Crossing." It is the one of the indigenous looking man and woman, mexicanos, wherein the man is carrying the woman on his back over the sometimes dangerous shallows of the Rio Bravo, riding his back, agarrado del cuello uno del otro y el hombre dando pasos hacia adelante su frente hacia abajo, sobre la tarea. While the direction implied is north, claro, and the sculpture was located so that its representative Mexican figures DID face north, their movement could have been in either direction. This was one of the greatest pleasures I had that year, having my frequent walks and looks by, with, and along this particular Jimenez art installation which was on loan, I believe, to UTSA, and I don't know if it is still there today. See the foto of the "Border Crossing" sculpture I've included below from the sculptor's Wikipedia site.

Que viva el caballo azul--el Mustang / Mesteño--de Luis Jiménez! Que bastante trabajo y su vida propia le costo aunque no lo haya querido que asi fuera. Adelante!

Roberto R. Calderón
Historia Chicana [Historia]

butch said...

A thrilling report, Bobby. Thanks for the opportunity for those of us who live elsewhere ( I live in the Pacific Northwest) to share in your concerns, insights, and heart-felt projections. Even when you write prose, like Joy Harjo, like Sherman Alexie, you are still writing poetry. I love your writing and your spirit. I stumbled onto your blog site while looking into Keith Wilson's demise, and look forward to being a regular visitor. My blog, FEEL FREE TO READ, is over at

I would love to attend your Festival of Foregiveness Pow Wow.
Maybe we could get some other Native American poets there too. and throw in Barrack Obama alongside Jesus, Mohammad, and Buddha, enit?



Glenn Ingersoll said...

Bobby, I appreciate your perspective on the fire-eyed blue mustang. I'd heard of it and the people it bothers and seeing a picture thought the horse intimidating. The more I read your post the more I liked the idea of it being intimidating.

Helen Marshall said...

A comment on the El Paso Times story about the next travesty, Susan Magoffin, says it all: it looks like a giant Mrs. Butterworth syrup bottle. And for this $100,000?????