The El Paso Tribune - El Paso Texas Political Commentary
"Send Him Back to Hell!" Proclaimed the Opposition
November 5, 2003 - Martín Paredes
As expected and before a PBS television crew filming the spectacle, City Council’s time, yesterday was spent on the agony of the Oñate debate. After more than two hours of discussion and about 30 people holding signs reading “Oñate? My foot!” City Council voted to approve the expenditure of $713,189 to put the public spectacle that the Oñate statue has become at the airport. Before discussion started, Mayor Wardy read into the record a letter by Arturo Senclair, Tribal Governor of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo addressed to the Mayor. In the letter, Senclair avoids taking a firm position on this issue and instead leaves the ultimate responsibility to City Council. This letter is significant by what it does not say then by what it does say, because the argument used by those opposed to the Oñate statue on historical reasons attempted to portray a sense that the majority of the world’s indigenous populations are against the Oñate statue, yet in our own back yard, the Tigua’s, El Paso’s own indigenous population has official decided to stay out of the debate.

Senclair, in his letter writes, “the time for debate on the relative merits of the project has long passed”, in essence washing his hands of this issue. Jaime O. Perez who had added an agenda item demanding that the city not expend any more resources on this statue started the debate against the city’s involvement on this project. “Symbols.  They are a powerful thing.  Ask any American what he feels when he sees the American flag or the Statue of Liberty.  Ask any freedom loving human being what they feel about our Constitution and our Bill of Rights.  The twin towers were more than tall buildings.  They symbolized the economic achievement of our great country and therefore were the target of those that hate our freedoms and our success.”, stated Perez to the Council. Perez’ comments were followed by State Representative Norma Chavez who questioned the appropriateness of using public funds on an “insignificant footnote in history.” Chavez concluded that the city should not “immortalize a tyrant” and instead let the private sector fund the project should they want it. Petuche Gilbert, an Acoma Indian followed with comments describing the historical cruelty of Oñate to the Acoma people. Mike Rooney suggested that Council reexamine this issue since the original intent of placing the statue at Downtown was no longer on the discussion table.

Former Tigua Governor, Albert Avidrez stated that under his administration, the Tiguas in 1993 had opposed the concept of the Oñate statue but in essence supported the concept of the 12-travelers. Four speakers stood up in support of the Oñate statue’s placement at the Airport. Antonio Piña, Board President of the Twelve Travelers proudly proclaimed that the City of El Paso wholeheartedly supports the Oñate statue and as evidence he showed the results of a KDBC Internet poll which showed a response rate of 80% of those polled were in favor of locating the statue at the airport, while 15% didn’t even want it in El Paso. In his haste to manufacture public perception on his stance, Piña neglected to qualify his position by neglecting to add that the poll “is not scientific and reflects the opinions of only those Internet users who have voted. The results cannot be assumed to represent the opinions of Internet users in general or the public as a whole”, the disclaimer on the poll he proudly proclaimed that supported his contention. This further exemplifies the artsy-fartsy’s true agenda of further plundering the city’s resources in a mistaken belief that beautifying the city will somehow magically make the city some vibrant and exciting community. Restaurateur, Henry Jurado and Chairman of the Twelve Travelers Review Committee added that the project was 70% completed, that what the demonstrators are representing were a “minority of the true will” of El Paso. This led Mayor Wardy to challenge Jurado’s notion by stating that future projects “would be on your own dime”. The Mayor’s comments clearly betray the Mayor’s position that this issue was forced upon him by previous administrations, but that the public monies should not be spent this way.

Local historian Leon Metz was the next speaker to speak in support of the statue. In his comments, Leon spoke about the notion that history may not support the notion that Oñate was a cruel Conquistador. Metz, added “there is no shred of evidence” that Oñate may have cut some people’s feet off, as had been stated by the opponents of the statue earlier. Then, in a moment that left those in attendance dumbfounded, Metz speculated out loud as to why there was not any historical record of Oñate killing people, adding, “if he is cutting off feet he is trying to avoid killing people”. The audacity of that statement further supports the notion that those hoping to impose the Oñate statue just have no comprehension of the needs of this community and instead their only intention is to continue plundering the community in hopes of molding the city into some misguided façade of a vibrant, modern city molded after their own image. This short-sided, artsy-fartsy agenda needs to be challenged before any more public funds are spent in this escapade of illusion masking the true realities of the community. The city’s expenditure of millions of tax dollars to serve the Art community with the funding of both the statue and the Plaza Theater only serves a few in the community instead of the community as a whole. This must stop, as this community needs serious economic revitalization instead of fancy statues whose only purpose, it seems, is to mold the city after some self-gratification, self-indulgent illusion of grandeur.

After some clarification and discussion about the length of time this statue has taken and the perception that the artist may be milking the city for as much as he can, Council first voted on a motion made by Cobos, seconded by Lozano rejecting the proposal outright. Council voted against this on a 5 to 3 vote, with Lozano, Rojas and Cobos voting to kill this waste of public funds. Lozano then made a motion to postpone this discussion for four weeks. Cobos seconded the motion. The motion failed on a tie vote with Austin, Lozano, Rojas and Cobos voting for a postponement while the Mayor broke the tie forcing this motion to fail. Finally Power made the motion to approve the expenditure of funds with a second from Cook. The motion was amended by Austin who added language to make specific delivery dates for portions of the project and an amendment from Cushing dropping the “Oñate” reference from any portion of the statue. This led to a public admonition from a representative of the Twelve Travelers who stated that one of the largest benefactors, the McKee Foundation had stipulated in their donation of $390,000 that “Oñate” had to be included in the official name of the statue. This motion, with the amendments passed on a 4 to 3 vote, with Rojas abstaining.

Even though Council approved the expenditure, it is still unclear if the Oñate statue will ever be completed. This is because in the vote taken by Council removing the name Oñate from the statue is an apparent violation of a request from one of the largest contributors. At this time it appears that the McKee Foundation may demand their $390,000 back leaving the city with the possible potential of having to pay that money in order to complete the project.

On other City Council action yesterday, Council promptly turned around after the fiasco of the Oñate statue and imposed a higher fee to the community for using the Ambulance Service. On tie vote, broken by Mayor Wardy, the City raised the fee from $270 to $500 for the use of a City Ambulance. Although to the Council’s credit, they inherited the Oñate statue and the Plaza Theater, their action on these two items is hypocritical at best. On one had the city is raising fees to offset the expected shortfall for the next round of budget hearings while at the same time the Council is expending millions in supporting the short-sided agenda of the artsy-fartsy community. City priorities are certainly skewed when the city pays to build monuments while the city’s poor contemplates whether they should take that ambulance ride to the hospital. In the end, Oñate who by all accounts is despised by even his contemporaries gets a masterpiece built in his honor, while the city pays more to get a trip to the hospital. And we still have the temerity to wonder why there is such apathy in our city. Oñate will continue to live in infamy while El Paso will have the distinction of being the only city in the world to honor an “insignificant footnote in history” that by some accounts was first glorified by a local historian in search of fame by inventing a “thanksgiving” that probably never happened. If it weren’t so expensive this whole episode might even by funny, but the truth is that there is nothing funny to this, except maybe for Oñate who gets the last laugh, after all the city just spent a million dollars to glorify him! Hell, Oñate might even single-handedly put El Paso on the map, question is do we, as a city really want to be on the map for raising from the depths of hell a man who by most accounts should have remained there for eternity.
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