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 Texas : Feature : Columns : "They shoe horses, don't they?"


The World's Largest Blue Horse as White Elephant

"The Equestrian"

El Paso, Texas

by Brewster Hudspeth
Note: "Plutoed" is a recent dictionary entry meaning "unceremoniously relegated to a lower position," as in the demotion of the former planet Pluto. "Plutoed" was named word of the year for 2006 by the American Dialect Association.

Gauchupine Grande

Don Juan de Oņate, (AKA) Juan de Oņate y Salazar was to be the official name for this gargantuan statue that now stands outside El Paso's airport. Instead, it is slowly becoming known simply as "The Equestrian." A noble name, yes - but too generic for such a titanic work.

Since the name Juan de Oņate y Salazar rolls off the tongue, Juan would probably be on the fast track to household-name-recognition by now, if it wasn't for some pesky historical research and vandalism to another statue in New Mexico that bears Juan's name.

Juan de O y S had been a Spanish conquistador and explorer. His explorations in the New World extended from modern-day Kansas to Baja California - but he is best remembered in the Southwest as being the region's colonial governor for what was then New Spain. The term "gauchupine" is a mild pejorative noun applied to non-Mexicans from Spain. The name means "one who wears spurs." Americans might've become gauchupines - but the Spanish got there first so we got stuck with "gringos." If you look closely at the photo - you will see that the sculptor included spurs.
Equestrian statue in El Paso Texas
"The Equestrian"
(formerly known as Don Juan de Oņate)

Sculptor: John Houser
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, January 2007
Why is Juan de Oņate y Salazar famous?
Because it is believed that the VERY FIRST Thanksgiving in the New World, was celebrated under Juan's authority. The date is unknown, but it is believed to have been held some twenty years prior to the slightly more well-known feast held in New England.

When this up-staging factoid was brought up in the 1990s (and who in the Southwest can resist a chance to upstage New Englanders?) a statue was immediately proposed. It was the proverbial "slam-dunk" crowd pleaser. After all, Juan was an explorer and he even had a hand in the founding of present-day Santa Fe. Furthermore, he was a big man, he rode horses and he wore one of those round, pointy, metal hats - a shoe-in for bronze immortality.

But when someone started looking into Juan's past, what they found didn't exactly describe a benevolent Spaniard passing the green bean cassarole to native guests. Juan's tenure as a New World governor had gotten off to a rocky start. Juan, like many colonial governors, found the natives of his assigned province revolting. This wasn't merely class distinction - I mean to say that the natives were literally having a rebellion. It was quashed immediately - but in a brutal manner. How brutal? Brutal enough for Juan to be relieved as governor in 1609 and tried on charges of misconduct. His "alleged" cruelty (including cutting the feet off of subjects who misbehaved) extended to non-native colonists as well. That may have been what led to his recall.

After a trial in 1614, Juan was banished from New Spain (much to the delight of his former peons). He was granted a pardon in the mid 1620s - just about the time the Pilgrims were eating turkey and not cutting the feet off of their Native-American neighbors. Back in Spain, the pardoned Juan was given a bureaucratic position as inspector of mines - or some such office and died there in 1626. In some circles he is still known as "The Last Conquistador" - for what that's worth.

While Mr. Oņate y Salazar's descendants can still claim this beautiful statue as representing one of their kith and kin, the El Paso statue will officially be known as "The Equestrian." The unveiling of the statue was set to be in the Spring of 2007. Installation was quietly completed October 25th 2006. Instead of becoming synonymous with the birthplace of the VERY FIRST Thanksgiving in the New World, El Paso has inherited what Roadside America has described as "a giant, unofficial statue of an anonymous guy on a horse. "But it is my hope that it is appreciated as a beautiful statue of "an anonymous guy on a horse."

The giant statue may be the first in Texas to honor Juan, but it isn't the first in the U.S. A statue by sculptor Reynaldo Rivera was erected in 1991 at the Oņate Monument Visitors Center in New Mexico to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Juan's arrival. The statue later had a leg "amputated" by political-vandals who knew of Juan's cruel streak - and supposedly left a note saying "Fair is Fair." Although the leg was recast and welded in place, the seam is visible. A true footnote to history.

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Mexico's Anonymous Horseman
While we're on the subject of unknown men on horseback, I came upon another in downtown Mexico City. This one is supposedly of King Carlos V (aka Charles I) of Spain. According to the legend I was told by my Mexican guide, this statue dates from the reign of President and/or Dictator Porfirio Diaz. Diaz was "progressive" and wanted Mexico's capital to look as European as possible. In his quest to Europeanize, Diaz wasn't going to let petty things like geography or oceans stand in his way. Massive stone buildings were commissioned in the French style and Mexican architects and stonemasons bravely put aside their native inclination toward pyramidal designs. These efforts resulted in some of Mexico's most beautiful buildings (still standing today). Still, there was something lacking in Diaz' Districa Federal. Diaz might have simply asked the city's pigeon population, but it didn't occur to him. Realization had to wait for a rainy day when Diaz was looking through his European postcard collection. Suddenly it hit him. Mexico City had no statues. Or as the French would say: It was sans statues. A select statue-purchasing committee was quickly formed of men who Diaz owed favors to and was dispatched to Paris to buy as many equestrian statues as their pesos could buy. Arriving on a Friday night in Paris, (guide Lalo certainly knew the details), the delegation may have failed to allow for franc-peso fluctuations. More likely, they simply blew the bulk of the money on wine, women and song. The ugly truth was that when Monday morning (Lundi matin) came around, the committee found themselves in front of the foundry counting their centimes.They had about 30% of what they needed for even a single statue. Their wrinkled and wadded absinthe-soaked banknotes wouldn't even buy a statue of Napoleon on a Shetland pony.

As luck would have it, just at the very moment they were deciding between joining the Foreign Legion or having another few hours on the town before jumping off the Effiel Tower, an equestrian statue was being uncrated before their very eyes. According to Lalo's (increasingly-hard-to-believe) story, the horse and rider were being returned from some recently-overthrown African colony for the scrap value of the metal. Foundries are always reluctant to melt down their handiwork and since no one in Mexico knew what Carlos the V looked like - a deal was struck. The heavily-discounted, dented and blood-stained statue was crated and shipped to Mexico. The committee even had enough left over for another hour and a half of merriment in Monmartre (or twenty minutes in Place Pigalle) according to Lalo.

After a refreshing sea voyage, the the committee arrived in Veracruz where they spent a few days with relatives before returned to Mexico City where they were greeted much like government employees returning from a trip. The unvieling was announced and on a day that everyone (but Lalo) has forgotten, the statue of some former French or Belgian governor was unvieled as Carlos V. At least that's Lalo's story. I asked him why Mexicans would want a statue of a Spanish King and Lalo simply shrugged and mentioned that there was once a candy bar that bore his name.
"...and the horse he rode in on!"

If I'm not already beating a bronze horse, I'd like to close this long-winded story with the rest of what I know about equestrian statues. I was told (not by Lalo) that there was once were guidelines for sculptors working with equestrian statues. According to these guidelines, if the horse was cast with one front leg in the air - it signified that the rider had been wounded in battle. The horse rearing on his two hind legs meant the rider had died in battle or as a result of wounds received in battle, and when the horse had all four hooves on the ground meant the rider had died of "natural causes" or had become a politician (frequently the same thing). Both hind legs in the air (quite rare) usually denote a statue to a circus performer or a novice cowboy.

- Brewster Hudspeth

"They shoe horses, don't they?"
1-8-07 Column
Š John Troesser
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Photographer's Note: While leaving the air port, there was this huge horseman statue at the entry. was in the wrong lane and couldn't line up for a shot. I literally stuck the camera out the window, pointed it backwards in the general direction of the statute and shot... Turns out it is the largest equestrian statue in the world, topping 42'. Originally it was to be of Don Juan de Onate. But he has recently been demoted because of his cruelty to the Indians and Mexicans. The statue is now simply 'The Equestrian.' - Barclay Gibson, January 01, 2007
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