"The Equestrian" Story

The Equestrian Story Sculptor John Sherrill Houser proposed The XII Memorial of the Southwest (in honor of Texas artist Tom Lea) as a downtown revitalization project for the city of El Paso in 1988. The Equestrian is the second in the series of twelve monuments constituting a sculpture walk through 375 years of history at the Pass of the North – the historic ford across the Rio Grande between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua (Mexico). The concept of the memorial is unique in that it celebrates cultural diversity and represents real men and women, not heroes (see list of travelers under information, website); with each monument standing as an icon for a particular period of historic development. The Equestrian depicts the colonizer, Don Juan de Onate, on a rearing Andalusian stallion, with la toma in one hand, (as he might have appeared when he first arrived at El Paso del Norte) and represents the Spanish colonial era of the Southwest, 1598 to 1680. Onate arrived at The Pass in 1598 with 500 colonists (men, women and children), 7,000 animals and an escort of soldiers -- including Tlascalan Indians. They were en-route to Spain’s northern province of Nuevo Mexico. It was an ill-fated venture that left a tragic stain on the history of the region (involving war against Acoma Pueblo, followed by a brutal decree of mutilation and slavery). But the expedition also founded the Camino Real, introduced the horse and Hispanic culture (the Catholic religion, language and customs), creating an indelible cultural legacy that, with Native American traditions, gave birth to the unique Southwest we know today. Continuing mistreatment of the native population, however, precipitated the Pueblo Rebellion in 1680 and the Spaniards were expelled from New Mexico for seven years. Onate was selected by the city of El Paso for the second XII Travelers monument in 1997 and the work began. The sculptor’s small model (maquette) was enlarged in Mexico City by John, his team and Associate Sculptor Taliesin Houser (John's son), who contributed to the overall modeling but also designed and executed much of the ornamental detail. The plaster enlargement took nine years to complete. It was a period of struggle and unexpected adversity. Meanwhile some saw the work, not as a commemoration of history, but as the glorification of an infamous individual. The developing controversy attracted the international press, including PBS (see The Last Conquistador), eventually causing the city council to rename the monument The Equestrian, out of deference to Native American sensitivities, and remove 88 years of history from its base. The small model (maquette) for the colossal sculpture was enlarged by a factor of 13 (2,000 times by volume) to over 4 ½ times life-size. More than 500 molds were trucked from Mexico City to Shidoni Foundry in Santa Fe, New Mexico for casting. The bronze pieces were then transported to Eagle Bronze Foundry in Lander, Wyoming for assembly and finishing, after which the giant, welded sections were taken to the El Paso International Airport for installation. The rearing horse with rider stands 36-feet high and is 20-feet, 8-inches from chest to rump -- making it the world’s largest equestrian bronze. The monument weighs 16 tons and is built to withstand winds of 150 mph. It cost over two million dollars of which the volunteer XII Travelers Executive Board raised 62% and the airport paid the remainder from private revenue. The completed work contains zero dollars of public tax money and represents a sustained effort by citizens of El Paso del Norte. The Equestrian, protested by members of Acoma Pueblo, was dedicated on April 23, 2007 in a tri-national ceremony, attended by representatives from three nations (Spain, Mexico and the United States).