Statues of Limitations

Should El Paso honor John Wesley Hardin, Pancho Villa, and other icons of the Wild West with bronze likenesses? Not everyone thinks so.

IT’S INTENDED TO BE THE CORNERSTONE of El Paso’s future tourism campaigns and an urban-renewal project that will increase the downtown tax base. So as public statuary programs go, you’d think the XII Travelers Memorial of the Southwest, a series of bronze likenesses of regional historical figures, would be a no-brainer. Not so fast. Ever since the city council—appointed committee that recommends candidates for statues started tossing around names like Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and gunfighter John Wesley Hardin, El Pasoans have been at war over their history—specifically, which version of their history they ought to present: The real El Paso, a Wild West town of blazing six-shooters and boozy nights at Rosa’s cantina or an uplifting, sanitized gateway to middle America.

When it was proposed ten years ago by local sculptor John Houser, the XII Travelers project was received warmly by city fathers, who budgeted $1 million and sought additional funding from private donors (each statue was expected to cost from $100,000 to $300,000). Four years and considerable red tape later, Houser signed a contract with the city. In 1994 he began the first statue, a fourteen-foot Fray García de San Francisco, who settled the area in 1659 by establishing a mission at El Paso del Norte, the Pass of the North; it was dedicated in September 1996 at the head of El Paso Street, in Pioneer Square. Houser then turned his attention to Don Juan de Oñate, who, in 1598, forded the Rio Grande—holding, according to lore, the real first Thanksgiving—on his way to colonizing New Mexico. The huge statue of Oñate on a horse was supposed to be unveiled across El Paso Street from Fray García at the city’s Quadricentennial Celebration in late April, but it won’t be ready until September (and may be so heavy it will have to be installed elsewhere, because the ground may not be able to bear it).

Surprisingly, there was only mild objection to the selection of Oñate, whose barbarous acts included severing the legs of adult Indian males to prevent insurrection (indeed, in January of this year, as Houser worked on his statue, Native Americans sawed a leg off a bronze statue of Oñate in Espanola, New Mexico). The same could not be said, however, of several other suggestions. Last September, Southwestern historian Leon Metz, who currently chairs the statue selection committee, submitted to the city council a list of ten names that would, in effect, lock up the series. Similar lists had been offered by previous committee chairs and included many of the same names: Cabeza de Vaca, the first European to explore the American South from Florida to West Texas; popular Mexican president Benito Juárez; and Anson Mills, who platted El Paso. But Metz’s list also included Hardin, who was shot dead and buried in El Paso, and Pancho Villa, who temporarily based himself in the Juárez—El Paso area. While those names had come up often in previous discussions, they had never been formally submitted. “We did a full list so that people could raise money for the remaining statues and the controversies could end about who would get one,” Metz explains. “We wound up having a council meeting that definitely got testy.” The El Paso Times weighed in strongly against Villa and Hardin, as did many El Pasoans. The council instructed the selection committee to “rethink” its list, which Metz interpreted as orders to delete Hardin and Villa.

Pancho Villa?” says city council member Stan Roberts. “A guy who for all practical purposes invaded the United States to go into Columbus, New Mexico, and kill a bunch of people? No way.”

Metz counters that the council is buckling under to a small portion of the public that is pushing its own candidates, including more women, more blacks, a Chinese American, and more civic leaders. And anyway, he says, the city has always been ashamed of its Wild West past. “This is a very politically correct council, but you can’t be politically correct when you’re dealing with history,” he insists. “You cannot write a history of El Paso without discussing individuals like Hardin and Villa—good, bad, whatever. And you can’t do a project like this without them.” Houser, a committed centrist who simply wants to finish the final ten statues, agrees. “We’re dealing with history,” he says. “We’re not dealing with virtue.”

There’s also an economic argument: Metz contends that Villa and Hardin make the most sense for tourism, which is, after all, why the XII Travelers project was approved in the first place. “Suppose you’ve got statues of Anson Mills, Pancho Villa, and John Wesley Hardin,” he says. “Which ones will the tourists want to stand in front of to have their pictures taken? Hardin and Villa are the only subjects most people have even heard of.”

El Paso mayor Carlos M. Ramirez, who shrugs off the testy city council meeting as a good night for the First Amendment, says any full lists the council has received are “rough drafts” from which Travelers will be chosen one at a time. (Houser confirms that that’s the procedure written in his contract; Metz, who sees it as a delay tactic, says he had understood his committee should be producing a full list.) That means the responsibility for future decisions will be spread around. With statues going up about every two years, the next nine will be chosen by an array of selection committees and taxpayers—a buck passer’s dream.

For now, only two things are certain. One is the choice for the third statue: James Magoffin, an early entrepreneur and politician, and his sister-in-law, Susan Shelby Magoffin, who was known for her diary of life on the Santa Fe Trail. The other is the up-in-the-air status of would-be honorees like John Wesley Hardin. “Is he gonna get a statue? Perhaps,” Mayor Ramirez says cagily. “Are we at that point now? No.”

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