History 1301: First Essay: The Last Conquistador

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For this first long response, you will watch the documentary “The Last Conquistador” and answer several questions about the film. I will expect you to quote three times from the film – that is, quote three different people featured in the film and what they had to say about the controversy. Your responses should be detailed, accurate, and show a depth of analysis – I want to know what you thought about what you watched.

Here is a link to the film ”The Last Conquistador” on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5P7ZP1iuXI&t=1746s

In his 2008 PBS documentary “The Last Conquistador,” director John Valadez addresses how history is represented and memorialized, and who has “control” of telling that history, particularly through the use of statues of historical figures.

We have certainly since this recently in the debates over the removal of Confederate memorials around the South, as well as monuments to other controversial historical figures, as people re-examine what these statues really mean and what message they present to us today. Watch these news clips for a quick review:



In this debate, we are examining the reasons why most of these Confederate memorials were erected in the first place (really as a proclamation of white supremacy in the Jim Crow era of the late 1890s and the civil rights era of the 1950s). And many communities are determining now is the time for a change.
El Paso has a couple of memorials to the Confederacy (including Robert E. Lee Elementary School, which the school board is now changing), but we also have our own local statue of a controversial – and disputed – figure from our past. The film “The Last Conquistador” examines the controversy that arose over this statue of Don Juan de Oñate – the supposed last Spanish conqueror of New Mexico – built and ultimately erected in front of the El Paso International Airport in the 1990s by artist John Houser.
Just as Confederate memorials have become sites of protest (and public vandalism) so too have other monuments in New Mexico and El Paso that depict Juan de Oñate, particularly the 30-foot tall statue of Oñate that our film will explore.

See this news story https://kvia.com/news/el-paso/2020/06/12/the-equestrian-don-juan-de-onate-statue-vandalized-at-el-paso-international-airport/

And this one on other memorials:


In 1598, Juan de Oñate led around 200 Spanish men and women from Mexico City into what was then called “el Norte,” the mostly unknown land north of the Rio Grande. The group included colonists as well as a few priests and numerous soldiers. Oñate stood on the banks of the river near present-day Juarez and claimed all land north of the river for Spain. As the film explains, Oñate certainly had his share of accomplishments (including courageous explorations of the Southwest), but he is infamous for his violent encounters with the Indian people, especially the Acoma Pueblo of northern New Mexico, for which he was actually convicted of war crimes and banished from New Mexico.
However, northern New Mexicans of Spanish descent, while acknowledging Oñate’s actions, nevertheless credit him with bringing Spanish culture to New Mexico. To them, the statute was intended to glorify and honor the historic impact of Juan de Oñate to the Southwest and to highlight the rarely acknowledged contributions of Hispanics to U.S. history.
The artist John Houser did not anticipate the reaction of the Acoma Pueblo and another area Native American tribes, who see Oñate’s entrada in far less heroic or honorable terms. To them, he was a mass murderer who committed atrocities, and not worthy of honor. The film explores issues of class, race, ethnicity, and contrary interpretations of the “same” history arise. The film also examines the concept of public art and how a community determines which heroes to celebrate and represent the ideals of that community.


1. Why was the statue built and what was the intention of the artist? What message did he want to convey or present? Why was it determined to place the statue near the El Paso International airport? What did city leaders hope to gain?

2. What about the statue did some people find objectionable or offensive? Who were they (names, tribal affiliation, etc.)? How can something that happened more than 400 years ago still elicit such strong emotions in people today? Quote from some of these people – particularly those from the Acoma Pueblo.

3. Why did others see the statue as an honor while others saw it as deeply offensive? What were their arguments, both for and against – again identify these people by name and group affiliation? What do you think? Who do you agree with more? Do you identify or at least understand both sides?

4. Should controversial figures in our past and our history – like Columbus and Oñate – be honored or presented in works of public art? Or should they be completely avoided? How and why did the city of El Paso support this project?

In your responses you must:

Demonstrate you watched the entire film by including specific descriptions of discussions, scenes, debates, or imagery from the film
Present your argument and/or reaction to what you have watched – where do you stand on the statue and why?
Contain at least one reference to the Foner book, particularly Foner’s discussion of the Spanish in America in Chapter 1. So in other words, what does Foner say about Onate or how the Spanish were in general as colonizers (ie. the Black Legend)
Include quotes from three different people in the film. Try to capture differing views – so you could quote those for or against the statue, or maybe those who express confusion over where they stand. Include the name of the persons you are quoting
Cite any and all sources used. If you use any other web sites or sources, cite them.

For more information on the film and the history here’s a link to a description of the film on the PBS web site: http://www.pbs.org/pov/lastconquistador/film-description/ and on the same site some historical background about Onate http://www.pbs.org/pov/lastconquistador/background/

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