Latin American Times: Mexico City

Conquistador's stallion rears its head where Pancho Villa roamed
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The Independent US

The artist John Houser has no qualms undertaking an undeniably monumental task. He is preparing the final moulds for casting the world's biggest sculpted horse.

"Everything we have done disappears into the crucible to be reborn in bronze," he says.

On completion, his work will be 10ft (3m) longer than thestatue of a charger in Milan, belatedly wrought from Leonardo Da Vinci's original sketches in 1999.

The new bronze beast taking shape in Mexico City has the added distinctions of a rider and two equine heads. One, with nostrils flaring and mane flying, is meant to stand alone and is almost the size of a Volkswagen. The other, identical head is hoisted up now on the rearing stallion, which for the time being is wrought in Plasticine over a metal framework. The gargantuan proportions of this horse – a cross between an andalusian and a mustang – dwarfs any viewer.

The statue towers 36ft (11m), more than four times life-size. The Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate sits astride the steed in full armour. The American sculptor has toiled for more than two years on the bronze in his studio on the northern limits of Mexico City.

The size does not intimidate him – he grew up in South Dakota, while his father, Ivan Houser, helped carve the four colossal heads of American presidents that glower from the granite of Mount Rushmore.

His pet project to erect a dozen bronze sculptures close to the Mexican border, as a salute to travellers who opened up the American South-west, is still in its early stages. To choose among the historical heroes who trudged through the Pass of the North (now familiar as El Paso, Texas) is a quandary.

Houser aims to pick "men and women, native Americans, blacks, Hispanics and Anglos, Spanish, US and Mexican citizens who left their mark upon 465 years of recorded Southwest history ... from the explorer Cabeza de Vaca to the gunfighter John Wesley Hardin, to the revolutionary Pancho Villa".

This is the concept behind his rather grandly named XII Travelers Memorial, appealing to sponsors with its Roman numerals that hint at Hollywood sequels or American football Superbowls.

He started with Fray Garcia, an early monk hewn twice human size. This second commission depicts Oñate, a Mexican-born Spaniard who led an expedition from Zaca-tecas across the Rio Grande at El Paso in July 1598 to found a settlement and trading routes in the north.

Later, the new colony cruelly suppressed the native Pueblo tribe, whichmakesOñate a controversial hero today.

In Mexico, where few people hide their antipathy for Hernan Cortez's brutish intruders who brought down the Aztec and Maya civilisations and put the Inquisition in their stead, Houser's celebration of Hispanic roots is gutsy.

"Settler, huh?" mutters Elena Suarez. "He looks every the inch a conquistador, up high in the saddle and ready to stomp us," she says, gesturing disdainfully. "The giant horse looks noble, though, and that counts for something."

But Houser is more concerned with historical accuracy than political correctness. He points out: "The Spanish introduced the horse, Hispanic culture, food, religion and the language to produce the rich and distinctive character of our region.

"Spanish soldiers left one of their horses behind with the Maya Indians of a small village," Houser likes to recount. "Months later they returned to find the natives worshipping the carcass. This horse, seen by the Mayas as a visiting deity, was fed offerings of sacred flowers but it soon died."

Houser pays fanatical attention to detail. He scoured Spain to find a descendant of Oñate to pose for the face of the horseman, who will end up on a frontier freeway near El Paso.

Zacatecas state sends more undocumented workers to America than does anywhere else in Mexico, so this bronze man mounted on his stallion will not be without allusions to modern life. If sacred flowers are planted at the horse's feet, so much the better.

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