Keeping Los Lagartos at San Jacinto Plaza

photo by Bruce Berman

photo by: Bruce Berman

By Miguel Juárez

On April 1, 2016 in Chucopedia, a Facebook page, someone posted an announcement of the reopening of San Jacinto Plaza in El Paso, Texas.  Social media abounded whether it was a hoax or not, yet one thing is for sure, the redesign was a process of community involvement from 2008 to 2011 and at the center of the discussion was Luis Jiménez Jr.’s’ Los Lagartos/The Alligators sculpture which if city council would have had it their way, it would have been removed from the plaza.  This is a story of how community mobilized to keep it.  To keep it we attended city council meetings, created an online petition, brought awareness to the issue via social media and community events, wrote letters, engaged in interviews, demonstrated in front of the sculpture, engaged in political theater, as well participated through the proper channels. 

On March 2008, the Paul Foster backed company, Mills Properties, via a press release, announced the redesign of the area around the building under renovation.  The press release read:

To unify the buildings into a district, Mills Plaza Properties with the City of El Paso to close the adjacent block of Mills Avenue to auto traffic and make it pedestrian-only.  The area will feature outdoor dining, trees and benches, and a venue for public art.  (Brent) Harris will be presenting to the City Council and the City Planning Commission in the coming week to solidify plans to vacate the street in the coming months.

Foster saw the redesign as a total concept and San Jacinto Plaza was a big piece of it.  Unfortunately, it also called for the removal of Luis Jiménez’s iconic sculpture that had been that had been commissioned as a site-specific piece in 1993.  I knew the late Luis Jiménez Jr., having interviewed him for a series I created titled: “Frontera Artists “Chicano and Mexican Artists in El Paso,” for EPCC-TV that ran from 1997 to 2006.  Jiménez had also exhibited his work at the 1st Juntos International Exhibit at Lincoln Center in 1985 that I coordinated with Artist Paul H. Ramírez.   The late Luis Jiménez I knew would have never let his sculpture be removed from La Plaza by anyone, but since he had passed away, we chose to fight for him. 

Sito Negron in a April 7, 2008 article titled “Big Changes to Mass Transit with Sun Metro,” in Newspaper Tree reported that:

City Representative Beto O’Rourke said that the City Council made the policy decision to move the buses from the Plaza.  “Passengers didn’t come knocking on my door saying ‘we want to get out of San Jacinto,” he said.  “It was a policy decision of council, we wanted to move that from the space, and provide a better level of service for Sun Metro passengers in the process.” The Plaza is a hey public space, he said, and O’Rourke listed three main reasons why the City Council made the decision: A desire to make it a “true public space,” more like a park than a bus stop; the activity in the area with reconstruction under way at the Mills Building, and activity expected soon at the Plaza Hotel; and “third, the vision this Mass Transit Board has for our system.”

In essence, in 2008, by the city council removing the bus riders and poor people and rift raft from the plaza they took it upon themselves to change the purpose of San Jacinto, using their words, from a “bus stop” and to a “park.”

On December 21, 2009, Negron, who was now with El Paso Inc., published an article titled “Ready, set, change San Jacinto,” on the planned redevelopment planning meetings for the plaza.  Again Harris was quoted as stating: “Even though Paul (Foster) is spearheading it, and it’s something that is going to take Downtown to the next level, it’s a public park.  This isn’t Paul’s park, it’s a public park,” Harris said.   As evidenced by Harris’ comments, the bus stop was now clearly solidified as a park.

From January to April 2011, a series of “public meetings” were held at the El Paso Convention Center that sought input on the re-design of the Plaza.  Like many of these meetings, they were held in inconvenient times, during the workday when people could not attend to offer input.  On April 27, the El Paso Times ran an article titled: “New vision for San Jacinto presented,” by Cindy Ramírez, with drawings of the proposed plans:

The Luis Jiménez fiberglass sculpture and fountain, Plaza de los Lagartos, has been the centerpiece of the plaza for about 15 years.  But it’s chipping, fading and not part of the conceptual plan.  City officials said the Public Art Committee of the Museums and Cultural Affairs Department will decide where to relocate the statue.  It its place, new alligator art made of materials better suited [to] to handle water and hot sun would be created, as would other structures on which  children can climb, officials said.

Here again, the alligators are depicted as chipping and fading.  The idea was that they needed to be removed and that MCAD would decide and not the people.  That same day, we created the “Keep Los Lagartos” group on Facebook.  It quickly grew to 94 members.  On May 1st, Columnist Ramon Renteria wrote a column asking: “So how much will the Plaza change?”  A week later, on May 8th the El Paso Times published a cartoon of alligators carrying their luggage and moving away titled “Los Lagartos” by Nachotoons (Nacho García). 

On June 3, the agenda item of redesigning the Plaza is placed on City Council Agenda and a week after, on June 7 at city council Agenda Item 9B—SWA, the firm that had been contracted by Mills Properties, presented their findings from the community meetings. At this presentation, council was that told Mills Properties were “gifting” the plans to the City.  Representative Steve Ortega praised Bill Foster for this gift.  City Council voted to accept the plans with the caveat that more public input would be sought.  At the meeting, I was the lone person who stood before council and spoke against removing Jiménez’s Los Lagartos from San Jacinto Plaza.   

City personnel and persons who wanted the sculpture moved to another location stated that moving it hinged its condition.  They stated that the piece had deteriorated in its present location and needed to be moved indoors–the Museums and Cultural Affairs Department (MCAD) had scheduled for a conservator to come to El Paso at the end of July to review the piece.  Just like we usually ask for second opinions from doctors, we asked that we get a second opinion from another conservator, and maybe people who restored the Houston piece. Before removing it.  We gave the example of the conservation of Jiménez’s Vaquero piece in Houston, Texas, and its  before and after restoration.

On June 7, news coverage on “Los Lagartos” appeared with no opposition and favored the developers (Mills Properties).  On June 8th, another public meeting was held to gather public input at the El Paso Public Library with cardboard boxes (simulating ballots) asking people to “vote” for their favorite plans.  On June 9, former El Paso Arts Resources (MCAD’s predecessor) Director Alejandrina Drew sent an e-mail to mayor and council and to various art groups urging to keep Los Lagartos in San Jacinto Plaza.  On June 14th, KVIA ran story on the effort to them.  On June 18, artist and friend of the late Luis Jiménez Jr., Susie David published a letter of support in the El Paso Times, and the El Paso Times Editorial Board wrote an article in support of the SWA plan to redesign San Jacinto Plaza, remove the sculpture and place large cartoon-like sculptures of the alligators in the Plaza.  On June 19, Cindy Milazzo in her Letter to the Editor in the El Paso Times, supported removing the alligators. 

On a very hot day on June 21, Ramon Renteria asked individuals who opposed the removal of Los Lagartos to meet in front of the alligators at San Jacinto Plaza to take a photograph, later that day the first article that featured advocates to keep Los Lagartos at the plaza was published in the El Paso Times.  On June 23, I attended a meeting of the Museums and Cultural Affairs Advisory Board (MCAAB) and voiced the community’s concern about moving the sculpture.

On Saturday, July 9, 2011 the El Paso County Chicano (a) Project presented a screening of the two-part interview I conducted with Luis Jiménez Jr. The screening was presented from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the auditorium at the El Paso Public Library Main Branch, in Downtown El Paso. It was part of the “Keep Los Lagartos in San Jacinto Plaza” Campaign.  At the time of his death in 2006, Stuart Ashman, Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, had stated that Jiménez was considered “the most important Chicano artist in the United States…[who] made great contributions to contemporary art in America.”  Jiménez’s followed in his father’s footsteps, who himself was trained by Francisco “Frisco” Gutierrez, Artist-in-Residence at the Plaza Theater for over 35 years.   In the “who’s who” of sculptors in the United States, Jiménez gained international fame in his lifetime. Institutions such as the Smithsonian and universities across the nation own his sculptures.  Fifty people attended the program.  Panel members included: El Paso Artist Gaspar Enriquez, University of Houston Professor Delilah Montoya, Los Angeles Artist Barbara Carrasco, Historian Dr. Cynthia Orozco and Photographer and NMSU Professor Bruce Berman.  Sean McGlynn, MCAD Director and Pat Dalbin, Public Art Coordinator later joined the panel.  One of the first interviews about our effort was conducted by Vanessa Dabovich of KRWG Public Radio in Las Cruces, for local radio show called “Fronteras: A Changing America,” a program that focused on the U.S-Mexico border and regional Hispanic issues that aired on Saturdays at 5 p.m. on KRWG.  On interview was posted on August 6th

Petition to Save the Sculpture from Removal

In July, we also created an online petition via Change.org titled “Mayor, City of El Paso: Keep “Los Lagartos” in the Plazita de los Lagartos! (El Paso, Texas).”  Approximately 357 people signed it.  I made copies of the petition and hand-delivered it with signatures to Mayor, City Representatives and City Manager Joyce Wilson at July 19th City Council meeting at the Call to the Public and we requested that a meeting be placed on a future agenda and timely notification be provided.  The petition was located at: http://www.change.org/petitions/mayor-city-of-el-paso-keep-los-lagartos-in-the-plazita-de-los-lagartos-el-paso-texas   At that point, five hundred and fifty one supporters signed and it included artists from all over the country.

Photo by: Chuy Benitez

Photo by: Chuy Benitez

Comments and Signers from the Petition Page

Andres Nieves, San Antonio, TX

This is a wonderful sculpture of a long time ago when the real “lagartos” were there. By taking, or even relocationg this scupture, you take and move a piece of history that will be forgotten because of the zealotry there is to commercialize everything. A Travesty is being committed and again all in the name of the dollar bill.

Arturo Madrid, San Antonio, TX

If El Paso persists in eliminating people, art, and cultural expression from its public and collective spaces, what will be left other than empty private and corporate shells of no historical consequence, artistic value, or cultural significance whatever. Why woiuld anyone want to visit a mini-version of Houston?

Nadema Agard, New York, NY

Such monumental work by this great sculptor should stay in its original position.

Victor Sorrell, Chicago, IL

Monumental sculptures are by nature on permanent display. The splendid sculptures of the late Chicano sculptor Luis Jiménez are landmarks deserving no less. Luis assumed the stature of a national treasure. To remove “Los Lagartos” from its historic in situ location in El Paso is tantamount to desecration of the artwork itself and the artist’s memory! Let’s be more respectful and protective of our collective artistic legacy.

James Harithas, Houston, TX

My estimation of Luis Jiménez is that he is one of America’s most important artists. His work is a treasure to be shared by all Americans. “Los Lagartos” should be kept in its location and the city should preserve this work with utmost care.

Kari Steele, Houston, TX

Seems to me that the spot is already TAKEN!! I knew Luis, and I know that he would not stand for this!

Andres Nieves, San Antonio, TX

This is a wonderful sculpture of a long time ago when the real “lagartos” were there. By taking, or even relocationg this scupture, you take and move a piece of history that will be forgotten because of the zealotry there is to commercialize everything. A Travesty is being committed and again all in the name of the dollar bill.

Richard Baron, Santa Fe, NM

It is worth the expense to repair and maintain this invaluable resource to the city of El Paso.

Oscar Baeza, El Paso

Please keep “Los Lagartos” alligators sculpture at San Jacinto Plaza. Luis Jiménez was a great Chicano artist that left this sculpture for us to enjoy, respect and appreciate.

Lillian Lewis, San Angelo, TX

Taking “Los Lagartos” out of the plaza would remove some of El Paso’s history and character. I am saddened at the thought that developers would ever be allowed to lobotomize a city in this way!

Dawn Stienecker, Nacogdoches, TX

I have detoured specifically to see this piece. While I would do it again and understand the nature of cities and change, I echo the sentiment of the voices that the piece should remain as envisioned by the artist (clearly articulated here by those who knew him best.)

Elizabeth Moody, Houston, TX

It is difficult to think of El Paso without Plazita de los Lagartos or without Jiménez’s Los Lagartos. The loss of this sculpture and the plaza would be a travesty for the city, it’s citizens, and the memory of Luis Jiménez – Why would a city want to lose such an important part of its heritage! The city redeveloped this site many years ago for a parking lot – realized the loss and made it a plaza with a marvelous Jiménez sculpture as center for all of its citizens to enjoy. Please keep the sculpture and plaza!

Celia Muñoz, Arlington, TX

I vote to honor the artist’s intention and the work.   Luis was commissioned to create a sculpture for “la Placita de Los Lagartos” and he, pointedly and metaphorically, made a most appropriate piece.

Julia Martínez, Crystal City, TX

I have not the pleasure of viewing this piece of art, nonetheless, it is sad and wrong to remove or destroy this piece of art respresenting the culture and history of El Paso. Living in a historic city of Crystal City, I support to maintain the importance of saving history for our youth. Please have the developer support this history by providing an option for this piece of art and move with the growth and development of the city.

Alain Geoffroy, Paris, France

When I had the pleasure and honour to meet Luis in his home and workshop, years ago, apart from the warmth of his welcoming me, I discovered a major artist from the frontera, a concerned and visionary creator, well rooted in the time and space he was in. Thanks a lot for not killing him a second time by removing this important landmark of downtown El Paso. I wish we could enjoy an exhibition of some of his works (except from “Los Lagartos” of course!) in Paris, France.

Benito Huerta, Arlington, TX

I remember when Jiménez’ “Los Lagartos” was dedicated (though I was not present) Luis was very proud to have this piece in downtown El Paso. As curator of his retrospective “Working Class Heroes” Luis had a strong attachment to the extra-ordinary people in the streets and he wanted his work to be placed within that setting. Moving this iconic work would not only bring disservice to his memory and work but is a traitorous sign that government cannot keep its word when erecting public art. 

Robin Scofield, El Paso, TX

Please do not remove public art by one of our greatest sculptors!

Joann Puskarcik, Starlight, PA

As a visitor to El Paso, I was truly impressed by the Alligator statue. Years ago I had seen one of Jiménez’s sculptures in one of NYC’s major art museums and thought it was the best piece in the collection. So when I went to El Paso, of course, I had to see Los Lagartos.

Roberto Tejada, Dallas, TX

Luis Jiménez’ “Los Lagartos” (Alligators) sculpture in the Plazita de los Lagartos (San Jacinto Plaza) in El Paso, Texas, is a significant example of contemporary art. As well, it forms part of the city’s public culture, and serves as a placeholder for the day-to-day uses of the imagination in civic space.

Pam Hahn, Grants Pass, OR

I travel to former home of El Paso often … Luis Jiménez’ Los Lagartos sculpture is one site that I always visit when I’m there. Please keep this symbol of our shared history for future generations to enjoy. Thank you.

Gus Kopriva, Houston, TX

The city has to resolve this issue themselves. Many other US cities would be honored to show case this very important piece of wonder. Please keep those who do not reside in El Paso appraised of the status and what can others do to help.

A.A. Sanchez, Canutillo, TX

It seems that certain people who have initiated the removal of Luis’ masterpiece in order to make room for progress should revamp their plan. An elderly man I met in Guadalajara a few years back describes this type of group perfectly. He said: “No hay peor dano en esta vida, que un pendejo con iniciativa.” I’ve taken many of my art students and children to the plaza to admire the works of a legendary Chicano artist. These students appreciate the significance of meaningful works of art such as “Los lagartos.”  It’s not broken, so don’t fix it. Don’t move “Los lagartos, eliminate los pendejos from power.

Claudia Florés, Falmouth, MA

As a native El Pasoan, trying to represent my hometown in New England, I am horrified at the lack of respect for art and history in El Paso. Nothing like this would ever happen in New England. What ever happen to El Paso pride, in who we are? Leave “Los Lagartos” in the plaza, PLEASE!!! How else can we make the rich history of El Paso significant to the rest of the U.S. if we don’t take the initiative to protect our landmarks?

Alison Greene, Houston, TX

As a scholar of Texas art and a curator at this state’s largest art museum, I have long admired the Jiménez “Los Lagartos” — it is a great example of civic art and an El Paso landmark. While I recognize that cities grow and change, I urge the City of El Paso to find a way to keep this important monument a part of its urban fabric.

Brenda Coto, Houston, TX

This artwork is a cultural icon and the City of El Paso should be proud to repair and display it in the public square. There is nowhere else in the world where it can be seen and enjoyed. That alone should be cause for abundant pride and a reason to do whatever it takes to keep it where it is. Where it belongs for all time!

Trudy Gerlach, Wyalusing, PA

This is a beautiful and meaningful sculpture, personal for El Paso in so, so many ways. San Jacinto Plaza would be empty without it. Please keep it!

Bruce Berman, El Paso, TX

This is one of El Paso’s greatest assets and visitor destinations and honors one of El Paso’s most important “native sons.”   The piece needs repair. The discussion must begin with that premise. Luis’ pieces are in many locations throughout the world and when they need repair the solution is not to relocate the piece, but rather, to renovate, preserve and improve it (it’s site, if need be).  This can be a “win-win,” for everyone who loves El Paso and we can do it.

Curtis Castle, North Hollywood, CA

We should build on our past, not tear it down.

Sandra Sage/Gorney, Spencer, NY

Still have fond childhood memories of the Placita de lagartos! After many years of living in New York I continue to have vivid dreams of the real deal. Good luck fellow El Pasoans stand for what is right and never allow anyone to destroy a heartfelt legacy and artistic cultural ICON!

Karen S. Harper, Long Beach, CA

Redevelopment is very dangerous when cultural icons and community gathering places are destroyed. This is not progress. Revamp this plan.

Arturo Madrid, San Antonio, TX

If El Paso persists in eliminating people, art, and cultural expression from its public and collective spaces, what will be left other than empty private and corporate shells of no historical consequence, artistic value, or cultural significance whatever. Why would anyone want to visit a mini-version of Houston?

Pamela Novoa, El Paso, TX

Revitalize: Yes! Ruin: No!!!!! I cannot be encouraged to pride and love a tierra I no longer recognize. It will no longer be the “heart of the city” once the heart is removed.   UMC will always be Thomason, as will La Placita de Los Lagartos. Dejan en paz Los Lagartos. Why weren’t any LOCAL design groups considered? Improvement begins within, not in California. El Centro de Paul Foster?!?! Reconsider this small piece of the revitalization. We are open to change and are thankful. Now let us support you further by allowing us to hold onto at least some remnants of our roots.

Carmen Rodríguez, El Paso, TX

Please protect the sculpture from further deterioration, but keep it highly visible in the ‘placita de los lagartos’ where it belongs forever. — surely this is not asking too much.

Debra Ramírez, Sunland Park, NM

It should stay were it is. This is a symbol to the City of El Paso and a joy seen it there. I remember this being a par of the Plaza since a long time, when I used to live at El Paso…I just recently moved to Sunland which is a few min. away and still consider myself being part of El Paso.

Jennifer Alvarez Dickinson, Austin, TX

Luis Jiménez’ “Los Largartos” sculpture is important because as a piece of contemporary Chicano art it speaks to the ongoing vitality of Mexican American cultural production. But it also provides a link to a unique historical period of El Paso’s plaza. As a child growing up in El Paso, the stories of live alligators in the plaza made it a truly special place.

Gabriela Baeza, Houston, TX

La plaza de los lagartos is a Mexican and Mexican-American cultural and historical site that should be respected and maintained in El Paso, Texas. The plaza has been immortalized in immigrant literature such as Daniel Venegas, Las aventuras de don Chipote; o cuando los pericos mamen (Arte Publico Press, 2004) and the highly respected art of Luis Jiménez. Shame on the El Paso administration for considering the renaming and removal of this important site!

Dr. Guillermina Gina Nuñez, El Paso, TX

Los Lagartos are an El Paso icon. They represent the history of the city and the wonderful art one of the most famous Chicano artists in the U.S. Please be respectful of this rich cultural heritage we have. Art pieces such as the Los Lagartos, should be kept accessible and visible to the public. Do what you need to add a protective layer or a kiosk to protect the art- but keep it accessible. Art should be consumed by the people of the city and border region, and not be an exclusive pleasure of the few. Dr. Nunez

Jesus Saucedo, El Paso, TX

QUE VIVA LOS GATORSS!!!

Zita Arocha, El Paso, TX

It’s part of what makes us unique as a city.

Marco Portales, Bryan, TX

Yes, I agree. Do keep the “Los Lagartos” sculpture in the Plazita. You don’t want to have to change its name, right?  Best, Marco Portales

David Arredondo, El Paso, TX

What a significant sculpture. The idea of re-development is great but please do not disturb “Los Lagartos” (Plaza of the Alligators). Re-develop around it, not over it. If anything carefully restore and maintain this amazing sculpture, do not erase it. The future of El Paso will appreciate it. 

Carlos Rodríguez, El Paso, TX

El Paso must and will be stopped from erasing the chronicles of history already written and start capitalizing on it’s rich attributes. Period.

Hector H. Galicia, El Paso, TX

Luis’ legacy must remain in El Paso. The only place “Los Largartos” has the meaning is the “plazita de los Lagartos.”  It is not only his art and his contribution, but the history of El Paso that is embodied in the piece in that park that has value for our community.

Carmen Tavarez, El Paso, TX

This sculpture has great sentimental value for El Pasoans and needs to be preserved at San Jacinto Plaza. How could this plaza have meaning without it?

Sergio Troncoso, New York, NY

Keep “Los Lagartos” in the San Jacinto Plaza. How could this plaza have meaning without it?

Johnny Hernández, Modesto, CA

This say’s it best, “This shows where City Hall has their heads; denigrate a Chicano artist like Jiménez, but promote the Don Juan de Onate monstrosity at the entrance to the El Paso airport.” ~ Carlos Morton 

C.J. Shane, Tucson, AZ

Please keep this important artwork in the site for which it was intended.

Judy Baca, Los Angeles, CA

Luis Jiménez’s work is a national treasure and El Paso is the recipient of it. UPDATING? This Plaza is an important site of public memory and Luis’ work is part of that memory. Have the wisdom to respect the power of public artworks PERMANENCE in a public site. Would you consider updating the Lincoln Memorial?

Rebecca Baeza, El Paso, TX

Born and Raised in El Paso. Our memories should never be taken away we need to share those memories with our children and their children.

Carlos Morton, Santa Barbara, CA

This shows where City Hall has their heads; denigrate a Chicano artist like Jiménez, but promote the Don Juan de Onate monstrosity at the entrance to the El Paso airport.

Juan A. Contreras, El Paso, TX

Little by little legacies of culture, hope, and love of life are being dissected from us – it is as removing the breath of being from humanity – la plazita de los lagartos historically has been iconic to all gentes of El Chuco.   Stop denying us the existence of once upon a time, and building blocks of local identity which some adamantly seem want to erase. It is a monument in time that should be treasured. Jiménez is a giant in the world of sculpture, yet he is being minimized. Other more progressive cities i.e. San Anto, Austin, etc would embrace the love.

Oscar Martínez, El Paso, TX

This sculpture has great sentimental value for El Pasoans and needs to be preserved at San Jacinto Plaza. It would be a slap in the face to so many of us who remember “los lagartos” when we were growing up. The sculpture is a great piece of art. Keep it where it is!

Joseph Martínez, El Paso, TX

I could not believe that there were “live” Alligators in the Plaza at one time, when my wife took me to downtown El Paso for some sight seeing. It has always been on our list of things to do as relatives have visited in th past. It would be a slap in the face to the Chicanos and Chicanas that live in the southwest, not to mention the insult to the Luis Jiménez legacy. Mayor Cook, City Manager Wilson, and other members of the Council should realize that we will not stand for this any longer. “Ya Basta”

We also created a group page on Facebook where we posted updates: http://www.facebook.com/groups/saveloslagartos?ap=1, as well as a Fan page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Los-Lagartos-Alligators-Sculpture-at-San-Jacinto-Plaza-El-Paso-Texas/218832401488043

Meeting with Mayor John Cook and Sean McGlynn

On August 10, 2011 at 4 p.m. we met with Mayor John Cook and Museums and Cultural Affairs Department Director Sean McGlynn to discuss the possible removal of Los Lagartos from the Plaza.  The following individuals attended the meeting: Norma Chavéz, Robb Chavéz, Dr. Selfa Chew, Ira J. Lopéz, Nancy Gonzaléz, Joseph Martínez, Rosemary Martínez, Carlos Mendo, Xavier Miranda, Arlina Palacíos, Ray E. Rojas, Alfred Soto and Ju Texiera.  We also invited members who had just learned of the city’s plan to gift the Aztec Calendar to the Mexican Consulate.  At that point, the Save the Lagartos Facebook group had grown to 500 members.  We stated that we represented a group of private citizens who supported keeping our Latino-Chicano-Mexicano public art works. In regards to the Lagartos, we had created a petition on Change.org requesting that the City keep the alligators at San Jacinto Plaza that has been signed by over 500 people and we had set up a Facebook Fan page that has been seen by over 35,000 visitors in one month.   We stated we were concerned about the possible removal of public art works because there seemed to be an on-going campaign to eliminate many of the symbols associated with the Chicano/Mexican-American community in El Paso, first there was the sale of the building with the mural Señor Sol by Mago Orona, then Alamo School that been threatened with demolition, then Houston School had been threatened with closure, and now Los Lagartos and now the Aztec Calendar were in danger of being removed.   We stated that council seemed to lack cultural competence towards these works and worst, that they provided few or no opportunities for community input on their future.

In regards for the Lagartos, we said we were 100% in support of redeveloping the Plaza as a public space that would meet the needs of its citizens as a gathering place.  We wanted it to become a place that people could enjoy like the Zocalo in Mexico City.  We were a bit more troubled about the Aztec Calendar because the City did not provide an opportunity for community input.  We asked Mayor Cook to delay its removal pending community input.  We told the Mayor that for us “Los Lagartos” doesn’t just represent a piece of art but that it embodied cultural/social aspirations and the lives of countless people who have historically congregated at La Plazita; of generations long gone and those who recently rode the buses to get to their places of labor and to their destinations and generations before them, people who gathered there.   We communicated that plazas play a vital role as honored spaces—those spaces are necessary because they represent the functional and operational center of the beginning of the city.    We stated that the most important cities keep those sacred grounds and there is a danger that the redesign was threatening to remove the Plaza’s character.   We encouraged the Mayor to let the Plaza keep its history, not to erase or remove it in one broad sweep but to mark its history with a design that includes its history and social significance. That as historian William David Estrada states in his book The Long Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space, “plazas speak not only of our collective past but to our collective future.”

We told the Mayor that Jiménez’ sculpture represented the Plaza’s historical beginnings.  That the sculpture was an important piece of history and at the same time it represented the soul of the plaza.  We also reiterated that Los Lagartos was also the only outdoor public art piece by an important El Paso contemporary artist of national stature whose personal journey is reflective of the American dream. 

We were not convinced that the piece needed to be moved offsite to be restored because we were afraid that once removed, it would never be returned.  At that point, we had requested a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) and we felt that they could use the most recent conservators report to move the work, if they had to.  If the piece was slated for removal, we wanted to know the date of the vote.  Among other strategies at the meeting, members wanted city council to keep the sculpture at San Jacinto and if it was removed that we would (a) file a referendum to vote to keep the Lagartos in San Jacinto; that (b) we would continue our campaign to keep the issue in the minds of the voting public; and (c) that if city council removed the Lagartos, we would vote and encourage our committee and supporters to vote for the recall.

Community member Rosemary Martínez spoke about the economic impact of keeping the sculpture.  She stated that tourists expected to see Luis Jiménez’ art in El Paso, his hometown.   She mentioned that New Mexico especially Roswell is claiming him as theirs.  She stated that Jiménez is included in Gloria Fierro’s World Humanities book that encouraged the city or some other entity might open a small center with more pictures of Jiménez’ work (like the Tom Lea Jr. Gallery that Adair Margo is planning to open in downtown El Paso).  Martínez stated that El Paso needed to take advantage of Jiménez as a tourist draw and that the alligators were the focal point of the plaza. She questioned what message was it sending to El Pasoans living elsewhere who were supportive of the piece staying in its place?

Support from El Pasoans from All Walks of Life as Well as Those Living Elsewhere

Support to keep Los Lagartos at San Jacinto came from many people from all walks of life.  Former State Representative Norma Chavéz became a committed catalyst for keeping the Lagartos at the Plaza.  She began her own Facebook page called Lagartistas!! and recruited numerous young people to the cause.   She organized human billboards to stand at the exit off I-10 to downtown in the morning rush hour, as well as at the onramp to the freeway during the afternoon commute.  These efforts were highly effective, at a time when there was limited press coverage or if there was, it was negative, because after all, we were supposed to fail in our efforts to keep Los Lagartos at San Jacinto.

El Pasoans living elsewhere also became actively involved in saving Los Lagartos.  One of them was Artist Celia Muñoz.  Celia attended El Paso High School and received her MFA at the University of North Texas.  Celia was a friend and contemporary of Jiménez.  She wrote several letters in support of keeping the alligators in the park.  One of her letter follows:

August 21, 2011

Responding to the late artist Luis Jiménez’s “Los Lagartos” debate over whether to move the public art or keep it in it’s assigned place, here are my two centavos.  Who else but Luis Jiménez to interpret the spirit of this historic city?  What better metaphor than fighting gators in defiance of captivity? 

Only a romantic dynamic draftsman/master sculptor to illustrate the inherent energy would do. Luis, knew his city well, as well as the city knew him. That’s why he was chosen. That’s why he chose the active alligators.  And he once told me, “When properly done, fiberglass is easily and economically repairable.”   Surely his contract contains that information.  His work is never static. It’s alive, as alive as this place knew to be in order to survive.   

Carved out of the rugged Rocky Mountains, bordered by a once raging Rio Grande, El Paso became an active verb. Not a passive one. And it continues the fight as pointedly illustrated in that, site specific/site dependent, Plaza sculpture, “Los Lagartos.”  The story of “development” carries the burden of displacement, as it tries to redefine by erasing history. But it is, also, presented a golden opportunity to honor the power of a place.

Displacing “Los Lagartos” to a museum desensitizes them. Displacing them to the Zoo puts them in cruel captivity. Luis loved animals and made these to be interacted with and emit the history of this place. El Paso and “Los Lagartos” are not tamed flowering planters, by any means.  Luis grew up with those lagartos, and so did I, along with hundred of thousands of people from both sides of the Rio Grande.

All were wondering what those water beasts were doing in the desert at this observation spot watching life’s ironies. If only this site and those Lagartos could speak!  There would be all kinds of stories that could be told surrounding the spirited piece.  As a metaphor, the sculpture is an interpretive tool.  El Paso’s history is not solely a quotation mark… it’s an exclamation point!   Future generations become involved in history making when they realize they are being acknowledged.   When they understand that their parents and grandparents contributed to the shaping of a place…and realize they can continue the story. I saw this dynamic at work during the commemorative dedication of that project…which was well attended by El Paso’s citizenry from all walks of life.   

Like El Paso Parks Commissioner, J. Fisher Satterthwaite, who originally designed the endeared alligator pond in the 1800’s, Luis Jiménez embraced the jarring juxtapose, about 100 years later.  His mission as public artist was to honor the power of history, race and place.    Lets honor that power as represented in his sculpture…and give it due dignity.  The Plaza, is the birth and heartbeat of this city and the emotive “Lagartos” are perfectly placed!

– Artist Celia Muñoz, Arlington, TX

The San Jacinto Redevelopment Concept Plan Review Committee

On September 8, 2011, City Representative Steve Ortega appointed the San Jacinto Redevelopment Concept Plan Review Committee that was created by the City of El Paso’s Economic Development, Planning and Tourism Legislative Review Committee.  Former head of Planning Nestor A. Valencia acted as the chair of the committee who’s task was to review the San Jacinto Plaza Redesign Concept Plan presented by SWA Landscape Architects and report back to city council in a month.  Members of the Review committee included: Valencia, Chair, Katherine Brennand, Joel Guzman, P.E., Miguel Juarez, T.J. Karam, Mervin Moore, AIA, Peter Svarzbein and Xochitl P. Valencia.   The committee recommended the Jiménez’s sculpture he continued to be displayed at the park.  We also agreed that the park should have more grass and trees, as well as water features such as water sprouts, pop jet fountains and splash pads.  We also recommended the park have a kiosk.  What happened after the San Jacinto Redevelopment Concept Plan Review Committee gave its recommendations to what has happened and why it has taken so long to complete it is beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to know that we the community were successful in keeping the alligators at San Jacinto Plaza.

In an October 18, 2011 vote, with Mayor Cook breaking the tie amid heated discussion, we kept Los Lagartos at San Jacinto Plaza.  Mayor and council also voted for 90% of the San Jacinto Redevelopment Concept Plan Review Committee’s recommendations.   Courtney Niland, city representative who represents the downtown district, voted against everything proposed by the committee.

You would think that certain people would have stepped up to help keep the Lagartos at San Jacinto Plaza, but they did not.  We were surprised at those who did not help, as well as those who paid lip service.  Afterwards, one particular influential arts leader went around saying that she had helped immensely, but she did nothing.  The possible removal of Los Lagartos was hotly debated, and many people stood back and watched what would happen because the odds were against us, but like I tell people about issues we get involved in, “we have the community on our side.”  Lastly, I would like to thank all the people who did help.  We did it!  We kept Los Lagartos at San Jacinto Plaza!  I am sure Luis is smiling down from heaven, but he may be telling himself, they do look a little different.

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