Sculptor talks about commitment to immortalize key pieces of El Paso history

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Watching a crane place the larger-than-life bronze statue of former Mexican President Benito Juarez on a stone slab at the Chamizal National Memorial on Wednesday was a big relief for Ethan Houser.

The Arizona-born sculptor spent at least the last 10 months turning clay and plastic models into an icon that will help preserve a piece of the history and heritage of the region for decades or even centuries to come.

“I feel great and a lot of relief. This project here was started by my father who passed away a few years ago. He’s the one who came out with the idea of Benito Juarez as a child growing up into a man,” Houser said.

The statue featuring Juarez the child and Juarez the statesman, both holding books symbolizing the power of education, is to be publicly unveiled early Sunday afternoon at the Chamizal. A previous Border Report story outlined Juarez’s life and the reason the 12 Travelers Mission of the Southwest chose to honor him.

In a worksite interview Wednesday, Houser explained the work that went into crafting the statue.

Ethan Houser (Border Report photo)

“We start with a maquette – that’s French for a model. What you want to do is get all of your problems figured out on a small scale first. When you’re sculpting them in clay and full size it is much more difficult to make a change,” he said.

Houser pulled out small clay and plastic statuettes of two of the three pieces that comprise the sculpture: Juarez the child and Juarez the statesman. The third piece is a lamb to be placed next to the shepherd boy.

“All are drawn out with numbers; each section represents a different mold. They get pretty big and then they go to a foundry. They get welded together from the plastic cast and we give the marks to the foundry,” he said. “So, yes, it’s very labor intensive. It took a while. Part of the reason it takes so long is this is reliant on private donations. We might get going on one part and then stop until some money is raised.”

Ethan’s father, John, became involved with the 12 Travelers Memorial of the Southwest project since its creation. The idea is to cast in bronze the likeness of individuals who came to the old Pass of the North and left a lasting mark. It’s a private, altruistic venture now going into its third decade.

The first statue, the Fray Garcia Monument was dedicated on Sept. 26, 1996, at El Paso’s Pioneer Plaza. The 36-foot-tall sculpture of a mounted Spanish conquistador stands near the entrance of El Paso International Airport since 2006. And the statue of diarist Susan Shelby Magoffin was dedicated in 2012.

The Benito Juarez 12 Travelers tribute statue(s) at the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

Houser said the next project will be a tribute to the Tigua Indian tribe.

“There’s no maquette yet. It’s all talk for now. But that is our intention and that is our plan and I believe that is what we will do,” he said.

The 12 Travelers board acknowledges the Tiguas and a Buffalo Soldier are candidates for the next two monuments, which are pending funding.

The Tiguas in 1680 rebelled against Spanish occupation in Northern New Mexico. The Spaniards retreated with 350 Tigua captives they placed in a temporary settlement in Paso del Norte. With the help of a Spanish priest, the Tiguas built a permanent settlement. Co-founders Francisco Tilagua, the tribal governor, and Bartolo Pique, the tribal war chief, are candidates for a statue.

So is Henry Ossian Flipper, a Buffalo Soldier, civil mining engineer, surveyor, translator, historian and newspaper editor. He came from a family of slaves but was the first Black graduate of West Point Military Academy and lived in several homes in El Paso now considered historical, according to the memorial.