EL PASO — Downtown El Paso could soon lose one of its most beloved landmarks, created by one of the city’s most famous artists if a plan to renovate San Jacinto Plaza is approved and funded by the city council.
Luis Jimenez’s fiberglass sculpture, “Los Lagartos” has stood at the center of the plaza since 1995, would be replaced by shrubbery trimmed in the shape of alligators in the renovation plans donated by Mills Plaza Properties, owned by prominent El Paso businessman Paul Foster.
El Paso art historian Miguel Juarez is spearheading the movement to keep the statue in the city’s plans.
“The alligators are the soul of El Paso,” Juarez said. “Historically the plaza was a meeting place. Luis Jimenez put his sculpture there as a dedication to that past, and (the sculpture) became the soul.”
San Jacinto Plaza has been the traditional center of the city since before the turn of the 20th century. Once the home to as many as seven live alligators, the plaza, located on the corner of Oregon and Mills, was the heart of a bustling downtown. El Pasoans came from all parts of town to enjoy the plaza and watch the alligators.
The alligators were first removed in the mid-1960s due to pranksters from nearby University of Texas at El Paso, then known as Texas Western College, as well as vandalism. Students from the college once removed an alligator from the plaza and, as a prank, placed it in the office of a geology professor. There were also many cases of people throwing rocks at the alligators, and one alligator had a spike driven through its eye. After a brief return in the early ’70s, the alligators were permanently moved to the El Paso Zoo.
Luis Jimenez was commissioned by the city of El Paso to create the public art piece to commemorate the plaza’s past. It took Jimenez, a native El Pasoan and world-renowned sculptor, nearly 10 years to complete. Jimenez died in an accident in 2006 while working on a piece he created for Denver International Airport, “Blue Mustang.”
Jimenez’s public artwork, including the 32-foot tall, fiery-eyed equestrian, has been considered controversial.
In the ‘80s a group of Albuquerque residents tried to have a piece the city commissioned removed. The sculpture “Southwest Pieta” depicts an Aztec man holding a dead female on his lap, reminiscent of famous images of Mary holding Jesus after his death. Other cities have also attempted to have some of Jimenez’s public art removed.
“Luis was a master of public relations and he also knew what was in his contracts,” said Bruce Berman, a photography professor at New Mexico State University and a longtime friend of the late sculptor. Berman and other friends and colleagues of Jimenez participated in a forum held by the El Paso County Chicano(a) History Project to discuss the removal of “Los Lagartos” at the El Paso Public Library’s main branch on Saturday. Berman says that Jimenez was always very involved in any fight to keep his public pieces, which were often very site-specific, on display.
“Unfortunately, this time he isn’t around any more and now its up to us to take up that fight,” Berman said.
Ironically, in a 1996 interview shown at the public forum, Jimenez pointed out that “Los Lagartos” is one of his few public pieces that had absolutely no controversy surrounding it and had been embraced by residents.
Part of the concern for the sculpture is also its upkeep. The fiberglass alligators were originally intended as the centerpiece of a fountain. El Paso’s notoriously hard water, however, have left a hard-calcified coating on much of the piece’s lower third. Additionally, the piece is fading due to its constant exposure to sun and other elements. Due to its public nature, people who use the plaza also threaten the piece.
Attendees of the forum complained of people throwing rocks at the piece, much as they did to the live alligators of the past, and children climbing on it. One of Juarez and his group’s main concerns, however, is that the sculpture’s need for a facelift will be used as an excuse for its removal.
Sean McGlynn, the city’s director of Museum and Cultural Affairs department, said that the two issues are separate, and that his department’s investigation into what needs to be done to preserve the sculpture and developers’ plans to renovate the plaza are a coincidence. McGlynn and Public Art Coordinator Patricia Delbin spoke at the forum, and assured panelists and attendees that their main concern was the “overall, long-term health of the piece.”
Juarez still worries that the plan to renovate the plaza are being “fast-tracked” by the city council in hopes that there will be little public outcry. He pointed to a resolution passed by the council to accept the design plan donated by Mills Plaza Properties, which owns surrounding buildings. While resolutions are not binding, it is an indication that the city wants to move ahead with the redevelopment.
Diana Diaz, an economic development specialist with the city of El Paso, said that while the city is in talks about the plan, it has yet to be assessed by the Downtown Historic Commission. No date has yet been set for council to vote on funding or moving ahead with the project, she added.
Juarez says his group’s next step will be to go to city council with its concerns before a vote takes place.
“We have to go after the money,” Juarez said. “We have to make sure that this project doesn’t move forward as long as they want to keep the alligators out.”