Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story was published by Fusion Magazine. The author gave us permission to republish a version here.
On April 1, 2016 on Facebook, 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 and the decision to keep Luis Jiménez Jr.’s “Los Lagartos,” was a process of community involvement from 2008 to 2011. This is a story of how the community mobilized to keep “Los Lagartos” at San Jacinto Plaza and to offer input on the redesign of the plaza. To keep “Los Lagartos,” 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. Mills Properties 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 Jiménez’s iconic sculpture that had been commissioned as a site-specific piece in 1993. 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.
In a 2008 local article by Sito Negrón, City Representative Beto O’Rourke said that the City Council made the policy decision to move the buses from the Plaza. In essence, by the city council removing the bus riders, city leasers took it upon themselves to change the purpose of the space, using their rhetoric, from a “bus stop,” to a “park.”
On December 21, 2009, Negrón, who was now working at El Paso Inc., published “Ready, set, change San Jacinto,” an article about the proposed redevelopment planning meetings for the Plaza. He quoted Brent Harris of Mills Properties 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.”
From January to April 2011, a series of public meetings were held at the El Paso Convention Center that sought input on the redesign of the Plaza. Most of the meetings were held during work hours. On April 27, 2010, the El Paso Times published drawings of the proposed plans. In those plans, the alligators had been replaced by jungle gym plastic ones. That same day, we created the “Keep Los Lagartos” group on Facebook. In May of 2011, Ramón Rentería wrote a column asking: “So how much will the Plaza change?”
A month later on June 7, the firm that had been contracted by Mills Properties, presented their findings from the community meetings to the City Council. They stated that they were “gifting” the plans to the city. City representative Steve Ortega praised Bill Foster for this gift. The City Council voted to accept the plans with caveat that more public input would be sought. At the meeting, I spoke against removing Jimenez’s “Los Lagartos” from San Jacinto Plaza. City personnel stated the removal of the sculpture hinged its condition. They said the piece had deteriorated in its present location and needed to be moved indoors.
On June 8, 2011, a public meeting was held to gather public input was held at the El Paso Public Library with cardboard boxes (simulating ballots) asking people to “vote” for their favorite plans. KVIA ran story on the effort to Save Los Lagartos on June 14, 2011. Artist Suzi Davidoff published a letter of support for the alligators in the El Paso Times on June 18, and later the Times editorial board wrote an editorial supporting the SWA plan.
On June 21, 2011 Rentería 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 spoke against removing the sculpture.
We presented a screening of the two-part interview I conducted with Jiménez on Saturday, July 9, 2011 at the El Paso Public Library. Panel members included: El Paso Artist Gaspar Enriquez, University of Houston Professor Delilah Montoya, Los Angeles Artist Barbara Carrasco, Dr. Cynthia Orozco, Professor at Western New Mexico State and Photographer and New Mexico State University Professor and Photographer Bruce Berman. Members from MCAD, who arrived late, later joined the panel.
Meeting with Mayor John Cook and Sean McGlynn
On August 10, 2011 (the vote), we met with Mayor John Cook and MCAD Department Director Sean McGlynn to discuss the possible removal of “Los Lagartos.” Former State Representative 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 attended. We also invited other community members who had just learned of the city’s plan to gift the Aztec Calendar to the Mexican Consulate. We stated we were 100% in support of redeveloping the Plaza as a public space, but that the City Council seemed to lack cultural competence towards these its public art works. Community member Rosemary Martínez spoke about the economic impact of keeping the sculpture. She stated that tourists expected to see Luis Jimenez’ art in El Paso, his hometown. On August 27, 2011, “Los Lagartos” plight was featured on KTEP 88.5’s State of the Arts program with host Mónica Gómez.
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. Nestor A. Valencia acted as the chair of the committee whose task was to review the San Jacinto Plaza Redesign Concept Plan presented by SWA Landscape Architects and report back to the City Council in a month. Members of the review committee included: Valencia, Chair, Katherine Brennand, Joel Guzman, P.E., Miguel Juárez, T.J. Karam, Mervin Moore, AIA, Peter Svarzbein and Xochitl P. Valencia.
In an October 18, 2011 vote, with Mayor Cook breaking the tie amid heated discussion, we managed to keep “Los Lagartos” at the center of the Plaza. The Mayor and the council also voted on 90% of the San Jacinto Redevelopment Concept Plan Review Committee’s recommendations. Representative Courtney Niland voted against everything proposed by the committee.
Miguel Juárez is a doctoral student in Borderlands history, U.S. history and transnational world history at the University of Texas at El Paso. He was formerly an academic librarian from 1998 to 2013 at SUNY Buffalo, the University of Arizona, Texas A&M, the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, and the University of North Texas. You can follow him @miguelJuárez.