Cultural Whitewashing

The City of El Paso Kills A Public Art Piece to Protect White Sensibilities

“I am surprised and totally disturbed by the city’s actions” wrote the artist to me when her work was destroyed. [1] Margarita Cabrera is an artist from Mexico City who has lived in El Paso since she was ten years old. Cabrera’s artwork celebrates the immigrant community – their struggles and their lives. She often has immigrants contribute to her artwork.

On October 2, 2012, the City of El Paso entered into an artist contract with Margarita Cabrera to create a public sculpture for the Upper Valley of El Paso, a predominantly White neighborhood in an 80% plus Hispanic city. This neighborhood also has one of the wealthiest zip codes in the community. The contract called for paying the artist $70,000. [3]

Like all public artworks, her design was vetted by the City from the design stage to the final installation. The sculpture had been through the approval processes of the City of El Paso and the Public Arts Committee.

Then, without warning the sculpture – which as about 60% complete – was abruptly taken down by the City, partially destroying it in the process without following the terms of the agreement and without notifying the artist beforehand.

The sculpture was supposed to be placed on the Country Club and Memory Drive roundabout near 316 Country Club Road. It is a residential neighborhood, a few blocks from the El Paso County Club.

Workers Installing Statue At Roundabout – photograph courtesy of artist.

Why was the artwork suddenly and without warning take down?

Because it was too Mexican for the residents of the Upper Valley.

The sculpture, Uplift, is made up of hundreds of birds taking flight. The components of the birds were fragments of guns confiscated by the Sheriff’s Department and donated to Cabrera’s project. The sculpture symbolizes the border violence due to the drug problem.

The sculpture was being installed at its final location when the City suddenly took it down. Why and how it happened exposes the continued whitewashing of El Paso.

City workers dismantling the statue – picture courtesy of artist.

It all started on March 13, 2015 when Alma Ramsey of the Love Road Neighborhood Association sent an email to then-City Representative Cortney Niland about concerns the neighborhood association had with the ongoing city construction work in the area. The last item on Ramsey’s complaint email about cracks in the street work and lane markings was item number nine, “the art that was installed at the Country Club Place roundabout is alarming to many.” Ramsey added, “why do we have such a prominent display of guns?”

By 12:25 that day, about an hour and a half after Niland had forwarded the neighborhood association email, Tommy Gonzalez, the city manager, ordered that the sculpture be taken down. Gonzalez was appointed the city manager in 2014, after the original contract with Cabrera had been signed in 2012. [4]

By the time Gonzalez had ordered the sculpture removed, the City of El Paso had approved the final design.

According to open records documents received through a Texas Open Records statue, several neighbors in the immediate vicinity of the roundabout sent emails to the City demanding that the artwork be returned to the location.

When the removal of the art piece became controversial in the city, the City first framed its removal because of a faulty structure and then that the art piece had “deviated” from the approved plans.

However, that was not the case.

The City soon acknowledged that the structure was sound, leaving the issue of the deviation of the agreed upon design.

The documents provided by the City show that the gun pieces were in fact approved by city staff previously. As a matter of fact, the gun fragments were always part of the design. In fact, the City tried to diffuse the controversy by offering to pay the outstanding balance on the statue so that it could simply do with it as it pleased.

The artist refused and sued.

The City of El Paso settled the lawsuit filed by Cabrera on November 17, 2015. In the settlement, the City agreed to “re-fabricate the art piece” back to the specifications as previously approved by the Public Arts Committee and the City of El Paso. The artwork was to be placed back in the original location from where it was taken down. The City paid for the re-fabrication of the art and Cabrera’s attorney’s fees.

The motion to approve the settlement was made by then City Representative Cortney Niland and seconded by Emma Acosta. Peter Svarzbein, Emma Acosta, Carl Robinson, Lily Limón and Cortney Niland voted in favor of accepting the settlement. Larry Romero, Michiel Noe and Claudia Ordaz were not present to vote. [2]

In the end, the City acknowledged that the art was taken down because a few members of the neighborhood had complained. That is how whitewashing in El Paso occurs.

Footnotes:

  1. Cabrera, Margarita. (Artist), in email with the author, March 26, 2015.
  2. El Paso City Council Meeting Minutes, City of El Paso, Texas, November 17, 2015.
  3. Artist Service Agreement between Margarita Cabrera and the City of El Paso dated October 2, 2012.
  4. Texas Open Records documents received by the author on June 8, 2015.

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