ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The families of two Barelas Marines killed in Vietnam are bitterly disappointed that a Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera sculpture honoring the two men was passed over in favor of another sculpture to be located in a park built in their honor on the campus of the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
As a result, the families of Sgt. Pedro “Pete” Padilla and Pfc. Gregorio “Manuel” Mora are planning a rally today in protest of the decision.
The cultural center’s new executive director — unhappy that the rally could disrupt the center’s annual tribute to labor leader and civil rights activist César Chávez — said the center followed its policies and those of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, and even went the extra mile in efforts to accommodate the families’ wishes.
As a result, a $125,000 sculpture by Santa Fe artists Cristina Gonzalez and Jacob Sisneros will be built in the cultural center’s Pete Padilla-Manuel Mora Memorial Park, even though the men’s families pressed for the Rivera sculpture, which depicts Padilla and Mora standing side by side.
Padilla and Mora grew up in Barelas, attended River View Elementary School — now the cultural center’s History and Literary Arts Building — graduated from Albuquerque High School, joined the Marine Corps and died 39 months apart in the jungles of Vietnam.
A few years after the Marines were killed, a small park in the Barelas neighborhood was named for Padilla and a tiny recreation center there was named in Mora’s honor.
But when construction on the Hispanic cultural center began in February 1999, the park and recreation center were unceremoniously razed, much to the chagrin of the families.
For years, the families and other supporters worked to replace the park and finally succeeded when ground was broken in July 2011 on the cultural center’s campus.
With the first phase of the park completed, supporters turned their sights on a sculpture to serve as a centerpiece for the park, tucked along the bosque at the cultural center’s western edge.
The cultural center sought proposals for the sculpture in February 2013 and received three qualifying submissions, said the center’s executive director, Rebecca Avitia.
Under the cultural center’s collections policy, all proposals go first through Tey Marianna Nunn, Ph.D., the center’s visual arts director, then to the center’s Collections Committee and finally to the center’s board of directors.
But, in this case, Nunn recommended that a “selection committee,” which would include members of the Mora and Padilla families, be set up to evaluate the three submissions and recommend one to the Collections Committee.
“That was a very intentional process by the center to give the community and the families a voice,” Avitia said.
The seven-member selection committee — which included Desi Baca, representing the Mora family, and David Padilla, one of Pete Padilla’s brothers — used a ranking system for each submission and the Gonzalez/Sisneros submission collected the most points, Avitia said.
The cultural center’s nine-member Collections Committee approved that recommendation and forwarded it to the center’s board, which also approved that selection.
A $125,000 contract for the Gonzalez/Sisneros sculpture, titled “Warriors Repose,” was finalized on March 6, Avitia said. The project is funded with state, county and city money.
The selection process is modeled after nationally accepted standards as outlined by the Public Art Network, she said. Deviating from those standards could negatively impact the cultural center’s ongoing efforts to become accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
“One of the important parts of this center’s creation was to make a place for Hispanic art to be shown,” Avitia said. “But until we are accredited, we can’t do that artwork justice. So no matter how uncomfortable it is to comply with these policies, we have to focus on this larger goal.”
Avitia said she certainly understands the families’ disappointment, but noted that the Warriors Repose sculpture will include separate interior plaques honoring Mora and Padilla.
“The appreciation of art is subjective,” Avitia said. “The way the museum world has dealt with that is through these collections policies and collections committees, trying to insert some objectivity into the process.” In such competitions, she said, disappointment is inevitable.
“That’s the down side of having a committee process,” she said. “The upside, though, is the objectivity and transparency.”
Baca, representing the Mora family, has said his group wants the cultural center to reverse its decision and to approve the Rivera sculpture.
“What they are asking for would be a violation of policy,” Avitia said, adding that accreditation agencies scrutinize how well museums adhere to their collections policies.
Following a meeting Friday with supporters of the Rivera sculpture, cultural center spokesman Randall Gann said Avitia and the group agreed to form a new committee in hopes of reaching some type of agreement on that artwork.