HM - Nov. 2013 - Connors

Conference Feature


Why New Mexico Matters
Thomas G. Connors
University of Northern Iowa

Next spring, NCHE’s annual conference will meet in the middle of a state with a history that challenges an Anglo-Atlantic-centered narrative of early American history.  Its own story winds through Native American and Spanish settlement for centuries before it becomes part of the United States. Much that happened afterwards fits comfortably into the iconic West – the silver rush that left ghost towns in the southwest or the ranching wars surrounding Billy the Kid in the east.  Yet here Indian and Hispanic heritage has survived with greater continuity and influence than any other state in the union.

Diego de Vargas Inscription (1692), El Morro National Monument[Picture 1: Diego de Vargas Inscription (1692), El Morro National Monument]
One place to get a sense of this is at El Morro, an inscription rock rising above a waterhole along the old trail between two venerable pueblos.  On the rock face, you’ll find petroglyphs, inscriptions in Spanish dating from 1605, and in English beginning in 1849.  On top of the mesa above are pueblo foundations from about 1300.  This area of the Southwest, especially the Four Corners region, boasts the most spectacular ruins in the country.  In Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Bandelier, you can explore the cliff dwellings and great houses that housed the ancestors of the today’s Pueblo peoples.  From these upland areas, they moved into the Rio Grande valley and southward, where their descendants still live. 

Pueblo Bonita from mesa, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park[Picture 2: Pueblo Bonita from mesa, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park]
The trail beside El Morro runs between Acoma and Zuni, both pueblos that continue to welcome visitors. Acoma, a little over an hour west of Albuquerque, has claims on being the oldest occupied town in the country and one of the most dramatically situated.    Built atop a mesa by the thirteenth century, the adobe dwellings and kivas are dominated by the oversized seventeenth century church and vast landscape.   Until the last century, access was only via a narrow stairway carved into the cliff side.  Twenty miles north, beyond the Enchanted Mesa, Laguna Pueblo’s old village huddles around another old adobe mission atop a hill.   The annual festivities honoring St. Joseph’s Day, its patron’s feast, are held on March 19, the eve of the conference. 

Acoma Pueblo[Picture 3: Acoma Pueblo]
Acoma, Zuni, and Laguna all make some crucial points about the Pueblos.   Their people remain where they lived before the Europeans arrived, and continue to maintain beliefs, rituals, and sacred structures that predate the Christianity they survive along side.   They have long been Catholic, with churches and patron saints co-existing with ceremonial dances and underground kivas, syncretism in practice.   The pueblos themselves visually contradict any stereotype of traditional Native American villages as rustic nomadic camps.   Adobe structures, renewed regularly, reflect the permanency of these villages, nowhere better than the multistoried buildings on either side of the creek at Taos Pueblo.    More than anything else, the organic curves and changing colors of adobe as it absorbs the desert sun defines the “otherness” of New Mexico.

Taos Pueblo[Picture 4: Taos Pueblo]
The Spanish adapted the adobe architecture, as they began centuries of tumultuous interaction with the pueblos.   First came explorers and would-be plunderers like Cabeza de Vaca in the 1520s and Coronado two decades later.   In 1598, Juan de Oñate led colonists up the Rio Grande and set about establishing Spanish authority among the pueblos.  The following year his army attacked Acoma after it refused to give up supplies it needed for the winter, killing 800 residents and enslaving the rest, amputating the left foot of surviving men.  The great Pueblo Rebellion did not occur until 1680, but it successfully expelled the Spanish for a dozen years before the re-conquest by de Vargas, who, like Oñate, had his name carved on the side of El Morro. These leaders, dead for centuries, are still contested on the landscape.  In 2005, New Mexico sent a statue of Popé, the rebellion’s leader, to represent the state in the Capitol in Washington. The previous decade, soon after Oñate’s statue was erected in Alcalde, N.M., its foot went missing.   A statement explained the act, on behalf of Acoma Pueblo, as a reminder that not every group in state had reason to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his arrival.

Popé Statue, in the Capitol Rotunda, Washington, 2006[Picture 5: Popé Statue, in the Capitol Rotunda, Washington, 2006]

Oñate Statue (1991), Alcalde, with a replaced boot[Picture 6: Oñate Statue (1991), Alcalde, with a replaced boot]
Spanish colonists established their own estates and villages, with a capital at Santa Fe.  The Governor’s Palace there dates to 1610, the oldest government building in the United States.  Long part of Spanish and an independent Mexico, New Mexico shares with it a common past, although it was frequently left to evolve on its own on the periphery, far from Mexico City’s reach or attention.  As elsewhere in Latin America, Spanish and Natives soon produced common descendants, mestizaje.   Particularly after the U.S. conquest, racial tensions grew based on skin color, with lighter tones considered to favor Spanish ancestry and darker looked down upon as Indian.   

Morada, Ranchos de las Golondrinas[Picture 7: Morada, Ranchos de las Golondrinas]
Eighteenth and nineteenth century rural life can be glimpsed at the living history museum of Ranchos de las Golondrinas, with its fortified hacienda, mill, and farmstead.    There on a hillside is a morada, a meeting place for the Penitente brotherhood.   The Penitentes are among the least understood aspects of the mystical brand of Christianity hidden in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Easier to approach is the Santuario de Chimayó, north of Santa Fe, an adobe chapel dating to about 1814. The church houses amazing local art, including painted altar screens and an early nineteenth century crucifix, its Christ carved in olive wood for a brown complexion. In a side room near the altar, a discreet hole, regularly restocked, provides holy earth to the faithful.  Another room is full of crutches, braces, and devotional items left as ex votos in gratitude.

Santuario de Chimayó, a rendition of the sixteenth century Black Christ of Esquipulas in Guatemala[Picture 8: Santuario de Chimayó, a rendition of the sixteenth century Black Christ of Esquipulas in Guatemala]
These places give a sense of the cultural richness of New Mexico’s heritage, and how its diversity challenges the traditional narrative of our national past.    Forces of the United States arrived to occupy and begin incorporating the territory into the Republic in 1846, during the Mexican American War.  Inhabitants of Taos revolted the following year, killing the new territorial governor.  When the army arrived, Native Americans took refuge in the pueblo’s church, which the troops then destroyed.   Its ruins surround an old graveyard today, and greater Taos itself divides into the three peoples of its history: the Indian Pueblo to the north, the congested American tourist town in the middle, and Ranchos de Taos clustered around its adobe church to the south.

San Francisco de Asis Church, Ranchos de Taos[Picture 9: San Francisco de Asis Church, Ranchos de Taos]
It seems like every artist from Georgia O’Keefe to Ansel Adams has been drawn to capture the backside of the Ranchos church, and to the magical mixture of light and texture found in the region.  By the early 20th century, Taos had its own art colony, also attracting writers like Willa Cather and D. H. Lawrence, whose ashes are buried on his ranch near San Cristobal.   Santa Fe likewise has become a center for art, with museums, galleries, and a famous opera.   Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), is a fictional account of the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first bishop appointed after annexation to the United States and the builder of the cathedral in Santa Fe.    He travels throughout his new territory, fascinated and appalled by its exotic traditions, and determined to bring its customs into line with church policy.  

Archbishop Lamy Statue (1925), Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe[Picture 10: Archbishop Lamy Statue (1925), Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe]
The novel shows how quickly New Mexico’s history and landscape seduced Cather, who retells some of its best stories.    Today, parts read dated – finding out that the Indian boy who is the archbishop’s guide is married and that “boy” in this case denotes a lesser race.   Fr. Antonio José Martínez, in the book a backward opponent of Lamy’s reforms, has since been reclaimed as an educator, printer, and local leader, warranting a new statue in Taos Plaza.  From this perspective, Lamy’s French Romanesque cathedral looks out of place rising above the adobe streets in Santa Fe’s center.   Today, Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972) has become the state’s iconic novel, with its memorable depiction of New Mexican life and folkways in the 1940’s.  

Padre Martínez Statue (2006), Taos Plaza[Picture 11:  Padre Martínez Statue (2006), Taos Plaza]
New Mexico missed Gold Rush of California, the rise of the American Texan, and has largely ducked the Sun Belt retirees who flocked to Arizona.  It has attracted instead artists, skiers, hot air balloonists, boy scouts, and UFO seekers, an eclectic mix that leads to mind-boggling stuff like the mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by Sikh gurus at the Gurdwara in Española.  It’s a place to try the green chili and sopapillas, and rethink the paths more traveled in our versions of American history.    Trace the trail from Chaco Canyon to Acoma and beyond the Camino Real to Chimayó and Kit Carson’s adobe in Taos to find an American narrative that takes in different set of characters, stories, and perspectives.  The colonial experience here is Christian but Catholic, European but Spanish, and the natives remain where they were.   As the country grapples with issues of demography, diversity, and tolerance, New Mexico’s past and present offer plenty of insights to complement our national narrative. 

:  Our Lady of Guadalupe Fresco, Edward O’Brien (1975), Siri Singhasan e Khalsa Gurdwara, Hacienda de Guru Ram Das, Española[Picture 12:  Our Lady of Guadalupe Fresco, Edward O’Brien (1975), Siri Singhasan e Khalsa Gurdwara, Hacienda de Guru Ram Das, Española]
Suggested Readings:
The Contested Homeland: a Chicano History of New Mexico, edited by Erlinda Gonzales-Berry and David Maciel (2000)
New Mexico: a History, by Joseph Sanchez, Robert Spude, and Art Gomez (2013)
New Mexico: a New Guide to the Colorful State, by Lance and Katherine Chilton, et al. (1984)
Telling New Mexico: a New History, edited by Marta Weigle (2009)
It’s also worth looking at the columns at, anecdotes about the many people who don’t think NM is part of the United States. 
List of Illustrations:
1. Diego de Vargas Inscription (1692), El Morro National Monument
2. Pueblo Bonita from mesa, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park
3. Acoma Pueblo
4. Taos Pueblo
5. Popé Statue, in the Capitol Rotunda, Washington, 2006
6. Oñate Statue (1991), Alcalde, with a replaced boot
7. Morada, Ranchos de las Golondrinas
8. Santuario de Chimayó, a rendition of the sixteenth century Black Christ of Esquipulas in Guatemala
9. San Francisco de Asis Church, Ranchos de Taos
10. Archbishop Lamy Statue (1925), Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe
11. Padre Martínez Statue (2006), Taos Plaza
12. Our Lady of Guadalupe Fresco, Edward O’Brien (1975), Siri Singhasan e Khalsa Gurdwara, Hacienda de Guru Ram Das, Española