The racial and cultural politics of northern New Mexico are tremendously complicated and fraught with conflict. This is primarily for two interconnected reasons. First, three major racial groups all compete for recognition and power–non-Spanish whites (Anglos in the local parlance), Hispanos (which is the usual term for what we might call Latinos in the rest of the country, but which also basically excludes recent immigrants), and Native Americans. Within those groups you then have divisions as well. Many people of course are mixed blood, but the politics of what it means to be mestizo are equally complex. Plus you have many different tribes who do not always agree. Second, the historical interactions of those racial groups are dominated by conquest and colonization, first of the Spanish over the Native Americans, then of the United States over both, and then of the rise of white tourist culture commodifying and fetishizing both the Native Americans and Hispano villages.
Though this is well-trodden in the scholarship of a number of fields, the anthropologist Thomas Guthrie usefully revisits the topic, exploring four different sites in northern New Mexico and the creation of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area to uncover how the official multiculturalism of New Mexico reinforces colonialism, even as both Hispanos and Native Americans buy into it in some contexts to make specific claims on the past and the present.
Guthrie examines four places for this study: the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, the portal outside the Palace where Native Americans sell goods to tourists, the mestizo city of Española, and the Hispano village of Las Trampas. The Palace of the Governors, the oldest administrative building in the United States, is today a museum. For years it was the New Mexico state history museum, but they built a new one behind it (which is OK, not great). But as Guthrie sees it, the focus on the exhibits now in the Palace tell a story that romanticizes the Spanish past while telling the story of Anglos through modernism and science in the exhibits about the building’s history, creating a (perhaps unintentional) narrative of brown people in the past, white in the present and future. Such a story is common in the tricultural mythology New Mexico that claims harmony but gives position of economic power and authority to white people, such as the famous murals in the Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico, displayed above.
Discussing the Puebloan peoples selling jewelry and other goods in the portal outside the Palace, Guthrie usefully notes the black hole that is arguing about authenticity, an inherently meaningless term but one with significant political and cultural power behind it. Ideas of authenticity have been used by both the museum and the indigenous people outside to exclude non-natives from selling goods there. Guthrie calls this a “staged authenticity,” but notes that those who criticize the idea of Native Americans selling goods in a commercial market at a historic site believe that real Indian “authenticity” somehow exists somewhere else rather than where actual Indians are living their lives. The “traditional” nature of the market might be a construction, but no more so than the ideas of its critics.
Española operates in an unusual space in northern New Mexico. Rather than an ancient village, it is a late nineteenth century railroad town. It is also the center of mestizo culture in northern New Mexico. Famous for its low-riding culture (you do see some crazy cars in that town) and its terrible heroin problem, the city is very New Mexican but lacks the classical physicality of the New Mexican town that draws in white tourists and their money, such as an ancient church and a plaza. To alleviate this, the city did put in a plaza in the 1990s, though this effort was opposed by many locals who preferred the city do something that would actually make a difference in their lives, like getting Wal-Mart to open a store there (which later happened anyway). The implementation of the plaza came out of the myth of triculturalism, assuming that the three cultures have lived in harmony for hundreds of years. Española also became the home of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area, which is a National Park Service project to provide funding that allows regions to develop tourist infrastructure. The NPS impetus for doing this was commemorating the arrival of the Spanish in 1598, an event fraught with controversy in New Mexico even today. Finally, Juan de Oñate’s first capital in New Mexico was just north of Española, in land he stole from the Ohkay Owingeh people. When a statue of Oñate was placed north of Española, indigenous people were deeply angry because of Oñate’s mistreatment of the Puebloan peoples, most notably at Acoma, where he cut a foot off the tribe’s warriors after they resisted conquest. The Hispanos meanwhile see him as a hero. Someone cut the foot off the statue. It was replaced. Today this statue still divides New Mexico and is possibly the most egregious monument to the conquest of what became the United States in the entire nation, although I realize there is some competition for that title.
Las Trampas is a very poor Hispano village in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It has always been poor, going back to its origin as a frontier village with poor soil and under attack from the Comanches. The theft of the village’s land grant (to say the least, indigenous people are not sympathetic to this issue) and the migration of people to agricultural picking in Colorado only made it more marginal. This is a deeply poor place. But its quaintness makes it attractive to visiting whites, even though there’s really nothing there to visit. This leads to battles between white preservationists and local villagers over developing the village. In the 1960s, when the state finally paved the highway through Las Trampas, villagers were happy to have access to the outside world but white preservationists freaked out over how close the road would run to the historic church and that it would change the village character. Such issues, such as whether to use traditional adobe on the church, still roil the waters there today. Again, tourism becomes a means of colonizing in New Mexico.
Is this history complicated enough for you?
At the core of Guthrie’s argument is the need to take poverty and wealth seriously in analyzing and understanding the region. The region’s cultural narratives are heavily depoliticized in order to facilitate triculturalism and tourism. That means that the vast wealth disparities between white Los Alamos and Santa Fe on one hand and the Hispano villages, pueblos, and the mestizo city of Española on the other must be central to the politics of New Mexico. That is most certainly a conversation that the wealthy whites of northern New Mexico do not want to have. It means taking water rights and the impact of the land grant thefts seriously. It means discussing the problems of mass tourism. It means moving away from mythology and colonization as the central tenets of modern New Mexico and actually dealing with the legacy of colonialism.
The book is good. It avoids most of what bothers me about anthropology. He talks about himself a lot like most anthropologists, but given the frank hostility white anthropologists face in a place like Las Trampas, there’s actual value there. There are some “field notes” sections inserted into the chapters about the National Heritage Area meetings that I don’t think work very well because they aren’t particularly connected to the chapter at hand. A minor critique. This is a solid work with real value for helping us understand the politics of arguably the United States’ most culturally complex place.