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Race and History in New Mexico



Race and history in New Mexico are contested in a way unique to the United States. This has to do with discrete historical events that took place in the Land of Enchantment and the layers of conquest the state deals with today. What you had in 16th century New Mexico was a lot of small, semi-sedentary tribes (the Puebloan peoples) with some larger, raiding tribes on the edges like the some of the Apache groups and the Navajo. When the Spanish sought to expand their control north of the central Mexican silver regions, they followed the same basic trail that indigenous people used in their trading networks, going up the Rio Grande and originally establishing a capital at what the Spanish would later term San Juan Pueblo (unlike the other Pueblos, the people of San Juan have reclaimed their indigenous name and now are referred to as Ohkay Owingeh. This just happened in the last few years). The Spanish were led by Juan de Oñate, a would be next-Cortes or Pizarro who hoped to find gold and silver farther north. When Oñate arrived in New Mexico, he kicked the Ohkay Owingeh out of their homes, expected the native peoples to feed and house and work for them, and basically treated them like conquered people. When they resisted, he responded harshly, particularly at Acoma Pueblo. On a mesa west of modern-day Albuquerque, the Acoma had a great natural defense and thus took a major toll on the Spanish forces. But the Spanish eventually conquered Acoma. Several hundred Acoma were killed. More notoriously, Oñate ordered a foot cut off of all men over the age of 25 to show Spanish resolve, although only 24 actually received this punishment. The Acoma were sent into slavery, although they eventually returned and the pueblo exists today.

This is the first major racially contested event in New Mexican history. The second is the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when the pueblos united, except for Laguna which stayed with the Spanish, to kick the Spanish out of New Mexico. This is the only successful Indian revolt in the history of the Americas. They mutilated the priests, burned the churches, and tried to reinstate pre-Spanish life. This didn’t prove possible. It seems that they leaders of the revolt were fundamentalists of a sort and a lot of people didn’t want to give up their European livestock, guns, pots, etc. So divisions developed. This event caused a major panic among the Spanish, who saw it (rightfully as it turned out) as a sign of their nation’s waning power and inability to control its northern frontier. They were exiled to El Paso, where in 1692, led by Don Diego de Vargas, the Spanish came back north and took the pueblos back over. While the violence involved here wasn’t as brutal as what led to the Pueblo Revolt, it was a military conquest with a lot of casualties. In the aftermath, a weak Spanish state had to ally with its reconquered pueblos to battle the newly powerful Comanche, Apache, and Navajo, all of whom benefited from the horses the Spanish left behind in 1680 to establish themselves as powerful military forces. That’s especially true of the Comanche, who was the most powerful nation between the English colonies and the Pacific in the late 18th century, including the Spanish.

That’s the second major racially contested event in New Mexican history. The third is the U.S. takeover of New Mexico during the Mexican War and the subsequent dispossession of the Spanish land grants later in the 19th century. The establishment of American-style white supremacy in New Mexico, which certainly never fit the American racial binary and which the U.S. had no idea what to do with (thus New Mexico did not become a state until 1912 despite easily meeting the population requirements. But could these people be citizens? Not according to many white Americans), challenged the Spanish elite. This led to the myth of Spanish purity that elite Hispano New Mexicans (including I believe the current governor, Susanna Martinez) hold on to. This states that many Spanish never intermixed with Indian blood and thus are pure-blooded European and white. This is totally absurd and without real evidence at all. Theoretically I suppose it is possible, but c’mon. I guess Oñate’s troops are the only troops in the history of American conquest who never saw indigenous people as potential sexual conquests. But the elites of New Mexico hold on to this fiercely because it was their claim to whiteness and power in a time when it was challenged. That they still hold on to it today is frustrating because a) you know, it’s OK to be Mexican in 2015 and b) it’s really about class and elite status as much as about race and so it’s still about exclusionary politics. When I was at the University of New Mexico teaching History of New Mexico courses, I had students drop them because I said the myth of pure Spanish blood was ridiculous.

All of this leads to a racial politics unlike anything else in the U.S. because all three groups–indigenous, Hispano (the preferred term there) and Anglos (which covers every non-Spanish white person from English to Jews; you can guess how much my Irish-American wife loved being called an Anglo) are in New Mexico in large numbers, each with access to power and official narratives of history. What’s largely happened is a sort of myth of racial peace where all three groups get along. It’s a good way not to talk about these things too much. What’s really happened of course is that Anglos are rich and living in Santa Fe, Taos, Los Alamos, and nice neighborhoods of Albuquerque, Hispanos are of mixed economic status but with a lot of poverty, and Indians are poor. And note that this is really only a story about northern Mexico. Eastern and southern New Mexico are largely totally excluded from all of this; there you mostly have white ranchers and oil towns with large Mexican populations that look a lot more like Texas or Arizona.

But sometimes the racial tension bubbles to the surface in ways that really upset those who want to believe in the myths. That’s especially true of the Hispano elites when the Pueblos push back on the history of their conquest covered up. In 1998, to mark the 400th anniversary of Oñate’s conquest, Hispanos put up a large statue of the man near San Juan Pueblo. In response, members of the Acoma tribe came over and cut off its foot. This was a major story in New Mexico that resonated in New Mexico for years.

I mention all of this because one of Santa Fe’s major festivals is the annual Fiesta, which includes a reenactment of Don Diego de Vargas’ reconquista of New Mexico in 1692. This year, for the first time, indigenous people protested.

Until this year, when Jessica Montoya handed out 25 black T-shirts emblazoned with the date 1680, the year of the Pueblo Revolt against the ruling Spanish, who then turned the tables on them 12 years later.

“Native Americans were killed in the process,” says Montoya, 32, who works at a nonprofit that empowers women in Española but also calls herself a social activist. “But I wouldn’t call it a protest. We were just there to add on to the story: that Native Americans suffered the consequences of the reconquest.”

In a debate that is really divided along racial lines, the political repercussions have already carried over into Santa Fe City Hall, where Councilor Peter Ives suggests that maybe it’s time to talk it all out, suggesting that the city hold an all-day symposium once a year.

“I’m just thankful no violence broke out,” Ives tells SFR, suggesting that symposium be held between the Indian Market and Fiestas.

Councilor Joseph Maestas, in the same sort of compromising vein, says another idea might be to have the city’s historian, Ana Pacheco, review the history to make sure the re-enactments are “consistent” and “respectful” of history.

Meanwhile, Mayor Javier Gonzales, who actually played the controversial role of de Vargas in 1989, took to social media to state his opinion a day after the Entrada.

“I do believe it’s time that we be truthful about the actual events that occurred during the resettlement,” Gonzales writes on his Facebook page. “De Vargas by all accounts was a religious man of peace but force was still used to resettle Santa Fe and the indigenous people were forced to adopt Christianity as their religion.”

Hard to say what will happen, but it’s about time that the real discrimination against Native Americans in Santa Fe become part of the conversation.

But Mary Eustace, a Native American from the Cochiti-Zuni tribes, doesn’t have to travel back in time to witness discrimination due to skin color. She says she sees it every day in her job selling jewelry, and she had a front-row seat at the Palace of the Governors over the weekend.

“They come by us and they yell, ‘Que Viva, Que Viva La Fiesta!’” Eustace says. “They march right by us, never really thinking how we might feel about the situation. A lot of people call us Indians but we’re not Indians. We’re Natives, and we’re Natives of this country. And we struggled back then, and we still struggle today.”

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the Fiesta and its Vargas pageant is racist.

On top of all of this is the reality that for all of Santa Fe’s symbolic importance for New Mexico, the city has become increasingly white and very rich, pushing out the Hispano and indigenous people who once could live there and who still do the work of serving these wealthy white New Yorkers playing out their cowboy fantasies and going to $200 restaurants. So this is a racialized battle between two groups while the dominant racial and economic class is who actually lives here.

In other words, New Mexico is a really complicated place.

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  • Coconinoite

    Well done. I say the same, to folks not from here. It’s complicated, and you don’t know New Mexico until you understand it’s history. Some of this plays out in my normal work day on a regular basis, since I often work very closely with Anglo, Hispano, and native locals in northern NM.

    As a related aside, a 50-ish person I know from Clovis claimed she was Italian after she moved to another state (where I knew her, a few years back). I didn’t understand it then (it was obvious she wasn’t Italian), but I do now. And it’s desparingly disturbing that anyone would need to deny their heritage in order to feel acceped in society, but that’s also New Mexico.

    • Murc

      I didn’t understand it then (it was obvious she wasn’t Italian)

      Italian as in from Italy, or Italian as in Italian-American?

      Because the latter is deeply tricky to judge by looks alone. I have a reasonable claim to being Italian-American, as my father is about as Sicilian as it is possible to be; we can produce family records going back to the 1500s on both his fathers and mothers side.

      I’m a pale-skinned, freckly, green-eyed, straight-haired, skinny rail of a man. The only thing that stops me from looking a stereotypical Irishman is the lack of red hair. But still… Italian-American.

      • Denverite

        Italians are similarly diverse in appearance. Northerners look more like Germans or Austrians than they do like Southerners. For example, one of our good friends is from near the border with France. She has a pale complexion with red hair (plus her name is one traditionally associate with the Alps region).

        • Origami Isopod

          Yes, and even in the south there are people of lighter coloring, because of all the waves of invasions. In the US we don’t tend to think about that because Italian-American immigrants were overwhelmingly southern and darker-complected.

      • Coconinoite

        Not by looks, but by typical cultural references that Italian-Americans use. She had none, but had plenty of Hispanic cultural references, and spoke fluent Spanish. There was a possibility that her family could have been descended from one of the Italian migrants that came over to work in the coal mines, but her family was apprently long settled in eastern NM, which would have likely precluded Raton or Gallup coal mine work. (I have coworkers descended from some of the Raton Italians and still maintain plenty of Italian cultural references.) I seem to recall both her mother and father were born in eastern NM well before the Italians came over.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Doesn’t that say something about discrimination in other parts of the US? That it’s better to be Italian than Spanish? Because Italian seems American now, but Spanish just isn’t on our mind in The Story of Murka, so Spanish = furriner?

  • BiloSagdiyev

    I bet Columbus Day is fun there, too.

    • Not really a big deal actually. New Mexicans get angry about things that happened in New Mexico. There’s enough there that something like Columbus Day rarely comes up as particularly controversial.

      • Denverite

        It’s a huge source of tension here. Denver has a pretty big (and for a variety of reasons, well-off and conservative) Italian-American community who really love them some Columbus Day parades.

    • Coconinoite

      We call that indigenous peoples decimation day.

      • Bill Murray

        we call it Native American Day

        • DrDick

          Same her in Montana.

          • Woodrowfan

            we’ve still got Lee-Jackson Day, so ditching Columbus Day isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

  • DrDick

    Good piece, though I have a couple of quibbles. Firstly, in the 16th century, the Puebloans had far larger populations than the Apacheans (which includes the Navajo, whose Spanish name was originally Apache de Navajo and who call themselves Dine, as do the other Apaceans). Depopulation in consequence of Spanish conquest and colonization severely diminished their populations. The Shoshonean peoples, including ancestors of the modern Commanche were a much bigger threat.

    I would also add that the myth of pure Spanish blood is also very strong among upper middle class and upper class Mexicans in Mexico. The irony, is that the Spanish conferred legal “whiteness” on indigenous nobles and royalty in return for their cooperation in the subjegation and exploitation of their peoples almost from the beginning. As such, they could legally intermarry with the actual Spanish colonist and routinely did so. It is doubtful that anyone in Mexico is “pure Spanish”, other than fairly recent immigrants

    • Brian Schmidt

      DNA analysis ought to handle the pure-blood myth pretty handily. I’ll bet it already has.

      • Timurid

        This reminds me of a messy dispute that happened in my father’s Mexican-American family (from Texas, not New Mexico). The accepted story was that they were of “pure” Spanish stock… aside from a few Sephardic Jewish ancestors. The Jews were supposed to explain those random people in the family who looked Middle Eastern or even South Asian (my grandfather could have played Nehru in a movie).

        Then in the 1980’s one of my great aunts took up genealogy as a hobby. She ended up researching and writing up a comprehensive family tree going all the way back to the colonial era. She found no Jews. She did find a bunch of Indians. Hilarity ensued…

  • Hogan

    “I’m just thankful no violence broke out,” Ives tells SFR, suggesting that symposium be held between the Indian Market and Fiestas.

    Heaven forfend that any outbreak of violence intrude on our celebration of a bloody military conquest.

    • You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!

  • This is fascinating, Erik. Thank you.

    • joe from Lowell

      Totally the right call to post this instead of his second choice, “Race and History in New Hampshire.”

      • Murc

        That would actually probably be a very interesting post in its own right, especially one that focused on the fact that lily-white libertarianish no-income-tax services-vampire New Hampshire plays an out-sized role in the nominating processes of both our major political parties, and how that electorate and the need or desire to pander to it on a national level affects racial discourse nationwide.

        It wasn’t really THAT long ago Pat Buchanan took the state, after all.

        • Lee Rudolph

          “Take New Hampshire—please.”

        • joe from Lowell

          I think we have very different senses of the word “interesting.”

          Such a post would be worthwhile. It would be informative.

          It would be…well…sort of like homework. Whereas the New Mexico history is actually interesting.

          • Murc

            You’re really denting this image I have of you being this ultimate New England political history nerd, joe.

      • Are the French Canadians white?

        • Murc

          Well, Ben Franklin wouldn’t have thought so. Who are you to argue with the man on the hundred?

          (Seriously tho, Franklin was out of his goddamn mind when it came to his racial taxonomies. The guy didn’t think the French were white. Or most Germans. Or the Scandinavians.)

          • Ahuitzotl

            so … just the English, and maybe the Scots? I bet the Welsh were out too.

        • joe from Lowell

          Heh. Just for that, I’m going Full Metal Otto:

          A couple weeks ago, I was walking down the street, and I see two young guys walking towards me. Black guys, talking with each other. As we get closer, I can hear that they’re not speaking English. As we get even closer, I realize they’re speaking French. African immigrants, they were.

          I wonder when was the last time two teenaged guys walked down the street in Lowell chatting in French. The 20s? The 40s?

          • J. Otto Pohl

            I fully endorse the term “Full Metal Otto.”

            • “FMOtto” sounds to me like a sneeze!

              FulMOtto sounds a bit like fulminate.

              FuMetotto is just fun to say!

              Damn it! I need to sleep!

        • Matty

          Not according to my dad!

          In all seriousness, he went off on a tangent one time, when he was musing about how the world had changed since he was a kid, where he talked about the way that the Yankees he and my granddad worked with talked about French Canadians, including extended quotations from various groundskeepers, farmers, and teachers about the untrustworthiness of the French Canadian. It also included a couple of what I gather to be ethnic slurs about French Canadians, but I can’t recall any off the top of my head. It was a bizarre little conversation.

      • DrDick

        On the other hand, the last native speaker of Narragansett died in the late 1930s.

        • Woodrowfan

          “Bye Neighbor”

    • Vance Maverick

      Yes indeed.

      But is anyone seeing a multilingual paragraph of spam at the beginning of the post? (ETA: it changes on refresh.)

      • Hogan

        Not me. (Is it under the photograph?)

        • Vance Maverick

          No, before it. It’s a fair bit of text, in garbled Spanish, Italian and French, with links that shouldn’t be clicked on.

  • GCoben

    I really enjoyed this. In the same vein, I’d like to recommend a book that sets forth a similar history of Arizona,and particularly Tuscon, by historian Karl Jacoby,Shadows at Dawn. It is centered on a massacre of Apaches at Camp Grant.

  • Thanks for this, Erik. I live in Santa Fe and agree with pretty much all you’ve written. The contrast between Spanish market and Indian market is pretty striking, and the animosity you note is very real. I have several friends who trace their family back centuries. It is remarkable that, as you write, they absolutely deny any Native American blood at all. The notion, as you point out, is absurd. Several thousand male Spanish soldiers came back with de Vargas. No mixing of blood after that? That’s nuts.

    And yeah, Santa Fe, especially the east side, is now pretty much an enclave of second home owners from Texas and Oklahoma. They have little to no interest in local issues, such as public school stuff, and are, as a group, quite racist in my experience. They want local color, but not in their neighborhood.

    My son is a 7th grader and is taking the required NM history course. I actually have been impressed with the text they’re using. It gives a pretty nuanced description of all this stuff. We talk about it a lot and his teacher seems quite insightful.

    • Murc

      They have little to no interest in local issues, such as public school stuff

      I have a friend who lives out in Henderson, NV (suburb of Vegas) and they’ve been having a devil of a time with their expatriate population, because those people are residents and they do vote, but they’re all retirees with no families in the area.

      Which means things like trying to do property reassessments or float a goddamned municipal bond are damn near impossible, because they care about low taxes and could give a shit if the local schools are falling apart.

      • Bitter Scribe

        Do they care about their property values? Because shitty schools drive those down. (That’s how my mother, rest her soul, used to convince her friends to vote for school funding.)

        • Murc

          You know, I’ve never asked. I have to imagine it be less of a concern to them than others, tho. If you’re a young person with your whole life ahead of you who is taking on debt to buy a home for your family, the value of the property is gonna be real important to you. If you’re old and buying a house you intend to be carried out of, it might not.

          • Bitter Scribe

            True enough, especially since higher home values mean higher property taxes.

            OTOH, if you plan to sell out and move to a retirement home, or maybe leave the place to your kids…

        • Michael Cain

          So long as there are more retirees moving in than dying, the property values will continue to climb. Look at the property values and rents along Front Range Colorado, where people continue to pour in faster than the builders can put up new housing.

          Of course, the Gallagher Amendment holds down Colorado residential property taxes to a considerable extent…

    • Coconinoite

      Please tell me the history teacher is at ElDo? Or one of the charters?

      And yes I wholeheartedly agree with paragraph 2. “I’ll war my cowboy hat and silver belt/jewelry, and hire them to clean my house or work in my yard, but I don’t want to actually have to mingle with any of them.”

      A Taos colleague told me a story about how a Hispanic friend, who has a part-Taoseno daughter, would fervently trash Taosenos and Taoseno Pueblo culture. Blew my mind.

      • Bitter Scribe

        He obviously stopped trashing them long enough to get with his daughter’s mother.

        • Coconinoite

          Switch genders. “She obviously stopped trashing them long enough to get with her daughter’s father.” The reality is that they are likely all a combo of Taoseno and Mexican and Spanish.

        • Origami Isopod

          “I can’t be racist, my SO is [ethnicity goes here]!” is as old a dodge as “… I have a black friend.”

          • Hogan

            “S/he’s one of the good ones.”

    • Bill Murray

      No mixing of blood after that?

      none that they claim in their own bloodlines

    • MikeMikeMike

      Which text? I also have a 7th grader here in Santa Fe and his class is using The New Mexico Journey. I had a chance to talk with his history teacher a couple of weeks ago and she spoke quite highly of the book.

  • Bitter Scribe

    New Mexico may have its racial/historical problems, but it still has the coolest flag of all 50 states.

    • Woodrowfan

      2d coolest. Ohio has the best one…

      • rea

        Oh, you mean the Obama banner?

    • witlesschum

      I gotta love Louisiana. Pelicans, because.

    • MikeMikeMike

      Awesome flag. And some pretty cool license plates to boot.

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  • j_kay

    But aren’t the repeated conquests OF the Spanish by the many groups like the Comanche more important than rebellions? They were beaten alot by every plains tribe and the democratic Mapuche.

    Remember, white stupid refusal to see real maps just makes us whites stupid, not smart. Especially since white maps were absurd evil to their users for three centuries. It was from the start of the 16th century to the 19th century, half a century after Colt’s Colt that made the difference finally after centuries.

    The second contested racial event was the Spanish mass-enslaving everybody unwhite.

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