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Race and History in New Mexico

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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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