As you know, I spent my holidays in the Land of Enchantment. Each time I visit New Mexico, I always try to gauge its political status. For many decades, New Mexico stood as the patch of Lefty Blue surrounded by the evil Right Red of Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah on the electoral map. For most of the twentieth century, New Mexico’s populace adopted a “live and let live” attitude. The people of the state probably weren’t progressive as much as they simply became disinterested in interfering in others’ lives.
Of course that attitude emerged after a bloody and difficult coexistence in the nineteenth century. Contrary to popular mythology, Mexicans in New Mexico had no desire to become part of the United States. Indeed, the people of Santa Fe wept as the U.S. military raised Ol’ Glory above the governor's palace. U.S. soldiers reported being haunted by the women’s anguished wails for years after the event.
With such an unhappy invasion, nobody (except President Polk) found it particularly surprising that violence ensued. Mexicans relieved the first U.S. governor of his mortal toil just a few months into his administration. Americans, of course, extracted a bloody revenge.
Perhaps the greatest stronghold of antipathy to the U.S. existed in southern New Mexico. Mexicans there rarely put up with Americans or their shenanigans during the nineteenth century. In one 1860 incident, Mexicans forcibly cleared out all the Americans from their town after a Euro-American gambler shot a Mexican woman in the street (he missed his intended target of another gambler). Don’t get the idea this was just an armed-Mexican mob. No, no. An elected Mexican official issued an order stating that Americans were no longer welcome. He then deputized the townspeople to accomplish his purpose.
It all seemed reasonable to the Mexicans. “We gave it a good try to share our town with you, Americans,” they said, “It turns out that you were all gun-packing, greedy little monsters. Now it’s time for you to go. No hard feelings. If you have left anything behind, we will mail it to you. Good luck – Go with God.”
The incident reminded Americans that they were the uninvited guests at the dinner party. Even the Chicago Tribune fretfully noted that, in New Mexico, Mexicans “appear determined on revenge, and being largely in the majority, the danger is indeed serious.” For over a day, the Mexicans kept their town totally American-free. They did so without injuring a single American. They might have implied injury would follow if the Americans didn’t leave the town, but they didn’t actually shoot anybody in retaliation. Then some crybaby called in the U.S. army, which quickly deposed the democratically elected official.
Yet, even that incident showed the compromise that would later dominate New Mexico’s politics. Mexicans in the town probably knew they could not keep Americans out forever. U.S. Army officials knew they couldn’t keep coming back every other month simply to allow Americans to live in the town. Therefore, they brokered a compromise with the townspeople. Mexicans could retain control over most civic functions, conduct government affairs in Spanish, and police the town. In exchange, they wouldn’t run the invaders out at gunpoint. It all seemed so fair.
Eventually the violence subsided and an uneasy peace emerged in the form of institutionalized multiculturalism. While certain problems existed with this model, the territorial (and later the state) government guaranteed that New Mexico’s Euro Americans and Mexicans would be considered equal, including access to government services. That might seem obvious, but it was not the governing philosophy of neighboring Texas or Colorado during the same period.
New Mexico and Hawai`i (another blue bastion) were the only states with a non-white majority for most of the twentieth century (joined recently by California and Texas). The past few elections, however, have shown that New Mexico might be overrun with a new population coming from its hateful neighboring states.
During this trip, I had an anecdotal encounter that confirmed my worst fears about the changing demographics. Now, I don’t normally go out of my way to eavesdrop. True, people watching can pass the time. Most times, though, I don’t leave home thinking about intercepting other people’s conversations. My own life is much more interesting. In this case, though, I found it impossible not to overhear.
I had made arrangements to meet a friend for coffee at an Albuquerque Starbucks© near the university. My friend became a bit delayed and I had forgotten to bring a book with me. So, as I drank a grande hot chocolate (why didn’t I order the venti?), the conversation from the next table drifted over to me.
From what I pieced together, the lead woman at the table recently moved to New Mexico from the dreaded state of Texas. Her table companions, originally from Seattle, came for a ski trip to the Land of Enchantment. They had little to say, though, as the Texan dominated the conversation.
Much of her time went to trashing the state. Nothing, according to her, was right about New Mexico. Here are some of the insights that she gave to her silent Seattle companions:
Now, I am not a psychologist, but it seemed to me that this annoying Texan-Girl had a mild case of culture-shock. She saw difference, became afraid, and reacted with hostility. Though Texan-Girl probably did not know it, her complaints and fears have circulated for the 160 years that Mexican-Americans have been part of the nation. Euro-Americans have long tried to stamp-out signs of cultural difference.
“There aren’t any Christians in this state. They are all Catholic.”
“I hate the food here. It’s always so spicy. People seem to like to see if you can tolerate the heat. It’s like a contest or something to see who can eat the hottest pepper.” [GayProf Note: This is true, though I have found that most restaurant food in the past decade has lost its edge to accommodate people like Texan-Girl]”
“Santa Fe is the only good place in the state. That’s because the Hispanics don’t control it anymore. If you go to the Hispanic towns, everything is run-down.”
“I went to a restaurant here and they had a section on the menu called ‘Gringo Food.’ That’s where they put things like hamburgers. I told the waitress that food was American food."
"Everything here is in Spanish and English: all the street signs, everything. This is the United States. We speak English in the U.S. This place has been part of the U.S. for, like, four hundred years. Get over it.” [GayProf Note: The U.S. invaded New Mexico in 1846, a mere 160 years ago, not 400. The U.S is currently 230 years old. Clearly she would not win any history awards.]
“It’s not like Texas. People here aren’t friendly. Some have even told me that I should go back to Texas if I don’t like it here.”
For whatever reason, they often obsessed about food. Much like Texan-Girl complained of the local cuisine, so also 1920s-Chicago social workers fretted about Mexicans’ diets in their city. They demanded that the recent arrivals to the city conform to their own arbitrary assumptions about “proper living.” They even established a recommended menu to replace the Mexican food that allegedly angered up the blood:
Breakfast: cornmeal mush with top milk, toast, coffee
Lunch: dried peas, bread with oleo, and stewed rhubarb
Dinner: pot-roast, bread, raisin pie, and coffee
Almost a hundred years later, it turns out that the Chicago social workers’ notions of “good American food” did not withstand the test of time. For some reason, most Americans just don’t find cornmeal mush a satisfying way to start their day. Meanwhile, Mexican food, or at least bastardized versions of it, has become so ubiquitous in the U.S. that few even think about it anymore. To my memory, I haven’t seen throngs of protesters circling the Taco Bell for being “un-American.”
Though her comments had racial undertones, I actually don’t think that racism per se fueled Texan-Girl’s disenchantment. In reality, I don’t think that her reaction would be unique to New Mexico or its population. I suspect that if she had gone to Massachusetts, she would have felt equally at odds with her surroundings and neighbors. Her complaints would be different, but not her basic frustration. What bothered her was that people lived and believed things different from herself. She did not expect to find a difference between Texas and the rest of the U.S. When she encountered it, she had nothing but ill-will.
This, it seems to me, is one of the (many) problems with the United States. A mythology exists that claims that “American” identity is universal. As a result, most Americans assume that how they live their lives must be how all Americans live. They interpret the expression “E Pluribus Unum” to mean that the nation must crush the differences of the many to make one.
Nostalgia for a mythical time of national unity paralyzes the nation. No such period ever existed. Instead, individuals and groups have come to understand their role in the United States based on their own experiences and practices.