Understanding NM’s Complex Cultural History
Global culture, which American culture, politics, economics and technology have helped spawn, is a vast raging river that is pouring voluminously into the remote, expansive, rugged, ancient and (until recently) sparsely populated southwestern United States. This region has been the traditional homeland of Indigenous peoples for millennia and Mejicano/Hispano peoples for centuries. As a result of this longevity, an intricate mosaic of both sedentary and nomadic tribes, and later, primarily genizaro people (mixed Spanish and Indian) coexisted when they were not at odds with each other over land and resources. Life then, like now, was hard.
So locked into each other’s cultures were they, that in New Mexico, the heart of this vast region, prior to 1846 many of the Pueblo Indian people and the Mejicanos/Hispanos enjoyed the intimate ties of compadrazgo or the “godfathering” of one another’s children. Additionally, the Navajo developed a Mexican (Nakai) clan from their Mejicano/Hispano ancestors, while many (Nuevo) Mejicanos/Hispanos claim descent from former native captives of various tribes.
Subsequently, in the age of discovery, conquest and colonization (1598-1823), the Southwest, and New Mexico in particular, represented Spain’s northernmost holding in her world empire. By 1823, the region had slipped into the hands of the newly formed Republic of Mexico, which was then the world’s third-largest country. Although the people kept a trade route going with Mexico and later with the United States, they were mainly self-sufficient farmers, ranchers and pastoralists whose lives were built more around cooperation than competition, and they tended to be guided by deep religious/spiritual and community values over any others.
With the entry of the Americans and their powerful institutions, beginning in 1846 to the present, New Mexico underwent a complete makeover. The changes this culture wrought included the quelling of unsubdued tribes, the division of the peoples into separate ethnic groups, each with disparate federal policies governing them, appropriation of vast communal lands, clear-cutting of forests, wholesale extraction of minerals, laying of railroads, damming of rivers, imposition of a cash economy, of the English language, of compulsory schooling and Protestant evangelization. These were but a few of the more powerful forces that dramatically disrupted the traditional lives of New Mexico’s original inhabitants, whose descendants now comprise about half of the state’s total population.
Not only did many of these changes cause many native New Mexicans to abandon their homes and relocate to other areas of the Southwest (particularly to urban centers in search of work), but more importantly, they broke the communalism and strong ties to the earth that had been their greatest strength and source of spiritual and economic sustainment for as long as they could remember.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, other analogous and even more powerful forces were unleashed upon the land. Among them have been numerous global conflicts in which native New Mexicans were heavily represented, such as the installation of a nuclear research laboratory in Los Alamos. Along with automobiles, television and the digital and cyber-revolution has come unbridled tourism and the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Americans into the state, most of whom had economic ties to more prosperous areas of the country and substantially higher education levels, thus giving rise to distinct social classes. Finally there has been rapid urbanization and the sprouting up of endless national franchises, which now provide people with things they once provided for themselves.
The net effect of distancing people from their cultural and historical roots, while imposing too much externally determined change in too little time, has had the effect of either strengthening the original New Mexicans or of pulverizing them so thoroughly that many who have suffered land, cultural, linguistic, community and familial loss are in a state that could best be described as despondent. In many families (or what is left of them), social, cultural and economic confusion reign supreme as they do in cultural groups around the world that have undergone a similar process of colonization.
Add to this already exceedingly complex collage yet another voluminous stream of peoples that have come in recent decades from Mexico and Central America especially, many of whom face comparable challenges, joined by individuals from every known corner of the world. The end result of so many migrations by so many diverse peoples is a highly diverse contemporary New Mexico embedded in a country where it alone is a minority majority state.
Perhaps one of contemporary New Mexico’s most salient characteristics is that it harbors worlds within worlds that are still getting to know each other as they attempt to come together to solve the state’s most intractable problems. These include an incommensurate dependency on government funding, high levels of poverty, and generally poor levels of health—again, particularly among, but not exclusive to, the ethnic populations. When it comes to New Mexico’s youth, these conundrums are further compounded because youth generally lack the resources to address the ills that afflict them.
If one were to examine New Mexico closely one might almost conclude that the state resembles a puzzle in the process of being put together, sometimes with pieces of many different puzzles and sometimes without the pieces that should be there. Among the most persistent, perplexing and troubling of the misfit or missing pieces is the general lack of solutions for the state of crisis in which our youth disproportionately find themselves.
A national study published in 2013 called Kids Count, produced by Voices for Children and funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, concluded that the quality of life, based on nearly a dozen key indicators for New Mexican children and youth, ranked the state of New Mexico 50th in the nation. Among the most serious issues listed are the corrosive climate of poverty, poor nutrition, poor health, poor school attendance and poor educational attainment of too large a segment of the state’s youth population. Factor in the high incidence of teenage pregnancy, the high incidence of suicide and drug abuse/addiction, and it becomes all too clear that a large number of New Mexico’s youth are suffering through no fault of their own.
Toward a Solution
Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, in 2007 the New Mexico Community Foundation launched an intercultural Collaborative Leadership Program to assist diverse communities in building strong, effective and sustainable networks as well as supportive community infrastructure to improve the lives and outcomes of the state’s most marginalized children and youth. As part of the program the NMCF has facilitated collaborative leadership development among grantees and helped enhance the capacity of nonprofit organizations and community group networks that have a programmatic focus on improving the lives of children and youth in diverse communities.
Key to the success of this program was the identification of and support for the development of emerging local community leaders of color. To this end, the NMCF has provided capacity and community-building and the development of assets to support this work. Because skilled practitioners with cultural competence are often lacking in New Mexico, especially in the areas of community process facilitation, planning, community organization and advocacy, NMCF made provisions for bringing in seasoned community leaders who have been particularly successful in identifying and supporting marginalized youth in their communities.
Painter/photographer/farmer Alejandro López, a writer in both English and Spanish, studied with Lily Yeh at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and assisted her at the Village of Arts and Humanities in predominantly African-American and Puerto Rican North Philadelphia.