March 2014

Reflections on the Española Plaza


Tom Guthrie


When I tell people I find the Española Plaza fascinating, I often encounter disbelief. I hear that the Plaza is an empty wasteland, a failed social project, or the unfortunate result of mayor Richard Lucero’s grandiose dreams. I myself see the Plaza as a complicated space where Nuevomexicanos are creatively coping with the region’s double colonial history and negotiating New Mexico’s place in the United States.


Plazas were the heart of both Pueblo and Spanish town planning. Almost all the settlements around Española have plazas. Española, though, was a railroad town established in the 1880s. As such, it had a main street—the mark of Anglo-American enterprise—rather than a plaza.


In 1941 the rail line that made Española a regional center for agricultural commerce was abandoned. Two years later, the government established Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Española Valley has borne the Lab’s social and environmental costs ever since. Meanwhile, as northern New Mexico transitioned from an agricultural to a tourist economy, Española’s railroad origins became a liability. Española was less “modern” than Los Alamos but less “traditional” than the Pueblo and Spanish colonial settlements that attracted tourists. The city launched the Plaza project in the late 1980s in order to remake its public identity.


Converting a mercantile district into a Spanish-style plaza is difficult. After half a century of automobile-centered town planning and sprawl, it is probably inevitable that the Plaza would function more like an urban park than a traditional plaza. Two major highways converge just east of the site, dividing the Plaza from the rest of town. Original Plaza plans promised “gardens, flowers, trees, lawns and greenery,” typical of public parks in wetter parts of the country. Maintaining even modest vegetation on the Plaza has required steady irrigation.


People complain that the Plaza is deserted. Yet several recent developments have increased its vitality and suggest its potential. A veterans’ memorial (completed in 2003) and a bandstand (2008) have partially relieved the Plaza’s vast emptiness and attracted locals. And since 2010 the Northern New Mexico Regional Art Center has operated a gift shop and gallery in the Convento and offered art classes in the old post office (which closed in 2009).


Two themes compete on the Plaza: commemorating the Spanish colonization of New Mexico and celebrating the valley’s “tricultural” heritage. The “Arches of the Alhambra” commemorate Spain’s defeat of the Moors and Columbus’s voyage in 1492, two events that paved the way for the Spanish conquest of New Mexico. They thus symbolize European colonial dominance and a culturally and religiously purified Spain in the heart of the Española Valley. Water restrictions have frequently left the attached waterfall and fountain dry, though, diminishing the ensemble’s grandeur.


Three buildings planned for the Plaza—a Native American Center, Spanish Cultural Center, and Commemorative Spanish Colonization Center—have never been built, mostly due to insufficient funding.


The Bond House, which overlooks the Plaza, was supposed to serve as “a historical museum for the preservation of the Anglo culture and the mercantile business system,” according to the Plaza prospectus. Ironically, brothers Frank and George Bond, who came to Española in the 1880s, hardly embodied the spirit of harmonious coexistence the Plaza celebrates. They acquired large land interests, became successful sheep merchants, and dominated Nuevomexicano ranchers.


The crown jewel of the Plaza is the Misión-Convento, an adobe structure completed in 1996. The Misión is a representation of the church Spaniards built in 1598 at San Gabriel, the first Spanish capital of New Mexico. Relocating the church from its original site at Ohkay Owingeh appropriates some of the region’s most important history for the city. In the 1990s the ACLU charged that the Misión, built on public land with public funds, violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The city countered that the building was not a church but a museum. However, the installation in 2003 of reredos inside the Misión featuring images of New Mexico churches only further complicates the meaning of this intriguing building.


The Plaza is a national space. It received its first federal funding in 1989. Senator Pete Dominici, Congressman Bill Richardson, and other state and federal officials participated in the Plaza’s dedication in 1990. The American flag raised for the dedication had flown over the US Capitol. An image of the Misión appeared on a 1998 US postage stamp commemorating the Spanish colonization of New Mexico. The Veterans’ Memorial Wall also renders the Plaza an American national space. In 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama chose the Plaza for a rally that attracted almost 10,000 people. Yet Plaza ceremonies have also reasserted Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican claims to New Mexico. The next time you drive by the Plaza, look for the flags of Spain and Mexico flanking the U.S. flag.


Far from being a meaningless void, the Española Plaza exhibits bold, contradictory responses to colonialism. It advances a familiar discourse of multicultural coexistence even as it also tests the limits of Anglo liberalism. It celebrates Spanish colonization as a means of coping with American colonization, a strategy that ironically reinforces Anglo power by perpetuating the antagonism between Nuevomexicanos and Pueblo Indians. It confirms that northern New Mexico is an American region, destabilizing Anglocentric American nationalism and the sovereignty of the United States. And finally, in downplaying Española’s railroad origins, the Plaza reasserts Indian and Nuevomexicano dominance in northern New Mexico.




Tom Guthrie is a cultural anthropologist who has worked in New Mexico since 2002. His book, Recognizing Heritage: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Mexico, includes a chapter on efforts to commemorate Spanish colonization in the Española Valley.





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