May 2015

Keeping Cultural Authenticity: A Santa Fe Story


A TEDx talk presented at Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque, New Mexico – September 2014


Andrew Lovato


Growing up in the 1960s, my friends and I rode our bikes up and down the streets of Santa Fe, and we felt like the whole city belonged to us. The Plaza in the center of town was where people met to catch up and do some shopping. Little adobe houses dotted the area.

When you think back to your childhood, do you get a clear picture of the place that made you who you are today? What is it like? Has it changed much?

Santa Fe is quite different now. The Plaza is lined with high-priced shops selling Southwestern art and turquoise jewelry. Real estate prices are astronomical around the heart of the city.

How did this happen? You could say it’s too much of a good thing.

More than a million people from around the world visit my hometown every year. What is it that draws them to my humble little community?

Could it be the magnificent Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the pure desert air or maybe the spectacular sunsets? Plenty of other places equal Santa Fe in natural beauty.

The mystique or illusion of Santa Fe is its calling card: people come to experience an adobe Disneyland of mesas and margaritas, a place quaint and frozen in time, rich in Spanish and Pueblo Indian culture and history. Santa Fe was the remote capital of Spain’s northern frontier in the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries. The people were mostly self-sufficient. They led lives far removed from outside resources, and a vibrant culture evolved. The art, traditions and religious beliefs of the people were a unique blend of Spanish and Indian influences.

How did this legacy create a recipe for one of the most popular international tourist destinations and the best city for shopping in America, according to last year’s USA Today readers’ poll?

Take a cup of historical revisionism (Santa Fe has not always been a paradise of cultural harmony; there have been many squabbles); add a sprinkle of stereotyping (Santa Fe residents do not live in a land of perpetual siestas); and add a layer of chocolate frosting (in 1957, the city passed a building ordinance requiring brown, adobe-style architecture downtown). Bake in an oven for a few decades, and what have you got? A tourist industry that generates over a billion dollars annually.

But culture is more than just a pleasant backdrop for commerce. At times, the line that separates authentic culture from commercial culture becomes blurred. Marketing art, architecture and festivals is central to places that cater to tourist dollars. This isn’t true only for Santa Feans but also native Hawaiians and Chinese San Franciscans.

No community wants to end up on the trash heap of “yesterday’s in spots.” It’s like what Yogi Berra said about a busy New York restaurant, “No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

Former Santa Fe Mayor Debbie Jaramillo captured the frustration of growing gentrification when she said, “They painted the downtown brown and moved the brown people out.”

At what point do stereotypes surrounding a culture become the reality? It can be argued that all cultures are mythical creations. What is important is not so much that cultures contain myth but, rather, who controls the development and perpetuation of these myths.

A classic example was the 1883 Santa Fe Fiesta that celebrated the 333-year anniversary of the founding of the city. In reality, the year being observed had no historical significance whatsoever. The anniversary was concocted as a way to promote Santa Fe business and tourism.

Maintaining authenticity ultimately lies in the hands of host communities. Tourists are hungry for new experiences, and they’ll eat what they are told is on the menu. Host cultures can prepare a cultural menu that guides visitors to desire a deeper and more meaningful experience.

It’s possible to maintain a flourishing tourist industry without killing the proverbial golden goose.

Tourism provides a tremendous social and economic boon. Newcomers provide influence and change that is the lifeblood of thriving communities, but it’s also possible to share a cup of water without giving away the fountain.

I’d like to propose three ways that cultures can maintain a degree of sovereignty and sustain strong communities:

First, promote cultural education to encourage appreciation of authentic culture and resist simplified stereotypes;

Second, create affordable housing to ensure that indigenous populations remain intact;

And lastly, encourage sustainable development that protects natural resources and creates an economic base that is not overly dependent on tourism.

We owe this to the children riding their bikes through their neighborhoods today and tomorrow, so they can declare, “This is my hometown,” as we once did. As they become part of the larger world, here’s hoping that they’ll feel a connection with their roots and cultural heritage.

After all, isn’t that what’s important in the long run? A hometown that still feels like home?


Through his writings, native Santa Fean Andrew Lovato, Ph.D., walks readers through an exploration of Hispanic and New Mexico cultures of yesterday and today. An associate professor at Santa Fe Community College, Lovato is the author of Santa Fe Hispanic Culture: Preserving Identity in a Tourist Town; The Year Zozobra Escaped: Featuring Zozobra’s Great Escape; and a contributing author of four other books.



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