Just as it is impossible to gain an understanding or appreciation for the spiritual and cultural depths of New Mexico without opening oneself to the wellsprings of the state’s diverse native peoples, so it is with its immense legacy from México. After all, Nuevo México, as its name denotes, was once an integral part of México before the United States appropriated it in 1846. Presently, it shares a lengthy border with northern México, a historically porous region through which streams of people have traveled north and south for thousands of years.
Similarly, it is not easy to live in New Mexico without having to enunciate numerous place names such as Santa Fe, Santo Domingo and Las Cruces or, as one travels from place to place, to avoid the sight of descansos (roadside crosses), a testament to the pervasive presence of Mexican and Spanish Catholicism and culture. Often, the English language may have to yield to the Spanish of New Mexico or México, depending on the circumstances and whom one happens to meet. Studies reveal that a full 60 percent of Española’s residents, many from New Mexico and just as many from México, are speakers of Spanish.
In 1967, at age 16, I accompanied five Mexican seminarians, who were studying for the priesthood at a Catholic seminary in Montezuma, New Mexico, on a long and arduous road trip to their homeland in central México. There, I felt that I, too, had returned home, although I had never before set foot in México. My own sense of homecoming arose from the fact that nearly all things Mexican, in some form or other, were deeply embedded in the Nuevo Mexicano culture and landscape in which I had grown up. During the time I was growing up, however, “all those things Mexican”—and Native American, for that matter—were in a state of intense competition, as they often still are, with all things American. It is common knowledge that New Mexico is in the throes of a profound cultural tug of war that has left few things in their original places.
As soon as we crossed the border into Ciudad Juárez, my seminarian friends let out whoops of joy and breathed easier in a country that is, paradoxically, many times more formal and more informal than the United States. On the one hand, because México—and Perú—was the principal seat of vice-regal Spanish power in the American hemisphere, to this day, the spoken courtesies of the Spanish court tend to roll off the tongue of nearly every Mexican person regardless of his or her social stature; on the other hand, an entire meal of corn, beans, chili and squash-based pre-Columbian foods can be prepared for you on a brazier by a woman operating a business nonchalantly on the street.
During the two weeks I stayed in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit, in the midst of several highly social and deeply religious extended families similar to my own, I drank thirstily from the generous fountains of the deeply sonorous Mexican Spanish. Quickly, the New Mexican Spanish that we call “Mexicano,” which I spoke well enough, fused with Mexican Spanish, flowered, and took full possession of my senses, thought processes and emotional being. Equipped with the language and blessed with Mexican looks, I was free to go anywhere and immerse myself in the deep currents of a society that was both familiar and unfamiliar—a society that had been in the dual processes of formation and disruption for thousands of years, for México and Mexican people, if they are anything, are fundamentally native to this hemisphere.
The México that I encountered, though, was a postrevolutionary country quickly shedding many of its traditional forms—common to both Nuevo México and México—including the omnipresent adobe architecture, ubiquitous milpas (cornfields), acequias, horses, goats, mules and donkeys, hand-woven textiles, a profusion of pageantry, and even some aspects of the folk Catholicism that had almost become synonymous with our common culture. Operating at full throttle, contemporary México is intent on forging a modern outlook on the world, building an efficient infrastructure and competing in the world marketplace. Despite its enormous challenges—violence perpetrated by drug cartels and some civil unrest—México is still one of Latin America’s strongest economies, 15th among world nations. It is also one of the world’s most artistically creative societies.
Postrevolutionary México’s intellectual leaders have made a conscious decision to embrace, honor and celebrate its indigenous roots. In a spirit consistent with its dual cultural inheritance—Native American and Spanish—México is able to acknowledge the destruction and dislocation wrought by the Spanish conquest while preserving the gems of its indigenous and Spanish colonial past as it forges a path to the future.
It was a heady experience, then, to be among people who were a lot like me but, at the same time, were generally free of the conflict of having to choose American culture over Mexicano culture that resulted from the increasing social pressures that flooded our remote, formerly Mexican homeland. The conflict over identity that native Nuevo Mexicanos have had to endure for over 150 years has, in many ways, resulted in great damage to their psyche. At the same time, it has been the crucible that has forged the people into a powerful alloy and enabled them to accrue the benefits of the modern world and become equipped with tools for contributing greatly to their adopted country and beyond.
The forced acculturation of the Nuevo Mexicano people by American society has nevertheless eclipsed the process of self-definition in favor of definition by the prevailing dominant culture. When the cause for New Mexico’s statehood went before the U.S. Congress—repeatedly, in the late 1800s and early 1900s—the Mexicano people of New Mexico were cast by such people as Charles Lummis, advocate for statehood, as “Spanish” and not Mexican, in order to appease the intense prejudices many American people felt toward México.
After statehood, promoters of the fledgling tourist industry met to adopt a plan for opening up the vast region of Nuevo México to visitors from the East Coast. Once again, Americans opted to eclipse the Mexicano identity of Nuevo Mexicanos in favor of the more palatable, European-sounding “Spanish” in all of their promotional literature.
The Fiestas de Santa Fe in its present form, which highlights the Spanish reconquista and the conquistadores vis-à-vis the native peoples, originated early last century with transplanted Anglo cultural enthusiasts, who thought that such a spectacle would be a compelling draw to more money-wielding visitors. Unfortunately, this measure perpetuated two myths that may have done more harm than good. The first, that Nuevo Mexicanos are exclusively Spanish, tends to alienate them from other Mexicano people, native peoples and Latin Americans while bringing them no closer to the Iberian Spanish, who recognize little that is Spanish about them.
Although many aspects of Nuevo Mexicano culture, from santos to plazas and governmental institutions can be traced back to Spain, it all passed through the sieve of México and later through another sieve in the form of vigorous interaction with the Pueblo Indian, Apache, Navajo, Comanche, Ute, French and ultimately, American peoples. When they reemerged, the people’s institutions, worldview, customs, speech and even physiology were distinctly different from those who landed on the shores of Veracruz, México throughout the Spanish colonial period from 1519 to 1821.
The second myth is that that the original Spanish and their supposed Nuevo Mexicano progeny—to the exclusion of the English, Portuguese, French, Dutch or Americans—were the only brutal conquerors of this hemisphere and its native peoples. The emphasis on purity of bloodline and conquest has created points of friction between Native American and Nuevo Mexicano people that did not exist while both communities were helping each other survive prior to the advent of the Americans.
It should come as no surprise, then, that a people who have been alienated from their roots and made to feel bad about their culture and identity would, in turn, tend to treat recent Mexican immigrants with indifference, at best, and even see them as “other,” which happens all too often in New Mexico. Perhaps the wedge driven between these two communities—born of closely related histories and cultures—is most acutely experienced in public schools and the workplace. In both settings, individuals coming from a community whose Mexicano culture has been highly distorted and suppressed are obligated to interact with those whose cultural identity, language and traditions are mainly intact and whose hearts swell with pride at the mere mention of the word “Mexicano.” No doubt, a kind of sadness and deep sense of loss lingers in the hearts of many Spanish-surnamed Nuevo Mexicanos for whom their traditional culture is but a faint memory rather than a source of ongoing pride.
During a recent trip to southern México, I enjoyed a long and intriguing conversation with Don Julio, who speaks Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. By answering my questions, he shed light on how Nuevo Mexicano people and their worldview were shaped by this language, which recent Mexican immigrants, though brimming with many contemporary and idiomatic terms unfamiliar to Nuevo Mexicanos, come speaking as well, for Nahuatl is deeply embedded in Mexican Spanish. Interestingly, several Nuevo Mexicano words associated with intimate physicality and procreation come from Nahuatl. No name for twin exists in the Spanish of the Nuevo Mexicano except for the Nahuatl word cuate; no name for last born except for the Nahuatl word, chocoyote; no name for the female breast other than the Nahuatl word chichi; and no name for wet nurse other than the Nahuatl word chichigue.
As pertains to food, the traditional Nuevo Mexicano table offers more lessons in Nahuatl and other native languages. The food that accompanies people at the beginning and end of their lives is, of course, atole, a blue corn-meal gruel. Chile, maíz, calabacitas and papas are our staples. Quelites (wild spinach), capulín (chokecherries), chicos (parched corn) and posole (hominy) are all examples of Nahuatl food terms that Nuevo Mexicanos use.
In the realm of earth, the Spanish word lodo has gone the way of the metal coat of armor and, instead, the Nahuatl-derived word zoquete has replaced it. In Nuevo México Spanish, there are no buhos (owls), only tecolotes. Nor are there tinas (tubs), ruecas (spindles), or cuerda (string); instead, they are referred to as cajetes, malacates and mecate, respectively, all words that come directly from Nahuatl or Mexicano, as many Nahuatl-speaking native people refer to their language. Curiously, Mexicano is what our elderly, who spoke no English, called our people, our language, our food and even our herbs and home remedies until they were exposed to American culture. This fact alone speaks volumes and reflects the depth of the relationship that ties Nuevo Mexicanos to México and to other Mexicanos. It also supports the notion that, yes, México is over there—across the border—but también, it is over here, in our hearths, hearts and hectares and will be forever.
Alejandro López, a Nuevo Mexicano photographer and educator, visited and interviewed scores of Mexicano-speaking elderly in northern New Mexico in the mid-1970s. He has lived and traveled extensively through México and has taught in the Chicano Studies Department at the University of New Mexico.