June 2016

The Revealing New Mexican Landscape along the Rail Runner Line

New Mexico’s Living Open Book


Alejandro López



New Mexico defies easy understanding or description because, aside from being geographically diverse and immense—the fifth-largest state in the Union—it has a partially unbroken history going back thousands of years. That notwithstanding, New Mexico also possesses a cutting-edge contemporary dimension. It also comprises a complex mosaic of cultures that includes diverse Native American tribal groups—Apache, Navajo, Zuni, Keres, Tiwa, Tewa and Towa. Coexisting with these original communities are the more recent Nuevo Mexicano, Mexicano, Anglo, Jewish, African-American, Sikh, Islamic, Central and South American, East Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, Korean, Tibetan, Iberian Spanish, Filipino and other communities. New Mexico’s seven native languages, as well as variants of each, have been spoken on this land for many centuries. Spanish too, has a history of at least 400 years in New Mexico with two contrasting forms spoken—the older Nuevomexicano speech (now in sharp decline) and the relatively recent, predominantly Mexican form, which is heard nearly everywhere.


Adding to this extraordinary complexity, New Mexico’s population includes those born here and relative newcomers, highly liberal and staunchly conservative populations, rural and urban residents and, lastly, individuals and groups holding extremes of wealth and others who are abjectly poor and disenfranchised. Rarely do these diverse individuals or groups ever sit across from each other at the same table and attempt to cobble a common vision for the future or even discuss what New Mexico means to them.


For a long time, if one wanted to see a cross-section of the state and experience “the essence” of New Mexico—or at least that of its northern half—it was recommended that one travel along Route 66 from Albuquerque to Gallup or take the High Road from Santa Fe to Taos. Both routes enable the traveler to traverse some spectacular country and visit both Native American and Indo-Hispano villages while never leaving, for very long, the comfort of one’s car or the sense that New Mexico is an idyllic place far from the hubbub of Los Angeles or New York. 


A new route, however, has opened up in recent years that offers a different and perhaps more real and challenging picture of New Mexico. Cutting through a once-hidden backyard or rather, front yard of our state, the views it affords should leave us all attempting to piece together a new understanding of our region that should also prompt us to dialogue about the forces that, day by day, shape our reality and determine the quality of our lives. This route is the Rail Runner line that connects Santa Fe to Belen.


On the northbound journey from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, the traveler boards at the Alvarado Station, downtown. Aside from its faux California Mission-style buildings, the terminal could be anywhere in the United States, its grounds inhabited as they are by many homeless and transient people and an almost equal number of police and security guards. As the train begins to travel north, it cuts through the old warehouse district. The Wool Warehouse, where New Mexico’s once-plentiful wool was stored to later be shipped to Eastern states for processing, appears immediately to the west. Soon thereafter, along two or three continuous blocks, graffiti of the boldest and most unshackled kind—art of barrio youth having few other creative outlets—springs into full view. It is nothing less than mesmerizing and serves as a prelude to the grunge that is about to follow. 


For the next few miles, the traveler can observe in total amazement what were once the most hidden parts of the city, particularly the industrial sector. Here, heaps of scrap metal, obsolete machinery and wrecked cars—the detritus of the Industrial Age—reveal the equipment and fabrications that made Albuquerque the colossal energy-guzzling city it is. Of course, there are also innumerable garages, lots filled with delivery trucks, heavy machinery, piles of crates, scrap lumber, wire, plastics and a few commercial spaces that sport their wares of flagstone, electrical fixtures, cinder block, gravel, cement, iron and steel.


The industrial sector is followed by highly marginal, low-income, residential areas—the barrios. Everywhere, there are trailer courts, houses in need of repair, unkempt yards and lots full of nonfunctioning vehicles and industrial debris. Every now and then, the traveler sees pockets of neat residences, groomed yards, shiny cars, an athletic field and a community school. In its own way, the mauled-up landscape tells us that something in contemporary American urban culture causes many people to not care about their surroundings or, by extension, their communities. Could it be the stress and fragmentation of our times, the capitalist ethic of “take what you can, while you can, and the world be damned,” or the constant economic drain imposed on those who are poorest? Could this also be the result of insensitive annihilation of older cultures by those most powerful who have relocated here more recently?


By the time the trees grow thicker and an occasional open field appears on the northern outskirts of the city, the traveler may feel deeply relieved. And yet, the multitude of humble homes continues throughout this zone, as well, but now populated by children happily playing outside and occasional farm animals ambling about. The old acequia systems begin to appear in this area, as do unexpected palatial mansions of an Italianate style with circular turrets and dark tile roofs, in marked contrast to the haphazard, ordinary architecture of the common folk.


As the train leaves Albuquerque behind, more open pastures, cows and horses can be seen. Formidable views of the Sandia Mountains loom in the distance. On the horizon, too, are imposing smokestacks of a lone factory and glimpses of the steady line of vehicular traffic on I-25. The train quickly makes its way through an area of cottonwood bosque that signals its proximity to the Río Grande. Soon, the Rail Runner courses by Sandia Pueblo. Its neat pueblo architecture, the silhouette of a mission church against the magnificent Sandías and its profusion of earthen ovens provide the first really beautiful and coherent example of human habitation thus far on the journey. 


It is not long before the traveler enters Bernalillo, which suffers from some of the same social stresses as Albuquerque, although not as much. One gets the sense that people here are somehow happier and less frayed than those in Albuquerque. The journey through Algodones is nothing short of spectacular, given the nearby presence of bold, black volcanic mesas that outline the sky.


Shortly thereafter, the train whizzes by San Felipe Pueblo, where the Río Grande runs astonishingly close to a line of pueblo homes, but the people living there seem to have grown accustomed to this.


As one approaches Santo Domingo Pueblo, the train runs parallel to a large ditch brimming with water, but the fields are conspicuously fallow or planted only in alfalfa, no longer resplendent in corn or vegetables as they traditionally were. Nor do the corrals, just outside of the old pueblo, house many animals as they once did. Nevertheless, the enormous circular drum of the kiva, sitting in the center of the village, emanates an air of profound spirituality and enduring tradition, as does a whitewashed Catholic church. The regimented parallel lines of new, modern government housing notwithstanding, this pueblo also projects great cultural and architectural integrity.


Almost immediately after Santo Domingo, the train veers sharply to the east and passes under I-25. From that point on, the traveler is treated to an uphill ride through the pristine and rugged mountainous landscape southeast of La Bajada. From a window seat, the traveler sees up-close the multicolored bands of clay and other sediments that have built up over eons. At this point, it is also possible to appreciate the splendor of the Manzano Mountains to the southeast. 


This is the classical Southwestern landscape visitors to New Mexico have come to expect. But it does not last long because soon the train descends into Santa Fe. Unlike I-25, which steers clear of the New Mexico State Penitentiary, the Rail Runner comes within full view of the facility that is overwhelmingly populated with the poor and members of New Mexico’s original communities.


Unlike Albuquerque, the outskirts of Santa Fe boast solid middle- and upper-middle-class residential areas. The closer one gets to the city’s center, the more affluent it becomes, except for a few pockets where individuals and families have apparently chosen to live off the grid as much as possible. This is evidenced by more of a do-it-yourself lifestyle with numerous solar panels, water-catchment barrels and small workshop buildings for the artist or craftsman. 


Near its final destination, in a span where the train glides next to a wall that separates the tracks from a residential area, the traveler sees a series of murals, no doubt created by groups of carefully organized children from local schools or community centers. All of the murals are neat and feature the kind of iconography that fills tourist brochures—corrals with horses, chile ristras, multi-storied adobe pueblos and quaint villages. Although a most commendable job of community organization and mobilization, the murals nevertheless feel like an effort to perpetuate the myth that New Mexico is the Southwest equivalent of the “Peaceable Kingdom,” as depicted in Edward Hicks’ famous painting. By omitting almost any reference to New Mexico’s complex modern landscape, rife with social and economic contradictions and disparities of almost a Third World magnitude, there is a tacit agreement that they do not exist, let alone abound.


What would those murals look like if schoolchildren from all of New Mexico’s diverse communities were to ride the Rail Runner and, over many miles, scrutinize the landscape and take notes in an effort to read what it has to say about New Mexico’s history and current state of health and vitality? What would it look like if, upon reaching their destination, they got off and, after discussing critically with one another their impressions and understandings, they painted to their hearts’ content all that they had seen and what the future could be? Might they be inspired to reflect a vision for a more viable and vibrant New Mexico predicated on ecological responsibility, community and economic health, cooperative models of living, respect and social justice, and begin working toward it? Given that our present generation has not been able to make much of a dent in the 33 percent of children living in poverty in New Mexico statistics reported in this year’s Kids Count report compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore (as opposed to 22 percent nationally), perhaps hope lies in today’s children who choose not to avert their eyes.



Alejandro López is a northern New Mexico writer, photographer and educator who specializes in curriculum development and experiential education. alej@cybermesa.com




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