You get your history first in this posting.
The oft-told stories of America’s development often paint an incomplete picture. Schoolkids learn how the British, French, and Dutch colonized the East Coast of North America; about the slow but steady subjugation of native tribes there and beyond the Appalachian Mountains; of Spanish missionaries’ seeding the faith in what is now California; and about pioneers’ migration through and eventual settlement of the desolate inland West.
But Spain’s other adventures on the continent get short shrift. In 1565, 42 years before the first British settlers even reached North America at Jamestown, Virginia, Spanish admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles dropped anchor and settled down in what is now St. Augustine, Florida. He planted the Spanish flag and claimed all of Florida for his king and queen.
Menendez and his troops quickly obliterated Fort Caroline, a meager fortification that French Protestant Huguenots were trying to establish nearby, then set off to explore the rest of the Florida Peninsula. In time, Spain would claim and halfheartedly control the entire Gulf of Mexico coast as far west as present-day Louisiana.
By that time other Spaniards were entrenched in the Far West as well. Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capital city, was founded in 1610 — 166 years before Americans got around to declaring independence from their British colonizers.
So for a couple of hundred years, Spanish, as much as English, was the language of the land, and a string of Spanish missions ran all the way from Texas, across New Mexico — which included what is now Arizona — and up into California as far as San Francisco.
But today, let’s zero in on New Mexico. Again, it was the very northern part of New Spain above the Rio Grande River, and later Mexican turf, long before Americans got hold of it via a brief war with Mexico in 1846-47.
To this day almost half of New Mexico’s population speaks Spanish regularly, many as a first language. And the people who preceded the Spanish — American Indians, primarily Navajos and Apaches — are an integral part of the culture. Living primarily in 19 pueblos, or villages, they make up 10 percent of the state’s population. Indian pueblos are tourist attractions, and the native people’s turquoise jewelry and multicolored, hand-woven rugs are spectacular.
Much of New Mexico was so empty and arid that the U.S. government felt free to develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos and White Sands in the New Mexico desert in the 1940s, and the personal computer was invented in the state’s largest city. That’s Albuquerque, a place of half a million people whose name few people I’ve met can correctly spell.
Nor can New Mexico itself, apparently. The name is borrowed from a Spanish town, Alburquerque. That place got its name from the Arabic “Abu-al-Qurq,” or “Land of the Cork Oak” from the days when North African Moors controlled the area, on the Portuguese border.
The story of how New Mexico lost the first “r” in Alburquerque is an interesting diversion: In 1706, the settlement in the New World was founded and named for a duke from the Spanish place, and spelled “Alburquerque,” with both r’s, just like the duke did. It was only after gringos — the Americans — took over the little New Mexico town two and a half centuries later that the first “r” disappeared on maps and signs. Apparently we, today, aren’t the only ones who find the name hard to spell!
As you read on, visualize a “Land of Enchantment,” as New Mexico justifiably calls itself. Every clear day in full view of many lucky New Mexicans, the shimmering sun dances among low purple mountains and the higher, redder Sange de Cristo range. Sangre de Cristo: Spanish for “Blood of Christ.” Red rays even stretch in four directions on the New Mexico flag to emphasize the state’s reverence for the sun.
Years ago, Tim Gallagher, then editor of the Albuquerque Tribune newspaper and now a California public-relations man, traveled extensively across America and enjoyed it. “But,” he told me, “I love no land like New Mexico in the morning.”
Each morning when he watched the sunrise over the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque, he thought of the English writer D. H. Lawrence, who once visited New Mexico and was enthralled. “‘Touch this country,’ Lawrence wrote, ‘and you will never be the same again.’”
Thousands of artists have moved to New Mexico just because of its vivid, yellow light. Georgia O’Keeffe — the legendary painter of weathered cow’s skulls and flowers and desert landscapes mixed into the same painting — was one of them.
My VOA colleague Bill Torrey, normally a fairly hardboiled reporter, effusively described his first New Mexico visit. “Thirsty trees, mostly cottonwoods, crowd the riverbanks,” he reported. “And an emerald ribbon of irrigated fields leads you south, right into the heart of Albuquerque. Like Santa Fe, it’s a city of tans, golds, and browns.”
Colors again. Colors everywhere, in New Mexico’s art and jewelry, its mountains and missions, and what seems like a sea of adobe in Santa Fe — much of it a faux knock-off of the original. Impish colors, too, on the hundreds of hot-air balloons that waft over Albuquerque during its Balloon Fiesta each October.
The state delivers culinary fire in the palate-searing green chili served in Spanish-speaking villages. Savoring it — slowly and carefully with handy glasses of ice water or beer — you can almost feel the march of the Spanish conquistadors arriving from Mexico. What I like best, though, is New Mexico’s unhurried pace. You don’t see many suits and ties or people with briefcases rushing about. It’s laid-back Louisiana with a Spanish accent.
But there’s a less idyllic side as well. There is wrenching poverty and unemployment in New Mexico’s Indian and immigrant Mexican populations. Ongoing problems with illegal immigration, too. And lots of alcoholism.
Little Spanish Church in the Vale
As Americans retrace our path toward complex ethnic diversity, it’s easy to overlook the small, isolated Spanish settlements in the New Mexico mountains. As I mentioned, the colonial civilization that had intruded from Mexico was well entrenched among the piñion and juniper trees before the American republic was even an idea.
Among the early villages 2,400 meters (7,800 feet) up in the Sangre de Cristos was the farming community of Las Trampas, first cleared by 12 families in 1751. Why it’s called “The Traps,” in English, is not clear, since beaver trapping was not introduced until the 19th Century. The name may refer to the Spanish settlers’ first assignment. Though they were bean and corn farmers, they were asked by the Church to build a barrier against marauding Comanche Indians.
These simple farmers also erected a modest chapel, the Church of San José de Gracia, on the Las Trampas plaza. The church’s adobe walls and crude wooden roof, slathered with mud, were influenced by the nearby Pueblo Indians. But inside, the ornate nave, choir balcony, even side chapels that they somehow squeezed into the tiny sanctuary were high Spanish.
Today Las Trampas, which snoozes on a lightly traveled mountain road between Santa Fe and the stylish art and skiing colony of Taos, is so small that you won’t find it on many New Mexico maps. A few simple house trailers and cabins, a gas station, and a little café form the community. Spanish is still the working language, and residents have resisted efforts to integrate them into the larger, English-speaking society.
Years ago, they even fought attempts to have their little church declared a historic site, for fear Anglo entrepreneurs would open souvenir shops or interrupt the serenity of the mountain with tours.
The little adobe church has survived, thanks to villagers and volunteers who have periodically stepped forward to save its sun-dried bricks from caving in. The walls regularly crack because of microscopic undulation caused by the extreme winter cold, followed by blazing summertime heat, in the New Mexico highlands.
Twice in 20th Century, prominent American architects who had fallen in love with New Mexico and retired there stepped forward to direct the restoration of the chapel. A few years ago, with help from outside volunteers, San José de Gracia parishioners made new adobe mud, repainted the interior walls, and cleaned the icons and artwork.
Outside, the old fortification wall long ago crumbled into dust. Weeds shoot up around the chapel and amid the weathered headstones of the tiny church cemetery. A circuit priest drives up from Chimayo to say mass on Sunday. And even though Trampaseños are still suspicious of strangers, in the summer months visitors are allowed to take a peek inside.
Those who do are amazed at the simple beauty of the ornate wood carvings and icons, and the magnificent painted altar screen, in such primitive surroundings.
Turns out the church at obscure Las Trampas is no trap. It’s a treasure.
Let’s close with the story of another special New Mexico place, this time in the big city:
Across America, you’ll find beautifully restored theaters — movie palaces from the golden age of motion pictures in the 1920s and ’30s, or the original homes of great vaudeville and musical-stage performances. Many boasted a stylized neoclassical, Egyptian, or Royal French décor, complete with crystal chandeliers, statues and urns, intricate plasterwork and gilt-leaf moldings, and ceiling paintings copied from the masters.
In those glory days in bustling Albuquerque, an Italian immigrant named Oreste Bachechi made a fortune selling liquor, some of it to movie stars whose cross-country trains stopped to refuel outside of town. He became a movie aficionado and resolved to build Albuquerque’s first palace in which to show films.
But he wanted something different, something in keeping with the Indian influence of his New Mexico surroundings. So he sent his architect, Carl Boller, through the state to inspect native artifacts. And then Bachechi (bah-KECK-ee) built a movie house unlike any other in America. Boller textured plaster ceiling beams to look like logs, disguised air vents as Navajo blankets, shaped light fixtures like war drums, and put down genuine Navajo rugs in profusion.
That was just the beginning. Around the theater, Boller placed amber lights inside buffalo and longhorn-steer skulls, which glowered menacingly at patrons through empty eye sockets. Albuquerque natives remember the terror they felt as small children as the lights went down and the skulls began to glare. Painted thunderbirds and sunbursts adorned the walls and lampshades.
So did swastikas — the American Indian symbols of happiness, life, and freedom. I imagine they sent shivers throughout theater audiences all through World War II, when documentary newsreels were screened showing swastika armbands on goose-stepping Nazi soldiers.
“America’s Foremost Indian Theater,” Bachechi called his creation, though no one could think of any other Indian theaters. To name it, he held a contest. The winner was “KiMo,” which in the Tiwa Indian tongue translates as “mountain lion” but broadly describes anything that is “king of its kind.” Bachechi even gave the snack bar and gift shop Indian names. And he hired 10 “usherettes” in Indian garb to work opening night in 1927, when an Indian baritone was among the featured acts.
Three years later, the KiMo added the state’s first neon lights to its marquee, and it drew capacity audiences during World War II.
Later, as in many other old movie houses, the quality of both the films and the audience declined, and the KiMo survived by showing pornographic movies.
The nation’s “foremost Indian theater” closed in 1968, then sat empty for more than 15 years until Albuquerque’s mayor pushed through public financing that led to a glorious restoration. Today the KiMo Theatre shows classic movies and offers its stage to regional theatre and musical performances.
And the steer skulls glow eerily again.
Gringo. Latins’ disparaging term for English-speaking foreigners, especially Americans.
Mesmerize. To enthrall someone with almost magnetic charm.
Obliterate. To completely destroy or do away with something.
Slather. To thickly spread something, such as suntan lotion on your back.
Vaudeville. A zany form of stage entertainment, popular in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. It featured comedians, dancers, magicians — even animal acts. The origin of the name is in doubt. Some say it’s taken from the French voix de ville, or “voice of the city.” Or it may have come from the Vau de Vire valley in France, known for its satirical songs.