Back in the 70’s when the publicity stunt called Hands Across America was in the planning stage Kenny Rogers announced his intention to assume a position on the western boundary of Texas in order to be able to hold hands with the state of Arizona. I was reminded of the story last summer when a service representative for US West Communications told me that her company does not extend telephone service to New Mexico, where I have subsequently made two payments to US West. Apparently New Mexico is the Lost State, overlooked by country-western singers and employees of great corporations, as well as by highschool geography students. When a friend in Albuquerque suggested that the telephone woman had simply confused New Mexico with Old Mexico—a common error, he insisted—I was politely unbelieving, but that was before I had actually moved down here and experienced other misunderstandings of the sort. What Jim Rauen calls the People’s Republic of New Mexico is no longer Old Mexico, but it is a foreign extension of it. Owing to its history, which is substantially that of the Rio Grande corridor and the Camino Real, rising from Ciudad Chihuahua to Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico —unlike Texas, Arizona, and California —is a border state from top to bottom, not an administrative subdivision of America with a strip of borderland across the base of it.
New Mexico is a very poor state. The median income lies around $13,000 and nearly 50 percent of the inhabitants call a trailer-house home. When a Las Cruces welfare mother hitchhiked 282 miles north to Santa Fe last October to testify against PROGRESS before a committee of the state legislature, the Las Cruces Sun-News front-paged a story sympathetically recounting her mission and her message. PROGRESS is New Mexico’s answer to the federal mandate requiring that each state devise and implement its own welfare program, subject to federal approval. Installed by the Republican Governor Gary Johnson and his Human Services Secretary Duke Rodriguez in the face of Democratic opposition from the legislature and following an order by the state Supreme Court to cease and desist, the program was broadly attacked by critics for its allegedly over stringent work requirements and the restrictions it imposes on recipients. Rodriguez resigned and was succeeded in office by Lou Gallegos, the governor’s chief of staff, who has vowed not to give up on PROGRESS. But he has a hard fight to look forward to in a heavily Democratic state, many of whose citizens seem to regard a Republican governor as an electoral fluke at best, a usurper at worst.
Chatting with parishioners after Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Las Cruces, I was asked by someone what I do for a living. I explained that I work for one of the two or three top journals of conservative political opinion in the United States, a piece of information that brought a politely reproachful silence. It was broken after several seconds by a woman who had a story to tell me. “A Kirby salesman came to my house the other day,” she began, “and he said to me, ‘You know, Las Cruces is the worst place I ever visited in my entire life.'” “Well!” another of the women exclaimed, “I hope you told him how to get back on the road going home!” “I asked him why,” the first woman continued, “and he said to me, ‘Why, ma’am,’ he said, ‘it’s because everyone living here in this city is too poor to buy a vacuum cleaner!'” So there I had the parable of the Kirby Vacuum Salesman, intended for political conservatives and others with neither eyes to see nor ears to hear.
Granted that a minority of Americans are unaware that New Mexico has not been governed from Mexico City for the last 160 years, it sometimes seems that of this minority fully 100 percent wish to move to the Land of Enchantment. The result is an influx of immigrants, differing from the natives in two important ways. One, they have money. Two, they are mostly Northerners —meaning “Anglos.” They bring a new and different culture to the historic Rio Grande one, directly reversing the cultural flow produced by Mexican immigration and using the power of the almighty dollar to make their innovations stick. The result is a second role reversal: a surge in multiculturalist sentiment throughout what is still, numerically and otherwise, the dominant Spanish-Mexican culture. It offers displays of cultural and ethnic pride good-naturedly for the most part, and the Anglo population, including those who trace their familial histories to territorial days, good-naturedly accepts it. Outwardly at least the majority of new New Mexicans accommodate themselves to old New Mexico, or at least they try to. Among those who do not are the environmentalists, whose agendum includes the anglocization, or Americanization, of the Hispanic society they pay lip service to. Environmental activists would protest, of course, that they are trying to do no such thing; they want a progressivized New Mexico, not an Americanized one. Either way, it amounts to the same thing.
Excepting only the military-industrial-scientific presence (Los Alamos, Intel, Kirtland Air Force Base, the White Sands Missile Range), environmentalism is the greatest revolutionary force New Mexico has experienced since Coronado. By their astutely cynical use of the federal court system environmentalists have enjoyed greater success in the American Southwest than in any other part of the country, including the Greater Yellowstone. Defending the Mexican Spotted Owl they virtually shut down the logging industry in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico; upholding the Southwestern willow flycatcher they are attempting to bring the same fate to ranching in New Mexico. Nothing more goads an urban or suburban environmentalist-protectionist to fury than to reflect that the West of his imagination is not subject to his control, but rather that of ranchers, loggers, miners—all those provincial nobodies whose one claim to being somebody is to have earned the right of control by actually living there, out in the sandstorms and blizzards, surrounded by cattle and mountain lions, far, far removed from the preppie-yuppie-professional world of bistros, art movies, think tanks, and power lunches. The latest strategy devised by earth muppets from the Forest Guardians in Santa Fe and the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson is to allocate foundation money and contributed funds to outbid ranchers seeking to renew their expiring federal grazing leases and then retire the land from private—or any other—use. The more often the ranchers here in southern New Mexico try to meet and reason with their enemies, the more the enemy shows that he is interested in doing neither. What interests him is winning and winning big, and if the end is that Catron County, deprived of revenue, may soon have to be supported by the taxpayers of Las Cruces in Doña Ana County, then a new broom sweeps clean and there are more ways than one to skin a cat, as Sancho Panza might have remarked.
Meanwhile, a fear is growing that the threat originates far beyond Tucson, Santa Fe, or even Washington, D.C. Late in the summer of 1997 a minor scandal blew up concerning Border Region XXI (as in 21st century), a program of environmental renewal and control in a swath of land extending 100 miles on either side of the American-Mexican border, apparently agreed upon by the Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations with or without the knowledge or connivance of top officials of the state of New Mexico, depending on which of them you ask.
While it is unclear as yet what Border XXI really means, it is reasonable to suspect that the national and international elites are caught out here in the attempt to have things both ways—indulging three pet projects of theirs, international migration, “free trade,” and environments- without-borders, while using the third of these to clean up the mess the first two have made, and whipping pollutive Mexico into line as a by-blow. Mexico operates almost entirely without benefit of effective environmental restrictions, which seems to be the way the large majority of Mexicans want it, including those who live within the 100-mile-wide corridor south of the border. North of it the same vast body of environmental law obtains as it does elsewhere in the United States, while for the present at least development is largely confined to a few big border towns and cities—San Ysleta, Nogales, El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville. So what makes the borderlands a special problem? Nothing, in all likelihood, beyond the irresistible temptation to meddle that any culturally hybrid part of the world offers to the United Nations and also to the United States, its Dr. Frankenstein.
One of New Mexico’s more intriguing aspects is the way the culture and the people shade south with the land into Old Mexico. Unlike the other states of the Southwest it is not a 50th part of America rising from a Mexicanized strip. Instead Mexico-in-New-Mexico begins immediately below the Colorado state line and makes its deepening presence felt as you head southward. The high incidence of 25 and 30-year-old jalopies on the highways is an early sign, like the gas pumps pumping leaded gas. So are the cramped adobe houses, the trailer homes, the chickens roosted on automotive hulks in the yards, the two or three generations of refrigerators hauled out and set against the exterior wall. And so, by the way, are the modest homes brightly painted and charmingly maintained on no money, in poverty-stricken towns or neighborhoods or on in-holdings within some rico’s extensive spread. Residential zoning is haphazard in New as it is in Old Mexico, where a block of poor houses is typically interrupted by a rich man’s handsome and stately residence, beautifully tended and locked away between black iron gates and grilles. Northern New Mexico is predominantly Old Spanish in its culture. Central New Mexico is, to use the convenient but wildly inaccurate nomenclature given the imprimatur of the United States government, Hispanic. Southern New Mexico remains essentially a sanitized and regulated extension of the real Mexico, full of Mexicanized towns like Hatch where the dark-skinned men—hatted, with red bandannas knotted around their necks—leaning from recessed windows and standing against the door posts of century-old adobes, are indistinguishable from the vaqueros you will meet down in Janos, Chihuahua State, or Buenaventura. When one country annexes territory belonging to another country it annexes its people and its culture too, and there isn’t a thing it can, or should, do about it.
Twenty miles east of the New Mexican boot heel the American town of Columbus and the Mexican one of Palomas face one another at a distance of three miles or so across the border in what looks to be a Mexican standoff, following the publicized dispute that ended the busing of school children from Palomas to Columbus. Otherwise the two communities appear to get along all right—as they should, being half-sisters under the skin and with a strong family resemblance on the surface. I parked at the border station, activated the truck’s antitheft device against hijacking by Mexican car thieves, and walked over into Mexico where a crew was at work giving the four-lane boulevard running up to the crossing its first paving job (anticipating benefits from NAFTA, I presumed). The other streets in town were all dirt ones. Ancient vehicles jouncing in the ruts and potholes raised clouds of pale dust that choked the streets, then drifted away across the crumbling adobe houses and the plaza with its white-painted trees, its iron benches, and gazebo. The town felt much more alive than Columbus, people selling things in the streets, offloading crates of coca, trimming the dust-laden shrubbery in the yards, and coming and going around the aduana and the foreign motor vehicle registration office. Now and then I would catch someone’s eye and touching my hat tell him “Buenas tardes” and he would smile and reply “Buenas tardes” in return. Gringos going into everyday Mexico and wanting to feel more at home there ought to consider shucking their Nike shoes, short pants, and golf shirts and putting on blue jeans, cowboy boots, a snap-button yoke-back shirt, and a straw Western hat. This is the dress of the Mexican male of the agricultural and industrial working classes, and it helps to bridge the cultural divide between El Norte and El Sur. (In New Mexico also Western dress ingratiates you with the indigenous population, brown and white, while inviting the affluent Anglo transplant class to give you the stare through treatment.)
Across the plaza was a simple brick church. I entered and walked forward to say a prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, grateful for the knowledge that I was as welcome here as in San Albino in Mesilla, or St. Peter’s at Rome. Home, as the saying goes, is where you find it.
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