New Mexico

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In “Seeing New Mexico,” J.B. Jackson wrote that “We learn about history by reading it in school; we learn to see it when we travel, and for Americans the place where we see most clearly the impact of time on a landscape is New Mexico.” He added, “Our New Mexico history is more complicated than most, and far more visible.” Jackson’s observation about reading “the impact of time on a landscape,” and his tacit warning of the difficulties that attend this task, concisely define both the subject and the challenges of New Mexico. The state’s arid climate does indeed produce visibility, and not only because the white sunlight, dry air, and sparse vegetation often make it possible to see for miles in every direction. More to the point, this landscape means that traces of human habitation persist stubbornly over time, almost as if, according to Jackson, “we had been struck by a neutron bomb, eliminating people while leaving their dwellings intact, at the mercy of wind and sun.” Two contradictory perceptions are at work. On the one hand, the landscape seems empty, vacant, as if there were nothing there. On the other hand, the landscape is so full of things that it becomes difficult to sort what is seen into some form of historical order. Faced with such contradictions, the tendency has been to simplify the problem by reducing the multiplicity of New Mexico to a few conveniently iconic sites like Taos Pueblo or the Santa Fe Plaza, and to the comforting cliché that this place is an idyllic Land of Enchantment, located safely beyond the vicissitudes of time and change. Jackson, who lived and wrote near Santa Fe, knew better; to understand New Mexico, we need to take on the full complexity of its landscape and learn to see how multiple cultures have shaped, reshaped, and continue to reshape the land over time.

Nearly quadrangular, New Mexico is like other Western states in having an abstract geometry imposed on what appears to be vast, open, and largely uninhabited space. In fact, New Mexico is an unruly place riven with many overlapping, and sometimes competing, topographical and cultural boundaries. What collapses on the map into a planimetric square actually ranges in elevation from 2,817 to 13,167 feet, across a land of high desert plateaus and mesas interrupted by mountain ranges, canyons, and river valleys, which collectively express the region’s active geologic history. This history includes the Continental Divide to the west and the Rio Grande Valley, whose river bisects the entire state as it runs north to south from the San Juan Mountains in Colorado to the Texas-Mexico border headed for the Gulf of Mexico.

Between 700 and 1300 CE, the Colorado Plateau was settled by Ancient Pueblo cultures that include the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, in what is now the Four Corners region where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet. The nineteen historic pueblos of New Mexico, which trace their history back to the ancient peoples of the Colorado Plateau, and who settled primarily along the Rio Grande Valley after 1300, pocket New Mexico with sovereign lands. So do the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache Reservations to the north and south, and the Navajo Nation to the west. The Navajo Nation, which dates its origins at least to the 1400s if not earlier, covers 27,425 square miles across northwest New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, and southeastern Utah. Northern New Mexico, between Santa Fe and Taos, remains a locus of Hispanic culture; the first Spaniards arrived in 1539–1540, claiming New Mexico in 1598 for the Spanish Crown as part of New Spain and settling along the length of the Rio Grande Valley.

New Mexico’s political realignment to Mexico, with the declaration of Mexican independence in 1821, confirmed a cross-border economic and cultural exchange that remains relevant to this day in the southern part of the state. When Mexico lifted the trade restrictions enforced by Spain, opening up New Mexico to the United States by authorizing the Santa Fe Trail from Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe, the resulting Americanization had several outcomes: the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848, New Mexico’s annexation as a Territory in 1848, and the import of goods and customs from the Midwest with the arrival of the railroad in 1879–1880. New Mexico was granted statehood in 1912. Americanization also brought with it the practices of industrial mining and large-scale ranching that, in the twentieth century, have made the plains of eastern New Mexico economically and culturally continuous with Texas.

These successive arrivals produced New Mexico’s multicultural identity, and led to conflicts over who belonged here in the first place. Friction and increasing violence between the native peoples and the Spanish colonizers played out at Pueblo missions and culminated in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680–1692. After the American occupation, the U.S. Army moved west to engage in campaigns of military repression against Native American tribes, including the internment of the Navajo and the Mescalero Apache at Bosque Redondo in 1863–1868. Range wars between competing clans of ranchers and businessmen fighting for control of trade in the territory came to a head with the Lincoln County War of 1878–1881. Starting in the 1870s and continuing to this day, the process of clearing the titles to Spanish land grants provoked ongoing legal struggles by Hispanic families seeking to retain communal lands they had been deeded.

Measuring some 342 by 370 miles and covering 121,356 square miles, New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the union yet ranks 36th in population, with an estimated 2,085,572 inhabitants as of 2014 and a lonely population density of 17 people per square mile, compared to the nation’s average density of 87.4 people. In some parts of New Mexico, population densities drop even further, to less than 10 people per square mile along Highway 491 on the highly dispersed Navajo Nation, and to nearly zero in the sublime solitude of the Plains of San Agustin to the south. This impression of yawning emptiness is produced, paradoxically, by the demographic fact that most New Mexicans live in cities. Like its southwestern neighbors, New Mexico is unexpectedly more urbanized than many, more densely occupied eastern states, because its people are concentrated in cities found mostly along the Rio Grande Valley, culminating with Albuquerque at the state’s center, where the population jumps to over 5,000 people per square mile.

The tendency toward urban concentration is an ancient phenomenon. Though a young state—a latecomer at 47th out of the 50 states to join the union—New Mexico has one of the oldest records of continuous inhabitation in North America. The Paleo-Indian Clovis culture discovered at Blackwater Draw dates back to 11,500–11,000 BCE. Around 350 CE, the cultivation of corn encouraged hunters and gatherers to develop sedentary settlements that had, by the ninth century, begun to assume the monumental forms and dimensions of the great stone structures of Chaco Canyon. When the drought-plagued Colorado Plateau was abandoned for the lusher Rio Grande Valley in the fourteenth century, this settlement pattern was perpetuated in the stepped housing blocks of the clay and stone pueblos. Dazzling yellow in the sun, these gave rise to the myth of Cibola, the fabled seven cities of gold that first lured Spanish explorers to the region in the sixteenth century, before they too settled down and turned to agriculture to support the villages they built along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Using an Arabic word and practice introduced to Spain by the Moors and imported from there to the New World, the Spaniards called the clay-brick architecture of their houses and churches “adobe.”

The arrival of the railroad in the late nineteenth century facilitated the immigration of a new generation of American prospectors and entrepreneurs. They introduced the fired brick and milled lumber that began to replace adobe and timber as common construction materials (joined by steel and concrete in the twentieth century), and shifted the state’s settlement patterns away from agricultural communities to more modern forms of urbanization. After the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad decided in 1880 to locate its locomotive repair shops in Albuquerque, the city followed the example of Midwestern cities like Chicago, Saint Louis, and Kansas City, and turned increasingly to industry, banking, and commerce to support its economy; Santa Fe, bypassed by the eponymous railroad, reinvented itself in the first decades of the twentieth century as the tourist destination it has been ever since.

From the start, technologies of transportation have played an outsize role in New Mexico’s history. The great houses of Chaco constituted the political, religious, and economic center of a regional empire manifested by an elaborate system of at least eight pedestrian roads extending outward some 180 miles from the canyon. The Spaniards brought horses and wagons pulled by oxen to travel the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the Royal Highway of the Inner Land that was the seventeenth-century version of a highway, connecting Mexico City to the provincial capital of Santa Fe over a distance of 1,600 miles. The Camino Real and its American counterpart, the Santa Fe Trail, were made obsolete by the railroad, which mechanized transportation and integrated the Territory of New Mexico economically with the United States. Powering the development of mercantile commerce, ranching, and mining, the railroad also partnered with the Fred Harvey Company chain of restaurants and hotels to serve New Mexico’s burgeoning tourism industry.

These interests were further extended with the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T in 1908, which democratized the automobile and offered Americans a new kind of mobility that New Mexicans were quick to exploit. Car registrations in the state went from 470 in 1910 to 84,000 by 1930, while artists, writers, archaeologists, academics, and wealthy patrons motored over questionable roads to make their home (or second home) in what earlier had been the inaccessible outposts of Santa Fe and Taos. Route 66—America’s Main Street—drove right through Albuquerque on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Completed in 1937, the New Mexico section of Route 66 aligned Albuquerque with the rest of the country and confirmed its identity (dating to the railroad) that it was just another stop on the road to somewhere else. The arrival of air travel with the Albuquerque airport in 1939, and the transcontinental interstate system built in the 1950s and 1960s—the north-south I-25 and the east-west I-40 crossed in the middle of Albuquerque in 1966—consolidated the city’s identity as a thoroughfare. The confluence of tourism, the automobile, and the highway created the Land of Enchantment; in 1912, New Mexico identified itself as the Sunshine State, but by the 1930s it was appropriating the title of Lilian Whiting’s 1906 travelogue, The Land of Enchantment.The motto appeared on state license plates in 1941 and was officially adopted by New Mexico in 1947.

New Mexico’s reinvention of itself as the Land of Enchantment was given architectural form in the Spanish-Pueblo Style, also called the Santa Fe Style after its primary place of origin. Conceived in the first decades of the twentieth century by the architect Isaac Hamilton Rapp, among others, and then codified in the masterful if resolutely conservative hands of John Gaw Meem, this eclectic composite of Spanish Colonial and Pueblo traditions presented an image of authenticity rooted in ancient earthen buildings, even as it flexibly accommodated modern materials, programs, and expectations of comfort. The style proved powerfully seductive to residents and tourists alike, quickly supplanting such alternatives as the California Mission and Moorish Revivals to become the canonic stereotype of New Mexico’s cultural identity. What Meem called “Old Forms for New Buildings” would, however, be challenged by a new generation of modernists who came of age during World War II. Suspicious of the evident historicism and tacit nostalgia of any stylistic revival, architects like Max Flatow sought to reconcile the uniqueness of New Mexico with the universal imperatives of the International Style through a critical synthesis between local climates, regional typologies, and industrial systems of construction. These modernists led the way for contemporary architects like Antoine Predock and Bart Prince, who have continued the search for an authentically modern sense of place even while giving that sense distinctly different forms—Predock drawing his work poetically from metaphors of the land, Prince building his work organically on the principles of Frank Lloyd Wright.

New Mexico’s most epochal modern moment occurred in 1942, when Los Alamos was selected as Site Y of the Manhattan Project, where the world’s first atomic bombs were invented and built between 1943 and 1945. Los Alamos was chosen because its isolated perch atop a mesa—in a state whose general isolation at the time seemed matched only by parts of Utah—made it well-suited to the secretive needs of national security. Yet this choice proved as consequential for New Mexico’s urbanization as the railroad and automobile. The Cold War and nuclear arms race that followed World War II institutionalized the effort to build a bomb with a now-permanent Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was paired in 1946–1949 with the Sandia Laboratory (now Sandia National Laboratories) at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. This brought an influx of federal funding, along with the scientists, engineers, and technicians who, after the war, gave New Mexico the highest number of resident PhDs in the United States. Albuquerque’s growth accelerated, from 35,499 in 1940 to 546,537 in 2010, an increase of nearly 1,500% in six decades. Like Los Alamos and other cities that grew in tandem with this boom, Albuquerque turns out to be largely a construction of postwar modernity.

New Mexico’s investment in the progressive logic of science and technology has continued to shape the state with futuristic installations like the Very Large Array, a radio telescope built in the 1970s in the Plains of San Agustin, and Spaceport America, built at the start of the twenty-first century in the Jornada del Muerto. The state has also been a locus for counter-cultural alternatives to modernity’s dominant paradigms. The City of the Sun, a New Age commune still underway in southern New Mexico, and Mike Reynold’s Earthships, an ongoing experiment with off-the-grid sustainability in northern New Mexico outside Taos, complement the roles played by Santa Fe and Taos since the early twentieth century as artistic meccas and places of refuge from the modern technological world.

The impact of time on the landscape of New Mexico reveals itself in at least four ways. First, as Jackson reminds us, it shows us that “New Mexico history is more complicated than most” because linear constructions of time, in which past conditions are succeeded by present conditions, do not apply in a place where multiple cultural groups with multiple dates of origin or arrival continue to coexist. Over the last two thousand years, many cultures have moved and settled into New Mexico in an additive process of accumulation rather than a subtractive process of replacement, with the result that the very ancient and the radically new are often present in the same landscape. Second, this phenomenon is at once aided and exaggerated by New Mexico’s arid climate, generating a landscape where traces of human intervention from the monumental to the ephemeral are not only visible to the attentive eye but also stubbornly enduring. This is as true of Chaco Canyon, with its eloquent ruins dating back a thousand years, as it is of Trinity Site, Chaco’s historical opposite where the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, collapsed space into time. Third, this landscape records a history of collisions between differing cultures, and the disruptions caused by succeeding technologies of transportation. And fourth, taken together, this means that the landscape of New Mexico is best seen, not as a series of autonomous objects each fixed discretely in its own time and space, but rather as an open historical field of complex, dynamically unstable and therefore changing sites, usually shaped over time from multiple buildings or structures that are themselves often built or transformed over time.




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Bunting, Bainbridge. John Gaw Meem: Southwestern Architect. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1983.

Chavez, Thomas E. New Mexico Past and Future. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2006.

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Kessel, John L. The Missions of New Mexico Since 1776. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1980.

Mead, Christopher. The Architecture of Bart Prince: A Pragmatics of Place. Revised edition. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Mead, Christopher. Roadcut: The Architecture of Antoine Predock. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.

Myrick, David F. New Mexico’s Railroads: A Historical Survey. Revised edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1990.

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1986.

Sheppard, Carl. Creator of the Santa Fe Style: Isaac Hamilton Rapp, Architect. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1988.

Simmons, Marc. Albuquerque: A Narrative History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1982.

Sturtevant, Wilpam, general editor. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 9, Southwest. Edited by Alfonso Ortiz. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1979.

Wilson, Chris. The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1997.


Writing Credits

Christopher Mead

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