Day 6

Monday, January 17, 2011

Today we split forces. Chele hung out at a coffee shop on the plaza to edit pictures and post on the blog while Ginny shepherded BA around Las Vegas and San Miguel County to fill her in on local history. Aside from being gracious hosts who feed us chiles and tortillas at every meal, William and Ginny are an invaluable fount of both historical and contemporary information about the region and state.

Like most Spanish colonial towns, Las Vegas is organized around a central plaza. This plaza has a lot of history, but the event that had the most lasting consequences was when Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearney, under the command of President Polk, stood on top of this building

facing the plaza and delivered this proclamation to the Las Vegas citizenry.

(view PDF)

He declared  that the people of Las Vegas were now American citizens, like it or lump it. Click the image above to read a more legible version (PDF) of the proclamation- it’s crazy…”not a pepper nor an onion shall be disturbed…” we will not (even though we are Protestants) “ill treat your women and brand them upon the cheek as you do your mules on the hip.”

But there it is. New Mexico was ceded to the US without a drop of blood being spilled. Some claim that General Armijo (the governor) was paid off by powerful and politically connected Santa Fe Trail merchant James McGoffin. If this name seems familiar, he was the brother of Samuel McGoffin. Samuel was paramour of Susan McGoffin, the 17 year old ingénue whose diary we read at the top of Pawnee rock. The brothers were both traders along the SFT and Susan accompanied Samuel on one of his treks shortly after they married. (They had a winter/spring sort of relationship. Interestingly, Susan/Samuel’s sister in law (Jame’s wife) Maria Gertrudis Valdez de Frias was a cousin of the General Armijo…) at any rate, the bribe theory is probably only partially true. The fact is that Armijo was terribly outnumbered and militaristically ill-equipped  to put up a good fight; it would have been a blood bath. Kearney went on to Santa Fe with nearly the same speech and though there were some small uprisings and tension amidst the people who naturally weren’t fond of having their sovereignty stripped, Mexico basically ceded New Mexico.  For an interesting account of James McGoffin – a Spanish-speaking, confederate backing, salt seizing, Howitzer wielding, merchant, click here .

With its annexation, New Mexico underwent a major shift in attitude about how land should be shared. The fact that land was suddenly being exploited for commercial gain caused a lot of friction. The Land Grant and acequia systems (see day 5) were more than a method of how to utilize land and distribute water from a river. It seems to us that it underscores a philosophical difference between a communal way of life and a commercial exploitation of labor and resources. It’s not that New Mexico was equally shared before the US takeover; the typical situation of the majority of the land in the hands of a few held true. But there were rules about shared resources and protections for small farmers. When the pressure of commercial trade increased, fences went up and grazing rights changed. It’s complicated. But read this manifesto from Las Gurras Blancos for a clear vision of resistance. Here are a few excerpts from this amazing document:

Our purpose is to protect the rights and interests of the people in general; especially those of the helpless classes.

We want the Las Vegas Grant settled to the benefit of all concerned, and this we hold is the entire community within the grant.

We are not down on lawyers as a class, but the usual knavery and unfair treatment of the people must be stopped.

We are down on race issues, and will watch race agitators. We are all human brethren, under the same glorious flag.

We favor irrigation enterprises, but will fight any scheme that tends to monopolize the supply of water courses to the detriment of residents living on lands watered by the same streams.

Intimidation and the “indictment” plan have no further fears for us. If the old system should continue, death would be a relief to our sufferings. And for our rights our lives are the least we can pledge.

If the fact that we are law abiding citizens is questioned, come out to our homes and see the hunger and desolation we are suffering; and “this” is the result of the deceitful and corrupt methods of “bossism.”

Be fair and just and we are with you, do otherwise and take the consequences.

Whatever happened to manifestos? We need more manifestos. Power to the people.

The history of the Las Gurras Blancos and their tactics of resistence to the concentration of commercial power is worth reading as it has an instructive parallel with the fate of the small farmer in America. (The Joads in Grapes of Wrath are a perfect example). When you have a spare moment, read this document about the Las Guerros Blancos.

For now, we’ll post a small excerpt:

The goal of Las Gorras Blancas was not merely the eradication of barbed wire fences, but the destruction of the underlying logic and ideology that fueled the commercial and industrial transformation of New Mexico.

San Miguel County in the late 1880s was a microcosm of America’s gilded age. Vast personal fortunes were produced at the expense of subsistence and working class communities. Elaborate structures of political power were constructed to extend the interests of capital accumulation while repressive agents of social control were needed to defend the interests of capital against resistance by groups such as Las Gorras Blancas.

Interestingly, I spent the day in a coffee shop that started as a weaving co-op.

The Tapetes de Lana is a 501.c non-profit organization that teaches traditional weaving skills to women to help them out of poverty and off of welfare. Though the group has moved up to the town of Mora, this cafe seems to carry on the vibe of community involvement and grassroots activism. As we sat and enjoyed a strong wifi connection and home made croissant, we overheard several conversations about water use, land rights, and social justice. And not to paint with too Woody Guthrie of a brush, there were also young hipsters talking art, fashion and the latest sagas unfolding on Bravo reality shows.

We gave a camera to one of the barristas at the cafe.

Rachelle, who hails from Alaska, is an art student at New Mexico Highlands University and has traveled extensively in the northwest as well as making the 2,000 mile drive from Alaska to Las Vegas…we’re psyched to see what she sends us.

We ended the day with another home-cooked New Mexican meal, posole, a traditional stew made from hominy soaked in lime and traditionally eaten at ceremonies.

It is indicative of the blending of cultures in New Mexico: Native American, Mexican, and European. We get the feeling this blending is something New Mexicans are not only well aware of but proud of today. It’s been a part of their heritage for centuries–well before their annexation to the US.

We spent the evening with Ginny and William talking about Las Gurras Blancas and working on the blog. Of course we left a camera with both of them.

What a lovely respite this has been. Tomorrow Ginny is going to show us a few sites and we will part ways in Santa Fe, the end of the trail!

<< Day 5 | Day 7 >>