New Mexico's Hispanic Culture

Insights from writer Rudolfo Anaya

From "New Mexico's Best"

By Richard Mahler

If one is to savor New Mexico's best qualities fully, it is good to know something about the people who make this their home. No group is more significant in this regard than los Hispanos-the people of mixed Spanish, Native American and Mexican blood, whose ancestors have been here for generations.

Although they make up the largest single ethnic group in New Mexico-an estimated 40 percent of the state's 1.6 million people in 1996-Hispanos are little understood by many who live in the other 49 states. It is not widely known, for example, that the first Europeans to establish settlements within the present borders of the United States were the Spanish colonists of the upper Rio Grande Valley-in 1598-and not the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock or the English settlers of Jamestown.

Another common misconception is that the Spanish-speaking people of today's New Mexico area mostly south-of-the-border immigrants or the descendants of recent immigrants. The reality is that New Mexico's Spanish-language culture is something apart from that found in Mexico, Latin America, Spain, Texas, Puerto Rico or California. This is why many of the state's Spanish-speakers bristle when outsiders label them "Mexican," "Chicano" or "Latino." None of these labels really fit, thus the widespread acceptance of the term "Hispano," a usage here that dates back many years.

When I broached the subject with New Mexico's best-known Hispano writer, Rudolfo Anaya, a native of the state's eastern plains and the author of the widely acclaimed novel "Bless Me,Ultima" and other books,  this is what he said:

"The best way to get a fee for the Nuevo Mexicano culture is to get off the beaten path. If you're lucky, you'll be invited by someone to visit a home. Perhaps a baptism is taking place, or a wedding dance. Maybe the Matachines are dancing in Bernalillo, or if it's December, they'll be dancing at Jemaz Pueblo. If someone invites you, go! Nuevo Mexicanos are proud of their history and traditions-they love to show them off.

"The mayordomo who invites you into a small village church will share real history with you, and the living experience of being New Mexican. The mayordomo of an acequia (ditch) will teach you more about water rights and their historical importance than volumes at the library ever will.

"The places of New Mexico, from rugged peaks and green pine forests to the southern Las Cruces desert, are truly magical. We understand why there is 'beauty all around us.' We dream and contemplate the sacred landscape. But for a real sharing of our cultural ways, go to the people. In villages, pueblos, ranches, or in the big barrios of the cities, if you find someone willing to take you by the hand and share: Go!

"One day I was up at my home in Jemez Springs, picking a harvest of golden delicious apples. A German couple came by and asked to buy some of my apples. I not only gave them a bag of apples, I gave them copies of my books. During that brief visit we became good friends. Later I received a letter from them thanking me for the glimpse into my life.

"So if you find a guide, go! It's the people-la gente-who make this a great state."

For a full listing of Richard Mahler's books, and to place orders for them, visit Amazon.com.

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