Monday, June 4, 2012

Why I Like New Mexico
 Where a man can breath through his nose

I like to say that New Mexico is the last remnant of the wild, wild West. The Wild, Wild West is the title of a television series that ran for a few seasons in the 1960s, when I was in high school, when Westerns were a staple of US television, and near the end of the era when they were a staple of Hollywood movies. I don't remember having watched The Wild, Wild West, being more likely to be out riding motorcycles and old cars and learning to drink and smoke and playing basketball and football and wondering why the girls I liked didn't like me, but I liked the title, The Wild, Wild West, and the hint of irony it contained. It was the 1960s. Everything was being questioned; who we were, our history, our mythology.

The mythology of an American West makes up a significant part of the American Mythology, which always included the notion of endless opportunity, and that there was this uninhabited, vast wilderness out there, to the west of the Appalachian Mountain chain that runs parallel to the East Coast and to the original 13 colonies, just waiting for whoever wanted to go out there and claim it. The idea that this area was uninhabited has always existed in peoples' minds alongside the knowledge that it was, in fact, inhabited, and that its inhabitants were dispossessed of their land by force and slaughter.

With the advent of Hollywood movies, and later television, the myth of the American West took on the face of the White cowboy, and to some extent the face of the "outlaws" who roamed the West, all of whom the studio wardrobe people in Hollywood dressed in a cowboy costume. This cowboy costume consisted of neat, clean dungarees, shirts with collars, vests and stylish leather boots, and of course the "cowboy hat," which is based on a hat made on the east coast by the Stetson Hat Company, a version of which was briefly adopted by the US Calvary that protected White colonizers in the West. It is this Hollywood cowboy costume that today's ranchers, and those who consider themselves cowboys, wear, and it is nothing like the clothing worn by the original settlers, who dressed more practically, and in keeping with their occupations as farmers, clerks and merchants.

Marshall Dillon, Miss Kitty, TV series "Gunsmoke"

"Billy the Kid" and associate

Death picture, "Dalton Gang" - caught wearing striped pants and shoes from Sears

Labeled Las Vegas (NM) jail


It's difficult to find authentic photographs of the old west on the internet. What you find, and find reproduced page after page, are images of what people want the old west to look like. To get original photographs you almost have to go to museums and books.

It's a pity that a less idealized history of ranching and farming in the US isn't more readily accessible through a more accurate portrayal in popular culture, because those are rough ways of making a living, and the struggles people go through and have gone through to make a living that way are worthy of examining and holding up. My mother comes from farming people and I spent some memorable childhood summers on my uncles' farms. It's interesting to think of how that life left it marks on those people. They could be gentle and generous and also be ornry cusses. As a truck driver I sometimes pick up hay at the farm to deliver to dairies. Since the farmer is paying for the tuck, not by weight, as often as not he will try to overload you. If he can get an extra 2,000 pound bale on the truck it means another $200 or so for him. If it costs me $250 or $350 for an overweight ticket it doesn't concern him, but it's also easy to see how the uncertainty of  being at the mercy of the weather and constantly fluctuating prices and disease in crops and animals and all the other things that can make a year an unprofitable disaster would make a farmer pursue every possible advantage.

 But we never see much of that in popular culture, outside what is even an idealized version of what farmers went through during the Great Depression. What we have instead is the embodiment of American Mythology in the Hollywood version of the cowboy. You have that in New Mexico, but you also have that in other parts of the US West. What you have in New Mexico besides that is a legacy of the actual West.

El Viejo Oeste - Turtle Island

The first cowboys wore sombreros. This part of the continent used to be part of the Spanish Empire. When the part of that which is now Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, New Mexico was simply the northern reaches of Mexico, and the people of Spanish descent here called themselves Mexicanos. (They began referring to themselves as Hispanic after the 1917 Socialist revolution in Mexico, and after the US power elite and its media spread virulent anti Mexican racism throughout the United States.)

The Natives here were partially dispossessed by the Spanish. The Whites finished that job to the extent that they were able, and attempted to dispossess the Spanish settlers, too. They were only partly successful, and eventually a truce was settled on by leaders of the White and Hispanic communities, made necessary by the fact that neither group could maintain a political majority. Also, tourism became an important industry in the state with the advent of the US highway system from the 1920s and 1930s onward and the two groups cooperated to exploit it by emphasizing somewhat idealized versions of their respective pasts. This led to the rise of Mission Revival architecture and the restoration of mission churches.

When the Southwest became part of the US in 1848, the large landholdings originally granted here by the Spanish king to the families who had come to colonize the region were still held by them, and there was a kind of feudal or sharecropping economy based around those family estates. The culture that resulted from this way of living is a variant of Spanish and Mexican cultures but one that is unique to New Mexico.

The Hispanic population in New Mexico celebrates their past and present in a variety of ways and takes great pride in it. The White population celebrates the more general American Mythology, of which the story of the American West is a part, less consciously and as a matter of course since it's the dominant culture. They celebrate it every time they turn on the TV or go to a movie. Both of them pretty much ignore what was here before they took turns colonizing the region, which is the history and culture of the Natives, the American Indian, the indigenous people, who also survive.

The Natives retain control of many reservations, by virtue of treaties and federal laws, or rather, of those lands that have not been usurped by Capitalists seeking the wealth contained in Indian lands. The reservations range in size from the vast Navajo Reservation that straddles New Mexico and Arizona to many small "pueblos" roughly the size of a township. Many Natives also live off the reservation and as part of the larger society, at least to the extent that racism visited on them by both the more dominant groups allows them to.

Many of the Natives still speak their native languages, and retain many of their customs. They have their own newspapers, radio stations, churches, organizations, dancing and singing groups. They are many artists among them; excellent musicians, painters and sculptors, and, significantly, potters, whose techniques are unique to them and whose pottery is highly valued.

Conceived In Isolation

So in New Mexico you have these three histories and cultures, with their arts and their foods and musics and their cultural practices, and they have evolved and existed, alongside each other and in an overall mix, in relative physical isolation from the rest of  the country. This is why I call New Mexico the last remnant of the wild, wild west.

From Albuquerque, for example, it's almost 500 miles to the closest metropolitan areas -- 450 miles to Denver, 468 to Phoenix, and 648 to Dallas. For most of New Mexico's history that distance meant a journey of weeks, by horse or horse drawn wagon or by walking.

Things don't go away in the desert, they just stay there, and one can still see long stretches of the old roads off to the side of the newer paved roads, and imagine the difficulties of travel. They were just pathways through the desert, worn down over time, and graded in more recent times by mule drawn graders, so that they are below the surface of the surrounding terrain by several inches or more.


New Mexico 371, from Thoreau up to Farmington, through the Navajo Nation, is paved two-lane, built on a grading of gravel and dirt above the surrounding terrain. In the top two pictures, taken from one spot, looking north and then south, the old and new roadways are parallel. The third picture is a few miles north, where the two roadways come down from the high plateau. The old road, on the left, goes down by a more direct route, while the paved road veers to the right to go down the side of the slope, in a more gradual decline, so that trucks can more easily make the climb coming up. Click any picture for more detail. (As a point of interest, note that from the plateau, one is looking across at the mountains behind Durango, Colorado, and not up at them.) 

Only in the relatively recent past has the area been accessible by paved highways, with the advent of the US highway system from the 1920s and interstate highways after the 1960s, so the means of communication, of interaction, and transferal of culture, accessible to and most used by the majority of the population, that is, personal interaction, did not exist. Even now, the distances are such that weekend trips to see the relatives in those distant cities are infrequent. There is television, which transmits certain aspects of culture, but not others. Most attitudes and conventions are transmitted via peer groups -- family members and other close, familiar associates -- including attitudes about the group itself, and its relationship to other groups.

Views On Authority

As for the wild, wild part of the West, part of the Mythology of the West is that it was beyond the reach of the law, and indeed, when the West was administered by the US federal government as vast territories, law enforcement officials were few and far between. New Mexico only became a state in 1912, meaning that the more formal things that extend the reach of law enforcement, such as state police and other institutions, and arrangements between law enforcement bodies and between them and the federal government, were only established relatively recently. Because of that and because of the vast areas involved, the control of law enforcement was and is more tenuous.

Also, there is less of the kind of societal agreements on attitudes toward the law as exist in homogeneous cultures. Each group has its own attitude toward the law, based on its history, and influenced by the fact that law enforcement is part of the apparatus of dispossession and oppression.

But on top of all that, American culture has an ambivalent attitude toward the law, since it is often an impediment to the fulfillment of personal ambition. Much of that is just human nature and can be seen everywhere, and as elsewhere, part of American culture is that if you have the power to make up the law as you go along, you will, as US Presidents do routinely. As an example of how it plays out here, moreso than in other parts of the US, traffic laws are treated more like suggestions than as laws. To some they are seen as requests, to be agreed to depending on how close your driver's license is to being suspended.

Equally Human

Before I came here, I knew nothing of New Mexico. It was a blank slate. I had not been to the West before I started driving trucks, but when I did come here it was easy to fall in love with the physical environment, the vast distances, the colorful rock of the canyons and mountains, and the weather.

One of the niceest things about New Mexico is the weather. It's cold and it's hot, but it's always dry. I'd always lived in humid places, the Midwest near Lake Michigan and the US South. I'd always had sinus infections and never knew you could breath through your nostrils until I lived here.

I've found out there are problems here, problems other places have, and that among them is racism. White against Hispanic, and Hispanic against White. Both are racist against the Natives, who are racist against both.

My views about racism have changed since I've lived here. Until I was here, I always saw racism through the lens of White, Imperial racism against groups Whites have dominated. I saw it from the point of view of those who experience it. But having been the subject of racist attitudes here, for the first time, it's forced me to look at it differently.

There's racism everywhere, even within groups. In Israel there is racism by Ashkenazi, or European Jews, against the indigenous Jews who have always lived in the Middle East. There is the slaughter of tribes by other tribes in the Balkans and in Africa. In Asia, the Chinese and Japanese look down on Koreans the way Whites look down on African Americans.

There has been the case made, in some of those instances at least, that they have some kind of colonial basis, but what is the basis for colonialism? Racism is, I think, an Us versus Them paradigm, and originates in the same place in the psyche as tribalism, or nationalism, or patriotism. It's a function of human nature that Liberals and multi culturalists have not wanted to confront, because it's in them, too. Racism has deleterious effects besides just physical domination and exploitation and their effects. Race becomes part of identity at a very early age, and because of that, racism affects self image. It is these aspects of racism that academics and activists focus on, and not on its basis in human nature.

In New Mexico, among the higher ups in the socioeconomic order, there is practicality and agreement, and there is intermingling, intermarriage, and cooperation in business and politics, but down here on the almost entirely segregated street, where the majority live and where your existence and prospects for well being are less certain, it's more out in the open. Down here, racism is simply a function of fear and of how the mind categorizes things, according to an inductive logic, such as things that are the source of fear.

Racism, and its underlying impulse, and more to the point, what triggers that impulse, are things that New Mexico's Whites, Hispanics and Natives, and Blacks, and everyone, will eventually have to deal with if there is ever to exist a society in which people are not dominated by their lesser natures.

So there are the same kinds of problems and things to worry about here in New Mexico as there are everywhere. But there are burritos, bolillo rolls, green chili stew and barbecue, and vast colorful landscapes and mountains and deserts, and old roads through them that you can still see, and roads where you can drive for a long time before you pass someone else, and there's New Mexican music with Spanish lyrics that no one understands, and Native chants and dances, and all kinds of wonderful art, and the Rio Grande, and sand, and the wind, from Mexico, that is slowly changing it all and sometimes blows all the sand around, and the humidity yesterday evening was only 4 percent.


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