Culture thrives in America's most Hispanic, Latino state: New Mexico

·4 min read

As the Hispanic and Latino population grows throughout the U.S., New Mexico has established itself as a haven for people of Latin American and Hispanic descent.

That culture can be seen throughout the streets -- in the Pueblo- and Spanish-style architecture, the traditional santeros and the Mexican artistry.

"The Land of Enchantment" is the most Hispanic and Latino state in the country, with 49% of its population identifying as such, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But this population can't be so easily defined.

PHOTO: A New Mexican retablo, by painter Pedro Antonio Fresquis depicts Our Lady of Protection (Nuestra Senora del Patrocinio), ca. 1815. Retablos typically portray saints, angels or the Virgin Mary and are meant for private devotion in a chapel or home. (Sepia Times/Universal Images Gro)
PHOTO: A New Mexican retablo, by painter Pedro Antonio Fresquis depicts Our Lady of Protection (Nuestra Senora del Patrocinio), ca. 1815. Retablos typically portray saints, angels or the Virgin Mary and are meant for private devotion in a chapel or home. (Sepia Times/Universal Images Gro)

"We see ourselves as multicultural: Mexican, American, Latino, Chicano, Indigenous -- We're what we call 'mestizaje,' a mixture of blood and culture," said Denise Chavez, a Chicana writer and playwright. "There's no place quite like it."

This state has a turbulent history of colonialism that led to diverse traditions, a blend of cultures, a complicated clashing of identities.

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Indigenous and Native communities have occupied now-New Mexico for centuries. It wasn't until the late 1500s that Spanish colonizers created their first settlements.

New Mexico's capital, Santa Fe, is the oldest in the U.S., since it was designated 400 years ago. It became the 47th state in 1912, about five weeks before Arizona gained statehood.

"Spanish is the first [European] language we spoke in what is today the United States, so it's not a foreign language," said Rob Martinez, a state historian.

PHOTO: Shoppers select red and green chile peppers for sale at the popular vegetable market in Santa Fe, N.M., Aug. 21, 2013.  (Robert Alexander/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Shoppers select red and green chile peppers for sale at the popular vegetable market in Santa Fe, N.M., Aug. 21, 2013. (Robert Alexander/Getty Images, FILE)

With the region dominated by Spain before Mexico governed it the 1800s, those Indigenous roots run deep, Martinez explained.

"It's never pleasant to be on the receiving end of conquest and colonization," Martinez said. "I like to tell people: Our culture and our history are brilliant, they're magnificent, but history is also violent and scary, and you have to be brave to study your history."

This culture represented in the lively traditions seen throughout the streets.

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Art is a major part of the culture -- Mexican retablos, paintings of saints on wood, and santeros, the painted and carved images of saints, can be seen at historical sites, churches and homes throughout New Mexico.

"This is a tradition from the late 1700s and early 1800s -- it's truly New Mexican," Martinez said. "It's a combination of Roman Catholicism and folk Catholicism. It's a very beautiful, very stark and straightforward art form. People love this religious and cultural expression."

PHOTO: A crowd stands in front of the Cross of the Martyrs during the procession from the St. Francis Cathedral to the Cross of the Martyrs in Santa Fe, N.M., Sept. 10, 2006, N.M. marking the end of the Fiesta de Santa Fe.  (Shih Fa Kao/AP, FILE)
PHOTO: A crowd stands in front of the Cross of the Martyrs during the procession from the St. Francis Cathedral to the Cross of the Martyrs in Santa Fe, N.M., Sept. 10, 2006, N.M. marking the end of the Fiesta de Santa Fe. (Shih Fa Kao/AP, FILE)

And when in New Mexico, Chavez said, visitors must have a dish featuring the state's prized vegetable: chile. It's used to add a pungent, smoky kick to stews, sauce, tamales, sandwiches and more -- and is a staple of New Mexican cuisine.

"We're just at the end of chile season, which is an incredible time in New Mexico," Chavez said. "The smell of green chile, the harvest, going out to the farms, getting your chile and roasting it … a lot of our traditions have to do with food."

Another integral, and controversial, piece of New Mexican culture is the Fiesta de Santa Fe.

The annual celebration commemorates the reconquest of Santa Fe in 1692, according to Martinez. The city was "founded" by Spanish colonists in 1610, but in 1680 Pueblo natives fought back, burning down the city and driving out the Spanish, who fled to present day Juarez, Mexico.

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"They didn't want to get rid of their languages, they did not want to lose their religion, they did not want to lose their culture," Martinez said. "So there's a revolt -- the first revolution in what's today the United States."

In 1692, the king of Spain ordered a resettlement mission. The Spanish retook those lands and began oppressing the natives, said Patricia Marie Perea, the Hispanic and literary arts educator at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.

PHOTO: A decorative string of dried red chile pods, a ristra, hangs in the Plaza in Santa Fe, N.M., Nov. 11, 2017.  (Robert Alexander/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: A decorative string of dried red chile pods, a ristra, hangs in the Plaza in Santa Fe, N.M., Nov. 11, 2017. (Robert Alexander/Getty Images, FILE)

"There's always some tension between the Indigenous communities and those who are celebrating the Spanish and the conquest into New Mexico," said Perea. "It's such a hard thing to contend with."

For this reason, Perea said, celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month -- Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 -- can be a bit complicated.

"Hispanic" refers to people who descend from Spanish-speaking countries. Considering the state's long history of Spanish colonialism, many New Mexicans denounce the term.

And while the population has expanded to include so many people of many Latin American cultures, the state's history adds to the intensity and passion with which New Mexicans defend their roots.

"There is hope here," Chavez said, "and that's what makes New Mexico so wonderful -- the never-dying hope of its people."

Culture thrives in America's most Hispanic, Latino state: New Mexico originally appeared on abcnews.go.com

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