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Know the West

Never underestimate the power of prejudice


Last year, both New Mexico and Arizona celebrated the centennial anniversaries of their becoming states. But why did it take them until 1912 to join the Union? The answer isn’t pretty; it reveals a pattern of racism and discrimination against Native Americans, Hispanics and Catholics in the West.

For New Mexico, the long road to statehood included -- according to New Mexico State Historian Rick Hendricks -- “four constitutions and four referenda, some 15 congressional proposals, two enabling acts, six delegations to Washington, and 62 years” to move from territorial designation to adding a star on the nation’s flag. Major opponents were The New York Times and Harper’s Weekly,which both railed against New Mexico joining the union.

Americans lusted after the Southwest’s mineral wealth of gold, silver, coal, and copper, but they weren’t sure they wanted the outlaw Billy the Kid. Santa Fe was an exotic destination and the rails of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad brought tourists to see Indian villages and the Grand Canyon of Arizona.

Traveling in New Mexico after the Mexican War of 1846-1848, the British writer George Frederick Ruxton complained about “the hostility of Indians and the scarcity of water.” He described Socorro, N.M., as “a small, wretched place.” David Grey, writing in the Chicago Inter-Ocean on July 4, 1875, after visiting northern New Mexico, proclaimed the men there were “insolent and lazy.” He added, “Catholic priests wield an unbounded influence over these ignorant and half-civilized people.” Writing in 1890, the itinerant Methodist minister John L. Dyer described New Mexico as “the outside or fag-ends of an old Latinized nation, that had been ridden over by Romish priests.”

California joined the Union in 1850. Nevada joined a decade later, with Colorado coming into the fold in 1876, and Utah in 1890, after renouncing Mormon polygamy. Arizona had been part of New Mexico until 1863, and seven years later an attempt, which failed, was made to combine them into one state to be named Lincoln.  In 1902, there was another proposal to combine both territories and admit them as a single state named Montezuma. That also failed.

My hero, Teddy Roosevelt, visited Albuquerque in 1903, and watched a pageant in front of the Alavarado Hotel, next to the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, in which 46 girls represented all of the states then in the Union. The girl representing New Mexico was not even on the platform but made her case by standing on the steps “pleading tearfully for admission.”

In 1906, Congress passed a joint resolution combining Arizona and New Mexico into one state, to be named Arizona with its capital in Santa Fe. Historian Charles Bennett explains, “New Mexico voters approved this plan, knowing that Arizona voters would kill it anyway, which they did.” Finally in 1910, President William Howard Taft signed an “enabling act” for people of the territory to draft a state constitution. Here it gets interesting. One-third of the delegates to the New Mexico constitutional convention were Hispanic. They had specific goals.

The 20,000-word Constitution of 1910 had 130 sections and 22 articles. But after decades of racism and pejorative comments about Hispanic heritage, the Hispanic delegates from northern New Mexico insisted on adding Article VII to the document. Historian Francis Levine explains that it guaranteed that the “right of any citizen to vote, hold office, or sit on a jury would never be restricted or abridged on account of religion, race, language, or color, or the ability to speak, read, or write in English or Spanish . . .”

For the first 20 years of statehood, all laws were required to be published in Spanish and English. Now, Spanish is an official language of the state, equal to English, and New Mexico is projected to become the first state with a minority majority.

If those provisions seem far-reaching and inclusive, it was still a man’s world. The New Mexico Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, still denied women the right to vote, excluded citizen initiatives, and maintained the old-fashioned election of U.S. senators by the state legislature rather than by popular vote. This was the Progressive Era, but some reforms had yet to come to New Mexico. As for Arizona, the last of the nation’s contiguous states finally sailed to statehood a year later, adding the 48th star to the nation’s flag.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Colorado.