Monday, February 08, 2021

Yankeedom and El Norte


Within days of setting foot in Santa Fe for the first time in 1992 we knew this was where we were meant to be. And not just for that particular day.

However, had we first read Colin Woodard’s "American Nations" we might have cancelled our New Mexico plans and just driven straight to Cape Cod instead. We obviously are glad that we didn’t. But why?

The book identifies eleven distinct cultures within the U.S. and Canada – and “makes the provocative claim that our culture wars are inevitable. North America was settled by groups with distinct political and religious values – and we haven’t had a moment’s peace since."

Two in particular who should not get along are Yankeedom and El Norte – the “nations” that apply to us. We both grew up in the former and lived there for seventy-four years. Then, after vacationing in the second of the two for twenty-five years, we relocated there. Shouldn’t we have experienced at least a culture skirmish, if not a full blown conflict?

Our former homeland was begun by the Puritans in New England and spread across upper New York, the northern parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, into the eastern Dakotas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Canadian Maritime.

As a whole the people of the region value education, intellectual achievement, communal empowerment, and citizen participation in government – are comfortable with government regulation – and have a "Utopian streak" believing in the ultimate perfectibility of man, guided by the right types of reforms of course. The area was settled by radical Calvinists – Puritans who believed it was their mission from God to “propagate His will on a corrupt and sinful world [and that] personal wealth was expected to be reinvested in one’s good works. Yankeedom has, since the outset, put great emphasis on perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders.”

Except for that evangelical zealotry part – we say amen! We definitely could comfortably live there. In fact…

El Norte is home to the oldest European subculture in the United States. Started by Catholic Spanish settlers in the 16th century, and later augmented by Anglo-Americans from the Deep South and Greater Appalacia, it includes south and west Texas, southern California and its Imperial Valley, southern Arizona, New Mexico, parts of Colorado, and several Mexican states.
Spain’s colonization of the land was driven by a desire for gold and the compulsion to convert every living soul to Catholicism. The latter idea really irritated the Protestant countries – and lead to “the lasting hatred of the English, Scots, and Dutch who regarded [the Spanish] as the decadent, unthinking tools of the Vatican’s conspiracy to enslave the world. This virulent anti-Hispanic feeling became deeply engrained in the cultures of Yankeedom, Appalachia, Tidewater, and the Deep South.” And was one of the reasons New Mexico was denied statehood for so many years.

Spain sent lots of men, but not nearly enough women, leading to intermarriage with the local Natives and an ethnically mixed “mestizo” populace. Partially because of their widespread proselytization efforts the Spanish spread themselves too thin and were not able to watch over their charges very closely. Thus the people here became exceptionally independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and focused on work. Hispanic culture dominates in El Norte – making it "a place apart" from the rest of North America, as well as "a hotbed of democratic reform and revolutionary sentiment.”

We like to think of ourselves as relatively independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and focused on work (or now on our avocations.)  But revolutionaries?  One of us prefers not to wear gold – but likes turquoise and silver. The other was raised Catholic.  We both are drawn to New Mexican architecture and folk art – with a special affinity for depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whether on persons, places or things. And we seem to be missing that deeply engrained “virulent anti-Hispanic” Yankeedom gene.

Were we unknowing El Norteños for three quarters of a century?  Real ones in some prior incarnation?

Or is it that Santa Fe is enough of a “City Different,” to allow us to retain our thoroughly instilled Yankee sensibilities – while at the same time letting us immerse ourselves in our new culture’s way of life. After all we were not the first ones from our homeland to come here and stay – among them the “Ladies of the Canyons,” as documented by Leslie Poling-Kempes.

“Educated, restless, and inquisitive, Natalie Curtis, Carol Stanley, Alice Klauber, and Mary Cabot Wheelwright were plucky, intrepid women whose lives were transformed in the first decades of the twentieth century by the people and country of the American Southwest. Within the wild, raw beauty of the high desert and mountain landscape these ladies imagined and created a new home territory, a new society, and a new identity for themselves and for the [men and] women who would follow them.”

Curtis was an ethnomusicologist who transcribed the songs of hundreds of Native American tribes – and published them in 1905 as ‘The Indians’ Book: Songs and Legends of the American Indians.” She also brought her friend President Theodore Roosevelt to see his first (perhaps only) Hopi Snake Dance. Stanley was a brilliant pianist and educator who founded Ghost Ranch – without which Georgia O’Keeffe might not have discovered the abstract landscapes of New Mexico. (Wanting to see the source of Ms O’K’s nonrepresentational visions was one of our primary reasons for first coming out here. On that trip we realized that they were actually pretty realistic.) Klauber was a painter from San Diego who helped start up the NM Museum of Art in 1917. And Wheelwright founded the Museum of the American Indian in 1937 to preserve and showcase Navajo culture and religion.

Along with other “immigrants” the Ladies of the Canyon used their newfound independence to construct a unique refuge of cultural diversity. A “City Different” in this “place apart” – all set in a gorgeous landscape where the air is clean and the weather usually bright, sunny and dry, but not too warm. (Although a little rain now and then would be nice.)

El Norte culture in its native form is however still alive and well throughout New Mexico. There are religious aspects – and other parts of the Norteño lifestyle that are almost as sacrosanct out here.

After winning its independence from Spain in the early 19th century Mexico ousted all of the Spanish missionaries from its provinces, but failed to replace them with enough of their own clergy. As a result many secluded Nuevo Méxican villages could expect only a once-yearly visit from a parish priest. Hardly enough for people falling in love, having babies, raising children, dying, etc. The men in those communities came together as “Los Penitentes” and dedicated themselves to providing mutual aid, community charity – and to memorializing the spirit of the penance and the Passion of Christ (including their own self-flagellation practices.)  Almost expelled from, then reconciled with the Catholic Church, the brotherhood continues to perform a modified form of its religious rituals, and to pursue its commitment to acts of community charity.

In what most New Mexicans consider their sacred right – the state has some of the least restrictive firearms laws in the country, with around one-half of the state population owning guns. It allows the open carrying of loaded weapons without a specific permit. A special license is required to secretly pack a shooting iron however.

Sheriffs are locally elected, and regularly decline to enforce (or sometimes even obey) state laws. In February Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a red-flag gun bill that allows state district courts to order the temporary surrender of firearms if a gun owner displays dangerous or threatening behavior. And she urged (not commanded or compelled) sheriffs to resign if they refused to enforce it. Likewise masks. (And we naively thought that a stylish bandanna was an integral part of southwestern cowboy fashion. I guess when somebody tells you that you HAVE TO do something…)

Some of that Yankee "sacrifice for the common good" ideal seems to be catching on however.   As our country’s thirty-fifth president might have put it – “mask not what your country can do for you – mask what you can do for your country.”  Face-coverings are becoming a more common sight, and NM’s Covid numbers have returned to yellow or green on most maps. 

Less contentiously the land of Enchantment’s independence and self-sufficiency can also be seen on a day-to-day basis in many of its 200 unincorporated communities (aka Census Designated Places or CDPs.)

Twenty minutes to our south is the dirt-street, mud-house town of Los Cerrillos – a CDP with 110 adobe homes and a population of 230. Settled in 1879 – within a few years over 3,000 full-time prospectors were extracting gold, silver, lead, zinc, and turquoise from the surrounding mountains, and in their leisure time supporting twenty-one saloons, five brothels, four hotels, several newspapers and an opera house in the city.  For a time Los Cerrillos was seriously considered as a new site for the capital of New Mexico. Today it is officially a “ghost town.”

A little further down the road is Madrid (MAD-rid, not Ma-DRID) – similarly categorized, even though this small village of about 400 residents is bustling during the (normal) summer months with shops, restaurants, and galleries catering to its many visitors. Madrid was a booming coal mining community in the early 20th century – the Cerrillos Coal & Iron Co. developed all the housing, mines, and facilities – until natural gas came on the scene in the late 1940s. By 1954 most residents had moved away, and an ad in the Wall Street Journal listed the entire town for sale at a price of $250,000 (2.4 million 2020 dollars.) There were no takers. Today artists, craftsmen, and other individuals wanting to make their homes in the mountains live in what once was company provided housing.

Closer to us is the village of Agua Fría – in their own words “an obscure community five miles southwest of the Santa Fe Plaza [founded by] humble and poor farmers, who spoke only Spanish, watching the world go by on the El Camino Real de Adentro [Royal Road of the Interior Land.]” Realtors describe the town as a “Traditional Historic Community” with a “sparse suburban feel.” But the 2,000 people in their 720 adobe houses quietly demur – and insist that Agua Fría is simply a state of mind.

At a younger point in our lives we might have considered settling in one of these three places. But what we really wish is that we had had the opportunity to hang out with those early 20th century Utopian-minded newcomers who socially engineered Santa Fe into the City Different. As our radical Calvinist forerunners would tell us, it is after all the type of thing that expatriates from Yankeedom, are predestined to do.

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