New Mexico Art Tells its History

History: A Multicultural Society

Throughout its long history, New Mexico has meant many things to many people. The Pueblos, the Navajos, the Apaches, and the Spanish knew it as a pristine wilderness where the land was filled with mystery, unseen forces, and hidden terrors, but also, with rugged beauty which stirred the imagination. Mementos of New Mexico’s past, whether a small horseshoe nail or shard of Indian pottery, an imposing mission ruin or a crumbling cavalry fort, are plentiful – so much so that one is seldom far from some tangible reminder that history here is not remote and dead, but very close, and continue to affects us. Each group who came here aspired to preserve their unique culture.

Hispanic folk art and drama, revived and revitalized during the 1920s, continues to thrive in today’s New Mexico. Patrocinio Barela, whose santos first caught the public eye during the 1930s, created a great many wood sculptures before his death in Taos in 1964, and in the process, he helped to link the past with the present. More recently, George Lopez, in establishing himself as one of the area’s finest santeros, carried on the tradition of the Lopez family of woodcarvers in Cordova. After experiencing a revival in recent decades, Hispanic folk plays have also perpetuated New Mexico’s Hispanic heritage. At Christmas many communities stage the folk drama Las Posadas, which tells the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter for the birth of Jesus. Other dramas performed include Los Pastores, the story of the shepherds’ search for the infant Jesus, and Los moros y los cristianos, a recounting of the Christian victory over the Muslim Moors in Spain.

Hurd - Shamrock RanchNew Mexico during the modern period has continued to hold a special attraction for artists cross-culturally in a variety of fields. Peter Hurd emerged as one of New Mexico’s best-known modern painters. A native of Roswell, Hurd lived and worked at his ranch at San Patricio, where he painted the land and people of southern New Mexico. Pablita Velarde of Santa Clara Pueblo became famous for her paintings and murals in public buildings, while her daughter, Helen Hardin, painted in detail aspects of Pueblo life. R. C. Gorman, who was born on the Navajo reservation, likewise drew his inspiration to take up painting from his father, Carl, a World War II Navajo Code Talker.

In recent decades, many New Mexicans have campaigned vigorously to promote a variety of causes that they believe to be fundamental for the preservation of their state’s distinctive character and environment. Beginning in the 1920s, residents of Santa Fe embarked on a program to revive the use of Pueblo architecture and the old territorial building style, a movement insuring that the flavor of the past, at least in that city, would not be buried under a tasteless modernity. Throughout the northern part of the state, a clandestine group of artists, known popularly as the “Billboard Vigilantes,” periodically conducted nighttime excursions to remove highway advertising signs that sullied the landscape. In the late 1960s, when plans were announced to build a pulp mill on the Rio Grande, aroused citizens banded together in newly formed conservation organizations to protect the area’s principal water-course from pollution. After stopping construction of the proposed mill, they went on to challenge land promoters who were subdividing huge tracts of desert into “jackrabbit estates” to be sold to gullible easterners. They took on a new wave of strip miners and began working in the Four Corners to correct the hazards associated with huge power plants whose tracks spewed tons of fly ash into the clouds.

New Mexico’s Native population has entered upon a new period of activity in which, more and more, they are expanding outward and participating in city, state, and national affairs. Tribal members campaign for position on local school boards, run for legislative offices, and win appointments in state government. The Jicarilla Apaches on their capacious northern reservation and the Mescalero Apaches on their well-timbered lands in the south have demonstrated resourcefulness and initiative in developing business enterprises and sponsoring programs that promote economic self-sufficiency and foster tribal unity. The largest Indian group in America, the Navajo, occupying a far-flung reservation from New Mexico across northern Arizona and into Utah, continue to show amazing adaptability to changing conditions while maintaining, perhaps to a greater degree than any southwestern tribe, their native language and customs. The Navajo Community College, for example, helps prepare young people for life in today’s world, but at the same time it places strong emphasis on their distinct cultural heritage.

What now seems clear to all thoughtful New Mexicans is that they must continue to explore ways to preserve the old alongside the new. As they face diminishing natural resources, they also must seek to perpetuate a reverence for the land and its waters that was characteristic of the best among both Spanish and English-speaking pioneers, and among the original inhabitants.

General Population Statistics

The general population of New Mexico has increased 5000% since 1812:

Year Population
1812 40,000
1850 61,547
1900 195,310
1950   681,187
2000 1,819,046
2009   2,009,671

New Mexico; Revised Edition
Calvin & Susan Roberts
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006

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