Decolonizing New Mexico

Remembering, Reimagining and Recovering


Identity is neither static nor something easily defined. In New Mexico, it is like nesting dolls, one inside the other, with beauty buried in the layers of complexity and consciousness, unknown perhaps, but still there. Some individuals and communities stand in strength and sovereignty. Others, whether they carry the complexity of their ancestry in their faces and hands or not, sustain memory in an aching consciousness.

Yet, the most meaningful and profound reflections of New Mexico’s people emerge in both the individual and the collective and all of the relationships developed and sustained in-between. There are sketches of a multitude of experiences that exist, including of holy men and women who have long connected ground and sky; of farmers and ranchers whose relationships to land and animals nourishes community; of creatives, whose hands, hearts and minds elevate beauty and consciousness; and of leaders, formal and informal, particularly those who have had the courage to rise in their hunger for justice.

New Mexico history is complicated. I often think that colonialism is sometimes like a fine dust. It falls on everything, it enters our mouths, gets in our eyes and our lungs. Spanish colonialism must be understood within the dynamics and violence of settler colonialism, particularly around two salient points. First, the progeny of those first settlers also descend from Indigenous people, in spite of the dominant narratives that obscure this reality. Second, following the U.S. occupation of New Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century and the annexation of the territory a year later, both Native American and Hispanic peoples would become conquered people, subsumed into a nation.

For both Indigenous and Indo-Hispanos of New Mexico, there is a wealth of legacy from which to draw that includes great beauty and profound wisdom reflected in centuries of art, literature, agriculture, philosophy and architecture. Yet, the fullness of those experiences and histories are obscured by the mythologies.

The Myths

Just as language serves to define what it means to be human, symbols serve as predominant instruments through which the world comes to be represented. The word ‘symbol’ comes from the Greek σύμβολον symbolon, which means “token,” or “watchword.” It is taken from the concept of bringing things together in order to contrast and compare toward determining if something is genuine. Symbols — words, sounds, gestures, ideas or visual images — are used to convey other ideas and beliefs, and are therefore foundational in terms of narratives and myths.

Over the years, as I have worked particularly as a cultural anthropologist in New Mexico, I have noted a number of symbols embedded in the physical landscape as well as in the consciousness of people. Toward a decolonial project, it is important to begin to identify and challenge them. While a more comprehensive assessment of symbols may be necessary, what follows are some key symbols to consider more closely.

The Figure of the Conquistador

The Spanish word conquistador is translated to the English and means “conqueror.” The historical figure behind the word is associated with males who were mercenaries of the Spanish or Portuguese Monarchies charged with the conquest of the Americas. Technically, conquistadores constitute all military officials and could very well be extended to include all first European settlers of a region. The use of the word in official documents and even in popular culture was most likely limited to a very particular era—the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In New Mexico, the use of the term emerged in the twentieth century, particularly as a moniker of the overarching frame of Nuevomexicano identity in singular Spanish terms. In a letter from writer, artist and the first curator for the Spanish Colonial Arts, Museum of New Mexico, Elizabeth Boyd, to anthropologist Charles Briggs in 1973, she noted, “As I have told you before –they (northern N.M. Spanish) are great people but most of them have lost historical background behind grandparents—when it merges into myths on los conquistadores.”1 While there is something to be said of the outside scholarly representations of members of this community, there is no doubt a mythology evolved to centralize the figure of conquistadores. a meme image with an illustration of a 16th century conquistador. The text reads: Descendants of Spanish conquistadors in northern New Mexico speak a dialect of 16th century Spanish that is extinct in Spain Image used on the website and Facebook Page. Other scholars, including those who are from these communities have also assessed this issue even more critically. The figure of the conquistador, according to anthropologist and Taoseña, Dr. Sylvia Rodriguez, “constitutes nothing less than a claim to whiteness.” So ingrained in their consciousness and narrative, many New Mexicans continue to frame their sense of identity in simple terms, as the “descendants of conquistadores.”2

Tri-Cultural Iconography

New Mexico identity is set within a national paradigm of race that persistently renders non-whites and non-blacks invisible. Thanks to the tourism industry, representations of New Mexico’s people are reduced to an early twentieth century invention of three typologies — Anglo, Indian and Spanish — an enduring and yet flawed mythology that continues to conflate distinctions between sovereign tribes, erasing entire groups of people and obscuring the reality of centuries of mixture, born from acts of both love and violence, including that of Indigenous slavery. Here, identity is unique and the language of blood and belonging that developed within Spanish colonial rule was a highly complex racial taxonomy and cultural hierarchy of caste that operated to control difference, with a vocabulary so ingrained that some permeations exist to this day, including words like mestizo and coyote.

The tri-cultural myth is are essentially a framework that has served as shorthand for defining who the people of New Mexico are, and could not be more erroneous or offensive in that an image from a website Metal sculpture at the DeVargas Mall, Santa Fe, NM 1) it erases entire communities, including African and African American presence that, however small, existed in the colonial period and exists still or Asian Americans, including Japanese Americans interned during the mid twentieth century; 2) it creates a mold of a singular Indigenous identity, as if being Apache or Ute or Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo are all the same, when each actually have distinct languages, histories and world views; 3) it fails to recognize the beauty and complexity of mixture and difference, where even the slavery of Indigenous peoples was foundational in the development of contemporary communities; 4) it usually depicts male images, thus enforcing the prevalence of patriarchy or at least the absence of female figures; and 5) it perpetuates erroneous notions of harmony, now even embedded in organizational and governmental seals and logos.


As noted in his Book of Embraces, Eduardo Galeano writes that, “Identity is no museum piece sitting stock-still in a display case, but rather the endlessly astonishing synthesis of the contradictions of everyday life.” For both Native American and Indo-Hispano communities, representations of identity have objectified, flattened and obscured the complexities of who they are. Further, these portrayals and depictions have also informed how these communities have come to self-represent, often times giving over to the myths more than the narrative histories that reveal the contradictions of which Galeano writes.

Racial Purity

The story often told of identity of New Mexicans is of racial purity, projecting the idea that individuals in these communities retained their pure Spanish or Native American bloodlines. European settlers of this land entered the northernmost edges of the Spanish empire, with the consciously cultured and raced ideology of limpieza de sangre, a concept adopted itself from the legal statutes of the purity of blood in Toledo in 1449, which not only made the distinction between Christian and Christian convert on the basis of blood lineage, but indeed specified a hierarchy of “good and bad blood.” Yet, even in the remote areas, the ideal was to maintain colonial dichotomies of ruler and ruled, “savaged” and saved, white and other and colonizer and colonized flowered. Even for those early colonists, however, the idealization of purity of blood was a fiction that had long since played itself out in the Spanish frontiers between Moors and Jews. Nonetheless, these settlers had the opportunity to refashion themselves anew, with a boundary maintaining goal that divided them from the landed and landless peasantry and even more so from the colonized “indios” themselves. Underlying this ideology was a case system that was not simply based in race, but civic status, occupation, sex, and the legitimacy or illegitimacy of birth.

First Families

The idea of ‘founding families’ is one that countless communities have adopted globally to commemorate the experience of individuals who settled sites. Its lure seems to be based on asserting a sense of belonging, perhaps understandable in a nation where the lives and experiences of Hispanos and Latinos generally are marginalized and even rendered invisible. However, rather than responding to that alienation and erasure with a more critical understanding and complex narrative, a static framework of identity surfaces wherein the stories of población, or the peopling of this area, are pushed forward.

Aside from the fact that ‘first families’ is exclusive and creates a frame of hierarchy of belonging, it fails to account for the fluidity and dynamism of the settlements of New Mexico. The inevitable mestizaje that followed colonization resulted in generations of racial and cultural mixture realized and defined as much by amicable unions as by coercive relations.

There are many manifestations to the abstraction of ‘first family.’ In Santa Fe it comes through the public display of family crests that on the one hand offer some a sense of belonging and connection, and that also inevitably function within the hierarchy of first settlement.

Selective Genealogies

I am interested in statements by people asserting they are descended from ten to twenty (or more) generations of New Mexicans. I believe this proclamation is essentially a counter to living in a society that renders Latinos as criminal and invisible and about the need to “belong” and reflect a long connection to the land. It also creates a narrow sense of identity in two ways. One, the declaration positions individuals in the colonial paradigm that traces ancestry along a single patriarchal line in order to trace a connection to Spain. Second, it erases the complexity that actually comes with a family tree. Because a family is exponential and everyone descends from two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and ultimately, at the tenth generation, approximately from the late 1600s to the mid 1700s in New Mexico, we descend from 512 individuals; and at least at the biological level, we descend equally. In spite of the fantasy of Spanish purity, history reveals that by 1750, the population of New Mexico was largely mixed, with over 70% of people having an Indigenous parent or grandparent. When calculated to the tenth generation, of 512 individuals were Indigenous people. These numbers alone should change how people think of their history and also give them pause when they articulate the narrow generational connections that they do.

The Language We Speak

The mythology propagated over the years posits that people from northern New Mexico continue in the 21st century to speak a dialect of sixteenth century Spanish. Aurelio Macedonio Espinosa, professor of Romance languages at Stanford University from 1909 to 1947, according to historian John Nieto Phillips, was “driven by the conviction that his forebears, the conquistadores that settled New Mexico and southern Colorado, had left a linguistic and racial legacy to the people, and that the villages of the region were their direct descendants.”3

The evolution of the Spanish language in New Mexico reflects a confluence reflected in various important phases. From a historical standpoint, several key watershed moments are definitive even in the development of language. First, because of the resettlement of New Mexico in 1692, many of the settlers were born in the New World and spoke the Spanish of Mexico, which included a vast amount of Nauatal, a language closely related to Uto-Axtecan. Second, in the interaction with other Indigenous peoples, new words and modes of communication emerged. Third, with the conquest of the region by the United States, Spanish evolved even more, where English words were utilized to continue to advance communication.

As an example of what that complexity looked like almost two and half centuries ago, in 1776 Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez visited New Mexico and following his assessment, site-by-site pointed to language as a marker of complexity. While his views vary from village to village, his analysis of Taos in particular provides an interesting window, including linguistically. He writes,”They speak the local Spanish, and most of them speak the language of the pueblo with ease, and to a considerable extent the Comanche, Ute, and Apache languages.


  1. See Correspondence, E. Boyd collection, Box, 1, Folder 8a. SRCA, Santa Fe, NM. ↩︎

  2. See Sylvia Rodriguez, “Tourism, Whiteness, and the Vanishing Anglo.” In Seeing and Being Seen: Tourism in the American West. David M. Wrobel and Patrick T. Long, eds. Pp. 194–210. Lawrence: Published for The Center of the American West, University of Colorado at Boulder by the University Press of Kansas, 2001, p. 205. ↩︎

  3. John M. Nieto-Philips, The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish American Identity in New Mexico, 1880-1930s. University of New Mexico Press, 2004. ↩︎

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