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Política: Nuevomex­i­canos and Amer­i­can Po­lit­i­cal In­cor­po­ra­tion, 1821-1910 by Phillip B. Gonzales

If our cur­rent presidential tran­si­tion seems shrill and un­ruly, con­sider New Mex­ico in the mid-19th cen­tury, as the U.S.-Mex­i­can war forced Nuevomex­i­canos to switch coun­tries, al­le­giances, and gov­ern­ments nearly overnight. As the east­ern­most part of Greater Mex­ico, Nuevo Méx­ico was the first re­gion to sur­ren­der, with U.S. troops al­ready oc­cu­py­ing the state’s ma­jor ci­ties and forts only a few months into the first year of the war.

Would the U.S. ad­mit Nuevomex­i­canos as U.S. ci­ti­zens or seek to over­whelm and ex­pel them as it had Na­tive Amer­i­cans? Would Nuevomex­i­canos ac­cept an Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment or launch in­sur­rec­tions? At the time, every op­tion seemed to be on the table.

In Política: Nuevomex­i­canos and Amer­i­can Po­lit­i­cal In­cor­po­ra­tion, his­to­rian Phillip B. Gonzales heads straight into the mid­dle of this chaotic mo­ment in the state’s past. Con­trary to the pop­u­lar im­age of 19th­cen­tury New Mex­ico as a colo­nial back­wa­ter un­der both Mex­i­can and Amer­i­can rule, Política con­structs a more en­gaged pic­ture of the era’s Nuevomex­i­cano politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal move­ments. The his­to­rian be­lieves that New Mex­i­cans “did not sim­ply go along for the ride. They ex­er­cised nec­es­sary agency in what be­came an in­ter­ac­tively or­ganic progress of push­ing to­ward a func­tion­ing party sys­tem.”

The U.S.-Mex­ico War ex­posed long­stand­ing rifts among Nuevomex­i­canos as to whether Amer­i­cans should be wel­comed, tol­er­ated, or re­pulsed. Of­ten, realpoli­tik pre­vailed as Amer­i­can troops ar­rived en masse. In Santa Fe, the Mex­i­can gover­nor of the state failed to mount a de­fense when U.S. troops ar­rived in Au­gust 1846. In­stead, see­ing that he was se­verely out­manned, the gover­nor signed over New Mex­ico to the in­vad­ing U.S. Army, then fled town as the cap­i­tal’s Mex­i­can elite hosted a lav­ish ball, in a gala rite of le­git­i­ma­tion that was at­tended by wealthy Santa Feans and the oc­cu­py­ing sol­diers.

But just a few months later in Jan­uary 1847, a bloody in­sur­gency arose in Taos, as an al­liance of Taos Pue­blo In­di­ans and Nuevomex­i­canos mur­dered and scalped the U.S.-ap­pointed ter­ri­to­rial gover­nor Charles Bent. The rebel coali­tion led an up­ris­ing through­out ru­ral north­ern New Mex­ico be­fore be­ing forced to take refuge in the Taos Pue­blo church. There, Amer­i­can forces fired can­nons into the par­ish, even­tu­ally killing some 350 Mex­i­cans and In­di­ans and tak­ing hun­dreds more as pris­on­ers.

Soon after sur­ren­der­ing, though, Nuevomex­i­canos man­aged to quickly in­sert them­selves into ter­ri­to­rial Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal life. They ran for elected of­fice, run­ning ul­tra-com­pet­i­tive races against their An­glo coun­ter­parts while en­joy­ing a broad ar­ray of par­ti­san press cov­er­age, as scur­rilous as it was di­verse.

But much of the state’s cul­tural as­sim­i­la­tion, Gonzales ar­gues, had al­ready started in the 1820s, when the Santa Fe Trail be­gan stream­ing Amer­i­can traders, goods, busi­ness norms, and demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal ideas into the re­gion. In the post­war pe­riod, Nuevomex­i­canos also en­joyed po­lit­i­cal free­doms that were de­nied to their coun­ter­parts in con­quered Mex­ico. Un­like Tex­ans, Nuevomex­i­canos were pro­tected by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hi­dalgo, which en­sured their right to be­come full-fledged Amer­i­can ci­ti­zens. In Cal­i­for­nia, ar­riv­ing Amer­i­can law­mak­ers quickly passed bills de­signed to keep res­i­dent Mex­i­cans from run­ning for of­fice or even vot­ing.

Re­gard­less, the 19th-cen­tury New Mex­ico ter­ri­tory re­mained, in many ways, a pro­foundly il­lib­eral place, with a largely il­lit­er­ate un­der­class. An 1860 cen­sus re­vealed that over three per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion were en­slaved Navajo cap­tives of Nuevomex­i­cano fam­i­lies.

At over 1,000 pages, Política is best en­joyed as a cof­fee-table ref­er­ence book. It con­tains a vast gallery of char­ac­ters, many of them apo­lit­i­cal. Gonzales de­tails the life of María Gertrudis Barceló, known as Doña Tules, a fe­male Santa Fe gam­bling sa­loon op­er­a­tor who made a for­tune host­ing fan­dan­gos and serv­ing drinks to wily mix of lo­cal New Mex­i­cans, French Cana­dian traders, politi­cians, and newly ar­rived Euro­pean im­mi­grants. East Coast jour­nal­ists were fond of writ­ing scan­dalous screeds that re­ferred to Barceló as “the Queen of Sin.” But in reality, Gonzales ar­gues, she was a savvy busi­ness­woman whose sa­loon dou­bled as a sa­lon of bi­cul­tural hu­mor, mu­sic, and lively po­lit­i­cal de­bate.

The book ze­roes in on the 19th-cen­tury na­tive-born New Mex­i­can politi­cians who as­cended to po­lit­i­cal power while de­fend­ing the rights and rep­u­ta­tions of Nuevomex­i­canos against a grow­ing num­ber of Amer­i­can new­com­ers. Th­ese new­com­ers viewed the state’s na­tive pop­u­la­tion as morally sus­pect and racially in­fe­rior. Fig­ures like José Fran­cisco Chaves, a mil­i­tary leader and ter­ri­to­rial rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the fed­eral congress, re­veal the cul­tural ten­sion th­ese lead­ers en­dured. As a U.S. Army colonel, Chaves led troops in the Civil War bat­tles that took place in New Mex­ico, and helped ne­go­ti­ate the Navajo sur­ren­der at Bosque Re­dondo. Nonethe­less, Chaves had to file le­gal com­plaints against the Union Army for fail­ing to pay the New Mex­ico vol­un­teers who fought for the Union on its bat­tle­fields, only to have An­glo mil­i­tary lead­ers den­i­grate them as “greaser sol­diers” who were “cow­ards, ready to run at the first fire.”

Chaves’ bi­og­ra­phy — of dili­gent ser­vice mixed with racial dis­crim­i­na­tion — even­tu­ally be­came the norm for the ter­ri­tory’s po­lit­i­cal elite at the end of the 19th cen­tury. But the po­lit­i­cal ex­per­i­ment of the post­war pe­riod is an un­der­sung part of the state’s his­tory, be­lieves Gonzales: “Nuevomex­i­canos would even­tu­ally suf­fer a de­cline in power in the 1880s as de­mo­graph­ics changed but the fron­tier pe­riod for the thirty years fol­low­ing the 1848 Mex­i­can War were a sur­pris­ingly fruit­ful time for fron­tier democ­racy among both An­g­los and Nuevomex­i­canos.” — Casey Sanchez

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