In Other Words
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