Last Updated July 10, 2003
America's oldest settlements and its newest technologies can be found, in surrealistic proximity, in New Mexico. For the oldest permanently inhabited city in the United States is not Plymouth, Massachusetts, or Jamestown, Virginia, or even St. Augustine, Florida, it is probably Acoma, New Mexico. Probably, because Acoma, inhabited by the Anasazi, ''an agricultural, settled and architecturally sophisticated people,'' wrote historian Roger Kennedy in Rediscovering America, had perhaps 1,000 years of unrecorded history before Spanish conquistadors came upon them in 1540. Some 460 years later, much of what makes New Mexico distinctive derives from the people found here by the first European explorers--something true of no other state but Hawaii. While the Pilgrims built flimsy wood houses, the Indians in New Mexico were living in extensive dwellings hundreds of years old, made with the adobe that is still the characteristic building material here.
Other state cultures are generally based on what early white settlers brought to the land; natives have mostly disappeared or been killed off by diseases contracted from the first white settlers. Not in New Mexico. The English-speaking culture here is superimposed, at times rather lightly, on a society whose written history dates back to the Spanish settlement of Santa Fe in 1609, and to centuries long past when the Pueblo Indians set up stable agricultural societies on the sandy, rocky lands of northern New Mexico, using small pebbles as mulch to retain scarce moisture. Today, a very substantial minority of New Mexicans are descendants of these Indians or the Spanish, or both. New Mexico's population was 42% Hispanic in 2000, the highest percentage in any state, and 9% American Indian. About one-third of the people in this state speak Spanish in everyday life, but relatively few are recent migrants from Mexico: only 8% of New Mexicans are foreign-born, less than the national average.
New Mexico is the northernmost salient of the great Indian-Spanish civilizations of the Cordillera, which extend along the mountain chain through Mexico and Central and South America, to the southern Chile. Yet New Mexico also is a civilization built on modern technology. It was to a remote mesa called Los Alamos that General Leslie Groves brought his Manhattan Project scientists during World War II to build a secret town and develop a secret weapon that would in two explosions end World War II and change the course of history. Los Alamos, which remains a government high-tech laboratory, made news in early 1999 when it was revealed that Chinese spies had obtained hundreds of computer files from there. New Mexico has other high-tech sites as well--the White Sands Missile Range near Alamogordo, where the first atomic bomb was detonated, and the Sandia Laboratories near Albuquerque, run by Lockheed-Martin for the government, a non-nuclear high-tech weapons research facility, with one of the fastest computers in the world, used to simulate nuclear explosions. Near Carlsbad is the federal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), where the Energy Department deposits transuranic radioactive waste; after many delays, the first waste from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory arrived here in March 1999.
But the past intrudes on this new high-tech New Mexico. Golf courses and other resort facilities are springing up around the Indian casinos operated by 11 of New Mexico's 22 tribes; these employ many Indians, and are an opportunity for many to segue into the mainstream economy and culture; but some wonder whether they are killing off ancient traditions and religious practices.
New and old New Mexico intermingle in varying proportions in this land of majestically vast vistas. The Hispanic-Indian culture predominates north and west of Albuquerque, with picturesque old towns and still-functioning pueblos, backward Indian reservations and lavish casino resorts. ''Little Texas,'' in the south and east, has small cities, plenty of oil wells, vast cattle ranches and desolate military bases, and resembles, economically and culturally, the adjacent west Texas High Plains. Here, as everywhere in New Mexico, government is a prime employer (accounting for 23% of jobs, one of the highest figures in the country) and often the moving force in the local economy. In the middle is Albuquerque, which, with the arrival of air conditioning, grew from a small desert town of 35,000 in 1940 into a Sun Belt metropolis of 449,000 today; it has a large Hispanic minority. Its economy is based heavily on high tech, especially nuclear power, but it has relatively low income and education levels: New Mexico ranks first among states in the percentage living in poverty (18% in 2001) and 45th in median household income--the downscale Sun Belt. It also has high rates of highway fatalities, teenage pregnancies and violent crime.
For many years, New Mexico politics was a somnolent business. Local bosses--first Republican, later Democratic--controlled the large Hispanic vote. Elections in many counties featured irregularities that would have made a Chicago ward committeeman blush. New Mexico also had for years another feature of boss-controlled politics: the balanced ticket, one Spanish and one Anglo senator, with the offices of governor and lieutenant governor split as well. But for all its distinctiveness, in national politics New Mexico was a bellwether, voting for every winning presidential candidate from 1912, when it became a state, until 1976, when it backed Gerald Ford. In the 1988 and 1996 elections it was just 1% off the national mark; in 2000, after some ragged vote counting, it reported a 366-vote margin for Al Gore. Currently, Democrats have a strong base in the north, from Hispanics and from liberal newcomers in Santa Fe and Taos. Albuquerque has been politically marginal; its migrants have been conservative culturally but liberal on economics. Southeast New Mexico is as conservative and Republican as west Texas. Southwest New Mexico, around Las Cruces and Silver City, is more Hispanic and marginally Democratic.
New Mexico politics also has its peculiarities. In the 1990s a Green Party formed, in protest against the practical-minded and sometimes corrupt politics of many Democratic wheelhorses; the Green candidate for governor won 10% of the vote in 1994, and Republican Gary Johnson might well have not been elected otherwise. Johnson was also a new political force--the first strongly conservative Republican to win major office in many years, and one of the few Republicans to come out for drug legalization. But Johnson was term-limited in 2002 and was succeeded by Bill Richardson, former Congressman, Ambassador to the United Nations and Energy Secretary, occasional negotiator with North Korea and possibly the first Hispanic vice presidential nominee. The Green party was ruled off the ballot in 2001 after Ralph Nader failed to win 5%; but its gubernatorial candidate got 5% in 2002 and so it is back on--which means that there probably will be a Green presidential candidate on the ballot in very closely divided New Mexico in 2004.
From almost any point in New Mexico the physical environment is awe-inspiring: amid the vast empty plains of the east or above the peaks and mesas of the north or from the desert of the south, the sky seems enormously large and empty and the air so clear you can see for what seems like 100 miles. But it is an austere and sometimes dangerous environment. The drought of 2001 and 2002 left New Mexico's reservoirs low and the Rio Grande below Albuquerque for a time almost dry. In the summer of 2002 water conservation measures were imposed in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and lawns converted to xeriscaping. Albuquerque's future water supply is imperiled because EPA recognized the three-inch silvery minnow that used to be common in the Rio Grande as an endangered species; underground water supplies are insufficient for present needs, much less for future growth. The legislature has been grappling with water rights issues and Governor Bill Richardson in his 2002 campaign promised a statewide water plan. There are other risks: forest fires, like the Los Alamos blaze of summer 2000, which swept through 50,000 acres and was lit by Park Service employees acting under the controlled burn policies of the Clinton administration. None of New Mexico's traditional politicians, neither the machine Democrats of northern New Mexico who dominate the legislature nor the ranchers of Little Texas nor the representatives of Albuquerque, have been swept up by the environmental restriction movement and so New Mexico developed in the 1990s an active Green party. In the 1997 special election to succeed Bill Richardson in the heavily Democratic 3d Congressional District, a Green candidate won 17% of the vote and enabled Republican Bill Redmond to win the seat 43%-40%.
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