Sometimes I forget just how deeply the history of humanity reaches into the soul of the American continent. Okay, not just sometimes – often, almost continuously. As a product of the American school system, my historical timeline for any of the 50 states automatically sets to the 16th century, the arrival of the Europeans, the Revolution, birth of the United States, Civil War, and so on. Oh yeah, and maybe 8 pages to cram the vast, complex array of various civilizations of the Americas that preceded the arrival of Columbus in 1492 by centuries.
Santa Fe, and really most of New Mexico, keeps reminding me that the footsteps of the ghosts here trace back through centuries and centuries, back to ancient civilizations that the modern-day people of the Pueblos, Hopi, Apache, and Navajo consider their forbears. I ponder ancient pottery of the Mimbres people, the striking black and white geometrics now lifeless behind museum glass and yearning to be brought back to useful life. The Taos Pueblo, still lived in by a few families and maintained by the entire pueblo community, a new layer of fresh adobe made of mud and straw applied to the multistory exterior every year, believed to be roughly 1,000 years old and one of North America’s oldest continuously lived-in communities.
I have been in northern New Mexico for two weeks now and the high desert mesa, and mountains have caught my soul, the impending moody rainstorms rolling across the landscape playing tricks of light and shadow implore my hand to write. No wonder generations of artists and writers have undertaken pilgrimages to this region and the native peoples have created masterpieces of pottery from the clay and dirt. It’s a land to steal your breath away (literally too, as Santa Fe is at an altitude roughly 7,000 feet above sea level). I am privileged to be staying with a local artist, a wonderful, vivacious woman who has lived all over, but now calls Santa Fe home and lets the land and her Cuban heritage infuse her art.
Yesterday I toured the Palace of the Governor’s, a historic building right on the Plaza in the cultural heart of Santa Fe. If any building can possibly be a microcosm of the extensive mix of cultures and history here, the Palace of Governor’s is it. It’s a rather humble building from the outside, a single story adobe structure, rather squat and stretching from one end of the Plaza to the other, devoid of ornamentation beyond the simple wood beams that hold up the arcade over the sidewalk in front where local native craftsmen and their families sell their jewellery. Easy to overlook as just another adobe building in Santa Fe. But I beg you, pull open the heavy wood doors and enter the dim interior.
The Palace was built sometime between 1610-1612, right after the first Spanish settlement fell apart and the remaining soldiers and colonists who didn’t return to New Spain (modern-day Mexico) moved to the site of modern-day Santa Fe and established a garrison. In 1598, Governor Juan de Onate of Spain led a disastrous expedition of 500 soldiers, missionary priests, and colonial settlers north into the New Mexico territory. It all began to fall apart by 1601, with drought and poor harvests leading to starvation and sickness. Two-thirds of the soldiers and settlers essentially gave up and went back to Mexico, the rest ended up founding Santa Fe.
At first the Palace of Governor’s, as an isolated, lonely outpost of Spain’s government in the sparsely populated frontier of New Mexico, was a simple adobe and dirt floor affair. Clashes with the local populations of Puebloan, Apache, and Navajo peoples erupted. The Spanish were brutal to local populations as they settled the Americas and New mexico was no exception. They forced the native people to labor for the Spanish crown, punished people if they spoke their own tribal languages or practiced their own religions, and forced them to convert to Catholicism. No surprise, the locals revolted, in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The 18 Pueblos and their allies attacked the Spanish settlements, tore down the Catholic churches (many of which were built over the Pueblo’s sacred kivas), and drove the Spanish back almost to modern-day Mexico. They kept the Spanish out for 12 years.
Today as you wander the old uneven wood floors of the Palace, layers of archaeological excavations within the building have revealed evidence of this period of history. I gazed through glass covered trap doors to the remains of adobe walls and storage pits, dug and built and molded by the Puebloan people when they kicked out the Spanish and turned the buildings of Santa Fe into a giant Pueblo, rumored to have been made up of 1,000 rooms. When the Spanish returned in 1692, they had to fight room-to-room through this massive pueblo to take back Santa Fe. Many of the historic buildings of old Santa Fe today stand above the remains of this pueblo.
Outside the Palace of Governors, the Plaza is a green oasis of people-watching and quirky characters. It was here in 1846 that General Kearny of the US Army announced to an extremely nervous Hispanic population of farmers and tradesmen that Santa Fe and all of the New Mexico territory was now part of the United States. I try to imagine what I would feel as I sit on the benches here. If my family stretched back to the Spanish conquistadors or the local Pueblo or Navajo people, if we had only recently become an independent Mexican nation in 1821, and now American soldiers were camped in my frontier town as I was told I was no longer a Mexican citizen, but part of a country that spoke a completely different language and had a completely different culture and religious heritage, how would I feel?
It’s a fascinating exercise. What’s amazing is that the US took Santa Fe, the most important trading hub of the New Mexico territory, without a shot. The locals acquiesced and as a result, they were allowed to keep their land grants and property. Today, many of the Hispanic families here are descendants of those same people, with deep, deep roots in the region. I hear a fluid dance of Spanish and English everywhere I walk, the locals switching back and forth effortlessly.
Tomorrow I catch the overnight train to Los Angeles, my time in New Mexico coming to an end. It is time to move on and see my California branch of the family, but I admit my soul still wants to pause and repose a while longer.