In 1870, G. A. Smith, a retired Army general living in Santa Fe, sent a public interest story to the Decatur Daily Magnet regarding life in the New Mexico Territory.
Smith mentioned among other things that “Our business is done chiefly in the Spanish-language.” Referring to the courts, it was because “our jurors are mostly of that people.”
Throughout New Mexico’s 64 years as a U.S. territory, the greater portion of the population was Nuevomexicano (Spanish-speaking New Mexicans), which meant that if anything of public import were to get done, it would have to be in the Spanish language.
Not that English was absent. Settlers from the states spoke among themselves in that medium, as did many of the Nuevomexicanos who were educated back east.
They also had their English-language societies and their newspapers, like the New Mexican.
Still, from the day New Mexico became a part of the United States in 1848, the new residents had little choice but to adapt linguistically. Of great significance, they did, and did so with hardly a word of complaint.
Every English-language newspaper had a Spanish section to reach the general citizenry. As the wholly Spanish-language weeklies appeared in the 1880s, Anglo politicians tuned into them as part of their constituencies.
It was a key credential for an aspiring public servant to know Spanish. Gen. Smith praised District Judge Kirby Benedict for, among other things, “being as fluent in Spanish as in English.”
The bulk of cross-cultural intercourse ran on the currency of Spanish. Euroamericans attended, and sometimes sponsored, traditional events, the baile (country ball) being a favorite. Many a Euroamerican courted a young Nuevomexicana, often successfully, in her native tongue.
Not all English-speakers could pick up Spanish; moreover, English was the quasi-official language of the United States. So the various institutions – such as the courts, the territorial legislative assembly and the political parties, all of which conducted their proceedings and conventions in Spanish – provided translators and interpreters.
The Nuevomexicanos spoke Spanish, yet were true-blue Americans, illustrated every Fourth of July when their spokespersons got up to recite the U.S. Constitution and the speeches of Jefferson and Washington in that language.
Yet, in one of the saddest episodes of Southwestern history, Albert Beveridge, chair of the Senate Committee on Territories, single-handedly stopped New Mexico from becoming a state in 1904 because he felt their language barred them from the pale of American patriotism.
Today, as the Spanish language renews itself in the Southwest and continues to spread across the United States, New Mexico history provides an object lesson.
Difference in language need not prove a barrier to a shared social community. Equipped with flexible minds, human beings are adept at constructing new ways. To build, weave and innovate a culture is an exciting prospect.
America’s changing demographics are providing another opportunity for cultural fusion. Let us all meet it with anticipation.