SANTA FE, N.M. — When trying to re-tell history through film, one of the most important things for filmmakers can be trying to pretend you’re back in a previous era.
That’s according to Juan Carlos Cucalon, who said he was able to do that in Pecos last spring while shooting a re-enactment of 1862’s Battle of Glorieta Pass.
He and the other crew interns from Santa Fe Community College were able to get up close into the action, including the firing of cannons five feet from their lenses. It wasn’t only that access and the impeccable detail of the actors’ Civil War get-ups – he noted everything from haircuts to intricacies of their uniforms – but also the mostly unchanged rural backdrop of San Miguel County that made the battle scene feel more real. “It was like time stood still,” he said.
Over the past year, Cucalon and a group of about 15 other SFCC students have worked alongside a local filmmaker to tell the story of what happened in New Mexico leading up to the Civil War and the impact the territory’s volunteer soldiers had during the fighting here.
The film is anchored around the Glorieta Pass battle that prevented the Confederacy’s westward expansion. It’s been called the “Gettysburg of the West.”
Screenings of the film-in-progress, followed by discussions about the history in the film, will be hosted today and next week at the community college as the film wraps up its final weeks of editing.
A monument to commemorate the New Mexican volunteer soldiers who fought at Glorieta is scheduled to be dedicated in March at Pecos National Historical Park.
In connection with that event, Santa Fe County representatives approached Monique Anair, the director of SFCC’s Professional Readiness and Technical Experience for Careers program, to make a film about this not-so-well-known moment in history.
Starting last January, students in the PROTEC program worked with award-winning filmmaker Doug Crawford and SFCC Social Sciences chair Steve Martinez to do historical research, conduct interviews, and film and edit the project.
“We discovered things we knew nothing about in regards to the role New Mexico played in shaping the dialogue and politics of the U.S.,” said Crawford.
Though it began as a story about the battle, the project quickly expanded to cover events in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
The story starts out in 1821 with the development of the Santa Fe Trail and moves onto the Mexican-American War during the 1840s that turned New Mexico into a U.S. territory. The film goes into the Compromise of 1850 – under which California entered the Union as a slavery-free state, Texas gave up its claim to New Mexico and the South got a fugitive slave law that required the North to return runaway slaves.
New Mexico and Utah were allowed to make their own choices on slavery. “New Mexico chose to be a free territory rather than a slave state,” said Martinez, the film’s lead historian. “That infuriated the Southern states.”
The period had a profound impact on the national debate about slavery, according to Crawford. New Mexico’s “moral” decision against slavery led to further disagreement between the Northern and Southern states before the Civil War broke out in 1861.
The territory’s choice to reject slavery also influenced the New Mexican volunteer soldiers’ decisions to help the Union army. And at the time of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, the Confederacy was making moves in a plan to take over the West Coast.
According to SFCC’s Martinez, the volunteers, led by Manuel Chavez and largely of Hispanic descent, had knowledge of secret paths in the nearby Apache Canyon that allowed the Union to cut off the Confederacy’s supply line. This effectively ended the rebels’ chances of expanding to California.
“They were the knowledge, the deciding factor,” he said of the New Mexican volunteers.
Crawford described the film, expected to be 25 minutes long, as a PBS-style documentary that provides the narrative through interviews, archival photos and dramatizations like the re-enactment.
In addition to Martinez, Crawford and the students spoke with representatives from University of New Mexico’s History Department, Fort Union National Monument and the Bataan Military Museum in Santa Fe.
Crawford mentioned the possibility of fine-tuning documentary into something that could be shown either on PBS or at Pecos National Historical Park.
The main takeaway from the film is awareness. Martinez noted that Hispanic involvement in the Civil War has been “largely neglected” in the telling of history and in academia. And New Mexicans, and more generally the population of the U.S., mostly has no idea what New Mexico did to affect the path of the entire country during the Civil War.
“History, as we learned it in schools, sometimes just bypasses important episodes like this one that were crucial,” said Cucalon. “It makes you feel like we’re helping awareness, the education of New Mexico and its history, and its role in American history.”