New Mexico stories told through five items

A look at five items that tell the stories of New Mexico

Visitors approach the New Mexico History Museum entrance on Lincoln Avenue. (Courtesy of Kirk Gittings)

Enter a museum and it is filled with history.

Each piece has been carefully selected as it will be displayed for the public to see.

At the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, there are thousands of items within the permanent collection.

Each is special.

Each has a story behind it.

It’s those stories that piques Alicia M. Romero’s curiosity.

When the museum acquires new pieces, it’s part of her job to do the research and weave together the item’s history.

“Museums only share about 3% of their permanent collection at any time,” says Romero, head curator at the New Mexico History Museum. “People don’t remember that items can’t always be displayed. We have to rotate the items out for them to get some rest from the lights and elements.”

The museum’s mission is to be a statewide educational resource, local landmark and destination for anyone who wants to understand the diverse experiences of the people of New Mexico, the dynamics that have shaped our state, and the relationships that connect our region with the rest of the world.

While Romero gets to deal with thousands of pieces, she selected five to show the diversity in the collection.

“There are 16,000 objects,” she says of the museum’s collection. “That’s a good size for the amount of history that I cover. I wanted to share with items that range from every day things to the super-expensive. What’s fascinating is each item is mesmerizing to look at. But the stories behind them; that’s what is important.”

Romero says the five pieces have incredible stories:

Cigar box and rock collection from Kunitaro Takeuchi. (Courtesy of the New Mexico History Museum)

1. Cigar box and rock collection from Kunitaro Takeuchi

Romero says Takeuchi was born in Japan in 1887 and immigrated to Hawaii when he was 22 or 23. During World War II, he was one of the Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps.

Though he had family in Hawaii, in 1942, he was sent to the Santa Fe Interment Camp.

“He was there from about 1942 through 1945,” Romero says. “He would carve rocks. He also collected them and would go around the camp and find the local rocks. He collected them and put them in a cigar box.”

Romero says the other internees would find rocks for him and give them to him.

“They are regular rocks,” Romero says. “They aren’t prized rocks. It’s a cigar box and it’s falling apart. I find this piece interesting because it’s a part of American and Santa Fe history that people don’t talk about or recognize. All of this happened here.”

San Miguel Archangel bulto by José Rafael Aragón. (Courtesy of the New Mexico History Museum)

2. San Miguel Archangel bulto by José Rafael Arag ó n.

Romero says José Rafael Aragón’s bulto is an old piece in the museum’s permanent collection.

Aragón’s work dates from about 1820-1862.

“What I like about these objects is the fact they grew out of a long standing tradition,” she says. “One of the things that people don’t recognize about these pieces is that most of them are in the Mexican into the American territorial periods. The fact that they reflect Catholicism is amazing.”

Romero says the santeros were making the pieces during the beginning and the end of the Mexican period.

“The Santa Fe Trail opened in 1821 and the santeros were seeing the challenges to their own local and political government,” she says. “Yet, they continued to make these objects and pieces on what it means to be Catholic.”

Romero says she chose this piece because Aragón is a home-grown artist.

“We recognize the well known artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, but we don’t pay attention to the santeros,” she says. “José Rafael was prolific. He produced hundreds of bultos and altar screens for northern New Mexico churches. Many of them still have some of the pieces.”

Africo-Tubercular Sanatorium pin. (Courtesy of the New Mexico History Museum)

3. Africo-Tubercular Sanatorium pin

Romero says the pin is a recent acquisition from 2021 and that museum staff is still researching more about it.

“It’s a promotion pin for the Africo-Tubercular Sanatorium in Fort Bayard,” Romero says. “The Buffalo Soldiers were in Fort Bayard and in 1899, the fort became a hospital to treat patients for tuberculosis. The dry air is what people needed.”

A number of sanatoriums operated between Silver City and Fort Bayard.

“On Jan. 14, 1911, this one was dedicated to the treatment of (African American) exclusively and it was the first kind in the country,” Romero says. “If you can see a bright side, it’s in this time of segregation, southern New Mexico had an entire hospital dedicated to African American access to being treated.”

Roller skates from Josefita Manderfield de Otero. (Courtesy of the New Mexico History Museum)

4. Roller skates from Josefita Manderfield de Otero

Romero says Manderfield de Otero came from a very powerful family. Her father owned the Santa Fe New Mexican at one point.

The museum has a large collection from her.

“There are expensive pieces such as gold leaf clocks,” she says. “The pieces really reflected her own socioeconomic status.”

Romero finds the roller skates fascinating because Manderfield de Otero wore them.

“She was a kid of privilege,” she says. “She wore these roller skates as she skated around the Santa Fe Plaza around 1907.”

Romero found an article in the Las Vegas Optic during that time about how roller skates were dangerous and young people were using them.

“Fast forward to today and the same things have been said about skateboards and roller blades,” she says. “It was pretty funny to see the article say the same thing about kids having fun. I can imagine Josefita skating through the plaza. The skates don’t look comfortable or safe at all.”

5. Sleigh from Cimarroncita Ranch Camp

Romero says the sleigh was acquired in 2015 when the Cimarroncita Ranch Camp was closing.

“They approached us and asked if they wanted their collection,” she says. “We got a number of 3D objects and this sleigh.”

Romero says it’s in very poor condition and the Department of Cultural Affairs is working on getting it back to life.

“The sleigh has an S-curve in the front and a slight curve in the back,” she says. “The body is wood and has padded edges and padded seats. You can imagine horses pulling this buggy which is painted yellow and green. It’s a piece that the ranch kids used.”

Romero is raising funds to restore the sleigh because it’s a part of New Mexico history.

“We haven’t had a lot of time to work on it and do research,” she says. “This is part of the process to get it to a standard where it can be displayed.”

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