It’s National Hispanic Heritage Month in a state dripping with Hispanic heritage.
New Mexico has the highest Hispanic population as a percentage of the total population (49.26%) of any state in the nation. That means many aspects of Hispanic culture are woven into the everyday lives of all New Mexicans, regardless of ethnicity.
Given how New Mexico’s history is heavy with Hispanic surnames, I asked local Hispanos if Hispanic Heritage Month means anything in Albuquerque, or if it gets lost in the shuffle of familiarity. With one out of every two New Mexicans identifying as Hispanic, that’s a lot of Hispanic civic leaders, lawmakers, public servants, entrepreneurs, artists and tradespeople contributing mightily to the health and welfare of the Land of Enchantment every single day.
There is much diversity within our Hispanic population: Many cite their roots from early Spanish explorers; others are more recent immigrants from Mexico, South and Central America and the Caribbean.
The folks I talked to agreed one month out of the year isn’t enough to do justice to the immense contributions of Hispanics in this country. But the month does provide a time of reckoning and reflection, vital to overcoming challenges.
Fighting to be heard
“You can’t attack something that’s invisible,” said Diane Torres-Velásquez, an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of New Mexico. Despite the obvious cultural influence of Hispanics, especially within New Mexico, they still lack adequate representation in all branches of the federal government, but especially the judiciary, she said.
“It’s a time to reflect on where we are in this society — and where we are is ignored,” Torres-Velásquez said. “Our voices are not heard. Quotas are put on our participation and where other minority groups are celebrated for being involved, we are restricted.”
Torres-Velásquez, president of Latino Education Task Force, recently received the Lifetime Achievement – Excellence in Community Service Award from MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) for civil rights organizing and her work on the long-running educational equity case, Martinez v. State of New Mexico, which highlighted gross disparities in the state’s education system. She and others involved in the case labored to establish Hispanics were the majority of New Mexico’s student population. Education officials “didn’t know the demographics … they didn’t know Latinos were the majority population. If you don’t address the needs of the majority population — if the majority fails, everyone fails. That was the driving force of the lawsuit,” she said.
Making a positive contribution
John P. Salazar is a Stanford-educated lawyer at the Rodey Law firm in Albuquerque, mainly practicing in real estate and land use and development law. But he’s always sought out opportunities for public service, first doing pro bono work for LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) as it sought to establish some affordable housing projects. He’s made it his mission to help provide more economic opportunity for New Mexicans, serving in leadership roles in both the Greater Albuquerque and Hispano chambers of commerce.
He gave me a fascinating overview of how the economic fortunes of native New Mexican Hispanics fell with the disruption of the land-grant system after the Mexican-American war, then rose incrementally with statehood and access to a public education system. New Mexico’s economy was largely agrarian- and mercantile-based, devoid of manufacturing jobs until World War II when the military-industrial complex brought bases and national labs to the state.
The war was a game-changer for New Mexicans in many ways. “They were very proud of America and proud to be Americans,” Salazar said. “They were good soldiers.” Returning veterans, capitalizing on the GI Bill, had access to loans to buy homes. They had access to education they didn’t have before.
“Now, in terms of economic milestones, once you can buy your own home, you start gathering equity; you start accumulating wealth, equity in your home. And by getting educated on the GI Bill … you improve your earning power. So all of a sudden, it was essentially a quantum leap in the economic condition of those returning soldiers and their families.”
Salazar continues to believe that “intellectual infrastructure” is the key to unlocking New Mexico’s economic potential, even as the state shows signs of being “discovered” by “big players” such as Facebook, Amazon and Netflix.
“I think education is the key because in one generation, you can make a dramatic difference in the economic condition of a family member.”
Salazar thinks Hispanic Heritage Month is important because “even though Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority in the United States, Hispanics are relatively invisible. So it’s important for the rest of the country to realize that Hispanics are making a positive contribution to America, in the arts, in the professions, certainly in the military, in teaching, and even in helping harvest the crops that we eat.”
Proving a healing influence
For Eliseo “Cheo” Torres, Hispanic Heritage Month is a platform to share a hidden, if misunderstood, aspect of Hispanic culture — the tradition of the curandero, or herbalist folk healer.
After retiring from an administrative post at UNM last year, Torres now has a full-time focus on curanderismo — something he was exposed to at a young age growing up in South Texas.
He and a colleague at UNM regularly give lectures on the history and lore of curanderismo with the hope of legitimizing it — and dispelling notions it’s witchcraft.
The most familiar example of a curandera is the namesake character of the Rudolfo Anaya novel “Bless me, Ultima.”
Curanderos use a “holistic” — mind, body, spirit — approach to healing and often make their own tinctures from plants they gather themselves.
“I’m working with some healers from Mexico who are doing research. … I think there’s some really good aspects of traditional medicine that we should study, research and get more people involved with it — bring it into the mainstream. Chinese medicine has done it. Ayurvedic medicine from India has done it. Why can’t we do it?”
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No examination of Hispanic Heritage Month would be complete without a visit to the National Hispanic Cultural Center on Fourth Street.
There, visitors can get a sense of just how diverse the Hispanic experience in America has been — and continues to be.
Even in our very Hispanic state, Hispanic Heritage Month is an invitation to understand that U.S. Hispanics aren’t a monolith.