Local history as alternative history – North America

1July 1st is Canada Day and July 4th is Independence Day in the US.  The Canadians commemorate the British North America – or Constitution Act – whereby three British colonies were united to create federated Canada.  In the US, it is the celebration of the declaration of independence by 13 colonies against the British crown. In both cases, this was a major step towards independence, although the US was created through revolutionary war whereas Canadian independence was evolutionary in nature (at least according to the renowned Canadian scholar Thomas Leppard).

It would seem as if the weekend, then, would be a period of jubilation and celebration for these countries, but things are not always what they seem.  The Quebecois, First Nations and Native Americans have a different view on this, as do the Spanish-speaking inhabitants in northern New Mexico, on which today’s blog will focus.

It is often forgotten that the New Mexico territory – especially the north – has always been fiercely independent and consider themselves neither new, nor necessarily, Mexican.  After all, the territory was colonized well before French and British North America, with Santa Fe as the longest continually-inhabited capital city in the US.  And, the territory was only Mexican for 25 years, and it probably took them 10 years to find out that they had become part of Mexico in the more isolated regions.  Not so surprisingly, then, northern New Mexicans consider themselves Spanish to this day, and refer to themselves as such.  Re-read that sentence for a moment and consider the nature of identity: who determines someone’s nationality or ethnic identity?  Politicians? Conquerors?  The clergy?

Of course, that is not the end of the story.  When the Mexican-American War erupted in 1846, New Mexico was once again conquered, this time by the United States.  General Stephen Kearney stood on the top of the highest building in Las Vegas, New Mexico (yes, you read that correctly: this was the first Las Vegas; the official name was Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de Las Vegas – or Our Lady of Sorrows of the Meadows) and claimed the territory on behalf of the US government.  There is a plaque in the Plaza in little Las Vegas that has the text of his speech.

In one fell swoop, the Spanish-speaking population was annexed and things changed dramatically – Land Grant families that could not speak English or navigate US law lost their titles to desirable land.  The adobe abodes that ringed the Plaza were dwarfed by the new, Victorian style houses that were built on the east side of town, including the one where I currently write this entry.  The west side of town was characterized by streets that ringed the Plaza according to the 1573 Law of the Indies; the east side was developed in a grid pattern and the streets were imaginatively named 1st, 2nd, 3rd … and 12th street.

On July 4, 1879 the railroad arrived in Las Vegas with its depot on the east side of town bypassing the Plaza and the merchants located there.  Although there was later a spur that took people out to Montezuma, it was New Town and Railroad Avenue that was developed and settled by easterners lured by entrepreneurial spirit.  While still a territory, in 1888 4th of July celebrations were begun but with a notably local flavor.  The Fiestas, as they are still called, began to some extent as an extension of religious feast days and turned into a celebration of local heritage, which means Spanish heritage.  They are characterized by a parade that includes mariachi, local marching bands and the Fiesta Royal Court (populated by the local youth).  Norteño music dominates in Plaza Park, and the culmination of the festivities is a Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows Church, the crowning of the Fiesta Queen and a parade down to the Plaza.

This holiday has taken on a life of its own, and has little to do with the celebrations in the rest of the United States.  Although it coincides with July 4th, it has little to do with American independence – and why should it?

This advertisement shows the local flavor of the festivities

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