History has always loved a bad boy. As a woman, there is something that draws you to a rebellious, take-charge kind of man. The history of the “wild west” has more stories of these confident and adventurous men than I can name in this post. America’s western pioneers are generally remembered as a rag tag group of explorers and fighters, who created a new life in a dangerous and unsettled territory. While the west has a unique narrative in the American historic record, a few forgotten narratives need to find their place in the broad cloth that is the American experience.
Reading the National Park Service 2009 publication ‘Hispanic Reflections on the American Landscape” by Brian Joyner, I couldn’t help but think of my own hometown. Living about forty-five minutes from the U.S. – Mexico border, my childhood home sits next to the historic district of Mesilla, New Mexico. This modern day tourist attraction is one of the most popular in the state. It encapsulates a Spanish colonial square, with a large church due North. It has historic adobe homes turned Mexican restaurants and a variety of shops within a charming plaza. This tourist trap sells everything from turquoise jewelry, native pottery from reservations in the northern part of the state, and bedazzled sombreros. As Joyner spurned me more and more to think of this town from a tourist perspective, I began to realize the glaring interpretive confusion that visitors must have, the missing representation of the Hispanic culture and a lost connection to the people who currently live in the area.
Joyner recognizes the term ‘Hispanic’ as an “…ethnic category [that] is convenient, but may overlook varied racial, class, and linguistic characteristic; obscure different social and political experiences…” (3). While Joyner wrestles with understanding a Pan-Hispanic Identity and how that interacts with public interpretation in National Park sites, his conundrums don’t simply stop there. Mesilla, New Mexico to me is the perfect collision of Native American culture, the original inhabitants of the area, Spanish colonialists, Hispanic settlers from Mexico (Separated in 1848 from Mexico by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) and the Anglo settlers moving west. Geographically positioned on the Rio Grande River and historically a stop on the El Camino Real trail and later on the Santa Fe Railroad, cultures have collided here for hundreds of years. All of these people have created a unique and distinct history for this small town and have directly affected its formation and change.
The most interesting interpretive issue in Mesilla’s case is that the town currently advertises itself as the stomping grounds of the Wild West character Billy the Kid in post Civil War America. While this is a fun folklore for American tourists, it is just one of many narratives this culturally rich village could tell. The town of Mesilla was created long before it was a part of the United States, and had 800 recorded inhabitants when it became a part of the Union. Hispanic history in particular, as Joyner suggests, may be complicated but has existed in this case even before this area became a part of the United States. While this history may be a bit more complex than that of a gun slinging womanizer like Billy the Kid, the state of New Mexico identifies as 56% Hispanic, a waiting audience for Hispanic heritage interpretation that is uniquely their own. Attention to these details would be a step in the right direction of integrating a complex, and often ignored, piece of the American experience. Now that sounds rebellious.
Brian Joyner. Hispanic Reflection on the American Landscape: Identifying and Interpreting Hispanic Heritage. ( United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service), 2009.
Billy the Kid photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_the_Kid
Billy the Kid gift shop:http://gatewayelpaso.com/2011/02/25/mesilla-n-m-brings-together-art-history-and-shopping/