Billy the Kid and other related stories…

The only known photograph of Billy the Kid

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.

Gift shop in Mesilla plaza

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.

Ballet Folklorico dancers show traditional dancing from Mexico

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:

Billy the Kid gift shop:

Ballet Folklorico:

7 thoughts on “Billy the Kid and other related stories…

  1. I’m curious to see if you think that the town of Mesilla is not interpreting enough of its Hispanic history, or it is trying to tell SO much that the stories become muddled and the knowledge is lost. The problem of the “tourist trap” in small historic areas around the United States seems common. I wonder how museums and other cultural institutions can steer the tourists into educational programs, exhibits, etc. Reading your post definitely makes me want to visit out West and see for myself!

  2. It is amazing how we as a nation are often so keen to oversimplify history! Seems to me that the most interesting part of that area is the diversity of cultures constantly intersecting – I think it would be a benefit not only to the people who live there currently to focus on this story of diversity as it would also be a huge draw for tourists.

  3. Would it be a huge draw for tourists though if it was reflective of the diversity the town really represents? I wonder. I believe it would get people like you and me there, but in general, I think the town identifies with Billy the Kid and the oversimplified history because it’s a tourist town and meant to draw a lot of people. I personally don’t think that’s the right approach, but I do think they are playing to a tourist industry at it’s basic level.

    1. I agree with Casey. I personally have never been west of West Virginia, and would be interested in learning about the diversity of this town and what it currently has to offer. However, as Casey stated, this is not the case for most people. As a tourist attraction, the town relies on big names and industry in order to draw people in. For Orlando, FL there’s Disney World, Cooperstown has the Baseball Hall of Fame, Virginia has Colonial Williamsburg, and Mesilla has Billy the Kid. Unfortunately in these cases where the main mission is to draw tourists in and make money, the cultural diversity of the people in the area is often overlooked.

      1. Is it responsible to interpret only the things that are drawing people into a specific location, if that is not reflective of the diversity or more accurate history of the area? It seems as though overlooking cultural history and diversity of a certain area would be excluding a group of people that could provide repeat visitorship, and maintain a community of museum-goers, rather than one-time tourists.

    2. I think maybe instead of only interpreting the Popular Story (like Billy the Kid or Baseball), you use that as the hook to draw visitors in, then find a way to engage them with the richer background of the area. That pulls them in the door, but exhibits and programs can tie the popular ideas or myths into the real history of an area.

  4. Ok, so the only thing I can think of after reading this, and I’m sorry about this, is how much I dislike the how-the-west-was-won-cowboys-and-indians-gunslingers-western-folklore genre of history that the story of “Billy the Kid” fits into. I feel like historians who focus on these sorts of topics fall into the trap of defending folklore without examining the history behind it objectively, which just makes me crazy! I mean, was Billy the Kid even in Mesilla, NM? I thought his involvement in NM was regulated to the Lincoln County Civil War? Thanks for listening to my rant. Great blog post, Haley!

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