A letter of historical significance
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history, written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
The author of this month’s article is the author of 16 books on New Mexico, including “New Mexico: Celebrating the Land of Enchantment,” featuring more than 440 photos of New Mexico since statehood in 1912.
The author wishes to thank the late Eddie Saiz and his family for their keen interest in preserving our history and, most of all, sharing it with others.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
I start most of my college history courses with a discussion about cultures and cultural relations. I explain that when people of different cultures meet, it’s called a “cultural encounter.”
The groups often get along well and, in fact, admire and even borrow parts of each other’s cultures. That’s called “cultural borrowing” or exchange.
But, more often than not, people notice differences in each other’s cultures and, based on their own cultural preferences, begin to criticize one another. Knowing no other way to view the world than through their own cultural “glasses” or perspective, they assume that their own culture is naturally superior and all other cultures are inferior. That’s called cultural bias.
I have read many old documents reflecting cultural bias during various periods of New Mexico history. But I had seldom seen a more culturally biased document before the day I got a phone call from Eddie Saiz of Los Lunas.
Mr. Saiz told me about a letter written in 1880, just as the Santa Fe Railroad was building its tracks through Los Lunas. Many Anglo workers had moved into the area to work on the huge construction project. The remarkable handwritten letter was composed by one such newcomer on March 1, 1880.
Mr. Saiz had acquired the letter a while ago when he was visiting the county courthouse and noticed a young employee throwing a lot of old papers away. Concerned, Mr. Saiz spoke to Mayor Luis Huning and stopped the destruction, saving dozens of valuable documents, including the 1880 letter he had called me about.
Knowing my interest in Rio Abajo history, Mr. Saiz felt sure I’d want to see the letter. I soon visited this fine gentleman and had a chance to examine the document he had rescued from the trash bin.
It’s an amazing letter. Unfortunately, three parts are illegible. First, other than his given name, “Jos.,” a typical abbreviation of Joseph, and the beginning and end of his surname, “A” and “sgood,” we do not know the identity of the person who sent the correspondence.
Second, other than the first letter of her given name, “F,” we don’t know the name of the person who received the letter. Finally, other than its first letter, “C,” we don’t know the name of the place Joseph came from or where “F” lived when she received Joseph’s three-page communication.
All we know is that Joseph worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, probably as a clerk or engineer, and probably had a younger sister, the mysterious “F.” More definitely, we know that Joseph had a brother, referred to as Louis, as well as a wife and child back home, a place he longed to return to soon.
Despite only tantalizingly small bits of information about his identity and place of origin, Joseph’s letter speaks volumes, describing at least one Easterner’s perception of everything from the role of women and the treatment of children to the practice of religion and the speaking of Spanish in Los Lunas during the last decades of the 19th century.
Los Lunas, March 1, 1880
Many thanks for your nice letter of Feb. 23rd which reached me about an hour ago, and for the enclosed programs. I like to hear of your [parties] and good times generally and have no doubt at all that the [party] the girls got up was a great deal nicer than the ones the boys gave. Boys don’t know much anyway, do they? You seem to have a great deal going on to amuse the young ladies and gentlemen of C_____ this winter and it strikes me that the place was never half so lively when I was Louis’ age. I didn’t know much about it at yours.
Am glad the cantata was such a success and should like to have heard it. About the only music they have here is at dances or “bailes” and funerals. At these they play a fiddle and an accordion and play about the same tunes. At the funerals they have a man to shoot off a gun or a pistol every few minutes to help the music and scare away the bad spirits.
There is a church next door to the house we occupy here but there has been no service here since we came. There is no regular priest nearer than the parish priest at the Indian village of Isleta — about eight miles up the river, and he says the people here have not treated him right and he shan’t do any more for them than he is obliged to.
They had a funeral yesterday and one this morning — both of little children — infants I think. There was a straggling procession of people headed by several children in white with wreaths of artificial flowers on their heads — four of them carrying the open box or coffin.
Most of the rest were women and each held a candle in one hand — some of the candles lighted and some not. They went into the church and knelt down a minute, with lighted candles in their hands, on the floor, and then buried the child, nearly everyone throwing earth into the grave.
All seemed to enjoy the whole thing very much and it was not like a funeral in a civilized country. There were no guns this time but the procession had some kind of a musical instrument along.
There is a girl living just opposite who is the prettiest Mexican I have seen. She is about 14 or 15 years old and is remarkably neat and pretty for this country and more like girls in the states than most here. She blows her nose on her shawl, but that is no matter. She is quite light colored and lives with her mother, sister and sister’s husband.
They are poor but above the lower class in intelligence and ways, being from Chihuahua (I’m not sure about the spelling) in Old Mexico. They live in a rather low mud house with only half a window and one door and it is interesting to see how they spend the day.
They seem to have no regular hours for meals, like the rest of the tribe, and when they get hungry go in and sit down on the floor and eat a bite of tortilla or anything they can get.
They usually have a big log of some kind in front of the door and when it is too cold inside the girl comes out with an ax and chops off enough wood and takes it in.
They have a little peon girl of darker color than the rest to do most of the dirty work but she is not big enough to split wood very well. They do a great deal of sweeping about the house, inside and out and the glimpses I get into it show that it is kept very neat and tidy notwithstanding the mud floor.
It is the fashion to fasten calico on the wall all around or across one side of a room, about a foot or more above the floor and the full width of the calico. I see they have some of this opposite against the white wall.
The door is open nine-tenths of the time through the day and there is usually one of the family seated on a blanket or shawl in the doorway, idle or at work. If they were of the ordinary class the women would spend most of their time squatted on the ground outside in the sun smoking cigarettes.
All the girls and women in this country wear shawls over their heads everywhere and on all occasions. Frequently they wear them so as to cover all but the eyes and the tip of the nose.
The people opposite wear their shawls less than most do. The girl and her sister started out to walk a little way this morning with their shawls on and rolling cigarettes, which they lighted before they were out of sight.
The man of the house looks like a brigand [bandit] and usually carries a large revolver and knife in a belt strapped around him. He is harmless however and has been over to see me two or three times on business about some land the railroad takes and the last time for a stick of wood.
The Indian girls and babies are much prettier than the Mexicans. The little girls at Isleta wear buckskin leggings and moccasins and short skirts and carry the babies about with them when walking or at play strapped with a shawl or cloth on their backs. The babies’ heads come just up to the girls’ shoulders as they squat in their little nests in the shawls and they look very cunning and usually happy.
Sometimes the girls drop them accidentally on their heads and some have been killed in this way I am told. They were just going to bury one the other day and it came to again, being only stunned.
There is a school here for the children but only Spanish is taught. The few rich people send their children to Catholic schools in St. Louis and have them taught English.
Nearly all the people here have a great many pictures of saints and images of Christ and the Virgin Mary hung on the walls in tin frames. Some of them look very funny but the owners prize them very highly and feel very badly if anyone laughs at them or the tin frames. They are called “tin Jesuses” by Americans.
I am studying Spanish but cannot talk very much yet. The language spoken here is not very good Spanish and many of the terms and words would be unintelligible to a Spaniard.
Dogs are very plenty and disposed to bother all they can. I have killed two with my pistol lately, shooting them from horseback as they jumped at my horse.
I have a very good saddle horse named “Jack” and ride about every other day. The weather is very nice now and we have windows and doors open most of the day.
There is only five of us besides the cook now so we have lots of room in our abode of three rooms and a hall.
I had a nice long letter from Ned today which I shall answer before a great while. I hope I may go home in April or May when I get through here but it may depend on my getting work near home. Sometimes I think it will be best to go anyway for I want to see you all and my wife and baby so much….
I am glad Pollie is well again and getting along so nicely with her school. She will probably shrug her shoulders at this but I have no doubt she does get on nicely all the same.
I had to work all day yesterday but don’t usually have much to do or I couldn’t write such long letters as this. I send you a picture of the house opposite with the oven at the corner. The door on the left belongs to the next house, for there are two shown, but the window belongs to the house on the right.
Give my love to father and mother and all at home.
Your loving brother,
It is a shame that we don’t know what became of this letter writer after March 1880. I’d like to think that Joseph lived in Los Lunas long enough to finally begin to lose his cultural biases and at least appreciate local ways, if not necessarily adopt some through cultural exchange.
But this is probably wishful thinking. Many Anglos suffered similar, if not worse biases against New Mexicans. About a year before Joseph wrote home, a New York Times reporter announced to the newspaper’s vast readership that “The popular conception of New Mexico is that of a territory a hundred years behind the times — a great expanse of comparative nothingness, disturbed merely by the Mexicans with whom it is sacrilegious to depart from the usages of their grandfathers… That New Mexico still lies in the lap of the past is unquestionably the fact.”
Of course, there is another side of this cultural coin. How interesting it would be to learn how the local residents of Los Lunas perceived Joseph, his fellow Anglos and the railroad that introduced Anglo culture to New Mexico, literally by the trainload.
Such perceptions hindered cultural relations and, on a larger scale, hampered New Mexico’s many attempts to achieve statehood from 1850 to 1912. These and other obstacles prevented New Mexico from becoming a state for 62 years, longer than any other territory that had applied for statehood until then.
Social relations had improved by 1912 when New Mexico finally achieved statehood. But much progress was left to accomplish back then and certainly today in this, the year of New Mexico’s statehood centennial.