I watched the movie “The Help” last night with my sister and her daughter and my parents – the DVD was a Christmas gift to me from Johanna. It was the fourth viewing for me (having read the book by Kathryn Stockett last year) and the first for everyone else. It was, as it has been everytime I’ve seen it, sad and moving and powerful, and a reminder of how people of color were unfairly treated in the deep South.
I drove home last night thinking about the South, remembering all those months I lived in North Carolina where many accepted forms of racial discrimination still exist, where the kids at Johanna’s lunch table in junior high used the “N” word freely, where my in-laws made it clear that they believed there were marked differences in races and that, of course, we shouldn’t mix things up, where my ex frequently described a parking attendant at my office as an “uppity coon ass n……..” Those attitudes were shocking to me in 2002. I came from a place where race was relatively inconsequential. I came from New Mexico.
I’m not going to say that race relations in New Mexico are perfect. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that we have some corner on the market as far as tolerance. I know that there have been times in our history when Native Americans, Hispanics and African Americans have suffered discrimination at the hands of the authorities. We have been human here.
But unlike the Deep South, we have always recognized our differing cultures, and this multi-culturalism has been celebrated more here than I believe anywhere else in the country. We’ve learned to be proud of what New Mexico has become.
I searched high and low on the internet this morning for damning histories on the civil rights movement in New Mexico, and what I found was that in 1955, well ahead of Congress and Washington, New Mexico enacted the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, insuring equal treatment for everyone in the state, prohibiting “discrimination in places of accommodation, resort or amusement due to race, color, religion, ancestry or national origins.” http://bit.ly/wS5g3B. We were nine years ahead of the rest of the United States.
I also located a great history essay by University of New Mexico Professor Emeritus Dr. Cortez Williams, an expert in the early history of Blacks in the Southwest. Willams talks at length about African Americans who were involved in the settlement of New Mexico, and he discusses Nash Candelaria’s research into the original founders of Albuquerque, several of whom were Black.
Candelaria’s conclusions seems to be that “. . .the recognition of New Mexico’s and Albuquerque’s African heritage in the relatively open Spanish colonial society attests to the relatively tolerant society in which marriages across cultures occurred.”
Candelaria continues, “This was one of the earliest open, multicultural societies in what is now the United States of North America and gives to Albuquerque the distinction of being the only, or one of the few, major cities whose founders included settlers of African descent.”
I’m not an expert, but I’ve lived here, and my experience is that one of the great gifts of being raised in New Mexico is this: Racial prejudice was relatively low-key when I was a child. When you sat across the aisle in second grade from children who are Hispanic from Spanish-speaking households, you don’t think of yourself as a superior race. Because they were my friends, because we played jacks on the sidewalk on the playground together, because I walked to school everyday with Anna Marie Lujan (a warm tortilla in my coat pocket from her mother’s wood-burning stove), because I spent the night at Belinda Ramirez’s house a couple of times a month. . I never noticed colors or cultures as different from mine. Except that I envied Anna Marie those tortillas. In my mind, we were just kids getting through life.
And racial prejudice is even less of an issue now that I’m an adult. Multi-culturalism is New Mexico’s claim to fame, our call to visitors and tourists, how we sell ourselves to the rest of the world.
Like I said, we’re not perfect. There were always a couple of aunts and uncles in my family that thought mixed marriages were an abomination, and they may still hold to those beliefs. But they’re not the norm, and hopefully their views won’t continue into the next generation.
I’m proud to be from a place where the differences in people’s cultures and race is generally celebrated rather than damned. I’ve been elsewhere, and let me tell you, I’m never going back. Movies like “The Help” just make me more aware of how much I love New Mexico. I’m so glad to be here.