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Hispano Literary Tradition in New Mexico

By Michael Miller

In the year 2010, New Mexico’s rich Hispano literary tradition reached the four-century mark. Beginning with the publication of Historia de la Nueva Mexico in Spain in the year 1610, publishing in and about Nuevo México has flourished and endured over the centuries. This vibrant and fascinating history is often overlooked in many American literary circles and it is frequently absent from the pages of books that claim to chronicle the culture and traditions of the Hispanic experience in northern New Spain.

Documenting European colonization in what is today the United States, Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá’s epic poetic history has become a New Mexico literary classic. The work is written in the form of Spanish epic poetry, in a style similar to two popular historical accounts of the day, Ercilla and Ona, which were written following the conquest of Chile. Writing in 1887, eminent historian John Gilmary Shea said Villagrá’s account “possesses remarkable value” as “a historical literary work.”

As Spanish exploration continued to penetrate the far reaches of the northern frontier, new chronicles and books were published, usually in Spain and Mexico, describing these heroic adventures. Before the arrival of the printing press, colonial New Mexicans had already established a remarkable history of book ownership, archival preservation, and literacy in this most isolated and often neglected Spanish province. The Spanish empire is well known throughout history for its detailed record keeping. Worldwide there exists a substantial body of archives, which provides evidence that they were also serious authors, librarians, and records managers. The surviving New Mexico Spanish archives, however, contain only three items predating the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which not only expelled the Spanish from New Mexico, but also destroyed all of the records and literature of the previous eighty years of Spanish settlement.

Following the resettlement of Nuevo México by don Diego de Vargas in 1692, New Mexican officials were required to maintain high standards of government accountability by the Spanish crown. Periodic inventories of local archives and libraries conducted by Spanish and Mexican officials show that by the time of the American occupation of New Mexico in 1846, there were extensive collections of literary materials preserved at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. American officials were confronted with more than 100,000 official documents accumulated in the first two and a half centuries of Spanish and Mexican presence in Nuevo México.

Libraries and the authorship of books were also important to colonial New Mexicans. The will of don Diego de Vargas, for example, lists thirty-three volumes contained in the settlement of his estate in 1704. The journals of don Diego de Vargas (1691-1704) are extensive and have been translated and published in English by historian John Kessel and the Vargas Project staff at the University of New Mexico. This multi-volume collection of colonial New Mexico is a remarkable description of daily life on the frontier.

A library consisting of 256 items was reported by fray Francisco Antanasio Domínguez in his journal of 1776. This library, located at the convento at Santo Domingo Pueblo, served as the official repository for the province for many years. Another large library belonging to Manuel Delgado of Santa Fe also contained popular reading for the period including La Obra de Carlos V (The Work of Carlos V), Conquista de México (Conquest of Mexico), Teatro Mexicano (Mexican Theatre) and a collection of selected novels in eight volumes. Documents in the Spanish archives of New Mexico list numerous accounts of private libraries located throughout the province.

The arrival of the printing press in 1834 dramatically changed access to books and newspapers in New Mexico. It was no longer necessary to ship books from Spain and Europe via the arduous journey up El Camino Real. With a printing press, books, newspapers, and other publications could now be printed locally. Padre Antonio José Martínez, one of those responsible for bringing the press to the province wasted no time in establishing a prolific and productive publishing house in Taos. Martínez bought the small hand press from Ramón Abréu of Santa Fe and then he moved the press and its operator to Taos. While the press was in Santa Fe, Antonio Barrerio published four issues of New Mexico’s first newspaper, called El Crespúsculo de la Libertad. There are no surviving copies of the first printing, but historians speculate that Padre Martínez continued to publish the newspaper using the same name in Taos.

Interested in providing reading material for his students and Taoseños, Martínez began a lucrative run of publications in 1835. Shortly after he acquired the press, several books appeared on the scene. Some of the titles include La Cartilla de Primeras Letras (a primer), La Ortografía Castellana (a speller), Aritmética y Retórica (numbers and syntax), El Catecismo de la Doctrina Cristiana (a catechism), El Catón Cristiano (an oratory), and Lógica, which he translated from Latin. Cuaderno de Ortografía was the first book that he published in New Mexico. This first run of titles, printed on a simple hand press, began a literary legacy that lasted 165 years and grew to more than 190 newspapers in more than thirty communities as well as countless books.

In 1891, La Prensa Asociada Hispano-Americana, the first professional press association among Spanish-speaking journalists, was organized in the United States. Nuevomexicano writers and journalists believed strongly that a vibrant and productive press would preserve the Spanish language, protect Hispano culture in the territory and improve education in the region. A generation of Nuevomexicanos had been educated by the Jesuits at the Jesuit College in Las Vegas, and by the Christian Brothers at St. Michael’s and the Sisters of Loretto in Santa Fe.

The preservation and use of the Spanish language was seen as the key to cultural survival at the time. Spanish-language newspapers sprang up in every town across the Southwest. These publications not only told stories of news and current events, but they also promoted the publication of regional literature and history. Most of these papers featured the work of local and regional authors as well as the writings of leading intellectuals and writers in Mexico and Latin America. This vibrant and active literary movement truly inspired a renaissance of intellectual activity and social activism throughout the Spanish-speaking Southwest. Every town had its own newspaper or printed literary outlet. Soon this exciting literary movement spread to San Marcial, Socorro, Los Lunas, Bernalillo, Espanola, Wagon Mound, Raton, and to the major cities of Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Las Cruces, where several publications competed for readers. In Mora County alone, four weekly newspapers were published with lively, competitive ideologies and points of view. Reading and the exchange of ideas in the Hispanic press were important parts of everyday life in territorial New Mexico, continuing well into the statehood period. This impressive literary legacy lasted until 1958, with the last edition of El Nuevo Mexicano in Santa Fe.

Among the hundreds of contributors to the Hispano literary tradition two individuals stand out during this time, Felix Martínez and Eusebio Chacón. Both men were leaders in the evolution of the Hispano press, but in different ways. Martínez was owner and editor-in-chief of the Las Vegas-based newspaper La Voz del Pueblo (The Voice of the People). He was also a major political presence in his era (1857-1916). Because his background was in journalism, he authored few literary texts. He viewed his role in Nuevomexicano journalism as a proprietor and entrepreneur. He took care of the business and political end of things and provided literary opportunities to talented and rising Hispano writers and journalists. As a founding member of La Prensa Asociada, he recognized the power and importance of the Hispanic press, especially in the struggle for statehood. A shrewd businessman and political insider, Martínez hired Ezequiel C de Baca and Antonio Lucero as associate editors. Together these journalists influenced the political climate in New Mexico and brought the finest and best-educated writers in the territory to La Voz. For more than thirty-seven years, Martínez and his staff managed a lucrative and influential printing and publishing business.

A strong voice for social and political reform, La Voz quickly became an advocate for the Spanish-speaking population in cultural and political struggles in New Mexico. Martínez and his colleagues openly supported Las Gorras Blancas and El Partido Pueblo Unido, two populist movements that fought against encroachment on traditional community land grants. The paper and its owner also championed equal rights, and Martínez used this editorial power to promote social reform on behalf of native people. In the changing world of territorial New Mexico, he took gigantic risks by placing these and other unpopular issues in the public eye. As a consequence, Martínez became the target of reactionary attacks from within and outside of the Mexicano community. Eventually he was forced to move to El Paso, Texas, where he published the El Paso Daily News and founded the El Paso Times-Herald. Martínez continued to offer support to Hispano writers and journalists across the Southwest. He gave them a voice, allowing them the freedom to express their ideas on behalf of all Nuevomexicanos. He also helped to create a creative atmosphere in the Hispano writing community and beyond.

One of those who benefited from Félix Martínez’s support was Eusebio Chacón, a young writer from Trinidad, Colorado. Chacón’s roots were in New Mexico and he took advantage of an education at the Jesuit College in Las Vegas. Later he attended Notre Dame and excelled there as well, graduating with a law degree in 1889. His natural gift with words earned him the title of don de la palabra (gentleman of the word) early in life, and he used his talent to enhance the literary arts in New Mexico. Chacón believed strongly that Nuevomexicano writers like him must strive “to create, edify and sustain a literary movement that could instruct, but also delight.” With this noble goal in mind he devoted his literary career to developing una literatura nacional (a national literature), a term he used to describe the flourishing Nuevomexicano literary movement.

In 1892, Chacón published his most memorable works, the novellas Tras la Tormenta la Calma and El Hijo la Tempestad. This volume is among the first published fiction by a Mexican-American author in the Southwest. Like other writers of his generation, he wrote for la gente (the people). In his introduction he states, “Upon New Mexican soil, I dare lay the seed of a literature meant for the pleasure of the reader so that if other authors with greater intellect than mine follow this path, they will be able to look back and point to me as the first to undertake this difficult road.” Eusebio Chacón’s accomplishments as a poet, novelist, historian and orator are unsurpassed in early Nuevomexicano literary circles. His pioneer efforts opened the door for many Nuevomexicano writers and journalists.

In spite of growing trends toward anti-immigration laws and increasing pressure for English only legislation in the United States, Spanish-language literature and the Hispano literary arts are flourishing in New Mexico and throughout the Southwest in the 21st century. Programs such as the Cervantes Institute and Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage have contributed to this new renaissance of ideas and publishing. Publishers and writers are venturing into Spanish-language publication through newspapers, magazines, and other formats, including the Internet. The Santa Fe New Mexican has begun to publish a weekly Spanish section of the newspaper (something that has been absent since 1958). The literary heritage of New Mexico and of the Nuevomexicano is unmatched by any state in the Union. The recovery and preservation of this rich literary tradition is currently underway. The goal is to preserve it and pass it on to the next generation.

Sources used:

El Nuevo Mexicano, Santa Fe, New Mexico; weekly, Spanish; 1890-1958.

La Voz del Pueblo, Santa Fe, New Mexico; weekly, Spanish; 1888-1927.

Grove, Pierce S. and others, New Mexico Newspapers: A Comprehensive Guide to Bibliographical Entries and Locations. Albuquerque, NM. UNM Press, 1975.

Meléndez, A. Gabriel. So All Is Not Lost: The Poetics of Print in Nuevomexicano Communities, 1834-1958. Albuquerque, NM, UNM Press, 1997.

Read,Benjamin. Illustrated History of New Mexico. Santa Fe, NM, New Mexican Publishing, 1911.

Lomeli, Francisco “Eusebio Chacón: An Early Pioneer of the New Mexican Novel.” In Pasó por Aquí, Essays on the New Mexican Hispanic Literary Tradition ,1542-1988. Albuquerque, NM, UNM Press, 1989.

McMurtrie, Douglas C. “The History of Early Printing in New Mexico: With a Bibliography of the Known Issues of the New Mexican Press, 1834-1860.” New Mexico Historical Review 4 (1929).

Wagner, Henry R. “New Mexico Spanish Press.” New Mexico Historical Review 12 (1937).