Rescuing Amado Chaves from the Footnotes of History


By Patricia Trujillo

In a footnote in Marc Simmons, Little Lion of the Southwest: A Life of Manuel Antonio Chaves, the author writes, “It should be noted that historian Twitchell in writing of Manuel relied heavily on information supplied by Amado” (226). Indeed, Simmons credits Chaves with compiling many of the sources used to inform his own text about the life of Manuel Chaves positing that: “His eldest son, Amado, who was devoted to family history, evidently intended to do a biography but gave up the project when most of his notes and papers were lost in a fire that destroyed the territorial capital in 1891” (4). However, “gave up” does not seem to be the case; for the rest of his life Chaves continued to write and provide information about not only his father, but also the life ways of early New Mexico. His writing, mainly in the form of letters, short historical vignettes, and folkloric essays, have until now been considered only for their value as source material for historians, the official writers of history. Chaves’ writing has never been presented formally for a reading public in its original form, with the exception of one publication in the journal of the Historical Society of New Mexico in 1906.

Keeping Simmons footnote in mind, many Modern writers and scholars of the Modern historical era, including Twitchell, relied on information supplied by Chaves. The list includes: Marc Simmons, Laurence Lee, Paul A.F. Walters, Willa Cather, Mary Austin, and most notably, Charles Lummis. In an effort to “rescue” Chaves from the footnotes of history, I suggest that he be re-figured from native informant and historical citation to writer and cultural producer. As a writer, Chaves regularly communicated with a community of writers; he produced an extensive body of literature; and he was active and engaged in the public education of New Mexicans, particularly in regard to matters of literacy.

Chaves was born in Santa Fe, NM on April 16, 1851 and passed away after a long illness on December 30, 1930 in the same city. His obituary, “Colonel Amado Chaves Dies; Was Leader in Development of Territory and State,” was published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on December 31, 1930. In it he is remembered as “particularly a Santa Fean – born here, educated here, serving as mayor of the Oldest City, later as state senator from this district. He was the first territorial superintendent of public instruction in New Mexico. He was a life-long Republican” (NMSRCA, Amado Chaves Collection, Box 3, Folder 30). In the lengthy public eulogy, Chaves’ many accomplishments were noted: his studies in Santa Fe at San Miguel College (now known as St. Michael’s High School); his attendance at public schools in Washington D.C. and at Bryant & Stratton’s Business College in Washington; and the attainment of a law degree from the National University Law School in 1876. Of the latter honor, it is documented that his diploma was signed and given to him by the ex-officio president of the University, Ulysses S. Grant, general and former president of the United States. It was written that: “In presenting the diploma to the student from far-away New Mexico, President Grant manifested unusual interest in the tall, keen-eyed and dark-haired lad from the territory of New Mexico, which was then under federal control” (Obituary, NMSRCA, Amado Chaves Collection, Box 3, Folder 30). As reported in multiple documents, Chaves worked at the Supreme Court as a practicing attorney, but it is unclear if it was during his tenure as a law student or after his graduation (“Obituary,” NMSRCA, Amado Chaves Collection, Box 3, Folder 30; “Amado Chaves was New Mexico’s First Superintendent,” Box 3, Folder 30). In addition to his work at the Supreme Court, Chaves worked in the U.S. Pension Bureau, which it is reported, “gave him a wide knowledge of Washington affairs, for he met many people of prominence and ability in the national capital” (Obituary).

Chaves returned to New Mexico in 1882 where he began building a ranch on family property in San Mateo near Grants, NM. He became involved in the politics of the state almost immediately. In 1884 he became a member of territorial House of Representatives from the county of Valencia and was unanimously chosen speaker (Lummis Notes, NMSRCA, Amado Chaves Collection, Box 2, Folder 25, and Obituary). In 1891, he was appointed by Governor L. Bradford Prince as the first territorial Superintendent of Schools for New Mexico and in his first term, he traveled all over New Mexico encouraging the development of bilingual literacy. As Superintendent of Schools, Chaves invoked racial and national platforms for the development of education in New Mexico. In an address to the New Mexico Educational Association in Silver City, circa 1905, Chaves claimed that even though the French, German, Italian, Russian, and Norse nations may come to New Mexico and enrich the culture with what they bring, “it is only the tongues of Great Britain and the Spanish Peninsula that are to be spoken in North and South America, and it is the literature, history, and traditions of those lands that are to be the greatest service to us in the future” (NMRAC, Amado Chaves Collection, Box 3, Folder 30). Though Eurocentric in its exclusion of American Indian cultures and languages, Chaves’ perspective can be read as an early articulation of contemporary border studies. Chaves asserts, “What is the duty of the teachers who stand upon this border land between two great races [Saxon and Spanish]? First, to appreciate both; to realize the greatness of their languages and literatures; to catch the inspiration which a glance at the future gives” (NMRAC, Amado Chaves Collection, Box 3, Folder 30). Praised as a gifted orator in Spanish and English, “Chaves visited even the tiniest hamlet and repeatedly exhorted the native to get the great weapons which would help them advance – a knowledge of the Three R’s, and in both languages” (Obituary, NMRAC, Amado Chaves Collection, Box 3, Folder 30). Chaves, in this sense, was ahead of his time as an advocate for a citizen’s right to a dual-language education. As well as recognizing the need for being bilingual in a “very practical age,” Chaves also stressed literacy as a goal of the schools. He boasted in the educational address, that in the fourteen years of his leadership, in great part to the work of teachers, New Mexico’s literacy rate had greatly increased from 44% illiteracy to only 15% (NMRAC, Amado Chaves Collection, Box 3, Folder 30).

As well as being Superintendent, Amado Chaves also held several other public offices. He was mayor of Santa Fe in 1901, Senator to the territorial council from Santa Fe County in 1903, Superintendent again until 1905, and Tax commissioner in 1906. Though not within the scope of this project, there is work to be done in contextualizing and historicizing his work as a legal authority on Spanish and Mexican land grants. As stated in his obituary: “Colonel Chaves devoted a large part of his life to the difficult and complicated work of proving ancient Spanish titles and he made that his special business after his return to New Mexico from Washington” (Obituary, NMSRCA, Amado Chaves Collection, Box 3, Folder 30). He established a thriving law practice in 1904 to litigate land grant issues with the United States government, and was one of the attorneys involved in solving the New Mexico/Texas boundary litigation in 1912. However, this interest may have its roots in his personal connection to property litigation, as Marc Simmons explains:

Through the late 1870s and early 1880s, both Manuel and Román expanded the territorial limits of their range with the acquisition of the neighboring land grants, whose antecedents extended back to colonial times. [….] Titles to some of these lands, guaranteed under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican War, were still in process of being confirmed by the Federal government, and Amado was obliged to make several trips to Washington to support personally the interests of his family. An idea of his progress can be gained from this local newspaper report in 1882: ‘Amado Chaves, Esq., while in Washington, attended to the interests of the owners of the Cebolleta Grant in Valencia County, and met with much success, obtaining after some hard work at the Department of Interior and Justice, the patent for the grant. The area of the grant is over two hundred thousand acres, and it is well watered and finely timbered. Don Román A. Baca of San Mateo is one of the principal owners.’ (Little Lion 205 and 211)

Let us remember for a moment Chaves’ statement as Superintendent of Education: “This is a very practical age…let us be prompt to see our opportunities. While we look about us and see the remains of very ancient civilization, the world of mighty ages past, let us hold out our hands to accept of the new, with all the good it brings” (Address, NMRAC, Amado Chaves Collection, Box 3, Folder 30). These statements give context to how Chaves figured himself within modernity, providing evidence to which would allow us to develop him as a transnational modernist, an active agent in bringing cultures together for mutual benefit but also for practical purposes, to retain Hispano cultural practice. Further research into Chaves’ legal work could provide interesting insights in the area of positionality. For example, how Chaves strategically worked from the interstices of cultures as a practicing attorney on one hand and as a New Mexican hidalgo who raised sheep for the majority of his adult life, on the other. In considering how he mediated these positions, it is significant to note that he is listed as a petitioner on a case that was argued before the United States Supreme Court in 1897.

But what of Chaves the writer? It is clear that his access to education gave him the tools of the writer but as well, he appeared to be a man involved in the goings-on of the world, the staff of the New Mexican newspaper referred to him as a “‘live wire’” noting that he “kept in daily touch with the life about him, despite his great age. He never lost interest – to his dying day – in the affairs of New Mexico and in the world generally” (Obituary). Unlike the modernists who were his friends and acquaintances, he did not herald New Mexico for its lack of change but for the process of change that he was a part of and of which he observed. Unlike the colonizing perception of New Mexicans in traditional modern literature studies as inert and inactive cultural producers, Amado Chaves had an enormous amount of privilege, access and agency. Through information found in letters to his daughter, Katherine, and his friend, Charles Lummis, we know that Chaves traveled throughout the country. He commonly visited Chicago, IL, Washington, D.C., and the San Diego/La Jolla areas of California. He was a reader of contemporary literature, as he shares in a letter to his friend, Lummis: “The book is very nicely got up. One of the stories, ‘The Frailes’ Habit”, [sic] I read some time ago in one of the Magazines. I never read anything that I enjoyed more” (Letter to Lummis, December 5, 1897. NMSRCA. Amado Chaves Collection. Box 2, Folder 25). Chaves took part in many dialogues concerning what the literature of New Mexico should be about. For instance, in a letter to Laurence Lee from September 22, 1927, Chaves comments:

Our people were getting married [to] very near relatives such as first cousins. If some competent writer who would have this interest and the ability would gather all the data available on this subject [and] would write a book it would be very interesting indeed. I suppose you have read a book just out – ‘Death comes for the Archbishop.’ It relates to the arrival of bishop lamy [sic] but the writer calls him Jean Marie Latour. This writer evidently went over a good deal of the ground to describe [NM] in the book but at the same time uses a lot of imagination as to some of the places. (NMSRCA. Amado Chaves Collection. Box 3, Folder 39)

In his letter, Chaves is speaking about is Willa Cather and the novel, Death Comes to the Archbishop, now considered one of the twenty most important novels of the 20th century. Cather is credited with writing the “culture” of New Mexico during this time period, as Christopher Schedler writes:

Cather clearly articulates the differentially specific struggles of individual cultures against the forces of colonization: the rebellion of the Taos Indians, which may or may not have been instigated by the rebellious Mexican priest, Padre Martinez; the anti-Americanism of the “Spanish” aristocrat Don Manuel Chavez; the Mexican resistance to that American war of conquest; and the resistance of the Navajo leader, Manuelito, to violent displacement and extermination of his people at the hands of Kit Carson and the U.S. military. (“Writing Culture” 122)

Though Cather writes about the culture of New Mexico with authority, writing it and getting it right are two different things. Again, we need to consider this concept of how NM is represented, not only that it is represented. It is significant that Chaves chooses to critique Cather’s representation of New Mexico, the place. Her novel is commonly regarded as a “period” piece or product of its time in which Cather, from the richness of her imagination, described “disappearing” indigenous culture. For Chaves, Cather’s portrayal of New Mexico is an act of the overt imagination, and his call for “competent” writers insinuates an implicit understanding of the power writers had in establishing the image of New Mexico in the imagination of readers. Cather’s portrayal of New Mexico, though it describes the multiple negotiations related to identity, ultimately employs the ethnocentric interpretation in which European culture is understood to be the superior culture, particularly in her characterization of Father Jean Marie Latour as a savior descended upon the cultures of New Mexico. Another New Mexico modern writer, Mary Austin, made the following comments about Cather in her 1932 autobiography, Earth Horizon:

Miss Cather used my house to write in, but she did not tell me what she was doing. When it was finished, I was very much distressed to find that she had given her allegiance to the French blood of the Archbishop; she had sympathized with his desire to build a French cathedral in a Spanish town. It was a calamity to the local culture. We have never got over it. It dropped the local mystery plays almost out of use, and many other far-derived Spanish customs. It was in rebuilding of that shattered culture that the Society for the Revival of the Spanish Arts was concerned. [….] It has reached across the border and made liaison with kindred movements in Mexico. [….] I live largely by the living stream of creative artistry which it [the Spanish preservation society] pours into New Mexico. (359)

Here we have the perspective of another “well-meaning” modernist who doesn’t even need real New Mexicans to save, just their art. Significantly, though colonially nostalgic, Mary Austin reports the influence that Cather’s book had on popular culture after its publication, but she does so only in reference to her true desires – being remembered as a preservationist. Note that she includes herself in the “local culture” when she says: “We have never got over it.” By including herself in the “we” she writes herself into the local culture as an in-group member, but then almost immediately takes the place of Cather’s imagined Latour, as yet another savior from the “outside” of New Mexican culture who can “save” it. She uses Cather’s writing to boast about her own accomplishments with forming a preservation society for Spanish Culture, but once again the creative agency is something which must “pour into New Mexico” and in this figuring, we can do some of our own imagining in understanding this as a literary example of the start of the commodification of culture in the state and in Mexico.

For Chaves, the frustration probably ran deeper as he had a personal investment in the novel, the portrayal of his father, Manuel Chaves. In one of Frank Lummis’ infamous note cards from his personal research, he notes that, “Chaves told Willa Cather stories which aided her in writing ‘Archbishop’ while at Mary Austin’[s] home” (Lummis notes. NMSRCA. Amado Chaves Collection. Box 2, Folder 25). Interestingly, it is generally regarded that Cather’s portrayal of Manuel is accurate though his character “figures in this work of fiction only as a minor character” (Simmons 4). What Chaves’ critique begs us to consider is that if a place is not rendered accurately, in essence, a historical person rendered with even the most care to detail will never be accurate either. This exchange exemplifies how involved Chaves was in the rendering of the imaginary New Mexico. Bear in mind that this observation is made in a letter to another writer, Laurence Lee. In the remainder of the letter, Chaves provides Lee with information for his own work but we can read his chastisement of Cather as a warning to Lee. In context, Chaves’ call for a “competent writer” can be read as a couched signal to Lee about the types of writing traps he should avoid in using the information provided.

Chaves took seriously his position as a repository of cultural knowledge. He actively participated in the writing process of his contemporaries by providing them with information, by attending public forums where the information was being presented, and by offering suggestions for revision. The discourse of New Mexico modern literature is always marked by a need for belonging and a need to define an unknown place by incoming White writers. By reading Amado Chaves as a New Mexican modern writer we are better able to understand the multiple “modern” trajectories by which the era was actually influenced. Chaves’ writings are reminders that New Mexico’s multiple identities cannot be claimed by a single Western center. By recuperating Amado Chaves through literature and the cultural imaginary, we can rescue his voice in a way that the discourse of history has not. He can speak for himself through his stories, essays and letters. And, most importantly, he can speak back as a transnational modernist and be more fully rendered as one of the people who wrote New Mexico.

Works Cited and Referenced:

Austin, Mary. Earth Horizon: Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1932.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies.” Modernism/Modernity. 13.3 (2006): 425-443.

Goodman, Audrey. Translating Southwestern Landscapes: The Making of an Anglo Literary Region. Tucson: UP Arizona, 2002.

Mendoza, Louis Gerard. Historia: The Literary Making of Chicana and Chicano History. College Station: UP Texas A&M, 2001.

Pérez, Emma. The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History. Bloomington: UP Indiana, 1999.

Saldívar, Ramón. The Borderlands of Culture: Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary. Durham: UP Duke, 2006.

Simmons, Marc. The Little Lion of the Southwest: A Life of Manuel Antonio Chaves. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1973.

Simmons, Marc. Two Southwesterners: Charles Lummis and Amado Chaves. Santa Fe: San Marcos Press, 1968.

Smedshammer, Michael Oren. Modern Writers in New Mexico: Charles Lummis, Oliver La Farge, D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather and the Quest for Purpose and Place in the Southwest. Diss. U of New Mexico, 1998.

Swift, John N. and Joseph R. Urgo, eds. Willa Cather and the American Southwest. Lincoln: UP Nebraska, 2002.

Archival Sources:

Author unknown. “Colonel Amado Chaves Dies; Was Leader in Development of Territory and State.” Obituary. New Mexico State Records Center and Archives. Amado Chaves Collection, Santa Fe, NM. Box 3, Folder 30.

Chaves, Amado. “Address to New Mexico Educational Association, Silver City, NM, c. 1905.” New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, NM. Amado Chaves Collection. Box 3, Folder 30.

– – -. “Letter to Laurence Lee, 22 Sept 1927.” New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, NM. Amado Chaves Collection. Box 3, Folder 39.

– – – . “Letter to Ralph Emerson Twitchell, 20 Feb 1909.” Fray Angélico Chávez Library and Photo Archives, Santa Fe, NM. Manuel Antonio Chaves Collection. Box 1, Folder 1.

– – -. “Letter to Katherine Chaves Page, 29 Jan 1907.” New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, NM. Amado Chaves Collection. Box 3, Folder 35.

Lummis, Charles. “Lummis Notes.” New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, NM. Amado Chaves Collection. Box 2, Folder 25.

– – -. “Lummis’ Lion’s Den.” New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, NM. Amado Chaves Collection. Box 2, Folder 25.


Amado Antonio Chavez

Amado Antonio Chaves (1851-1930) had a long and varied career as territorial legislator, state superintendant of education, and writer.