The prosperity of the 1920s ended with the economic catastrophe known as the Great Depression. By 1933 industrial production had fallen, thousands of banks were closed, and millions of Americans were jobless. The horizon of prosperity looming "just around the corner" seemed to fade from view. While the Depression may have jolted many out of the American Dream, its pattern of unemployment, frustration, and despair was neither a universal nor an identical condition, the impact of the depression varied from place to place and from group to group. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" aimed at promoting economic recovery and putting Americans back to work through Federal jobs programs for the unemployed. The reaction to this national crisis and the solutions attempted by the New Deal would be as varied as the locations and groups it intended to help. Establishing the foundation of the modern welfare state while preserving the capitalist system, the New Deal experimented with unprecedented activism in an attempt to relieve the social and economic dislocation experienced by much of the nation. Federal programs extended not only into American business, agriculture, labor, and the arts; but into people\'s daily lives. Despite a mixed legacy with respect to recovery and reform, the political response under Roosevelt proved that economic crisis did not require Americans to abandon democracy. American popular culture during the 1930’s revealed that economic and social hard times did not cause an abandonment of imagination, humor, or good work.
New Mexico was among the poorest states in the Union in the 1920s and it went from bad to worse with the onset of the Depression. The New Deal programs administered throughout the country were especially needed in New Mexico and particularly in rural villages. The various programs attempted to give immediate relief to those who were in dire need of help but in the long run attempted to revitalize the economy and cultural production of the state. Various sectors of the economy were targeted with specific programs including ones aimed at reviving arts and crafts production, bolstering small scale agriculture and stock raising as well as gainfully employing the states youth. The WPA, the Works Progress Administration and later the Works Projects Administration was the largest and longest lasting of the Roosevelt New Deal programs though not the first. Many of the projects conducted in New Mexico were successful to greater and lesser degrees depending on their administration, funding, politics, and acceptance in the areas where they were administered. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), 1933-1944, was designed to take young men off of the dole and off of the streets and put them on the road to good citizenship. Its stated purpose was to conserve the nation’s endangered youth while at the same time conserving the nation’s endangered resources. Some detractors thought the road led to Socialism or Communism while others said that the road lead to a militaristic state and yet others saw the CCC as a training ground for future employees. But in any case, the CCC was a national and local response to an urgent economic and social need.
Perhaps the best known of the back-to-work projects was New Mexico’s various arts and crafts projects. The most ambitious of these in New Mexico was the Federal Art Project (FAP) under the direction of Russell Vernon Hunter. WPA's Federal Project Number One, known as "Federal One” comprised five major divisions: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project and the Historical Records Survey. Each was headed by a national director. Just one year after the five national directors first met in Washington, some 40,000 WPA artists and other cultural workers were employed in projects throughout the United States. In New Mexico, Hunter supported regional and cultural artistic expression and was lucky to have had both native and established East Coast artists. He was supportive of Hispana/o artists and some came to national prominence under his tutelage. The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was, like the FAP in New Mexico, blessed with a plethora of writing talent, both native and non-native. The Federal Writers Project is best-known for its American Guide Series, intended to produce comprehensive guidebooks for every state. The various art projects had at their core in New Mexico altruistic efforts to record and preserve traditional native, be it Native American or Hispano, cultural production. Many of the New Deal programs in New Mexico had an inherent bias towards traditional cultures and “craft” production, which was steeped in romantic notions of authenticity and American nationalism. This concern for the preservation and or revival of New Mexico cultural production by a predominantly Anglo East Coast elite who were culturally, politically and economically different than the people they hoped to help was fraught with conflicting goals and incongruities. On one hand, the New Deal programs were established to save, revive, and document traditional culture but on the other their charge was to help modernize and Americanize New Mexican rural life ways.
Many of the ideals of the New Deal were unrealized because of politics and bureaucracy and because it was too big of a job within a small time frame. World War II cut off New Deal programs and cultural misunderstandings befuddled many programs from the start. But, ultimately, New Deal programs did not change the long range economic and social realities of New Mexico, realities of land tenure, water dispute, cultural antagonisms, poverty and other social ills. On the plus side, New Deal programs were a stop gap in the downward spiral of economic hard times during the Depression and saved many New Mexicans from total despair. Education was enhanced in rural areas and cultural knowledge and pride were revived and brought to the forefront. Federal programs instilled a collective political awareness in many New Mexicans that helped them in a continual struggle to retain a purely New Mexican ethnic and cultural identity. Though many of the programs were flawed and their goals were not immediately met, the result of many of the programs is appreciated today in the valuable storehouse of cultural expression that has been preserved: whether it be the many photos taken by folks like Russell Lee working for the history division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA); the work of the Historical Records Survey which undertook to locate and describe federal, state, county, municipal, and church archives in New Mexico; the Historical American Buildings Survey; or the various arts programs that helped pique the artistic impulse in New Mexican artists and enabled them to produce a treasure trove of art under difficult circumstances. All of these endeavors were the result of the humanistic work of both New Mexicans and outside change agents during a complicated and challenging time in the American experience.
Bermingham, Peter. The New Deal in the Southwest, Arizona and New Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1980.
Deutsch, Sarah. No Separate Refuge: Culture, Class and Gender on an Anglo-Hispanic Frontier in the American Southwest, 1880–1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Forrest, Suzanne. The Preservation of the Village. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.
Melzer, Richard. Coming of Age in the Great Depression : the Civilian Conservation Corps Experience in New Mexico, 1933-1942. Las Cruces, NM : Yucca Tree Press, 2000.
Myers, Joan. Pie Town Woman: The Hard Life and Good Times of a New Mexico Homesteader. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.
Nunn, Tey Marianna. Sin Nombre: Hispana & Hispano Artists of the New Deal Era. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.
Russell, Lee. Far from Main Street : Three Photographers in Depression-era New Mexico / Russell Lee, John Collier, Jr., Jack Delano. Santa Fe : Museum of New Mexico Press, c1994.
Whisenhunt, Donald, W. The Depression in the Southwest. Port Washington N.Y.: National University Publications, Kennikat Press, 1980.
Great Depression and the New Deal in New Mexico; Poverty and the Fight Against Poverty in New Mexico;
New Mexico was among the poorest states in the Union in the 1920s and it went from bad to worse with the onset of the Depression.