Book Review: Recognizing Heritage: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Mexico by Thomas H. Guthrie

Reviewed by KAY MATTHEWS

In 2006 the U.S. Congress established the Northern Rio Grande Heritage Area to recognize and commemorate the four hundred year “coexistence” of Spanish and Indian people in north central New Mexico. The purpose of a national heritage area is to create a partnership between the communities included in the designation and the federal government to promote historic preservation, cultural conservation, economic development, education, recreation, and environmental protection. The idea of the heritage area was first introduced in northern New Mexico in 1999, and while an interim board comprised of local people was established, there was also some skepticism expressed. One resident had this to say: “I’m not interested in being preserved in formaldehyde; we shouldn’t be talking about ‘preservation’ but how to keep our communities economically—and appropriately—viable.”

Estevan Arellano, longtime norteño farmer and writer, has something similar to say about acequias: “I like to use the word maintain rather than preserve when I’m talking about acequias. The word preserve has the connotation that something is at an end.”

Sam Hitt, one of the environmentalists embroiled in lawsuits against community foresters in northern New Mexico in the 1990s, had this to say about these norteño foresters: “[T]hese people [Hispanos] are not traditional resource users but loggers and forest users like anyone else. . . . They may have once been traditional, but they’ve lost that now. . . . [T]he people’s culture has been so contaminated by the dominant culture that they’ve lost any traditional ties to the land.” He went on to say that “These forests belong to the whole country; they are not meant to serve as welfare for the people of Northern New Mexico.” (Jake Kosek, Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico).

Book coverThe thinking that underlies these statements is largely what Thomas Guthrie explores in his new book, Recognizing Heritage: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Mexico. What really constitutes the “heritage” that the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area designation purports to recognize? Does the idea of “preservation” preclude a political analysis of economic needs that includes land and water rights and appropriate development? Does the loss of “authenticity” that Sam Hitt articulates delegitimize traditional culture? Or is culture a living process, embodied in Arellano’s concept of acequia maintenance? And what about the dominant culture that Hitt references? Any discussion of heritage must bring into view how the modernist community—Anglo-Americans, tourists, capitalists, and even anthropologists like Guthrie—has impacted social life in New Mexico.

Guthrie uses four sites to work through these questions: the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe; the Palace Portal; the town of Española; and the village of Las Trampas. Along the way he investigates how the notion of multiculturalism, this idea of the “coexistence” of not only the Hispano and Native American cultures but the Anglo-American culture as well, “challenge[s] colonial hierarchies on the surface but reinforce[s] them at a different level.” If authenticity, visibility, and the “anti-politics” of culture are often embedded in multiculturalism, then a Northern Rio Grande Heritage Area must engage in challenging these colonial effects.

Palace of the Governors

The Palace of the Governors, on the north side of the plaza in Santa Fe where Indians sell their jewelry, pottery, and other arts and crafts, was built around 1610 by Spanish colonists who established Santa Fe as the capitol of the New Mexico territory. It served as the offices and residences of the Spanish, Mexican, and American governors (excepting the 12 years after the Pueblo Revolt when it was occupied by Indians) until its designation in 1909 as the home of the newly designated Museum of New Mexico and School of Archeology.

Guthrie is interested in the Palace’s role of “constructing history” as it evolved into “a museum about itself”: “The Museum of New Mexico monumentalized the Palace of the Governors by dissecting, excavating, labeling, interpreting, and exhibiting it.”

As a museum in the early 1900s it was promoted as a monument to “Santa Fe’s glorious Spanish past and as a modern scientific institution that exemplified American achievement.” Indians were essentially excluded from that history. Within that framework, the pre-American past is also presented as “over”, not a living process. This containment of history also “represents a powerful assertion of authority and control and an implicit expression of dominance” by scientific modernity. Guthrie explains: “Colonizers sometimes erase the colonized from history and exaggerate their own historical position. But affirming the historical position of the colonized while stepping out of history to occupy the unquestioned space of modernity can have similar effects.” Thus, to describe the museum today as a “postcolonial” or “multicultural” institution we need to recognize that the romanticism of the “glorious Spanish past” can be complementary with colonialism.

While curators since the 1970s have rejected much of the romantic boosterism of the earlier part of the century, Guthrie believes that multicultural justice means also looking at the museum as an institution whose current practices, or accepted normativity, need to be examined and critiqued.

Palace Portal

Guthrie discusses the issue of “authenticity” with regard to the Native American artists on the Palace Portal. After the establishment of the Palace museum Indians began selling their art under an evolving relationship with museum governance. While the plaza has been a center of commerce since the Spanish colonial period, the museum particularly supported Indian artists, particularly potters of pre-colonial design, which they regarded as the most “authentic” form of Indian culture. After World War II the portal largely became the purview of the Indians, and by the 1970s the Museum of New Mexico and the vendors began to regulate it; in 1972 the museum implemented the policy that only Indians could sell their work there and in 1974 the vendors formed a committee to set rules.

Not surprisingly, non-Indian vendors were not happy with this policy and lawsuits ensued. But by presenting the Portal as an exhibit or educational program the museum justified its “cultural selection” by treating the portal “not as a market but the representation of a market.”

It is just this interpretation that raises the question of authenticity. Does the Indian then become a “living exhibit”, part of an educational program, or just some contemporary American Indian people trying to make a living? Like the norteño loggers described by Sam Hitt, does the capitalist nature of the portal mean the Indians are too “contaminated” by the dominant culture to be “authentic?” This in turn engenders the idea that Indian life away from the portal is more traditionally authentic and only representationally authentic under the portal. What remains important in this public/private distinction is that the portal artists regulate themselves under restrictions that are in their best economic interests. Guthrie ends the chapter: “Letting the question of authenticity go might help us not only take the portal market seriously as a social site but also eliminate the need to search for real tradition elsewhere, a search that can never fully succeed.”  

Española Valley  

In this chapter Guthrie explores the history of the plaza project and the commemoration of Spanish colonialism, proposed for Española in the 1990s, which was purposely “depoliticized” to avoid controversy, and in turn paved the way for the development of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area.

Guthrie uses another quote from Jake Kosek’s book Understories to describe the complex situation of the “tricultural” nature of the Española Valley. Describing the Hispano community, Jerry Fuentes says: “We’ve got both the blood of the colonizers and the conquered, the victors and victims.” As the plaza and commemoration projects played out, Native American objections to Spanish colonialism and the fading out of American colonialism shifted the discourse to multicultural “coexistence.” Thus cultural production and identity became a process whereby the valley could promote its distinctiveness and affirm its Americanness.

In this exploration Guthrie wades into the always contentious issue of how to explain the “dark” side of the Española Valley: the drug abuse issues of domestic violence, homicide, suicides, and overdoses. Those who believe that the drug epidemic can be attributed to “culture loss” buy into an essentialist view that largely ignores the politics of socioeconomic conditions. Guthrie quotes University of New Mexico professor Michael Trujillo (Land of Disenchantment; Latino/a Identities and Transformations in Northern New Mexico): “Economic and social problems often drop out of the discussion and culture loss becomes, in practical isolation, itself the problem.” Ironically, Trujillo finds that “some drug users were more engaged with supposed traditional Nuevomoexicano culture than the community leaders who propose culture as the cure.”

All of this has to do with the politics of visibility, identity, and authenticity as Española built its plaza: how to acknowledge Native American sovereignty; how to acknowledge the mixed racial identities signified by the terms Indo-Hispano and Chicano; and how to involve the Anglo community without strengthening its political position.

Las Trampas

In his chapter describing the restoration efforts in the village of Las Trampas, and specifically, the San José de Gracia Church (see also his article in La Jicarita), Guthrie lays bare the inherent colonialism of the “patronizing and primitivistic . . . Anglo-American engagements with northern New Mexico.”

Throughout the 20th century outsiders represented norteño culture as primitive, pastoral, traditional, and timeless—an alternative to the modern world. This representation Guthrie states, “averts feelings of colonial guilt through a process of denial and justifies policies that ensure underdevelopment and entrenched poverty in Nuevomexicano villages.”

Beginning in the 1960s, the preservationists got involved in Las Trampas politics when the state announced plans to widen and pave State Highway 76 between Las Trampas and Peñasco. While the village badly needed an improved road for safety and access outside the area, the preservationists—architects and anthropologists—feared the highway construction would threaten the integrity of the San José de Gracia Church. Guthrie repeats an especially egregious quote of architect Nathaniel Owings from New Mexico Magazine: “[we] assumed that the villagers themselves would of course wish to preserve the church and churchyard in which their fathers, mothers and grandparents had been buried,” but “to our great surprise, we were in error.”  So “those of us who were concerned decided to do what we could to ‘save the villagers from themselves,’ as one of us put it, ‘for they know not what they are doing.’ We did this with a sense of great uneasiness. Was this perhaps arrogance?”

Architect John Conron proposed that the entire Las Trampas Valley be turned over to the National Park Service. None of this concern was contextualized within the history of the Las Trampas land grant, which was reduced from 46,000 acres to 210 acres. However, in 1967 Las Trampas was designated a National Historic Landmark under the protection of the National Historic Preservation Act. Under this designation the state and historic preservationists agreed on a scaled down version of the proposed highway improvement project, and if you drive through Las Trampas today that’s what you will see: a two-lane paved highway that passes by the very much intact San José de Gracia Church.

State Highway 76 in front of the San José de Gracia Church
State Highway 76 in front of the San José de Gracia Church. Thomas Guthrie photo.

Guthrie weaves his work as an anthropologist into these entangled threads. In a discussion on the “objectification of culture” he discusses how anthropology and the heritage industry often worked together to sell the Southwest to tourists as an exotic region, although anthropologists rationalized it as a way to benefit science as well. But they also lifted culture, identity, and the past out of “everyday experience, held up for inspection, and labeled, at which point they became objects of consciousness.”

In the end, Guthrie believes that “a new kind of multiculturalism that nurtures flexibility, improvisation, and creativity is both possible and practical.” The Northern Rio Grande Heritage Area can succeed as a means for communities and organizations to create a meaningful—and progressive—partnership. Many express hope that their work can influence land management agencies and the congressional delegation to protect people’s right to access public lands. Guthrie’s scholarship is evident in the extensive research he brought to this book; he participated in many of the NRGHA organizational meetings and interviewed many of its board members, but it may be wishful thinking on his part to think that the NRGHA will be able to effect positive political change in northern New Mexico. Guthrie acknowledges that  “A more radical multiculturalism—multiculturalism that challenges rather than perpetuates colonial hierarchies—cannot be unthreatening.” As La Jicarita has documented over its 17 years of publication, there are many more sites than the ones Guthrie highlights that reveal other hierarches and histories extant in el norte. Entrenched bureaucracies retain colonial control over resource access—the Forest Service—and economic opportunity—Los Alamos National Laboratory—and collaborative efforts with these entities to empower communities have proven over and over again to be a sham. There are also many interpersonal histories and hierarchies that influence social change, from which he, as an anthropologist, remains outside. We will have to wait and see if a “new multiculturalism” is the hallmark of the NRGHA.

Recognizing Heritage is available at Collected Works and the Palace of the Governors book store in Santa Fe. You can order it through the publisher’s web site:,675788.aspx


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