Three Cultures

I just got back from a trip to New Mexico. I have been going to New Mexico a lot lately. 

Also, I was born there.

As I wrote last week, I was there, along with several of my family members, to celebrate my aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary. When I was a kid, this aunt and uncle — and, in fact, all of my aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins — lived in Albuquerque. The past few decades have seen us scatter across the country, and sometimes across the globe, but there seems to be a bit of a homecoming happening. Maybe it just feels that way because my own father has “returned” — not to his hometown of Albuquerque, but up the trail to Santa Fe, a town whose quirks and charms I am quickly learning.

One of the intangible pleasures of my dad’s relocation is that it makes me feel more of a claim to my own New Mexican-ness. I could always claim to be a native, but let’s face it: I’m a Midwesterner1 who is fast becoming an Angeleno.2 Still, my ties to the Land of Enchantment have always been strong. When I was a kid, my parents and I would spend a week or so with our extended Albuquerque family each year. In third grade I wrote an extensive report about my visit to the International Balloon Fiesta. In fifth and sixth grade, I’d return home from solo trips3 to visit my grandparents and tearfully argue that we should move back, because “home is where the heart is.” And my heart, obviously, was at my grandparents’ house.

Because I grew up so steeped in it, I have gotten pretty used to what New Mexico is like. But this time, there were some non-New Mexican in-laws among us, and seeing the region through their eyes allowed me some newfound perspective. 

So what is it like? New Mexico is visually remarkable, from the shocking natural beauty of multi-colored rocky cliffs and tall mesas, to the manmade loveliness of the adobe-style houses that are most ubiquitous. Towns and reservations are named not merely for the tribes who once lived there, but for those who still live there. Native American art and culture touches and infuses daily life for everyone there, regardless of background. Above all, there’s the distinctive local cuisine4, swathed in spicy chile sauce of red and/or green, a cuisine so culture-defining they put it on the license plates. 

I struggle to think of another state in the country that has such a clearly defined cultural aesthetic. But even within that clarity, there is a jumble of heritages that is impossible to fully detangle. The region was “founded” by conquistadors — which, may I remind you, is Spanish for “conquerers,” a word which contains within in it the suggestion of the “conquered.” In this case, that meant the people of the region’s numerous indigenous Pueblos; but walking around four centuries later, it certainly doesn’t feel like the Pueblo peoples were conquered. Then, eventually, you have the gringo settlers, heading west to a less-than conquered land, sopping up its many artistic riches, and often translating them into the creation of more art, but also sometimes using the state as a development and testing ground for destruction.

I was already thinking about these layers of culture and history when, toward the end of my recent visit, my family visited the Santuario de Chimayo. I have been to Chimayo many times, but only to eat; they grow their own unique variety of red chile there, and serve it at an old, storied restaurant. But Chimayo is not just famous for its restaurant. It also has its very own miracle dirt. Or, so the story goes. I could write a whole essay about our quick, casual visit to this extremely sacred pilgrimage landmark. But for now, if you want to know more about it, you can take a look at this article by LA’s own Gustavo Arellano. I found it while I was researching a particular statue that had been on my mind, called “Three Cultures.” Arellano describes it as “verging on Disneyfication” and points out that, it “depicts a kneeling settler, a Bible-wielding Hispano farmer, and — bizarrely — a Plains Indian.” Oops. 

When I saw it, I will admit that I didn’t notice the misplaced native regalia right away. We were passing the statue on our way out, and I was in the mood to be moved. When I looked at the statue, I saw something ecumenical, a nod to the different paths we can take to the same higher plane. My father, though, had his own spin on this observation. “You have the Indian with his hands raised in ritual, the Catholic Spaniard kneeling in prayer…and the gringo consulting his travel guide.” I found this joke sweetly and surprisingly self-deprecating, seeing as we are the gringos. We came to this place last of all.5

On both sides of my family, my people have been in this country for over a century. But we have only been in New Mexico since the ‘40s. On my mother’s side, my grandfather came for the adobe — he was a rather renowned adobe architect and expert. On my father’s side, my grandfather came to work at a nuclear engineering facility. I was born in Los Alamos, a town famous for its bombs, but my own father was there working for the church. The landscape in Los Alamos is absurdly beautiful. The main local industry is “national security science.” And there are lots of churches. Contradictions abound. They are a part of the landscape.

Last weekend, I pointed out a necklace in a window of a Santa Fe Plaza shop, telling my cousin’s wife that the style was called “squash blossom.” I know this because I have inherited a few of these native-made squash blossom necklaces from my grandmothers. Some artist hand-crafted each of these works of art; they were purchased, they were worn, and eventually they became my heirlooms, devoid of any clear provenance that could tell me where — with what Pueblo — they originated.

That is what my New Mexican-ness feels like to me. Like something that was handed down to me, and is precious to me, yet leaves me longing for a deeper context.

These are the questions my recent-ancestral home is asking me nowadays: Who is conquered and who is the conqueror? What is stolen and what is lifted up to a place of prominence? How far back does history go, and whose history gets told first? What does any of it mean to us in the present? Everywhere you look, these contradictions are in conversation with one another. But there are no answers. Only the conversations, happening silently, everywhere, should you choose to tune in. 


A “Great Lakes Midwesterner” is how I like to say it, and the distinction means something to me, if to no-one else. Please don’t ask me to define what it means. I’m not sure I could. 


This time next year, I’ll have been in LA for a decade.


Yes, I was one of those unaccompanied minors you sometimes see at the front of the plane. Lucky kid!


I have tried looking for New Mexican restaurants in LA, but the search terms are impossible. Every result is for a new, Mexican restaurant. Close, but no.


And everyone, down to my own parents, met via Protestant church.