New Mexico's Cuarto Centenario and Spanish American Nationalism: Collapsing Past Conquests and Present Dispossession

Article excerpt

At a 1998 groundbreaking ceremony for a new Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, local Hispano politicians met with the vice president of Spain to commemorate New Mexico's cuarto centenario (four hundredth anniversary) and a shared history. The ceremony displayed a clear desire for continuity with New Mexico's conquistador past; to an enthusiastic response from the crowd, Spanish Vice President Francisco Alvarez-Cascos presented local officials with tokens of their Spanish patrimony--a sixteenth-century Spanish map depicting New Mexico and an original account of Don Juan de Onate's expedition through the land by his chronicler, Villagra. Senator Domenici's wife, Nancy, took the stage to express what was perhaps on such Spanish enthusiasts' minds. "Thank you, Your Excellency, for being here and Bringing an authentic Spanish reminder to our Spanish roots in New Mexico," she said. As a local planner read a fictitious re-creation of the first morning Onate and his men sighted Albuquerque on their way north, the largely Hispanic audience hushed as they embarked in their imaginations on that collective journey four hundred years ago. All in all, the ceremony seemed to suggest not merely a re-encuentro (or reencounter) of Spaniards and Hispanos but a return, a reinvigoration of Spanish-ness that aimed to collapse the gap between the conquistador past and a less glorious present.

If the event was a return to a Spanish sense of belonging for some, however, this sentiment was not necessarily reciprocated by the Spanish dignitaries. For his part, the Spanish vice president appeared perplexed by the ceremony's bald re-creation of a Spanish colonial past. "As you embark on this voyage of rediscovering your roots," he told the crowd, "I think you will find that you are always rediscovering your culture. Even in Spain, we too are rediscovering our culture." Although the event was billed as part of a historic re-encuentro, clearly the original encounter loomed larger in some consciousnesses than in others.

This essay will examine the formation of a Spanish American identity (1) that posits a continuous link from contemporary New Mexico to the Spanish conquistadores who colonized New Mexico and, through them, to Spain itself. In the discourse of Spanish American identity, Spanish American culture has remained static and bounded since the arrival of the conquistadores four hundred years ago. How did this discourse of identity arise? And why has this discourse of identity become more feverish in pitch, and more defensive, in the present? To explore these questions, I will examine the discourses of ethnic authenticity and belonging that shape Spanish American identity through an analysis of the narratives of two members of a Spanish American group, the Hispanic Culture Preservation League.


The ceremony recounted in the introduction would appear to be an example of the type of objectification of culture that Richard Handler analyzes in Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec (1988). Indeed, the situations of the Quebecois and of Spanish Americans in New Mexico are similar in many ways. Unlike Spanish Americans in New Mexico, Quebecois nationalists are concerned with separating from Ottawa to form an independent state. However, the two distinct populations have in common what Handler (1988, 276) calls a "defensive" rather than an "oppositional" nationalism, in that the two group identities are not "constructed in opposition to collective others." Handler writes of the Quebecois, "Surrounded, as Quebecois say, by a sea of anglophones, ideologies of collective identities have been concerned, from the beginnings of French-Canadian nationalism in the early nineteenth century, to protect and preserve national culture and traditions and, indeed, the existence of the group itself" (Handler 1988, 277). …