Academic journal article MELUS

Resilience as Resistance: Representing Hispanic New Mexico to the Federal Writers' Project in Lou Sage Batchen's Placitas Stories

Academic journal article MELUS

Resilience as Resistance: Representing Hispanic New Mexico to the Federal Writers' Project in Lou Sage Batchen's Placitas Stories

Article excerpt

The Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal work relief program for writers started in 1935 as part of Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, was particularly active in New Mexico. It produced New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State (1940), (1) part of a series of state guides that was the main project directed by the national FWP office in Washington, DC. The state guides were tour books, opening up the United States to an audience that traveled by automobile in the closing years of the Great Depression and that could identify with what FWP historian Jerrold Hirsch describes as a "feeling of definition and possession about the diverse places that constituted the nation" (84). In addition, federal writers in New Mexico set themselves to documenting the variety of oral Spanish language literary traditions, generating a large quantity of folktales, oral history, legends, anecdotes, and more.

If the FWP was a governmental project of promoting tourism and cultivating national identity in the context of the Great Depression, the stories collected from one of these "diverse places" by FWP field writer Lou Sage Batchen show that Hispanic narrators used the occasion for their own ends, reflecting on such things as cultural and ethnic difference, the legacy of US territorial conquest, tradition and modernity, and the fate of the Hispanic village in changing times. While the kinds of folklore desired by the FWP reflected an ideology of the romanticized, exotic, and above all ahistorical New Mexican village, the folktales told to Batchen appear more as a critical historical narrative that resists these expectations. This historicizing folktale joins other narrative strategies, such as figures of displacement and return, the insertion of modernity in legend, and an underlying theme of resilience, each of which runs counter to the prescribed goals and ideologies of the FWP/WPA.

As resilient narratives, these stories preserve authorial intention despite their complex translation from Spanish to English, transcription from orality to writing, and transmission from a Hispanic narrator to an Anglo writer. Unlike the active counter-hegemonic Spanish language press that existed in New Mexico during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, (2) the FWP folklore must be read with a model of writing as narrative interaction between dominant and subaltern subject positions in the production of the text. Batchen was not fluent in Spanish so she employed two others, Max DeLara and Christina Gonzales, to assist her in recording the stories. As an Anglo-American from Missouri, Batchen was an outsider to the Hispanic New Mexico village communities in which she worked. Nevertheless, the stories Batchen collected were strongly tied to place, and she intended to turn them into a book named after one of the villages of northern New Mexico, Las Placitas.

Batchen worked as a public school teacher before moving to New Mexico, where, while in her mid-50s, she began collecting folklore for the New Mexico Federal Writers' Project. Though she was born in Missouri, her family spent a portion of her teenage years in New Mexico, where two of her younger siblings were born (in fact, her younger sister was named Bernalillo after a town in northern New Mexico). Her husband, J. P. Batchen, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and owned mining claims in northern New Mexico. When she died in 1955, she had lived in Placitas for more than 20 years. (3) In 1972, the Placitas Garden Club compiled some of Batchen's FWP stories in a small volume published by a local press, entitled Las Placitas: Historical Facts and Legends. Originally a fundraiser, this book is now touted by real estate companies on the World Wide Web as a "must read" for people relocating to Placitas.

In addition to her professional role as a field writer for the FWP, Batchen brought to these narratives a fascination with Placitas and its inhabitants. We can think of Batchen as the writer, sharing the work of collecting with DeLara and Gonzales. …

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