Cultural Identity and Schooling in Rural New Mexico

By Woodrum, Arlie | Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online), April 15, 2009 | Go to article overview

Cultural Identity and Schooling in Rural New Mexico


Woodrum, Arlie, Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)


Following the Río Grande north from New Spain in 1540, Francisco de Coronado entered what would become New Mexico, searching for the fabled seven cities of gold. What he found instead was a poor, if hauntingly beautiful landscape where native peoples, living in cities of sophisticated pueblo design, had long ago learned to live in harmony with their often harsh, unforgiving land (Kessell, 2002; Nabokov, 2006). European colonization was slow but inevitable thereafter. Adventurers Oñate and Peralta, following in Coronado's footsteps, eventually established a colonial capital at Santa Fe in 1610. Nearly one hundred years later in 1706, a period during which the Spanish immigrant and mestizo populations had nearly succeeded in subjugating the indigenous peoples of the North, the colonial outpost of Albuquerque was founded.

Thus we see the making of a dynamic that to this day creates cultural and political tensions in the state: more than 11% of the population are Native Peoples living on reservations; nearly 54% are Hispanics, including a substantial group of "Spaniards" who proudly trace their ancestry back to the 16th century and the arrival of the Europeans (New Mexico State Department of Education, 2001). In more recent times, anglos from all over the United States have settled in the state, particularly in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and other middle-size towns (36% of New Mexico students are anglos). And finally and particularly in the southern part of the state, undocumented immigrants from Mexico have begun to arrive in substantial numbers. To discuss rural education in New Mexico is first to understand that these groups, each with its unique history and interests, have distinct cultures-and often languages-with differing expectations for the education of their children.

Summarizing the findings of his study in southwestern Nova Scotia coastal fishing villages, Mike Corbett (2009), in his article "Rural Schooling in Mobile Modernity: Returning to the Places I've Been" lays out several arguments, including the following: First, that formal education "has been and continues to be ... a key institution of 'disembedding,' loosening ties to particular locales and promoting out-migration from rural places" (p. 1). Second, the ambivalence about this process "is experienced in different ways by differently positioned social actors in the rural community" (p. 1). On the face of it, one might suppose that Nova Scotia and New Mexico would have little in common. And indeed, in terms of history, geography-and even language to some extent-they are quite distinct. Yet both are largely rural and thus confront economic and cultural trends that are increasingly common across rural North America. Following Corbett, in this commentary I take the opportunity to reflect on the implications of these arguments for rural people, rural communities, and rural schools in the context of the U.S. Southwest, in New Mexico.

Albuquerque, New Mexico today, including its suburban communities, has an estimated population of 700,000. Of New Mexico's nearly 2 million residents, Albuquerque, together with the other urban centers, now constitute nearly 70% of the state's population (U.S. Census, 2000). Not surprisingly, these urban areas have grown to be the commercial centers of the state and thus, because they offer greater economic opportunity, a magnet for people from all over, but particularly from rural areas. Nevertheless, New Mexico remains a highly rural state containing large areas with broadly dispersed populations and scatterings of small towns. What do these demographic and economic trends mean for rural New Mexicans, especially those who are Native and Hispanic? What role has rural education played in these demographic and economic trends? And what role might it play?

Native Americans and Rural Education

The history of Native peoples and formal schooling has been, until rather recently, a history of brutal dispossession and assimilation. …

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