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History Happened Here

Travel: In Search Of Albuquerque’s 300-year-old Past—and Its Neon-lit Present

May 2024
6min read

Last April, when i mentioned that I was flying to Albuquerque, several people assumed I was headed on to Santa Fe and seemed surprised that I wasn’t. “What’s there?” someone asked. I said I’d tell him when I got back. Now I know.

In 1706 New Mexico’s provisional governor, Francisco Cuervo y Valdes, petitioned the king of Spain to charter a town (known as a villa ) in a region along the Rio Grande that had been sparsely occupied since the 1600s. To conform to the mother country’s requirements, Cuervo claimed (falsely) 252 inhabitants, a plaza, a church, and several official structures. Stretching the truth worked, the charter came through, and today’s sprawling, lively city of about 500,000 proves his faith was well placed. On the weekend of my visit Albuquerque was about to launch its 300th anniversary celebrations.

It makes sense to start a first visit in Old Town, where it all began. The twoand three-story adobe structures are crammed with the requisite shops, restaurants, and galleries, but their appeal transcends the commercial.

Dominating the central plaza, from which all Old Town life flows, is the majestic Church of San Felipe de Neri, built in 1793. Its towers, added in the mid-nineteenth century, provide an incongruous Victorian touch. This structure replaced one on the west side of the square that dated from 1706 and disintegrated after about 85 years but allows the church to claim, in a sign near the front door, that it has served without interruption since Albuquerque’s founding.

A guided walking tour of Old Town sets off most mornings from the near-by Albuquerque Museum, and for those who don’t make that, there is a pamphlet pointing out some of the significant buildings. Still, the place could use more detailed markers affixed to the buildings, because the few I came upon were fascinating. One, on a structure called the Charles Mann Barn (now a shop), reads like a CNN crawl: “In 1903 a corner stone was found: August 31, 1864. Fourth year of the American Civil War. General Grant trying to take Petersburg and Richmond. Gold at 260%. Indians on the Santa Fe road to the United States very hostile. We built this house and the steam mill in Ranch. Sec. at the same time. Signed F. & C. Huning.”

Much of what one now sees in Old Town is the result of restoration mostly starting in the 1950s, yet the tree-shaded central plaza and its festive bandstand and the web of alleys that lead to serene courtyards and trickling fountains give a sense that the dust of the ages has settled most agreeably on Old Town.

The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, a block away, is a wonderful place to explore the city’s past and near present. A fine gathering of works by some of New Mexico’s greatest painters is called the Albuquerque High School Collection because, starting in 1942, that school’s forward-looking principal encouraged the study and purchase of New Mexico artists. The museum acquired the collection in 1986.

A terrific documentary film that regularly plays in the museum’s theater traces the city’s growth from the mid-nineteenth-century railroad boom and reveals another more surprising growth spurt in the 1920s and 1930s, when tuberculosis sufferers, known as “lungers,” arrived. Many of the patients survived to help fuel the city’s fortunes. A second film, devoted to the post–World War II years, has refreshingly candid moments, taking on problems faced by cities everywhere, including flight from downtown, loss of historic buildings, and racial issues. Out of the brew of Albuquerque’s cultures has come not only a true appreciation of its diversity but the working out of ways to display it.

Central Avenue, home to Route 66.

A case in point is the National Hispanic Culture Center of New Mexico, located in the neighborhood that held the original repair shops and roundhouses of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The center opened in 2000 on a 22-acre site along the Rio Grande that has since more than doubled in size and enterprise. Today it promotes the study of the many Latino cultures, mounts art exhibits on a grand scale, and houses three state-of-the-art performance spaces. The center also shows Spanish-language movies and holds writers’ conferences.

In a 45-foot cylindrical tower, a monumental project has been under way since 2002. Taking shape on the tower’s interior walls is a fresco that will depict centuries of Latino history and culture. The artist, Frederico Vigil, is assisted by local students; he learned the technique from aged disciples of Diego Rivera.

If you’re still wondering how to pass time in Albuquerque, stop by the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. It’s known for art exhibits and dance festivals, not to mention an interesting café offering native specialties and a great gift shop, but the real draw of the place lies in its function as a gateway to New Mexico’s 19 pueblos. An exhibit tells their histories, incorporating magnificent examples of the crafts each group is best known for. A map plots every pueblo’s distance from Albuquerque, and an accompanying brochure lists feast days and phone numbers.

There was a special program of music and dance taking place in the center’s courtyard to kick off the Tricentennial celebration while I was there. The announcer introduced a guest who had dropped by to see what was happening, and then she dissolved into tears as she handed the mike over to Bill Toledo. He is one of World War II’s fabled Navajo code talkers, Marines who transmitted crucial military information throughout the Pacific Theater in their impenetrable, unwritten language. “They trained 420 of us,” Toledo said. “There are about 100 left, and those who are able go around the country telling the story.” And singing it. When he performed the Marine hymn, first in English, then in Navajo, I was in tears too.

I was intrigued by a display on the Acoma people, master potters and weavers whose land lies about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, a reasonable day trip that included a preview of the new cultural center and museum that was soon to open there. I could see what a powerful statement this museum would make, as it evoked a thousand and more years of history. The architectural details are beautifully wrought, offering clues to the past in the shape of doorways and sandstone walls that reflect the tribe’s origins at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon.

One of the inaugural exhibits, called “The Matriarchs,” honors four Acoma potters, women who helped spur a cultural and economic revival in the 1950s. Over several centuries collectors and museums have bought up some half-million Acoma objects. Now there are plans to get many back, as either loans or outright gifts. Most of the pieces in the Matriarch exhibit are on loan from one outstanding collection.

The Acomas possess a remarkable artifact, a silver-headed cane engraved “A. Lincoln, Prst. U.S.A., Acoma, 1863.” That was the year Acoma leaders and other New Mexico tribal governors traveled to Washington, D.C., for a conference on boundaries and were presented with canes in recognition of their sovereignty. This tradition began in 1620 under Spanish rule and continued when Mexico occupied the territory.

The tribe’s ancestral home sits 357 feet above the museum, atop a mesa, looking out at a lunar landscape studded with huge boulders. The village, known most appropriately as Sky City, has been continuously occupied since the eleventh century, contending with Arizona’s Hopi Pueblo of Oraibi as the oldest permanently occupied settlement in the United States. In 1540, after Coronado and his men besieged the place, one of them sounded shaken, calling it “one of the strongest ever seen, because the city was built on a high rock. The ascent was so difficult that we repented climbing to the top.”

Fortunately, access these days is a quick, if vertiginous, trip by bus. On hourlong tours led by tribe members, there is the chance to marvel at the vast San Esteban del Rey Mission, completed in 1640 with a felicitous blend of Catholic and Pueblo beliefs. You can also wander streets that hold several hundred adobe and sandstone houses. Only about 15 families live there permanently, but during feast days the place fills up. Sky City was used as a set for Sundown , a 1941 movie about World War II in Africa, and that doesn’t seem much of a stretch. “One feels as in a strange, sweet, unearthly dream,” wrote the journalist Charles Lummis in 1893, adding, “… it is the spendthrift of beauty.”

On the road to Acoma, I-40, you can glimpse remnants of the old Route 66. Starting in 1926 it wound through eight states and 2,448 miles, until the mid-fifties, when the interstate system took over. In myth and artifact Route 66 lives on. Albuquerque’s Central Avenue is a roadside show of diners, motor courts, neon signs, and shapely, streamlined service stations.

This downtown area is enjoying new life as people move back in. A model of adaptive reuse is the vaguely Gothic 1914 Albuquerque High School, converted to highly sought-after condominiums. High-ceilinged lofts occupy the former gym, and 70 rental apartments have been fashioned from classrooms. A few bleachers and some blackboards were kept as reminders of high school days.

I revisited Old Town on a Sunday morning, in time for the official start to the Tricentennial, the Entrada. This was a procession by descendants of the founding families, who arrived at the plaza by horseback, mule, or carriage. Spain’s Duke and Duchess of Alburquerque were honored guests, just as the duke’s father had been 50 years before. I somehow found myself in the first row of on-lookers and began talking with several costumed women, all extremely cordial to a stranger in their midst and eager to impart their family histories.

One woman, after learning where I was from, said, “Oh, New York! I’m going to tell you something even local people don’t know.” She directed me to seek out a tree in the parking lot behind the church. I headed back, circled several trees, and finally found a weathered wooden sculpture peering out from the crook of an old cottonwood. It seemed to have been there forever but turned out to be a Virgin of Guadalupe made in the 1980s by a reverent carver named Toby Avila. No matter. There are treasures scattered all about Albuquerque, be they 20 years old or 300.

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