Current Day Albuquerque
by Felicia Steele, Chapter Sponsor
The College of New Jersey
When you arrive in Albuquerque, you'll see immediately why New Mexico's landscape invites the theme "Borderlands and Enchantment." Albuquerque sits in the space between spectacular mountains and soaring mesa—an upland desert that extends far into the western horizon. It also sits at the crossroads of two major interstates, I-40, which traverses the country from coast to coast, and I-25, which extends from the US-Mexico border into the Colorado prairie. Yet spatial borders are not the only borders that operate in New Mexico.
Albuquerque also sits at a temporal border, between the ancient past and the post-modern scientific future. Clovis, New Mexico, offers some of the earliest evidence of settlement by humans in North America, while Los Alamos, New Mexico, was home to the invention of the atomic bomb and continues to be a site for some of the most advanced scientific investigation in the world. At this border between Mexico and the United States, between east and west, at the continental divide that New Mexico straddles, residents and visitors alike experience a sense of "Enchantment" in the range of possibilities that New Mexico offers.
When Lilian Whiting coined the term "The Land of Enchantment" in 1906, she combined an exoticizing impulse—familiar to us through the notion of "Orientalism"— with a sense of sublime. She described New Mexico as "one of the impossible and uncivilized localities" that lies at the meeting of an impossibly distant past filled with "the marvellous remains of Cliff-dwellers" and the future of modern city planning. This "impossible locality," described by one local writer, V. B. Price, as "A City at the End of the World," offers us a magnificent backdrop to explore our theme.
Indeed, this dichotomy—between the ancient past and scientific innovation—has shaped the development of arts and literature in New Mexico. The "marvellous remains of Cliff-dwellers," according to Whiting, attracted and "enchanted" scientists from the emerging discipline of anthropology at the beginning of the twentieth century. Immediately prior to and after New Mexico was granted statehood in 1912, intellectuals from major American universities travelled to New Mexico to study native American communities and languages.
The "Patroness" of the Taos Artists' Colony—Mabel Dodge Luhan—came to New Mexico initially with Elsie Clews Parsons, whose work on the Tewa and other Pueblo communities of Northern New Mexico is still well respected. When we examine the catalog of artists who visited New Mexico for inspiration and respite from health problems—D. H. Lawrence, Igor Stravinsky, Lynn Riggs, Christopher Isherwood—and those who remained to exercise influence on New Mexico culture and art— most recognizably Georgia O'Keefe—Luhan is always implicated.
Luhan's legacy is still important to the literary life of New Mexico. The University of New Mexico hosts a Taos Summer Writers Conference at the D. H. Lawrence Ranch and the Mabel Dodge Luhan house is still open to artists and writers seeking a quiet place for reflection and creativity. Make sure you look out for references to her, and to the other writers and artists who have made New Mexico their home, in local bookstores.
The coexistence of the ancient pueblo with the modern scientific installation continues to shape the landscape and sociological experience of New Mexico. While visiting Albuquerque you will be constantly aware of the extraordinary landscape—the incomparably beautiful Sandia mountains rise nearly a mile above the eastern edge of Albuquerque, which, despite logic or explanation, continues to climb stubbornly into the foothills of the mountains.
Residents and visitors marvel at New Mexico's light, which has inspired painters, photographers, and film directors. For Georgia O'Keefe, the New Mexico light inspired her turn to abstraction that resulted in some of the most immediately recognizable American modern art and that continues to inform artists in New Mexico. If you take the New Mexico Rail Runner to Santa Fe, you can see O'Keefe's paintings in a museum dedicated to her art and to the large number of eastern artists drawn to New Mexico during the 20th century. In the heart of "Old Town," (a short bus ride west from our hotel) you'll find galleries filled with New Mexico art surrounding "La Placita" (the Plaza) in front of San Felipe Church, the oldest structure in the city, dating to 1793. Artists from local pueblos also still manufacture and sell traditional arts beneath the cloister roofs of the plaza, particularly pottery and jewelry featuring local stones, particularly turquoise. You'll also find the nationally recognized Albuquerque Museum on the north side of Old Town that offers a comprehensive view of New Mexico art and history.
In O'Keefe's paintings we see her bask in the glory of the high desert landscape, and when you see pictures of Ghost Ranch, in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where O'Keefe lived for most of her life from 1940 onwards, it's hard not to feel that awe. Yet just twenty-five miles south of Ghost Ranch, in the similarly beautiful landscape of Los Alamos, scientists developed the first nuclear weapon. In New Mexico, one is always aware of tension on the border between the desire to preserve, protect, and honor the natural world and efforts to harness its energy for destructive purposes.
At the base of the Manzano mountains, the more modest mountain range to the south of the Sandias, Sandia National Laboratories, one of the three federally funded national laboratories, maintains an aggressive research agenda related to the maintenance of the United States nuclear arsenal and the development of new technologies to "strengthen the nation's technological superiority." As a result, Albuquerque is home to a wide array of scientific and engineering firms and to the University of New Mexico, as well known for its programs in engineering and the sciences, as it is for its programs in arts, architecture, and music. If you take a short bus ride east from our hotel, you'll be able to take advantage of the restaurants and bookstores that line Central Avenue and that support UNM's community of 35,000 students and 6,000 staff. The campus, which features some of the most distinguished examples of Pueblo Revival Architecture, is well worth a tour.
One feature of "Borderlands" is the traffic in people, ideas, and languages, and New Mexico, just as it is characterized by its light, is characterized by the way in which it draws people in and encourages syncretic cultural expression. Like the Conquistadores, who were drawn up the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico in search of gold and silver, Americans from the Northeast have been drawn across the rail line, Route 66, and I-40 in search of health, prosperity, or refuge. In the last thirty years, Albuquerque has also become an important crossroads for immigrants from Latin America.
Since the first European settlers to New Mexico were Spanish and New Mexico was part of greater Mexico until the Mexican-American war in 1846, many residents are bilingual, but almost all speak a dialect of English heavily influenced by borrowings from Spanish, and you'll see evidence of Spanish throughout the city. You'll also encounter a unique cuisine, influenced by Spanish and indigenous elements—beans, corn, and chiles will be on every plate (if you're eating like a New Mexican). You should make an effort to eat at least one meal of "green chile stew," or "tamales," or at least a good "breakfast burrito" smothered in green chile.