A local cop has made national headlines, including an interview on CNN, with a charge that Santa Fe is one of the most racist towns in America. As often happens, the national coverage ricocheted back to New Mexico. Journal North ran an interview with the officer six days later, and subsequently the Albuquerque Journal reported it had had an exceptional 100,000 online responses to the story. The issue evidently touched a sensitive chord in New Mexico.
The cop’s name is Anwar Sanders. He is 27 years old. He is from New Jersey and now lives in Albuquerque. He is an officer in the Santa Fe Police Department. He is also black.
“People are just so racist,” Sanders said. “It’s like almost sickening.” He added, “This is probably one of the most racist places I’ve ever been.”
His accusation runs directly counter to the town’s motto of “the city different” and its longstanding reputation as a refuge welcoming diverse and unconventional people, ranging from atavistic hippies to Native American artists, from street people to Hollywood stars, from closeted divorcees to open gays, from theoretical mathematicians at the Santa Fe Institute to a popular fantasy novelist like George R.R. Martin. So is the charge true?
Like a lot of things in this complicated world, the only honest answer is yes and no. It’s both true and false. To substitute a bit of reality for the sound bites, let’s try to gain perspective on the issue.
Santa Fe, like the rest of Northern New Mexico, is not a simple place. It takes years of exposure to its layers of paradoxes, conflicts and insular traditions to appreciate the tones of its dissonance.
We have come to speak breezily of New Mexico as tri-cultural—Hispanic, Anglo and Native American—but that is a gross oversimplification.
Take Native Americans. There are the Navajos, but some parts of the Navajo reservation are in reality Apache, a people who in addition have their quite distinct reservations in Northern and Southern New Mexico. Although the Navajos and Apaches were both nomadic Plains people, they have been rivals and enemies more than they have been friends and allies. Both, however, have fought tooth and nail against the Pueblos, which in turn are split into 19 self-governing nations and also between northern and southern branches with separate, mutually incomprehensible languages and different cultural traditions.
Pueblo and Navajo jewelry sellers nearly came to blows beneath the portal at Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors before a compromise was worked out. Hopis, who are closely related to New Mexico’s Pueblos, are surrounded in northern Arizona by Navajos, with whom they have repeatedly fought in the mountains, the courts and the market place.
Then there are the Hispanics. Some younger ones proudly claim the title of Chicano but most shun the term. Almost all are mestizo but few are willing to apply the word to themselves. Many have been here for a century or two or even three or four. Some claim ancestors in Iberia. Most are descendants of Spaniards and Aztecs living in Mexico. Most are beige or brown, but many declare themselves “white” on Census forms.
When asked to check off which ethnicity they claim on an exhaustive Census list, a large number choose “other,” whatever that is.
The third leg of the mythological triad is the Anglos. But if anybody thinks our myriad ex-Texans have much beyond skin color in common with our even more numerous ex-Californians and ex-New Yorkers, just try walking into the wrong bar wearing the wrong clothes and ordering the wrong kind of drink in the wrong accent. I’m sure y’all know exactly what I mean.
All these groups coexist in the grand 121,697-square-mile expanse of this vast and largely empty state. But in Santa Fe they are all crowded together in two-lane roads and narrow alleys, swimming in the same three public pools, shopping together in the same two major malls, sitting in the same historic Plaza and drinking and dining in the same tiny eateries. Living close together, they rub up against each other in ways that are antithetical to other New Mexicans.
All these groups have called Santa Fe home for a very long time. By and large they have found nonviolent ways to accommodate each other. The last really bad bust-up was the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, followed by the none-too-peaceable Reconquest 12 years later.
Until a lot of middling rich folks, and some more-than-middling, started moving into Santa Fe in the 1980s, these residents all lived cheek by jowl with each other in what may have been the least segregated city in America. Since then, the East Side and the precincts to the north have been taken over by, if not the 1 percent, at least the 5 percent, while to the west and the south remnants of the old Santa Fe heterogeneity still thrive amid the malls and subdivisions.
Santa Fe is not unique in its diversity. Certainly a city like New York has it. But when I first drove through Northern New Mexico in 1970 on assignment for the Baltimore Sun and when I moved to Santa Fe in 1978, here’s what people who arrived before me pointed out: Walk down Fifth Avenue in New York and no one looks you in the eye; eye contact is intrusive, offensive, even dangerous. Walk down San Francisco Street by the Plaza in Santa Fe, and people actually look at you. They may also nod. Some might even call out a “Hello” or “Hi, y’all.”
There is little fear, which is a big part of why I decided to live in Santa Fe rather than following my original intention and merely passing through.
There is, however, a palpable dislike and distrust if you get too close, if you impinge on another’s private space, if you push yourself forward. People in Santa Fe don’t much like people who are different from themselves; in this they are just like people all over the world. They may give you a funny look or keep their distance or even walk away. If you casually, thoughtlessly stroll into a bar where everybody is pretty much the same except for you, the conversation may cease, you may attract some brazen stares, and you may feel so uncomfortable you go elsewhere.
If you carry intimacy a step further, you may find even deeper layers of resistance. Each ethnicity, each group, each subgroup likes to be with its own kind. Casually meeting at a party may be OK, but there’s always a difference with a true distinction.
Part of this carefully maintained distance is defensive. Hispanics, who still dominate the region and thus set the tone, have lost too much over the years to welcome strangers in their midst. The same is true of other groups, especially Native Americans.
Blacks constitute an infinitesimal percentage of Santa Fe, only 700 in a population of almost 68,000, about 1 percent, and thus lack the defensive safety-in-numbers of other groups. They are the most exposed.
The accounts of Santa Fe, both mythological and factual, have largely ignored the city’s black minority. Darryl Lorenzo Wellington wrote last week in a long essay in the Santa Fe Reporter, “Every time New Mexico is spoken of as ‘tri-cultural’ a bias is reinforced and a potential black narrative is lost.”
Because of ancient rivalries between two have-not groups and equally ancient prejudices involving skin color (in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, the lighter your skin the higher your social status), Hispanics and blacks in New Mexico have often rubbed each other the wrong way. The feelings have been most intense in Las Vegas, where violence has occasionally erupted.
But is all this racism? Is ostracism racism? Is defensiveness racism? Is in-group identity racism? Is distrust of the other racism? Is rudeness, uncouthness or incivility racism? Perhaps it is. But if it is, then we are all racists, all of us, in every country, in every age. Do we want to use this vile word for an emotion that is nearly universal, or should it be reserved for that which is truly evil?
I grew up in the Deep South in the 1940s.
I saw evil then, and I know it when I see it today. There are many things wrong with Santa Fe, but it is not evil.