Learning from Fifth-Graders: The Centennial Letters Project

We recently received a lovely stack of hand-written letters from fifth-grade students at Piñon Elementary School in Santa Fe. Their teacher had read about our Centennial Letters Project and the effort to collect the thoughts of New Mexicans on this 100th anniversary of statehood — our gift to the historians who will one day document our bicentennial.

Wrote their teacher:”We have had fun trying to imaging what schools will be like in 100 years. We hope there won’t be budget problems and overcrowding in the classrooms like we have now. My hope for the future is that we will all be using clean, renewable energy, that all children will have enough to eat and live in safe homes.  … I know that by being a teacher, I am reaching out to the future and touching lives, hopefully in positive ways. My students learn daily how to resolve conflicts peacefully along with their math, reading, science, and history. I think you (the New Mexicans of 2112) will have very unusual technology from what we use today, but I think 10 and 11 year olds will be very much the same.”

We couldn’t resist sharing some of those 10 and 11 year olds’ thoughts with you. As you’ll see, their young lives are not always easy, but their optimistic outlooks are heartening.

Wrote one: … I live in a cream and tan colored trailer. There are three bedrooms, two bathrooms, one bar, one living room, and one kitchen. … I have a small play room outside. Mostly old people and gangsters live in my neighborhood. There are some kids but they don’t come outside. The park is old and destroyed, so no one can play there. We have lots of goatheads or stickers. …

Another told us of her future hopes and described her absolutely favorite place to eat: … I want to be a fashion designer or an actress. I also really want to become Miss America and Miss Universe. My favorite place to eat at is Golden Corral. They have all sorts of food there. It is a huge buffet that has everything! From Italian to Chinese to steak and mini-hamburgers. Golden Corral even has a huge chocolate fountain. …

One boy spoke of his roots in another nation, one that in 2012 is enduring difficult times that we all hope are resolved by 2112: I am a child of immigrant parents. Life in Mexico is very, very, very, very, very difficult because you don’t live in good conditions. There aren’t a lot of jobs. You can work and barely get paid well. …

On the upside, one girl described life as a fifth-grader in such enthusiastic terms that she kind of makes us want to go back to elementary school: I go to PINON school. I like it there because you learn a lot like Math, Reading, and Spelling. I like homework because you never stop learning, even when you are out of school. I have loved all of my teachers since kindergarten to fifth grade. … I think fifth grade is a great experience. I have to say fifth grade is like being in a place made out of rainbows, and every color in the rainbow means peace. You learn and never stop learning. You can be a smart person thanks to fifth grade.

Want to add your thoughts to our growing stack of letters? Jot down a little or a lot and send them (yes, via snail mail, we’re a history museum, we like old-fashioned things) to this address:



Pancho Villa’s Raid and the Sombrero Left Behind

One of the latest artifacts to make its way into the History Museum’s conservation lab: a very well-worn sombrero plucked off the battlefield in Columbus, NM, after Pancho Villa’s raid. Conservation intern Cindy Lee Scott began working on the piece this week, and her efforts show just how different conservation work is from restoration work.

Proof No. 1: If the hat really was part of an infamous battle, then Scott will only clean off the last few years’ worth of dirt.

“If it had been sitting on a battlefield, then that dirt would be part of its history,” she said. “In that case, I will do a minimal cleaning–whatever a low-suction vacuum cleaner can pick up.”

The sombrero was donated to the museum in 2008 by the grandson of a Columbus woman who found it after the raid on her town. It’s relatively simple, with decorations on only the brim and the hatband, and it’s definitely seen better days, with a few holes showing on its brim and near the top. Through her investigation, Scott has already determined that some of what we believed about it isn’t true. For one, it isn’t made of woven straw, but of many tiny braids of straw sewn together. And it might not even be straw, but we’ll have to see whether our equipment can detect a difference between hay, yucca fibers, or some other material. In addition, what appeared to be a leather brim and hatband is in fact a painted woven fabric with leather curlicues stitched onto it.

According to a history of Columbus posted on New Mexico State University’s website, Villa’s raid came suddenly the night of March 9, 1916, as the Mexican Revolution raged to the south. Columbus was “a sleepy little border town,” and about 350 U.S. Army soldiers from the 13th Cavalry were stationed on its outskirts. Despite that seeming defense, Gen. Francisco “Pancho” Villa and up to 600 Mexican revolutionaries stormed into town.

“The Villistas concerned themselves more with raiding than killing, otherwise the town might have been erased. …  Alerted by the gunfire and burning buildings, many Columbus residents fled to the desert, or sought refuge in the school house, the Hoover Hotel, or private homes. The noise and fire sealed the fate of the raiding Mexican Army. U.S. Army officers and soldiers, awakened by the commotion, set up a Benet-Mercier machine gun in front of the Hoover Hotel and produced a murderous rain of bullets. Another machine gun set up on East Boundary Street fired north and caught anyone in the intersection of Broadway and East Boundary in a deadly crossfire.”

The fighting lasted from about 4:20 am to dawn, just 90 minutes. In that time, up to 75 Villistas and 18 Americans, most of them civilians, were killed.

The History Museum has a section about the raid in our main exhibit, Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now. Included in it is the clock that was stopped by a bullet and a death mask of Villa, who was stopped by a hail of bullets fired by a band of assassins in 1923.

While it would be nice to say that Villa once wore the sombrero, we won’t. We can’t prove it. Besides that, it doesn’t say “Hecho in Mexico” or bear any other label that might lead us to a hatmaker or a town of origin. But it could date back as far as 1900, and Scott’s work might put a more definitive date on it.

(That’s Scott at left, examining the ornament on the hat’s chinstrap in hopes of determining what kind of threads were used to make it. One possibility: Horse hair.)

Another proof that this is conservation not restoration work is that the hat’s damaged parts likely won’t be repaired. Instead, as any wise conservator will do, the damage will merely be stabilized so it doesn’t get any worse.

And as for this writer’s wise-guy suggestion that the conservators pull some DNA from the sweat that likely once soaked the hatband and throw it into some kind of microfabricated polymeric nanochannel RTPCR mumbo-jumbo device in order to identify its owner, Scott was firm and clear.

“This isn’t TV,” she said. “It doesn’t work like that.”


O, Fair New Mexico’s Hard Road to Statehood

As New Mexico was hoping, wishing and praying for statehood, 60 years’ worth of forces aligned against it.

The New York Times took the position that the outlaw frontier of New Mexico represented “the heart of our worst civilization.” Former Vice President and pro-slavery Sen. John C. Calhoun said in 1848 that “to incorporate Mexico would be the very first instance of incorporating an Indian race. … Ours, sir, is the government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are … of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race.” Others considered the state too poor. Or too Catholic. Or too likely to side with northeastern senators than southern senators.

At today’s Centennial Brainpower & Brownbags Lunch Lecture, New Mexico State University History Professor Jon Hunner led a full house of visitors through the hurdles and toward that fateful day, 100 years ago, when President Taft signed the territory into statehood. Along the way, he acquainted the audience with the unsavory characters of the Santa Fe Ring, “an equal-opportunity corrupter” consisting of lawyers, politicians, merchants and railroad men. “Of course,” he added, “corrupt organizations during the Gilded Age were nothing new.”

There was also the tale of New Mexico Sen. Stephen B. Elkins ill-timed handshake of a colleague who had just, unbeknownst to Elkins, given a fiery anti-slavery speech, thereby costing the New Mexico statehood bill every Southern senator’s vote.

He also brought up an old wound: the surveyor mistake that gave a good (and oily) chunk of rightful and proper New Mexico land to the state of Texas–a still simmering matter that we wrote about in this blog post in 2009.

One of his best points is one well worth remembering in this Centennial year: “What New Mexico was in 1912, the United States has become over the past 100 years. We sent the first Hispanic senators to Congress, the first Hispanic representatives. We elected the nation’s first Hispanic governor.” The territory’s melting pot today mirrors a nation that once was ruled by Anglo men of means.

These monthly lectures, organized by Tomas Jaehn of the museum’s Fray Angelico Chavez History Library, are well worth putting on your calendar. (Next up: “Understanding William Howard Taft,” by Noel Pugach, professor emeritus of history at the University of New Mexico, April 18 at noon.) They’re free. The speakers are smart and interesting. And you walk away from a mere hour with enough knowledge to impress your friends, family and coworkers. Who knows, you might even get to sing.

At the end of today’s lecture, Hunner cajoled the crowd into joining him in a decidedly monotonic version of the official state song, “O, Fair New Mexico.” Next time, we’ll do a little warm-up first.


Letters, We Get (New Mexico Centennial) Letters

When we launched the Centennial Letter Writing Project on Jan. 6, 2012 (the 100th anniversary of New Mexico statehood), some of us at the New Mexico History Museum wondered aloud whether we’d eke out even 200 letters over the next 12 months. Well, it’s early March, and we’re about to zoom past that total. The stack at left? That’s just today’s haul.

Students in the Upward Bound college-prep program in Roswell have written by the dozens. So did a class at St. Michael’s High School, members of a creative-writing group in Taos, and individuals of all ages in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and elsewhere.

(We sure could use some voices from western and southern New Mexico — hint, hint.)

Our request was simple enough (though it seemed a bit of a burden to the Twitter generation): Tell us about your life in the year 2012 so that historians in the year 2112 might have some first-person accounts told by rank-and-file residents. We want to hear what your neighborhoods are like, your houses, your career, what you worry about and what gives you hope. Think about what someone 100 years from now might want to know about you. The type of car you drive, its color, what it can and can’t do. The stores you shop at and what you buy there. Do you visit a farmer’s market? Describe the vendors and their produce. Tell us how you make your family’s favorite holiday food and where you get the ingredients. Do you work out? Where? Do you ride bikes or go hiking? Describe the route.

Over the next few months, we’ll post excerpts from some of those letters here on the blog. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we have. And we hope that you, too, will put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard; computer printouts are A-OK) and tell us about your life.

Where, pray tell, might you send your missives? Here:

(Isn’t that handwriting about the prettiest thing you’ve seen all week?)

Onto some samples from a few of our friends in Albuquerque. (We’ll only use first names and leave out writer’s addresses.)

Evelyn wrote:

“In this centennial year for New Mexico, I am 80 years old. I live in the Northeast Heights in a house purchased in 1958 for $10,500. It was built in 1954 … one block from Morris St. There were no buildings at that time from east of Morris St. to the mountains…just a dirt road named Juan Tabo. My house has 3 bedrooms, one bathroom and a one-car garage. Every home then had clotheslines and I still use mine. …As a single mother of four children, I taught sewing classes as my own business in fabric stores for 30 years. Most women work outside the home today so sewing is more of a hobby than a necessity. However, young people are becoming more interested in sewing because of a TV program called Project Runway. Sewing classes have been phased out in schools. …”

Joanne wrote:

“I am a native New Mexican, born in 1940 on North Fourth Street in Albuquerque. My father came to NM in 1907 from Kansas as a homesteader in Edgewood when he was 18 years old. His father and eight brothers each received 160 acres but later most of them lost their land because of drought and moved to Albuquerque. My mother came in 1912 when she was 12 years old because her father had TB. I was a teacher at Grant Jr. High and Manzano High School. …

“In 2010 I decided to remodel my house, the original part of which was built in 1947. it was cold in winter, hot in summer, a typical uninsulated, flat-roofed house. I decided to insulate it by wrapping the entire house with straw bales. With the stucco on the outside it looks like an adobe house. I also wanted to see the mountains so I added a second floor bedroom and bath with a deck. I remodeled the house to make the garage into an art studio and added a solar green house on the south side of the house. I added solar panels that produce more energy than I use, giving me great satisfaction, especially when I get a refund every month from the electric company. It makes me so happy to know that I am producing energy for someone else to use as well without polluting our beautiful earth. I am trying to have a garden for produce, fruit trees, flowers and foliage without using too much water so I installed rain-water collection tanks. I think of my house as a demonstration of what one can do with an old house to make it really energy efficient. …”

Suzanne, a 71-year-old Albuquerquean, included details of a friend’s upcoming surgery that, in 100 years, may seem like a commonplace procedure. Not today:

“Dear friend Emily … announced she will have deep brain surgery Mon. Jan. 9 to harness and correct hand tremors she’s suffered for several years. This is not experimental but cutting edge. She will be in intensive care two nights, then rehab after having a tiny computer implanted in her chest to maybe take the place of the part of her brain that is malfunctioning. She is frightened and excited. I think she is so brave but she needs to reclaim her life so she can paint and sew and make jewelry again.”

We’ll close out today (don’t worry, we’ll share plenty more in the weeks ahead) with Olivia, a fourth-grader from Hubert Humphrey Elementary School, whose optimism just may be catching:

“N.M makes me feel special because everyone is different and no one is mean or disappointed because this is the Land of Enchantment. Special things can happen, and that’s why I love New Mexico. What I worry about is people doing dangerous stuff. What gives me hope is seeing people happy and people encouraging me.”