Friday, January 6, 2012

Happy Birthday New Mexico

As we celebrate 100 years of statehood, I want to acknowledge the efforts that led to the New Mexico’s designation as the nation’s 47th state.

What we know as New Mexico has existed for more than 400 years as a Spanish colony or settlement, a territory of Mexico, a territory of the United States, and finally as a full-fledged state. Like many native New Mexicans, all of my ancestors settled here during those pre-statehood, colonial or territorial periods. One of those ancestors, a distant cousin, played a key role in fighting for statehood.

Antonio Joseph was the son of Peter Joseph DeTevis, and probably named after his uncle, Antonio DeTevis (my great-great-great grandfather). Peter Joseph and the elder Antonio migrated from their native Azore Islands in Portugal to St. Louis and ultimately Taos in the early 1800s. Peter Joseph DeTevis Anglicized his name and usually went by Peter Joseph, rather than Pedro Jose DeTevis; thus, his son was known as Antonio Joseph. (I will write later about the name change.)

Peter Joseph was a very successful merchant and fur trader in Taos, which enabled his son, Antonio Joseph to get a private education in Taos and go to college in St. Louis. He went on to become New Mexico’s territorial delegate to Congress and later a territorial legislator.

It was during his time as a delegate to Congress from 1885 to 1895 when Antonio championed the cause of statehood. He introduced a bill that would have designated New Mexico as a state some 20 years before 1912, when Congress finally passed legislation that was signed by President Howard Taft on Jan. 6 of that year.

Antonio Joseph’s efforts are chronicled in a 1987 research report by Nancy Brown, called Spanish History of the U.S.:

According to Brown, “Many congressmen did not like Joseph because he was pro-silver and favored protection of local New Mexico wool production. He also opposed mandatory English education for Hispanos and supported the Knights of Labor’s union demands. Joseph superbly defended the rights of and praised the progress of New Mexico over the years to Congress, and showed how when compared to the other states trying to get into the union, New Mexico surpassed them in many qualifications. The only thing different about New Mexico that stood in the way of acceptance was bias toward the Spanish Catholic people of the area. He even talked about the 100,000 Anglo Americans of New Mexico who were neither Catholic nor Spanish to whom Congress was denying citizenship. Wyoming and Idaho made it as states in 1891 but not New Mexico or Arizona. However, thanks to Antonio Joseph’s efforts, Congress gave New Mexico many important appropriations and established the Court of Private Land Claims to help resolve the land grant disputes which eventually stabilized titles and prices and gave confidence to investors.”

There were other obstacles to New Mexico becoming a state. But statehood was eventually achieved.

Who would have thought that nearly 100 years later, I would be embroiled in a controversy (albeit on a much smaller and sort of laughable scale) involving the upcoming celebration of New Mexico’s centennial.
During my final year in the Governor’s Office in 2010, organizers of the centennial celebration came in to get approval for a centennial license plate. I didn’t particularly care for the turquoise color, but I agreed that many New Mexicans would find it appealing. The problem, in my mind, was the fact that the centennial committee wanted the new license plates to become permanent after 2012 and become the official license plates for New Mexico, replacing older versions. I predicted that while many people would love the new plates, many might not like them, and more important, they wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t have say, and wouldn’t have a choice between plates.

Believe it or not, our debate in the governor’s office got pretty heated. In the scheme of things, it wasn’t an important issue. But I knew something like a license plate probably resonates with the average New Mexican than more weighty issues like the budget or abolishing the death penalty --- issues that typically generated a lot of internal debate.

In the end, I argued that we get rid of the older hot-air balloon license plates (which drew criticism from balloon enthusiasts), and give people a choice between using only the centennial license plate, or the choice between that turquoise plate and the older, yellow and red plates. Thousands of people weighed in, and opted to have a choice between the two plates. I felt vindicated, but so did the advocates for the turquoise plates, which were judged by the National License Plate Collectors Association to be the best design in the nation.

Whether we’re debating statehood, or something as trivial as the celebration of statehood, there’s no place like New Mexico.

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