Like a whirlwind, he arrived in Las Vegas in the fall of 1902. Ten days later he departed New Mexico, confident that its people were not fit to be part of the American nation.
When he returned to Washington, he declared imperiously that statehood should be denied indefinitely, “until the mass of the people of New Mexico shall in their daily life have become identical in language and customs with the American people — when the immigration of English-speaking people does its modifying work with the Mexican element.”
He was Albert Jeremiah Beveridge, the powerful U.S. senator from Indiana. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, he held New Mexico’s destiny in his hands.
Beveridge arrived in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 1902, accompanied by fellow senators Henry E. Burnham of New Hampshire, Henry Heitfield of Idaho, and William P. Dillingham of Vermont. (Dillingham later chaired the U.S. Immigration Commission, called the Dillingham Commission, which concluded that immigration from southern and eastern Europe posed a serious threat to American society and culture and should be greatly curtailed.)
They were the Beveridge Committee, and their crusade was nothing less than an inquisition. Its singular purpose — to gather evidence that the prevalence of the Spanish language and culture in both private and public affairs, prevented New Mexico’s admission as an American state.
They arrived unannounced, and for 10 days conducted hearings throughout the Territory, summoning only witnesses who would support their predetermined conclusion. Behind closed doors and under oath, they interrogated scores of New Mexicans, including 20 in Las Vegas. (Eighteen witnesses appeared before the Committee in Santa Fe, 27 in Albuquerque, 14 in Las Cruces and 5 in Carlsbad.)
In Las Vegas, after hearing from Enrique Armijo, a “Mexican” school principal in Old Town, Sen. Beveridge asked him, “I observe that you talk a little bit brokenly, how long have you spoken English?” The principal replied, “since 1874.” At the same hearing, East Las Vegas School Superintendent Maggie J. Bucher told Beveridge, “It is very hard to teach Mexicans English well.” (Transcribed by stenographers, the Committee record is extant.)
The Beveridge Committee called witness after witness and forced each to admit that in New Mexico, ballots and political speeches were either bilingual or entirely in Spanish, that census takers conducted their surveys in Spanish, that justices of the peace kept records and conducted proceedings in Spanish, that district court proceedings were conducted through interpreters, that juries deliberated in Spanish, and that children — who might or might not learn English in school — “relapsed” into Spanish on the playground and at home.
(The Committee actually interrogated children in the school yard.)
Not content with proof that Spanish was freely spoken, the Committee even demeaned the ancient language brought here by Oñate more than 300 years before Beveridge set foot in New Mexico. Among other abuses, the senators elicited the following censure from non-Spanish speaker H. S. Wooster, an Anglo justice of the peace in East Las Vegas: “They speak the Spanish language, or try to, but I understand it is not the pure Castilian, it is a sort of jargon of their own.”
Outside the hearing room, the Committee was equally distressed at the presence of Spanish language business signs and newspapers, as they made their 10-day sojourn through the territory. One of the senators was so befuddled by the entire experience, he felt compelled to ask, “these people who speak the Spanish language are not foreigners, they are natives, are they not?” (Both the Committee and resident Anglos used the term Mexican when referring to native Hispanics, even New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Benjamin S. Baker testifying that “when I use the term American, I mean all other nationalities except Mexicans.”)
The Beveridge inquisition was unprecedented, and painfully racist even for that era. As observed by Ralph Emerson Twitchell, “never before in the history of the American people, were the qualifications and fitness of the people of a territory subjected to and passed upon by a committee of the American Congress.” (A prominent Las Vegas attorney at the time of the Beveridge hearings, Twitchell is among New Mexico’s preeminent historians.)
New Mexico’s future was in the hands of Albert J. Beveridge, and despite the savagery of his hearings, a ballad of the time still evokes wry humor: “Oh Bevy, in the name of God, withhold, withhold, thy chastening rod, we implore this on our bended knees, give us statehood, please do, please.”
Beveridge was unmoved. On Dec. 2, 1902, the senator from Indiana reported to Congress that the people of New Mexico “are unlike us in race, language and social customs,” and should be denied statehood until such time as they can prove “creditable American citizenship.”
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.