By Jesus L. Lopez
Created by territorial law in 1889, the New Mexico State Hospital opened its doors in May 1893, and since that time has been the mainstay of the Las Vegas economy. In recent history, the number of employees at the Hospital has hovered at about 1,000, and few in this area have not had one or more family members employed there. Needless to say, the area economy may not have survived through the years without the State Hospital.
Known until 1955 as the New Mexico Insane Asylum, the Hospital was established in Las Vegas as the direct result of the tireless efforts of Benigno Romero, fourth oldest of the Romero brothers, all five of whom were pictured in this column on June 20, 2014. Born in 1846, Benigno also headed the group of businessmen who built the Plaza Hotel in 1882.
Dubbed at the time the Belle of the Southwest, the Hotel was for many years the finest in all New Mexico. (The two Romero brothers whose stories have not yet been told, Hilario and Margarito, will be featured in future segments about the struggle for the Las Vegas Land Grant, and the days of Las Vegas’ rampant vigilantism and notorious outlaws.)
The least political of the Romero brothers, Benigno is best remembered for taking into his home and caring for the mentally ill, before there existed any public institution for their protection and support. In those days the mentally ill were simply isolated, abandoned to the streets, or put in jail. This was intolerable for Benigno, who is reputed to have been a gentle, kind and caring person, who made the welfare and protection of the mentally ill his personal crusade.
In the mid 1880s, Benigno began to lobby for the creation of an institution to house the mentally ill. His efforts were tireless, historian Lynn Perrigo writing that “Don Benigno cared for insane persons in his home while standing the expense of his prolonged, successful campaign to attain the building of the Insane Asylum.”
Finally, in 1889, the territorial legislature created the New Mexico Insane Asylum, but no money was appropriated to get it off the ground. Benigno was relentless, however, and continued to push for the Asylum. He communicated extensively with Gov. L. Bradford Prince, who was a close friend of the Romero family, and finally persuaded the governor and others to provide appropriations to establish the Asylum, which was still just a creature of statute.
To further ensure that the Asylum would not be lost by Las Vegas, Benigno donated the land on which it would be located. As later reported by Gov. Miguel Otero, the territorial legislature provided that the asylum “should be constructed on grounds to be conveyed to the Territory by Benigno Romero, and accordingly Mr. Romero selected and conveyed a tract of 5 acres about 1 mile from Las Vegas, on which grounds the building is constructed.” (Today the Hospital occupies more than 300 acres.)
The original building (pictured) which housed the Insane Asylum was completed on March 1, 1892, at a cost of $34,250.00. A year later the Hospital was sufficiently staffed to open its doors for the care and treatment of mentally ill persons from throughout New Mexico.
Created by law as the New Mexico Insane Asylum, it was known by that name until 1955, when it became the State Hospital. In 1970 the name was changed to the Las Vegas Medical Center, and in 2005 it became the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute. Irrespective of its name change over the years, the State Hospital has been the backbone of the Las Vegas economy, and may not have existed here at all but for the personal crusade of Benigno Romero, and the powerful influence that he and his brothers brought to bear.
Until 1965, employment at the Hospital was patently political. Many Optic readers will remember that upon a change of governors from one political party to the other, hundreds of employees at the Hospital would simply be relieved of their duties come January 1, and walk out the doors en masse, while an equal number of persons affiliated with the winning political party would walk right in to take their positions.
The merry-go-round would sometimes border on the ridiculous, as governors were elected for two-year terms in those days, and the turnover could occur every two years if incumbents were successively defeated. This changed in 1965 with the enactment of the State Personnel Act, which for the first time provided job protection and security for state employees in New Mexico.
We will never know whether Las Vegas would have survived without the State Hospital, or whether our fair town would have eventually gone the way of so many other jobless communities, and simply shrunk into a small, forgotten hamlet.
If you ponder this question, you may conclude that more than any other person in our past, Benigno Romero may have had the most lasting influence on our community.
Next we will recount the third transformative influence in early Las Vegas history, the arrival of the Jewish merchants.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.