Born in 1837, Eugenio Romero was two years younger than Trinidad. In 1882 he was elected the first and only mayor of the combined city of east and west Las Vegas, before the eastside broke away and established itself as a separate municipality. (Don Eugenio alone held this distinction for almost 90 years, until the consolidation of our municipalities in 1970).
The Romero family occupied the mayor’s position for the next 40 years. Eugenio served in the 1880s and ‘90s, followed by his brother Margarito and his son Secundino at the beginning of the 20th century, and Eugenio again from 1914 until 1920.
Like Trinidad, Eugenio received his education from private tutors in the family home. Aside from his family’s overland freighting and general mercantile business, Eugenio also had extensive ranching and livestock operations throughout San Miguel County.
He established an especially prominent reputation, however, as the lumber baron of New Mexico. He owned several lumber mills, supplying enormous amounts of lumber for the railroad and for the many first infrastructure projects of the day. So extensive was his lumber business, that he established lumber operations and outlets in Santa Fe, Estancia, Moriarty, Duran and Vaughn.
Known to be the most formidable and intimidating of the Romero brothers, Don Eugenio often surpassed even his older brother Trinidad in political acumen and dominance. For many years he was an acknowledged patrón of the New Mexico Republican Party, then the dominant party in state government and politics.
While mayor in 1882, Don Eugenio established a fire department for Las Vegas, and through his beneficence, a firehouse was erected on Bridge Street, fully equipped with state-of-the-art firefighting equipment. The fire station was fittingly named in Don Eugenio’s honor, and has always been known as the E. Romero Hose and Fire Company. (The City recently announced plans to restore the building as a museum). Now located at the northwest corner of Valencia Street and New Mexico Avenue, the fire department still bears the name of its founder and benefactor.
It was concerning New Mexico’s quest for statehood that Eugenio Romero most nobly emerged as a courageous and prophetic leader. During the 66 years that New Mexico was a territory, time after time its efforts to become a state of the Union were rebuffed, because congressional leaders in Washington and business interests in the east believed that Hispanic New Mexicans were too backward and not sufficiently “Americanized” to become part of the United States.
The vitriol of then powerful Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens was typical of the invective leveled against New Mexicans at the time: “The mass of the people are Mexican, a hybrid race of Spanish and Indian origin, ignorant, degraded, demoralized and priest ridden.” (Even the dignified and noble Trinidad, Eugenio’s older brother, could not convince Washington otherwise during his time as New Mexico’s territorial delegate in Congress).
Toward the end of New Mexico’s quest for statehood, in the very early 1900s, it was finally proposed as a compromise, that New Mexico could be admitted to the Union, but only if the territory agreed to relinquish its sovereignty and identity, and accept admission as part of Arizona, which was by then much more Americanized.
Many in New Mexico supported this last ditch, admission-at-any-cost compromise. Not Eugenio Romero, who was at the time one of the most influential and powerful men in the entire territory. In 1904 he took a courageous stand opposing admission as part of Arizona, declaring that New Mexico should not surrender its identity, and that under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the people of the territory were entitled to the rights, benefits and privileges of independent statehood.
When statehood finally became imminent, the New Mexico territory had one last hurdle to accomplish — the adoption of a state constitution acceptable to Washington. A constitutional convention was convened in 1910, and Don Eugenio, then 73, and his younger brother Margarito were among those elected as delegates to represent Las Vegas and San Miguel County at the convention. It was at this momentous convention that the Romero brothers again rose to the occasion to protect and defend the rights of Hispanic New Mexicans.
Soon after the delegates gathered in Santa Fe to write our constitution, it became apparent there would be a clash between those wanting to preserve the language, culture and traditions of the territory’s Hispanic population, and those advocating “Americanization” — that the Spanish and Mexican past be forgotten, and that the population move forward as “pure” Americans.
During this struggle, Eugenio Romero emerged as a strong and thunderous voice for Hispanic New Mexicans, and that story will be told in the next column.
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Next: Don Eugenio and Las Gorras Blancas, and the New Mexico Constitution.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.