The little priest from old Albuquerque, who could neither speak nor understand English, won the election to become the Territory’s delegate to Congress in 1853. When he arrived in Washington, Padre José Manuel Gallegos requested an interpreter, a gesture truly symbolic of the great divide between New Mexico and its new American sovereign.
Gallegos’ election was momentous for the Hispanic population in this early territorial period, as Padre Antonio José Martínez proved, through his protégé, that native New Mexicans could prevail even under the new American system. The victory would be fleeting, however, as Bishop Lamy was undeterred in his zeal to remove the Hispanic clergy from political leadership in the new Territory.
Before relating the ongoing struggle between Lamy and Martinez, it is important to note that Gallegos’ victory was equally fascinating because of his inability to speak English. The language barrier he faced accentuates remarkably the striking cultural clash which occurred in territorial New Mexico.
Through the years, some writers and historians have looked askance at Fr. Gallegos’ inability to speak English, implying it was a fault or disability to be ridiculed. They fail to appreciate that for 250 years before the American takeover, Spanish alone was the language of New Mexico, and there was no reason for Hispanic New Mexicans to know English. (Even for the well educated, like Fr. Gallegos, their rigorous classical studies were in the Spanish language.)
Most Hispanic New Mexicans did not become conversant in English until well into the 20th century. Until that time, in the predominantly Hispanic parts of New Mexico, most public and political proceedings were conducted entirely in Spanish. When there was a need, interpreters were in attendance to accommodate the unfamiliar. (As recently as the early 1970s, the San Miguel County Commission conducted meetings in Spanish, and stopped doing so only after a flurry of criticism from the news media.)
As for legal proceedings, as recently as the 1960s, both jury and non-jury trials were routinely interpreted from English to Spanish throughout New Mexico. Even the writer remembers attending court at a very young age, listening intently as the proceedings were interpreted under the vigilant earshot of legendary District Judge Luis E. Armijo, who enjoyed sparring with the interpreter, over the correct use of a particular word or phrase. (Under the New Mexico Constitution, no person may be excluded from a jury for inability to speak or understand English.)
The proceedings of New Mexico’s constitutional convention in 1910 were interpreted throughout, and legislative proceedings in Santa Fe were interpreted well into the 20th century, to accommodate the scores of Hispanic legislators who did not yet have a fluent command of English. As well, the New Mexico Constitution required that for 20 years after statehood, all laws be published in both English and Spanish, and this practice continued well after that period.
As for Padre Gallegos, he was denied an interpreter, and undoubtedly his mission in the nation’s capital was complicated because of the language barrier. His presence in Washington also began the whispering campaign there, that New Mexico was unfit to become a state, because its people were unfamiliar with English and with American customs. (In later years this became an outright obstacle to statehood, as will be recounted in later columns.)
Padre Gallegos’ troubles were even more pronounced back in New Mexico, where he and Padre Martinez, along with other vocal Hispanic clergy, were systematically targeted by Bishop Lamy for their involvement in secular affairs. The actual charges leveled by Lamy included refusal to impose tithing, and conduct unbecoming the priesthood. (Unrelenting in his prosecution was the Rev. Joseph P. Machebeuf, an Ohio priest who was Lamy’s vicar.)
Though not excommunicated, Padre Gallegos was stripped of all religious privileges and removed from his pastorate at San Felipe de Neri. Padre Martinez, of course, suffered the greatest punishment, and was excommunicated by Lamy in April 1858. (Fr. Juan Felipe Ortiz, the former vicar, abandoned the diocese and fled to Durango, protesting Lamy’s imperious rule.)
Martinez refused to recognize his excommunication, and established an independent church. He was followed into “schism” by many parishioners and continued to minister as a priest until his death in 1867. (A statue of Padre Martinez was unveiled at the Taos plaza in 2006, bearing the inscription “La Honra de su Pais”/the honor of his homeland.)
The chilling effect of Lamy’s purge was disastrous for the native population, a result largely ignored by some historians. Catholic clergy constituted the vanguard of Hispanic leadership, and their sudden disappearance created both an incalculable void and a widespread and piercing sense of defeat and surrender — if the educated and courageous priests could not prevail, how could the rest of the Hispanic population expect to have a role in the new American system?
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.