The recent flap over a state legislator referring to Gov. Susana Martinez as the “Mexican on the fourth floor,” prompts this topical column, in advance of its intended publication. (A version of this article was planned for a later Nuestra Historia series.)
Since 1912, only one Mexican-born person has been elected governor of New Mexico, and he made his home in Las Vegas. He was Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo, and is counted among New Mexico’s six Hispanic governors since statehood. (The others are Ezequiel C de Baca, also of Las Vegas, and Jerry Apodaca, Toney Anaya, Bill Richardson and Gov. Martinez.)
Larrazolo was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1859. He came to Las Vegas 36 years later, in 1895, and practiced law here until 1918, when he was elected New Mexico’s fourth governor. He and his large family made their home at 1321 South Pacific St., a short distance from the Old Town Plaza.
Larrazolo’s first contact with the United States was in 1870, when he traveled to Tucson, in the Arizona territory, to study for the priesthood under Bishop J. B. Salpointe. Larrazolo later accompanied Salpointe to New Mexico, and in 1875 enrolled at St. Michael’s College in Santa Fe.
After his studies in Santa Fe, Larrazolo returned to Tucson, then moved to El Paso, Texas, where he became a United States citizen in 1884, when he was 25. In El Paso he studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1888, and elected El Paso district attorney two years later.
The restless Larrazolo was soon drawn to the dynamic social and political activity in faraway Las Vegas, then the Southwest’s most bustling city. After moving here from El Paso in 1895, he became a prominent attorney and a force in Democratic politics, in both San Miguel County and the territory.
In 1900, ’06 and ’08, he was the Democratic nominee for delegate to Congress, losing each time, but quickly becoming a rising star in New Mexico. Especially renowned for his remarkable oratory in both English and Spanish, Larrazolo was celebrated as the “silver tongued” orator of the Southwest, and drew immense crowds wherever he spoke.
Since his arrival in Las Vegas, Larrazolo had been an ardent and vocal proponent of Hispanic rights, even at a delicate time when New Mexico was nearing long-sought statehood, and many thought it politically incorrect to invoke racial issues or ethnic confrontation.
Also because of the race issue, Larrazolo became increasingly disillusioned with the Democratic Party, and believed he had lost his three bids for Congress because Anglo Democrats in southeast New Mexico refused to support an Hispanic.
His discontent came to a head in late 1911, as the Democratic Party was planning its convention to nominate candidates to become New Mexico’s first state officials. Larrazolo demanded that one-half the slate be composed of Hispanics, and when Democratic leaders refused, he bolted and became a Republican. (His resignation letter provides an insightful glimpse into race relations and aspiration during that era in New Mexico.)
A few weeks later, at the Republican convention held at the Duncan Opera House in Las Vegas on Sept. 28, 1911, it was Larrazolo who nominated Secundino Romero for governor, beginning Larrazolo’s rise to prominence in Republican politics. (In nominating Romero, Larrazolo confronted the race issue and alienated many delegates, some believing his speech was the reason Don Secundino was denied the nomination.)
Eight years later, in 1918, Larrazolo himself was the Republican candidate for governor, and the cutting issue used against him was that his Mexican birth in Chihuahua, precluded him from understanding the concerns of “native” New Mexicans. Overcoming the anti-Mexican rhetoric, Larrazolo won by a narrow margin, defeating New Mexico native Felix Garcia, the Democratic candidate. (New Mexico would not again elect an Hispanic governor for six decades.)
In 1928, Larrazolo became the first Hispanic to take a seat in the United States Senate, winning election to the unexpired term of Sen. Andrieus A. Jones, also of Las Vegas, who died in office. (After becoming senator, Larrazolo became very ill and did not seek re-election to a full term.)
When Larrazolo died in 1930, the Optic offered this tribute to the great statesman and his Mexican heritage: “Few men, born in the privileges of American citizenship, could achieve more than did this adopted son from the Republic below the southern border, and in this great conglomeration of people making the American nation, Larrazolo’s life stands out as a vivid flame in that great melting pot.”
Almost a full century separates their time as governor, yet Octaviano Larrazolo and Susana Martinez prove the adage, that the more things change, the more they stay the same — at least in New Mexico.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.