Nuestra Historia - Taft made it official: NM statehood!

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It was almost two months before New Mexico determined the election results for its first state officials, as several won by razor-thin margins, and those contests consumed many weeks of legal argument. Finally, on Dec. 30, 1911, the Nov. 7 election was certified to Washington.

A week later, on Jan. 6, 1912, at 1:35 p.m., President William Howard Taft pronounced his famous words as he signed the final proclamation admitting New Mexico as the 47th state: “Well, it is all over. I am glad to give you life. I hope you will be healthy.” The iconic photographs of the event were emblematic of the struggles yet to come, as not a single native New Mexican was present at the President’s signing ceremony.

In attendance, however, were New Mexico’s first congressmen, George Curry, a Republican, and Harvey B. Ferguson, a Democrat. Both had defeated Hispanic opponents at New Mexico’s first election two months earlier, each amassing lopsided majorities in the southeastern part of the state, in what would there become a pernicious pattern of cross-over voting against Hispanic candidates, irrespective of party affiliation. (Curry, who was from Louisiana, defeated Democrat Paz Valverde, and Ferguson, from Alabama, defeated Republican Elfego Baca.)

On Jan. 15, 1912, nine days after President Taft signed the final proclamation, William C. McDonald was inaugurated as the first governor of the state of New Mexico, and Ezequiel C de Baca of Las Vegas became the state’s first lieutenant governor. Both Democrats, they had triumphed over the ruling Republican Party, which had dominated New Mexico politics for most of the territorial period.

New Mexico’s legislative branch, however, continued under firm Republican control. In early 1912, the legislature elected Republicans Thomas B. Catron and Albert B. Fall as New Mexico’s first U.S. senators. Stalwart partisans, both were powerful politicians who had amassed great wealth as land speculators. (Direct election of U.S. senators by popular vote did not occur until after 1913, with the adoption of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)

Elected to the New Mexico Supreme Court as the state’s first justices were Frank W. Parker, C.J. Roberts and R.H. Hanna, all Republicans who survived the Democratic challenge by miniscule vote margins of 130, 258 and 133, respectively. (In 1945, Eugene Luján would become the first Hispanic elected to the state’s highest court.)

New Mexico’s arduous road to statehood was finally over. It had been 66 years since that Saturday morning on Aug. 15, 1846, when Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny mounted his artillery on the highlands east of Las Vegas, then galloped into the little placita west of the Gallinas River to first proclaim the U.S. invasion of New Mexico.

This ancient place of wondrous Pueblos and wandering tribes, claimed by Coronado for Spain in 1540, and settled by Juan de Oñate and the first colonists in 1598, was now part of a great American nation — after the longest quest for statehood in the history of the United States.

After five years under harsh U. S. military rule, New Mexico had endured more than 60 years as a territory shunned by a country unsympathetic — and often savagely antagonistic — to its ancient past. Through it all, New Mexico’s people survived, and the territorial period proved to be a uniquely formative era in the history of the 47th state.

On the long road to statehood, against an onslaught of unrelenting censure and derision, New Mexicans resolutely and nobly refused to forget their language or abandon their past. In 1848, soon after the U.S. invasion, they had bravely declared their opposition to slavery, and on the eve of statehood, forever enshrined their heritage in New Mexico’s constitution.

Time after time, New Mexicans had proudly and defiantly proclaimed to the United States: Take us as we are, not as you would have us be — and we will be no less patriotic, loyal and proud Americans.

One hundred years later — many times after difficult struggles — New Mexico has slowly evolved into a truly enchanting land, where people of diverse backgrounds live and lead together as proud Americans, embracing their differences and respecting their past.

In 1930, Dennis Chavez overcame the ethnic barrier and proved that Hispanic New Mexicans can reach towering heights in Washington. In Santa Fe, for almost 40 years now, New Mexico governors have alternated between Anglos and Hispanics — and hopefully, in the not too distant future, the ethnicity of the chief executive will be of no consequence.

Today, the New Mexico Supreme Court reflects the state’s people, and three of the five justices are Hispanic. The state legislature is also representative of New Mexico’s diversity, and the state’s universities have made great egalitarian strides, and are beginning to reflect the rich multi-cultural heritage of the people they serve.

New Mexico’s century of statehood has forged a place unlike any other in the United States — where the great American dream can live side by side with a proud and ancient past.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.