Road Trip V, Days 9-11, Albuquerque-Memphis: New Mexico Has a State Question; What’s Yours?

Red or green?” That’s it. That’s the New Mexico State Question. Simple as it is, it tells volumes about the culture of this mini-nation-within-a-nation. It’s different.

Forget the Republic of Texas, which prides itself on being the only state with the right to fly its flag at the same height as the US flag. Forget “Don’t Tread On Me” California. Both those states are as quintessentially American as you can get. Even if you’ve never been to either, you know them–from movies, TV, ads. They’re what foreigners think of when they think of us.

New Mexico? Here, an American from any other state feels like the foreigner, but in a good way. New Mexico is different. Although The Mate and I only spent two nights here on this trip, our family lived in Santa Fe for five months in 2004, and all those memories of first impressions now jump to the fore.

Think you know multicultural society? How about a state where the dominant culture is not only “minority” (Hispanic), but also older than the rest of the US? (Santa Fe is, arguably, the longest continually-inhabited town in the US, competing only with St. Augustine, Florida for this honor.) I remember seeing campaign signs for some local election in 2004; every single name was Spanish. That’s who runs the place, and they are NOT immigrants.

Think you understand the relationship of Indian reservations with surrounding towns and states? New Mexico’s pueblos are more numerous, vibrant, and front-and-center than anything I’ve seen from Arizona to South Dakota to Washington. This is NOT to say they don’t struggle with dire poverty and all its issues; they certainly do. But in New Mexico the pueblos are right there, not tucked away. It’s no accident that the annual Gathering of Nations, the largest powwow in the US, is held in Albuquerque.

Fancy-dancing at UNM's Pit (courtesy Nic McPhee, Flikr Creative Commons)

Fancy-dancing at UNM’s Pit (courtesy Nic McPhee, Flikr Creative Commons)

Architecture is New Mexico’s most striking feature. Between Pueblo Style, with its adobe (or, today, stucco) in the brown spectrum from beige to rust, its gorgeous curved lines, its ladders and vegas and juniper-post fences, its ristras of red chiles hanging at every porch, and Territorial Style, with its Spanish colonial Zorro-esque balconies, New Mexican towns can feel like movie sets. (In Santa Fe, where this look is coded into city rules, even Burger Kings are humbly brown and curvy.)

The Loretta Hotel in Santa Fe (courtesy Wikimedia)

The Loretta Hotel in Santa Fe (courtesy Wikimedia)

Now that I think about it, the curve is a fitting symbol for New Mexico. The adobe walls, the higgledy-piggledy streets, the mountains and dormant volcanoes; the white sand dunes and cottonwoods and piñons and chiles. Ah, the chiles…

Ristras for sake (courtesy wikimedia)

Ristras for sake (courtesy wikimedia)

which brings me me back to the State Question: Red or Green? It refers to your choice of chile sauce on your dinner. Can’t decide? There’s a third choice: “Christmas,” which means–duh–both!

Mmmmm...Christmas! (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Mmmmm…Christmas! (Courtesy Wikimedia)

If my current home state had a State Question, I think it might be, “Salmon or apples?” or perhaps, “REI or Cabela’s?” (Washinfton’s pretty polarized, east-west, but we’re all outdoorsy!) My native state, North Carolina, would probably ask, “Biscuits or cornbread?” Most states in the Lower 48 aren’t distinctive enough, in my opinion, to have a State Question. But if they did–what would they be? Use your imaginations, and let us hear! I’ll feature the most creative in my next post.