A New Mexico Federal Writers' Project Book
Several years ago, while researching New Deal records at the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we discovered a treasure trove of folders labeled “WPA 1936-1939.” Inside were hundreds of manuscripts pecked out on old upright typewriters by New Mexico writers determined to make a buck by their wits while documenting some of the state’s historical highlights. Frontier Stories: A New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project Book is the second volume in a series featuring manuscripts culled from the Works Project Administration files. The first book, Outlaws & Desperados, was published in 2008 to mark the 75th anniversary of the New Deal.
Between 1936 and 1940, the writers from the New Deal’s New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project collected stories throughout New Mexico describing a time that was beginning to fade into history. The experiences and exploits of settlers and earlier inhabitants of the New Mexico Territory during those territorial days after 1846 gave way to a less isolated and more modern era beginning with statehood in 1912. By the 1930s, NMFWP writers were recording the stories of old-timers who remembered New Mexico’s vanishing past.
The stories in this volume offer many colorful first-hand accounts of life on the frontier. It is important to remember, however, that not all perspectives are represented in the WPA archives. For instance, as New Mexico State Historian Rael-Gálvez points out in his Foreword to this volume, the voices of Native Americans rarely show up in the New Mexico Writers’ Project interviews. Given the limited representation of voices and perspectives included in the project, Rael-Gálvez wisely notes that readers should “be encouraged to read between the lines.” Here we have accounts from Hispanos and Anglos who told their own stories or retold tales heard from earlier settlers in the Territory.
With a view towards authenticity, the writers of the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project attempted to capture each informant’s particular way of speaking. As readers, we can sometimes hear in the language something of old New Mexico Territorial days as it may have been spoken at the time. As editors, we have tried to stay close to the original manuscripts and have changed punctuation and spelling only when necessary for readability and clarity. For the most part the manuscripts stand close to their original archival versions. We hope you enjoy them as an authentic expression of New Mexico’s rich and colorful past.
About the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project
The Great Depression that came on the heels of the stock market crash of 1929 threw the country’s financial institutions into chaos and put many people across the nation out of work. In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt inaugurated his New Deal administration, a comprehensive program designed to stimulate the country’s economy while lending a hand to the unemployed. March, 2008, marked the seventy-fifth anniversary the New Deal.
At a time when many people were down on their luck during the Great Depression, the New Deal’s New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project (NMFWP) employed writers around the state to record the extraordinary history and lore of New Mexico. The Federal Writers’ Project was one of a number of white-collar relief projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that put Americans back to work. In addition to the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), the projects included the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project and the Historical Records Survey.
The New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project was officially launched on August 2, 1935, under the direction of poet and writer Ina Sizer Cassidy. Between October, 1935, and August, 1939, a cadre of field writers wrote stories, collected articles, conducted interviews and transposed documents for the public record. Although each of the 48 states across the nation launched their own Federal Writers’ Project, New Mexico was seen as geographically and culturally unique. From his office in Washington, DC, the national director of the Federal Writers’ Project, Henry G. Alsberg, urged New Mexico project writers to emphasize the state’s visual, scenic and human interest subjects in the project’s guide, New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State: “Try to make the readers see the white midsummer haze, the dust that rises in unpaved New Mexican streets, the slithery red earth roads of winter, the purple shadows of later afternoon . . . .”
New Mexico field writers apparently felt a similar enthusiasm, as they created thousands of documents to preserve the state’s vivid lore, scenic locale and colorful past for future generations. Their subjects ranged from the colonial New Mexico days of the 1600s and 1700s to the beginnings of the 1900s—from horse-drawn cart to car. Their many lively selections included firsthand oral accounts and remembrances by settlers and residents who lived to tell the story of New Mexico’s Territorial days.
The NMFWP field writers plumbed the local resources in four prescribed areas of New Mexico, as follows: District One: Taos, Colfax, Union, Harding, Quay, Guadalupe, San Miguel, and Mora counties; District Two: Curry, Roosevelt, Lea, Eddy, Otero, Lincoln, De Baca, and Chaves counties; District Three: Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, San Juan, McKinley, Valencia, Bernalillo, Torrance and Sandoval counties; District Four: Socorro, Dona Ana, Luna, Hidalgo, Grant, Catron, and Sierra counties.
In 1939, under the WPA’s reorganization, the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project became the Writers’ Program. By that time, Aileen O’Bryan Nussbaum had replaced Ina Sizer Cassidy as project director. In Washington, DC, Charles Ethrige Minton supervised the New Mexico Writers Program until its closure in 1943. Through its tenure, the New Mexico program produced Calendar of Events written by project writers and illustrated by Federal New Mexico Art Project artists as well as Over the Turquoise Trail and The Turquoise Trail, two anthologies of New Mexican poems, stories, and folklore. A major achievement of the FWP was an American Guide Series publication entitled New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State, first published in 1940.
Project writers in New Mexico had a trove of sources to draw from and they mined them well. They collected tales from old-timers with a colorful heritage and culture—those who entered the territory as early explorers, diarists and journalists, poets and artists, miners, ranchers and cowboys, farmers and merchants, lawmen and outlaws, anthropologists and folklorists—the many travelers, paso por aquî, who animate New Mexico history.
The efforts of the NMFWP field workers have left us a rich compilation of documents stored in various collections in New Mexico, including the New Mexico State Archives as well as museum and university collections The Library of Congress in Washington, DC also holds copies of many of the manuscripts. Now, seventy-six years after FDR launched the New Deal, a substantial number of these readings have found their way out of archival folders and into print with the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project book series for the public’s enjoyment.
by Estevan Rael-Gálvez, PhD
New Mexico and its people are the heirs to a unique, complex and intricately woven past, the depth and breadth of which have only begun to be measured. Here, the past can reach through the layers as deep as time immemorial, to a moment when the rocks were still soft, imprints visible still of ancient migrations. The reach extends also to a time when legend itself motivated European movement across the ocean, a golden story that would make one Mexico into another, New Mexico. Indeed, in so many ways, the community we recognize today as “New Mexico” is one that has largely been imagined from the very beginning through to the present, a construction itself born from stories remembered, told and passed down from one generation to the next. What, when, where, how and who is remembered is a part of the imagining and, like the remembering and writing of histories generally, subject to power, position and even timing.
There are certain moments in time when oral stories are captured and indelibly inscribed on the pages of history. The stories compiled from the 1930s in this volume reveal how these stories about the past are often born from the delicacy and strength of memory. Indeed, the present tense of testimony is incredibly powerful, and the narratives of the 1930s oral history projects are particularly illustrative of this strength, delicately passing at an incredibly pivotal moment in time. In the face of the nation’s economic depression of the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs were established to implement work relief programs and affect a monumental government intervention which integrated a vast cultural infrastructure. One of several federal WPA programs, the Federal Writers Project (FWP) employed writers, teachers, photographers, reporters, editors, journalists, librarians and research workers. Thousands of writers were drawn from the relief rolls of every state, a project that placed bread on their table by having them listen to and record the creativity of expression of a nation.
Interpreted as both a play on the acronym and perhaps social critique of this intervention, in New Mexico the WPA became known as “El Diablo a Pie,” the Devil on Foot. In New Mexico, under the Federal Writers Project, writers were instructed to interview older residents from various communities, identify cultural events that would be of interest to travelers, and catalogue the origin names of places. Focused on what was perceived as specific to New Mexico, a questionnaire was sent out to the writers to help shape their interview. The questions addressed the following topics: geographic features, costumes, language, customs relating to special family events (holidays, births, deaths and marriage, and dining), customs related to community events and gatherings (religious events, festivals, fairs), and stories and songs (including those about animals, witches, ghosts and tall tales). Very little is left of the process used to gather these firsthand accounts of the past; no record exists pointing to why certain people were chosen to be interviewed and why others were not chosen. We are left with questions and the stories.
But all history is subject to power relations, and these stories gathered in the interwar years are no exception. Indeed, the premise of “frontier” in the title of this volume is perhaps an entirely accurate portrayal of the Federal Writers Project a whole. While “frontier” is a term literally meaning extreme boundary or limit and demarcating a settled and so-called civilized region from its opposite, it nonetheless inevitably premises a hegemonic expansionist perspective and implies an ethnocentrism. While it is true that the experience of Hispana/o New Mexicans are included both in this volume and in the project as a whole, the portrayal of this community is notably romanticized and contains singular perspectives rather than more inclusive and nuanced perspectives driven by gender, race and class. The marginalized, including indigenous peoples, are largely denied both voice and visibility in these stories and are indeed frontiered, due probably to the process of the project as a whole. The voices of Pueblo Indian people are virtually silent. This is hardly surprising, since it was a moment when political participation was still being denied to indigenous peoples nationally and certainly within the state of New Mexico. Yet, while most of the stories are replete with the “threat and terror” of American Indians, the testimony of Louis Goforth is noteworthy: “The Indians were never as bad as they were pictured.” These tellings reveal that storytelling is always about perspective. Lew Wallace, a New Mexico governor and storyteller/author, once wrote, “Every calculation based on experience elsewhere, fails in New Mexico.” True though this often quoted phrase may be for some, it simply and erroneously presumes that one’s experience is not based on being born and raised in New Mexico.
It is true that while an imagined and constructed New Mexican community emerges from the concerted efforts of boosters and others, the willing reader should be encouraged to read between the lines and recognize the more complicated narrative that actually contextualized these events, stories, places and people. The tricultural mythology that has so profoundly (and inaccurately) shaped New Mexico into a static portrayal of three cultures is revealed, if not fully deconstructed in these pages. In the stories that follow, a more nuanced picture emerges of New Mexico, where homesteaders arrive from everywhere in the nation, including Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Mississippi. New Mexico is a global community, as is clear from stories drawn from migrations and the presence of individuals from Germany, Canada, Mexico and China. Wisdom may sit in the places that we settle and become a part of, but it is also infused with the places we leave behind.
One cannot grow wise by simply looking at the surface; one gains wisdom by uncovering the layers, which in essence reveal history to be deeply and profoundly contested and interconnected. It means thinking about what connects one site to the next as part of a complex and intricate network. Here, everything holds meaning: the flow of the acequia; the profundity of language; music and traditions that linger long after a note has been played; the dust rising ever so slightly from a dance danced for ages. Each act holds the memory of place, people and spirit. While the stories of the past may certainly be concealed within official documents, maps, census records, they are also intricately woven within place names, songs, prayers and carried in those seemingly fleeting moments, when someone who knows exactly where to cross a river though they have never crossed it looks at a ruin and sees a home full of laughter and tears; it is in the rise of the grito, ¡Tierra o muerte! and the sentiment of the chorus, volver, volver y volver, and it is in the subtlety of silent stares, returning the gaze, turning the story around. I think of place names, of how some communities create the world in which they live simply by speaking about it, naming it.
As with all stories, there are gaps, and yet this compilation has something for everyone. Where there is context lacking, let this serve as an invitation for scholars, genealogists and students of every age to fill in the blanks. Frontier Stories, a compilation of ninety of the stories remembered and collected during this important time in history, provides openings, windows through which the reader can glimpse the past. While every story invites the reader to imagine the past, the stories sometimes also reveal the actual “story-telling occasions,” including the excitement of Mr. Maes becoming an attentive listener, or the nearly one-hundred-year-old Mrs. Tafoya, who, when asked to remember, “her old face lighted . . . glad to have an audience for the thoughts that ordinarily surge through her mind.” Remembering the past is subject to nostalgia and romance, but sometimes tragedy and pain as well, a reality revealed poignantly in an old-timer’s remark to Mrs. W. C. Totty, “We who were alive don’t like to think and talk of those days.” These were stories collected and meant to be passed on, and the editors hope the reader will enter these stories and emerge with their own to tell.