Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Slavery Time and Other Things in the Land of Enchantment

Some time back, I wrote a post about a talk I attended at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe on the topic of slavery in New Mexico. Most of the people there, like me, had no idea there was institutionalized slavery in New Mexico, though in hearing about it, many seemed to think it wasn't all that outrageous.

But before I (finally) left California for this trip to New Mexico, I was chatting with a neighbor in California who told me that his father was born in New Mexico and his mother was born in southern Colorado. I asked him where in New Mexico his father had been born, and he said it was a little town out in the middle of nowhere that doesn't exist anymore. It's just a collection of adobe ruins melting back into the earth... I told him I was well aware of all the ruins in New Mexico; they're part of the landscape. I asked him again the name of the town, and he said it as if it were an Indian name: "Oh-ka-teh."

I thought that was interesting. I'd never heard of anyplace in New Mexico called that, and I asked him where in New Mexico it was, and he said he didn't know. All he knew was the name and that the land round about had been owned by "one of those rich guys" who decided to use it for grazing, so everybody left. Nobody lived there anymore and it wasn't even on the maps these days.

Now this neighbor is well up into his seventies, probably getting close to 80, and he's been in California since 1941 he said. He was born in Colorado but came out to California when he was a teenager, joined the military and never looked back. He said he didn't know the location of "Oh-ka-teh" because it was no longer there. Like any number of other places in New Mexico.

But I got to thinking... what if it is "Oh-kah-tay?" That town I thought I had heard of, but I could not for the life of me pin point how or why. So I fired up the Google Machine and what do you know:


Ocate is a populated place located in Mora County at latitude 36.176 and longitude -105.048. Ocate local area photos.

The elevation is 7,208 feet. Ocate appears on the Ocate U.S. Geological Survey Map. Mora County is in the Mountain Time Zone (UTC -7 hours).

And there is a streetview in Google Maps:

Ocate NM looking southwest on Highway 120
Octate, NM looking southwest at the junction with Highway 442

Well. It turns out Ocate isn't entirely uninhabited. I found at least two or possibly three inhabited structures in while cruising the virtual highways via Google Maps, but yes, it is mostly abandoned, and parts of it are falling into ruin -- like so many other places in New Mexico.

I've never been up there, but the land looks very familiar, oh yes, and so do the scattered buildings and the incipient ruins. It is what you find in rural New Mexico. After a while, it stops being a surprise. New Mexico has one of the smallest populations of any state, and efforts to settle here have proved difficult for thousands of years.

When a Hopi woman was asked why the Anasazi (among her ancestors) abandoned Chaco Canyon, she is reputed to have said, "The elders said it was time to leave." And that was that.

So it appears to have been for Ocate.

Still, the name kept rattling around in my brain. Why was it so familar?

And then Teh Google turned up this:

Romero, Rosario

By Any Other Name: A Story of Slavery and Her Legacy

By Estevan Rael-Galvez

In Ocate, New Mexico, sometime between 1910 and the late 1920s, a young girl named Dora Ortiz often visited with an old woman known as Rosario Romero. During those visits, she listened carefully as Rosario’s stories drew Dora in as close as whisper. For Dora, Rosario may have seemed like the oldest woman in the world, with a memory as long as her wisdom was deep. She was, after all, believed then to have been well over a hundred years old. Ma-Ya-Yo was what Dora called the old woman, for she was like a grandmother to her. Although she had held the name Rosario for decades, she still remembered her first name, Ated-bah-Hozhoni, Happy Girl, a prophetic gift perhaps given with quiet ritual and intention. Her Diné name was one of the last vestiges that revealed from where she had come and who she once was. Although that name may have sounded to her like beauty and loss all wrapped together, it was a name that told her that she was once a happy girl.

In a story where indigenous names and origins were almost always irrevocably lost, this exception is significant. Rosario’s life was part of an old story in villages throughout New Mexico, a story whose telling was perhaps not meant to be passed on. It was after all, a history that had been quieted over the years by whispers as much as by silence, hushed aside even by those who have inherited the story—carrying, as it is, if not its geography in their faces and hands, certainly its memory in an aching consciousness—unknown perhaps, but still there. It is the story of American Indian slavery, an institution that while perhaps obscured, certainly existed and through it, thousands of individual lives passed.

[There's much more at the link and a wonderful picture of Ated-bah-Hozhoni (Rosario Romero)]

Of course. That's why it was familiar. This was one of the stories told at the talk I attended in Santa Fe. Rosario Romero was a Navajo slave captured probably during the American military campaigns against the Navajo and sold into slavery with her infant daughter (who was actually sold to a different buyer) in Northern New Mexico. Padre Martínez, Cura de Taos was her buyer, and apparently when he realized her despair at losing her daughter to another buyer, he arranged to purchase the girl and return her to her mother's care.

It is thought that Rosario was captured in the early 1860s, likely 1861, the year of the start of the American Civil War, a war conducted supposedly to end slavery. According to the account linked above, Rosario watched from hiding as her husband, her father, and her two sons were killed before her eyes, and then she was captured with her daughter and placed among the other Navajo captives in what amounted to a slave coffle somewhere in Navajo Country to the west of Taos. She and the others were then brought and sold into the slave trade at Taos.

Her owner in Taos, Padre Martinez, was quite a character, a Catholic priest of the New Mexico tradition, which meant he fathered children and worked many wonders on behalf of the people. It is how things were in this isolated frontier outpost, Nuevo Mexico regardless of which flag flew over the plaza.

Rosario ran away three times but was always recaptured and eventually she resigned herself to her fate as slave to Padre Martinez and then to his son George Romero. At the talk in Santa Fe it was pointed out that Indian slavery in New Mexico was not precisely the same thing as Negro chattel slavery in the American South. For one thing, enslavement of the Indians by the Spanish had been specifically prohibited  by the Spanish crown from very early days. Of course, the crown couldn't do anything to stop it, but still... On the other hand, the Indians of New Mexico had a long tradition of slave raiding particularly of the Plains Tribes, and those tribes likewise raided the Pueblos for slaves. It was not uncommon for slaves held in one tribe to be redeemed by another. After the American conquest, Anglo missionaries also went about redeeming slaves.

It was said that Indian slaves in New Mexico literally became part of the family of their owners, and for all intents and purposes, there was no social or physical distinction between them and anyone else of their social class -- which was, of course, that mysterious and exotic class below peon.

And yet Rosario Romero became an honored elder, regarded as a family grandmother in Ocate.

For someone at the bottom of the social ladder, she certainly was held in great esteem. (Yes, well, so was Mammy in "Gone With the Wind," so let's not get carried away.)

It is rumored that there were slaves held by some of New Mexico's prominent -- and not so prominent -- families until well into the 1940's, and there may still be slaves held today, though if there are, they would be very old, wouldn't you think?

So Ocate was not a simple little farming town out in the middle of nowhere at all. The offspring of Padre Martinez of Taos brought at least one slave, the Navajo captive called Rosario Romero, out to Ocate as early as 1867, there to serve in his household until she died in 1930.

Abe, my neighbor in California mentioned above is the son of a man whose name I don't know who was born in Ocate, NM sometime in the early 1900's or late 1800's (if dates of my father's birth and that of his siblings are any indication. Abe is older than me, but not that much older, and my siblings, if they were still alive, would be in their late seventies or early eighties now...)  Ocate had quite a complex history after the American conquest in any case, not unlike that of the area where I am right now. The area was granted by Governor Armijo to Manuel Alvarez in 1837. Alvarez never actually occupied the Grant, but claims by Alvarez and his descendants continued to be made until the matter was finally settled on behalf of homesteaders in 1893. How Padre Martinez's son George Romero came to Ocate in 1867 is, like so much else in New Mexico, something of a mystery.

Nevertheless and so on and so forth.

In the squabbles over the land, the fate of individuals like Rosario Romero can easily be overlooked, but the struggles over proper ownership of the land in New Mexico have never really ended. The land (and water) struggles are never ending, but the stories of slavery time in New Mexico are still largely unheard and unknown. It is a very uncomfortable story for many New Mexicans.

Then there is the story of the Crypto-Jews. Oh yes, many of New Mexico's prominent Spanish families are of Jewish ancestry, and the stories are told that despite their outward Catholicism, some of them still practice Jewish rituals of faith. It was always known but rarely mentioned. Like so many other things...

And then there is Joanne Bodin's novel "Walking Fish." 

I've only just scratched the surface of New Mexico characters and history.

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