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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 590-597

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Looking for Old Spain in New Mexico:
Culture and Politics in the Southwest

Phoebe S. Kropp

Charles Montgomery. The Spanish Redemption: Heritage, Power and Loss on New Mexico's Upper Rio Grande. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. xvi + 338 pp. Photographs, notes, and index. $50.00.

Santa Fe is a town seemingly obsessed with its past. Around every corner are reminders that the Spanish founded Santa Fe as a colonial capitol ten years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The adobe architecture and narrow winding streets maintain an Old World image that contrasts with the sprawl of most Sunbelt cities. Much of its tourist appeal rests on its ability to showcase ancient cultures and historical charm. Moreover, Santa Fe must contain the most museums of any city of 62,000. No less than eleven crowd its plazas, including the Museum of New Mexico, the Indian Arts Museum, the Museum of International Folk Arts, and the Georgia O'Keefe Museum. In the summer of 2002, yet another museum opened its doors. The Spanish Colonial Arts Museum displays "traditional" art made by New Mexican craftspeople between the seventeenth and the twenty-first centuries. Sponsored by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, which writer Mary Austin helped to found in 1925, the new museum is the first in this southwestern tourist destination dedicated exclusively to "Spanish" art and culture. In a state that broadly advertises its tri-cultural heritage—Indian, Spanish, and Anglo—the Spanish Colonial Arts Museum seems long overdue. Why, in a city so dependent upon its history and so eager to open museums, did this one show up just now? Charles Montgomery's The Spanish Redemption explains the history of northern New Mexico's cult of remembrance and much more.

Montgomery's book traces the developing investment in "Spanish heritage" that began ironically with Anglo-American settlement in the region, around the turn of the last century. While the new museum emphasizes the continuity and ancientness of Spanish Colonial arts and traditions, Montgomery demonstrates convincingly that "[t]he Upper Rio Grande's Spanish character owes as much to 1880 as to 1598" (p. xii). Through the 1930s, both [End Page 590] English- and Spanish-speaking New Mexicans found "rhetorical common ground" in references to the Spanish Colonial past (p. 11). Yet as the author carefully details, each group employed this new rhetoric for different reasons and experienced different results. In politics, architecture, community, and economy, the idea of an old Spanish New Mexico came to serve important and varying purposes in what was rapidly becoming a modern American New Mexico. The Spanish Redemption is a nuanced and well-written study that stands out in the burgeoning field of public memory, though Montgomery prefers the term "public heritage" for his own topic, distancing it specifically from either private identity formation or collective memories. This public heritage has retained some staying power, as its echoes are present in New Mexico's cultural landscape. An organization whose founding Montgomery studies, the Spanish Colonial Arts Society employs similar rhetoric in its advance publicity for the new museum, opened after Montgomery's book went to press, as in its early years.

This thorough book builds on and extends the scope of the expanding and multidisciplinary field of New Mexico historiography. Montgomery worries, perhaps a bit excessively, that New Mexico's apparent position on the United States' periphery, its "out of the way setting, well off the beaten tracks of twentieth-century America," will cast doubt on the broader significance of its history (p. 228). He needn't. As we have learned from such fine books as Leah Dilworth's Imagining Indians in the Southwest (1996), Chris Wilson's The Myth of Santa Fe (1997), and the numerous volumes on the Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Company, New Mexico exerted an extraordinary pull on Americans in the past century. Considering that New Yorkers could purchase Navajo rugs at Macy's and the most popular exhibit at the 1915...


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