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La Farge's Santa Fe and New Mexico

Enjoy this excerpt from Oliver La Farge’s The Man with the Calabash Pipe published in the 1960s by permission of his son, John “Pen” La Farge. This piece was first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

This enterprising metropolitan daily has recently been running a distinctly hair-raising study of popular opinion of New Mexico among people of the more distant states. That is, hair-raising if you haven’t recently travelled beyond the borders of the states that neighbor us and sample common opinion for yourself, or kept track of the reports from time to time of those firms that still think New Mexico is a foreign nation and offer to quote local customers prices in pesos.

It will take a very high grade public education campaign, something well beyond the mere taking of ads and considerably more deeply conceived, to disabuse the mass of the American public from the ideas that:

A. New Mexico is a flat, arid desert.

B. Its climate is hot in winter, unbearably hot in summer.

C. Its largest centers of population consist of a handful of mud huts with, perhaps, a few wigwams on the outskirts.

D. It and its inhabitants are not really American and are dirty and dangerous, and

E. There is nothing on earth to see or do there.

Good and accurate books by people who knew and loved New Mexico have been being published and selling well for fifty years. Magazine articles about the state appear constantly (for which local writers should be thankful.) Those who have really visited the state, and not merely hurried through it on Route 66, must number in the millions by now. Still the ignorance exists.

Part of the delusion about New Mexico arises from what would be the logical reasoning that, if the middle western states are so perfectly awful in summer, an arid state on the Mexican border must be worse.

One time I attended a wedding in St. Louis in July. The muggy heat was pure murder. With deep relief I climbed on the train, which was moderately air-conditioned, looking forward eagerly to my return to cool New Mexico.

On the train were two young ladies, registered nurses specializing in polio, I believe, Minnesota and Michigan. They were being sent to Albuquerque, and were going in a spirit of sheer heroism. I soon learned that they looked forward with dread to the even greater heat and the loneliness and dreariness of life in a village of mud huts.

I did mention that it was a pity they weren’t being sent to Santa Fe, but chiefly I went about relieving their fears. I told them that Albuquerque had traffic lights (that was just before they were installed here). I described the readily accessible mountain country, and explained what relatively high altitudes and dry air meant in terms of cool nights. It seemed kinder not to say anything about dust.

It was all news to them. So was the size of that city and of Santa Fe, and the choice of hotels available when they should visit the pleasanter, older city. They were also greatly relieved to know that everyone except a few elderly Indians and a very few old natives living in the most remote, back country, spoke English. I am happy to say that they did know that New Mexico was part of the United States.

There relief was tremendous. For a clincher, I asked whether they would be in the state through the winter, and when they said they would be, told them to send for their skiing equipment. That, ask I have found before, was the real punch line.

Why is it that, with all the free advertising in print and by word of mouth that this state has had for nearly fifty years, the ignorance that still persists? Everybody knows what, for instance Massachusetts is like. Why should we be the victims of a lot of pure folklore?

I don’t know the answers, but I do believe that we can’t cure our condition simply by paid advertising in the usual sense of the word. We need, as I said at the beginning, a thoroughly thought through campaign of public education. Once everyone in the United States knows what New Mexico is like, everyone will come here, and we of New Mexico, in turn, to save our lives can pull up stakes and take over New England.

When I was young and bumptious, I used to declare that I would live only in a really big city, such as London, Paris, or New York, or in a village. This reflected the narrowness of my experiences. I had grown up partly in New York, and partly in a metropolis of some three hundred houses known as Saunderstown, R.I. In college years I came to know Boston. Boston is a unique town. Unique is derived from the Latin words unus, “one,” and equus, “horse.”

Fate landed me in New Orleans, a small city by a New Yorker’s standards, but a thoroughly delightful one. So I made an exception, conscious that New Orleans is also unique, unusually rich in character, unusually equipped with charm. I still held the opinion that, by and large, small cities and towns were drab and dreadful places.

Now it is getting to be a good many years since first I settled in Santa Fe, perched, in a spirit of inquiry and doubt, in a rented house, and the longer I live here, regretfully seeing the population pass the 30,000 mark, the better I like it. A small town has warmth and rewards that big city dwellers never dream of.

To some extent, New Mexico, a sparsely settled state, partakes of the same advantages. In both state and town, politics are live, major personalities really alive to us. The percentage of voters who actually know the candidates is much higher, which makes the whole business much more real.

In decades of voting residence in New York, I never knew the mayor, an alderman, a governor, congressman, or senator. Now as I start counting, I find I have had some acquaintance with every New Mexico senator and congressman, with the exception of Mrs. Lusk, since Albert Simms, Bronson Cutting, and Samuel Bratton. I have also at least met every governor since Arthur Seligman, whom I remember with affection.

Few New Yorkers even think of attending a meeting of the city council; few Santa Feans would hesitate for a moment to do so if any matter of interest to them was coming up. Life in a small town and in a state of small population is a life among real people; life in a big city is life among impersonal people.

In New York, one’s friends live scattered over a fairly large area, made larger in its effect by the congestion of unknowns and the complexities of getting from here to there. As a usual thing, one is careful not to strike up an acquaintance with people who live in the same building, since that would be a real nuisance.

We lived a year and a half on 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. I suppose each of us must have walked the length of that block at least once a day. In an unreal way, we became acquainted with the neighboring merchants – not as one would in Santa Fe, where one shares so many more interests than the mere commercial transaction. But we could walk that block day after day forever without exchanging a greeting with anyone, without encountering any fact that, just from repetition of seeing, had become familiar.

It's very different here. In one’s own neighborhood, one speaks with everyone, and gets to know the children. Nobody feels that he must protect himself against striking up an acquaintance with undesirables. In the course of ordinary errands about town, friendly encounters are common. When one goes to the plaza area, shopping, there is a definite expectation of running into some friend or other.

In New York, it was rare for anyone, friend, acquaintance, or newly met, to say anything about my writing. I felt that, in that great city, those who had read my latest story would be as widely scattered as my personal friends. As a matter of fact, big city people are inhibited. They are afraid that if they don’t take writing for granted they will seem unsophisticated. Also, scored of writers live in New York; hundreds visit it. In a great city nothing, except perhaps complete openness, is scarce.

Here, if a story of mine comes out, it may be mentioned in the paper. When three or four Santa Fe writers are published in the same month, it is considered news. The little city is frank and warm in its pride. Even more warming to the writer is the habit people have of stopping him in the street to tell him that they have enjoyed his last piece. Strangers will sometimes introduce themselves to do this. It is the kind of thing that makes a writer’s life really worth living.

From time to time, people event speak well of this column to me. Give me a small town. Or, to be specific, give me the City Difficult, the home of the broken bottle and the rutted street; give me Santa Fe.

Oliver La Farge, a longtime resident of Santa Fe, was a man notable in many fields including anthropology and writing. His writing ranged from short stories to novels, including the Pulitzer Prize- winning Laughing Boy. He was a friend and champion of Native Americans and for many years was president of the Association on American Indian Affairs. The La Farge Library in Santa Fe bears his name.

What’s the most outrageous misunderstanding about Santa Fe, its history, people, or events that you have encountered whether by Santa Feans or non-Santa Feans? How did you react or respond? For you, does Santa Fe still have some or all of the small town traits he describes? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments or write your own blog post.

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