Too Late

La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís was ground zero for the Spanish colonization of what is now the United States. Never mind Florida, where St. Augustine was the first permanent Spanish (and thus European) settlement. It was Santa Fe, as it would become known, that spear-headed the northern frontier of New Spain. Despite over half a century of preliminary incursions and false starts in the American west (including Coronado's protracted walkabout) - during which time it became clear that New Mexico was a bad investment - the combination of church and state persevered. In 1610, Pedro de Peralta was appointed governor of the territory and it was he who founded Villa Nueva de Santa Fe to replace the erstwhile capital of San Gabriel which had been established, around 1600, in desolate country north of Abiquiu on the River Chama, a spot richer in opportunities for the fishing of trout than souls.

The Spanish had been beguiled by New Mexico ever since Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca arrived in Mexico City in 1537. He had survived a ship-wreck on the northern shores of the Gulf of Mexico, en-route to the capital of New Spain after his exploration party of some 600 men was reduced to four intrepid souls in Florida. He subsequently spent ten years variously being imprisoned, starved and ultimately idolized as a faith healer amongst the indigenous people of the south west. (An enslaved moor amongst his party was murdered by jealous Indians for reputedly being too attractive to the local maidens). When he arrived in the capital he told of the great of riches of el norte, although he admitted this was hearsay from "reliable natives". Cabeza de Vaca (literally translated as 'head of a cow', but perhaps more idiomatically rendered as 'meathead') was indisputably the first European to see that wonder of the American plains, the Buffalo, but his other, non-bovine testimony, despite its dubious provenance, proved sufficiently incendiary to ignite Spain's burning desire to save souls and find cities of gold in New Mexico.

From the start, it was evident that nothing much would be achieved without the cooperation of the indigenous peoples. They provided the template for survival in the harsh environment. Thus in architecture and agriculture, the ways of the Pueblo Indians were faithfully adapted by the Spanish settlers; and after the successful Pueblo revolt of 1680 chastened the Franciscans into modifying their campaign to extirpate the native religion, a truly hybrid culture evolved allowing native spirituality, outwardly channeled though the rites and edifices of the catholic church, to retain many of its animistic impulses.

Certainly animism remains the schtick (influenced by post Ghost dance pan-native-American syncretism (Hoop Dreams)) that is publicly promoted amongst the more than one hundred tribes that still inhabit New Mexico, as indicated, at least, by the people of the Santa Clara Pueblo (in Tewa, Kha'po). In a place they now advertise as between 'sun and sky', intermittently occupied by their ancestors for about half a millennium, the current owners of the franchise run tours through the ruins of their ancestral home - cliff dwellings and a summer pueblo on the mesa above - on-the-hour, every hour. The apartments on the mesa were of adobe brick. It was the Spanish who introduced the notion of modularizing the indigenous building material to the locals and the use of brick therefore suggests a construction date no earlier than the mid sixteenth century and, more probably, sometime after 1600.

The native guides who chaperone the multitudes, emphasize the environmental acumen of their forbears that supposedly arose from a worshipful love of nature and all the things within it; but it is a sanitized commemoration of lives that were played out not only between sun and sky but also between cycles of drought and starvation, the cumulative effects of which swiftly drove them from the intense infrastructural investment that this place represented. Datura, one of the very few plants that cling to the edges of the cliff paths that link cave dwelling to cave dwelling, was excluded from the guide's accounting of the history of her people - she disavowed all knowledge of the plant and its likely role in their psychotropically enhanced spirit life.

While the Anasazi were descending from the mountains, transitioning from hunting and gathering to a settled life in pueblos on the high plains of New Mexico, Europe was emerging temporally from the Middle Ages and spatially from what were essentially the western reaches of the Asian continent to begin a despoliation of the Americas. For Spain, Santa Fe represented the northern frontier of this process until Alta California was breached in the 18th century. Everywhere the Spanish went, in search of wealth, territory to buffer the incursions of other European powers and spiritual conquest, the colonial societies they created were influenced by the local indigenous peoples and nowhere is this more evident than in New Mexico (in California, not-so-much).

The rich estofado of artifactual, architectural, agronomic and liturgical ingredients - spiced with green chiles or decorated with red - endured for three centuries, surviving the interregnum of the Pueblo Revolt, the machinations of the Inquisition (from which, in general, native Americans were exempt) smallpox outbreaks that decimated Pueblo populations and even Mexican Independence in 1821 which resulted in banishment of the fading Iberian empire: what ultimately destroyed this hard won cultural accommodation was the territory's annexation to the United States after the Mexican American War of 1846-48.

The Santa Fe trail, begun in 1821 as a trading route from Franklin Missouri to the newly independent Mexico served, in 1846, as the invasion route for U.S. cavalry making war on its southern neighbor. Once established as an American territory (New Mexico did not become a state until 1912) this trail, along which merchants and homesteaders had to trespass over the tribal territories of the Kiowa, Apache, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne, brought Yankee culture into the mix, and a variety of Victorian architectural styles to Santa Fe. The arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway in 1880, only intensified this assault.

That the City now exhibits a remarkably consistent Sante Fe style characterized by the pueblo-adobe tradition alongside of the Territorial style (which absorbed Greek revival influences into a modest mash-up of double hung windows with divided sashes, French doors and dentil cornices - with the indigenous adobe architecture), is a tribute to the efforts of early twentieth century artists, archaeologists and architects who fought to preserve Sante Fe from the full horrors of late Victorian eclecticism.

While the Spanish colonial cultural gestalt turned on a symbiotic relationship with the native Pueblo-peoples, the Santa fe style ultimately depends on an aesthetic fetishization of the indigenous architectural technology and a marginalization of the people who developed it. John Gaw Meem (1894-1983) was the architect instrumental in fully developing the idiom of the stage-set, and it is his vision that defines the Pueblo Revival architectural style which now defines, in turn, Santa Fe.

It is distressing that this erstwhile hard-scrabble City for whose existence the Spanish fought so hard, and on whose behalf it was deemed worthwhile to stage a mini-Reconquista in the late seventeenth century, has now been frozen in time as an up-scale resort destination quarantined against many of the viruses of modernity, sequestered from the mainstream of historical process and marooned in a lagoon dedicated to the Heritage Industry. Similarly ossified, the outlying Pueblos endlessly recycle, for the benefit of the tourist trade, the myth of their ecological consciousness as beating in harmony with the pulse of the Universe.

I guess I visited about a couple or three hundred years too late.