The Accidental Historian
Estevan Rael-Gálvez, executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center, on discourse and identity
He was a terrible rancher. The son of a borreguero (sheep herder) in northern Taos County, Estevan Rael-Gálvez says he constantly lost his flock. Life on the farm wasn’t for him. So with his mother’s encouragement, he walked away from his family’s generations-old trade of sheep and farming in Costilla and Questa to answer his calling—academia, and ultimately a much larger world where culture, art and politics converge. July marked Rael-Gálvez' first year as the executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Lively and cerebral, Rael-Gálvez has wasted no time in the influential seat, propelling the NHCC to the forefront of Hispanic cultural and political affairs both locally and nationally. One year into his service as head of this increasingly powerful institution, the Alibi invited Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez to answer our resolana-style questions (but more on that later).
Rael-Gálvez began his trek down the windy path as an academic at the University of California, Berkeley. He went on to study cultural anthropology and receive his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, where he wrote his dissertation on identity and Genízaros (Native Americans enslaved as servants in New Mexico). He declined an offer to teach at Princeton, instead returning to New Mexico to help care for his brother who was paralyzed in an automobile accident.
In 2001, he accepted an unexpected job offer as state historian--a strange twist of fate, considering he had never formally studied history. He spent the better part of a decade in that role. During eight years as New Mexico’s official archivist, Rael-Gálvez transformed the office from a static state building to a community-inclusive agency. He made state historical records accessible to people around the globe though the interactive Digital History Project at newmexicohistory.org.
Last year, this self-described “accidental historian” accepted the challenging and potentially transformative position as the executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center. The work of the NHCC is essential for “building a place for our community to learn from our complex and deep experience and history,” as Rael-Gálvez sees it. “To move past the mythologies that shape us, and to illuminate our creative potential.” He says he dreams of further enhancing the center by establishing of a resident scholars and artists program, a research center, and a policy institute
The road between rural New Mexico and the halls of academia forged a man with strong character and deep intellect, tempered by a sheep farmer’s humility. Instead of working the land with his hands, today Rael-Gálvez rubs elbows with governors, senators and presidents, and he even counts the prince and princess of Spain among his acquaintances. In an extended conversation that began in person and spilled into e-mail over several days, Rael-Gálvez reflected on his first year at the NHCC, New Mexico's history, the challenging role of Hispanics in America and the racial conflicts taking place in Arizona.
Does the NHCC represent all Latinos?
The image that comes to mind is of concentric circles. We start where we are standing—our center, if you will. Institutions are sometimes painfully unaware of the physical environment and historical context where they exist. Here, wisdom sits at a crossroads in Barelas, on a street named for the Chicano leader César Chávez; in Albuquerque, along the Rio Grande; down the road from several tribal and other traditional Nuevo Mexicano communities; in New Mexico and in the Southwest.
“Identity is no museum piece sitting stock-still in a display case, but rather the endlessly astonishing synthesis of the contradictions of everyday life.”
Uruguayan wrtier Eduardo Galeano
Shifting demographics in the Southwest have introduced many other communities into New Mexico, and Cubans, Puerto Ricans and many others represent the next circle. The circle after that encompasses the national level, with communities including the larger Chicano Diaspora, as well as many other Latino communities, each reflecting the historical realities and experiences of their home country, and their presence in the United States also expanding our own notions of what it means to be American.
What is behind this idea of claiming Spanish ancestry in New Mexico; why is it so popular?
Spanish identity, as it is thought about today, was somewhat of a fabrication. Spain may be the least of what has shaped our heritage of converging streams. The people here were deeply caste and irrevocably mixed within a mere two centuries of Spanish occupation, roots drawn from numerous indigenous nations. The effects and legacies are thus as much institutional as they are biological, aesthetic as much as they are ideological.
The most telling aspects of any deep and sustained study of the Nuevo Mexicano Indo-Hispano culture reveals how the long story of the people itself rises from beneath layers of histories formed somewhere in between erasure and memory—histories experienced, imagined and passed down through story; telling identities. The Spanish heritage fantasy is really about denial and not based on history.
What are your feelings about what’s happening in Arizona?
Any ban on advancing knowledge, including on courses on the history and experiences of ethnic populations of the United States, should trouble all Americans; it certainly troubles me.
Regarding SB 1070, while I strongly believe that fair and equitable immigration reform legislation may be necessary, the fact here is that migrants continue to be demonized as criminals, and as a whole, this law effects a culture of terror.
If Hispanos are being demonized, how does the role of the National Hispanic Cultural Center change?
Perhaps more than ever, the role of NHCC is to provide a venue for constructive, informative dialogue on the issues affecting the Latino community, locally and nationally. What we need now more than ever is factual information to counter the disinformation out there. More to the point, recently I reflected on the vast amount of labor contributed by Latinos in the United States. In the Southwest alone, the work of Mexicanos in particular cannot be overstated; every household in the U.S. can probably trace some benefit to this largely invisible labor.
"Wherever we go, we leave our breath behind us."
Pueblo elder saying
Why is so little Latino history taught in schools?
Almost all institutions in the United States have neglected to include the history and experiences of Latinos, including cultural, educational and political. The educational classroom is no exception to this failure.
Talk about poverty in New Mexico—what is the role of the NHCC in breaking the cycle?
Unfortunately, one-third of the children living in poverty within the U.S. are Latinos, a percentage that grows larger year by year. The legacy--as well as the present-day consequence of this poverty, including its effects on education and health care--is daunting. As a community, we must recognize what these statistics mean now and for the future of our community. Developing a consciousness about Latino children in poverty will, I hope, allow not only for a meaningful engagement, but empowerment and action.
How does Native American culture interplay with the NHCC—or does it?
New Mexico is a place of sovereign antiquity, intricately formed by the convergence of cultures. Underlying this rich convergence is the legacy of countless indigenous communities. As New Mexican Hispanos, this is a part of our tapestry.
It is a storied history that has been quieted over the years by whispers as much as by silence, hushed aside even by those who have inherited the story—if not its geography in their faces and hands, certainly its memory in an aching consciousness. More than ever, the NHCC has taken the lead in exploring the complex meanings of what it means to be “Hispanic” in New Mexico, moving past the mythology into the realm of history and policy. A new paradigm has emerged whereby Indigenous, Mexican, African and Anglo all began to signify. Native American history and experience continues to be core to the mission. We are committed to inviting the exploration of complex histories and identity.
Talk a little bit about art and what it means for New Mexico.
Creating art points to the creative impulse at the heart of the human condition, and Hispanos in New Mexico are certainly no exception. Like many indigenous communities, one component of the “art” created traditionally by Hispanos was simply utilitarian—
This impulse to create art, like identity itself, is not static; as we learn new forms, meet new people, visit new places, our forms of art have also changed and expanded. Fostering and sustaining the beauty of this creative impulse is central to the role of NHCC.
You have incorporated the Spanish term la resolana as a large part of your vision for the NHCC. What does the term actually mean?
In New Mexico, a resolana is the south side of a building or a plaza, shielded from the wind and bathed in the rays of the sun. A sun room, if you will, which is a place for creative thinking. What makes this place dynamic, however, is the fact that for generations it has gathered men and women carefully articulating observations about their contemporary world, relating the memory and wisdom of those that came before them and creating an open dialogue for what may come. At the National Hispanic Cultural Center, the resolana exists in every exhibit, every performance, every lecture; it sits in the capacity of each staff member, in the potential to instruct and inspire every student and visitor.