Belen, New Mexico, is home to just 7,089 people, but more than 30 churches.
A quick 33-mile drive south of Albuquerque, Belen (whose name means Bethlehem) made international news last month when The New York Times covered a culture war taking place there. One one side, we have a progressive young mayor trying to get funds to build a museum honoring the city’s only world-famous resident, visual artist Judy Chicago; on the other, a conservative sixtysomething city councilor and his evangelical minions, who would really rather not, because vaginas are scary.
Chicago, 79, is an American feminist icon: an artist, art educator and writer best known for her large collaborative art installation pieces about birth and creation images, according to her website. Her work examines the role of women in history and culture. By the ’70s, Chicago had founded the first feminist art program in the United States. Her celebrated artwork includes, but is in no way limited to, representations of sex organs.
Chicago chose to make Belen her home 26 years ago because, she says, it was close enough to Albuquerque to get anything she might need, but quiet enough for her to focus on her work. She and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, live in the old Belen Hotel, which they’ve renovated as a home and studio. Time magazine named Chicago one of the 100 most influential people on the planet in 2018.
None of this matters to Belen’s Bible-thumpers, and you have to wonder if Chicago’s Jewishness has anything to do with their attacks. In a slew of recent public meetings, they’ve made it clear they’re way more terrified of Chicago’s artwork than they are of the city’s devastating poverty and creeping blight. The median household income for Belen is a little more than $30,000, compared to the New Mexico average of $46,000, and many of the buildings along Main Street are boarded up and empty. In an already poor state, Belen is bleaker than the bleak norm.
Speaking to the Times, a member of Calvary Chapel, located in Belen’s old Wal-Mart (of course it is), 19-year-old Lacey Greer, explained her opposition to the museum thus: “As Christians, we are for order, justice, security and protection. I’m for protecting the eyes of children.”
This evangelical distress with lady-bits does not extend, naturally, to the Bible’s endless mentions (albeit oblique) of Mary’s hoo-hah never having been penetrated by anyone but God. Nor does apostolic apoplexy over artistic representations of the spasm chasm ever seem to open its arms wide enough to include Biblical passages such as Song of Songs, in which a woman’s breasts are compared in beauty to two fawns, and her navel is said to be like a goblet that never lacks for wine. Maybe this is because evangelicals are only distressed by vaginas they cannot control.
The Judy Chicago Museum was the brainchild of Ronnie Torres, a former Belen mayor and current city councilor who, as his day job, is a hairdresser. He counts Chicago among his clients. The city’s current mayor, a 34-year-old upstart named Jerah Cordova who got a degree in political science and journalism from George Washington University before returning home to run for office on Twitter (a strategy his conservative opponents laughed at, until he won), loves the idea. He loves it so much he just last week announced he was giving his entire $10,000 per year mayoral salary over to the cause.
Cordova’s nemesis in this battle is City Councilor Donald Carter, 63, who has lived in Belen all his life and holds a business degree from the for-profit University of Phoenix. He says he doesn’t want angry mobs rising up once Chicago’s art upsets them.
Torres, Cordova and others have been trying to rebrand Belen, once a thriving railroad hub, as an arts destination, with the idea being that the same art-lovers in Albuquerque who are willing to travel 64 miles north to Santa Fe for a show might also be willing to travel half that distance south, to Belen, which, like Santa Fe, is accessible via the Rail Runner train. The city has had some modest successes thus far, with the creation and opening of the Harvey House Museum in 1985, and with helping to launch Hub City Brewing in 2016, the only brewery in Valencia County.
Belen’s push to make itself part of New Mexico’s creative community and economy is a smart way to set itself apart from nearby Los Lunas, which recently attracted tech giant Facebook to open a data center there. It has been heartening as well to see millennial eco-conscious farmers like Kemper Barkhurst and Elizabeth Arnold planting roots in the fertile farmland of Valencia County, with successful ventures such as BlueFly Organic Lavender Farm in Peralta. If Belen is to survive, Cordova says, it is going to have to move forward in a similar manner.
We here at Weekly Alibi agree. We support the Judy Chicago Museum in Belen. It should be built. We salute Cordova for fighting the good fight. We leave you with a quote from the Bible, Proverbs 1:7. “Fools despise wisdom and instruction.”