LAS VEGAS, N.M. — When Mayor Louie Trujillo learned about a proposed exhibit of religious relics in the city museum purportedly linked to a group of hooded nightriders from the late 1800s, he wasn’t sure it was a good idea.
Trujillo said he tried to keep an open mind. He studied up on the exhibit at the City of Las Vegas Museum and met with organizers and others who had a hand in approving the display — which, according to city officials, failed to go through the proper channels.
Everything changed, Trujillo said, when photos appeared on Facebook of three men wearing white hoods and standing and kneeling in front of the exhibit before it opened.
“As a mayor, how can I condone this type of behavior in this day and age?” Trujillo asked. “After those photos surfaced … I became very concerned.”
The pictures prompted Trujillo and Las Vegas City Manager Leo Maestas to pull the plug on the exhibit — sparking a feud with supporters, who have filed a petition in the 4th Judicial District Court to prevent the city from removing the display.
“The unilateral banning of the said exhibit and closure thereof (along with threatened destruction) constitutes an unconstitutional ban of the First Amendment rights of the Petitioners and citizens who contributed to the exhibit, in violation of the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the State of New Mexico,” says the petition, filed by three area residents.
The city manager had imposed a Friday deadline for the Community Services Department, which oversees the museum, to remove the exhibit of religious relics believed to be connected to a resistance group of nightriders known as Las Gorras Blancas, or the White Caps.
The clandestine group was formed in the 19th century to stop a land grab by white settlers. Members of the group cut down fences and burned down barns during midnight raids and wore gunnysacks and white hoods over their heads to hide their identities.
Despite the city manager’s directive, the display is still in the museum.
“We decided to wait for a response from the court regarding the injunction that [was] filed,” Trujillo said.
The exhibit, however, is locked away from public view. The city shuttered the museum, claiming the decision wasn’t related to the controversial exhibit but staffing shortages elsewhere.
“We did close, and we reassigned the staff because our senior citizen center was in desperate need of staff,” the mayor said. “We made that a priority, so the [museum] staff have been reassigned.”
The exhibit, which had been in the works for about three years, was approved by a museum manager without the approval of her supervisor or anyone else in city government, Trujillo said.
Shane Flores, who organized the exhibit — dubbed Espiritu de la Tierra: La Morada de Los Enmascadoras Gorras Blancas en los montes de Sangre de Cristo — called the mayor’s reaction to the display and the Facebook photos a “manufactured crisis.”
“When they came to install the altar, it was a ritual,” he said, explaining why men wore hoods over their heads in the museum.
“This was part of a religious rite, a religious ritual, so he’s [Trujillo] wanting to mischaracterize it as something else,” Flores added. “He has this false narrative as somehow it’s illegal or dangerous. It’s not illegal to wear a hood in a museum. It’s not illegal to wear a hood anywhere. He wants to create an aura of somehow it’s wrong.”
For some, it is.
Tyree Torrence, who is Black and works as a barber in Las Vegas, said he was repulsed when he saw the photos of the men wearing hoods in the museum.
“That looks like something racist to me,” said Torrence, who originally is from Questa. “I’m not surprised to see that, but I’m surprised to see it in the museum.”
Not the Ku Klux Klan
The controversy has spilled into the streets of Las Vegas.
On Wednesday, a man with a gunnysack over his head rode a horse outside the museum.
“That’s exactly what I didn’t want to have happen in our community,” the mayor said. “Can you imagine how people feel in today’s age when they’re on Grand Avenue, one of the busiest streets [in Las Vegas] and see a man on horseback with a hood?”
Chicano activist Lorenzo Flores, one of the three area residents who filed the court petition to stop the city from removing the exhibit, said Saturday the display would help the community understand the real story.
“We don’t look at them as being [Ku Klux] Klan-related or anything like that,” Lorenzo Flores said. “A hood is a hood, and a gorra is a gorra, and you gotta know the difference.”
Lorenzo Flores said the young men who wore the white hoods in the museum when an altar was set up represented three brothers who founded the resistance group.
“It’s been a ritual for over 100 years,” he said. “When we set up the altar, it has to be three guys, and they have to wear gorras. We went ahead and posted it on the Facebooks and that because we had to show people that we were setting up the altar [and other items]. Well, the city apparently said there were white hoods in a government building and that cannot be allowed. Well, they were not white hoods. They were gorras, and they were doing a ritual.”
Lorenzo Flores, who is Shane Flores’ uncle, claims the mayor quashed the exhibit over a personal vendetta.
The mayor acknowledged Lorenzo Flores’ involvement in the display was worrisome but said other factors were at play in canceling the exhibit.
“I questioned the integrity of the entire display when I found out that this person was involved,” Trujillo said. “He’s been an activist in the community for years, a Chicano activist type of thing.”
Trujillo also questions the integrity of the exhibition items themselves.
An untraditional ‘morada’
Shane Flores said the religious items were once inside a morada, a place of worship for a society of men known as penitentes. Flores claims members of Las Gorras Blancas belonged to the brotherhood.
“How would it not be the case that the Gorras Blancas would not be penitentes? The penitentes were always basically the men of the village or the more devout ones and the more, let’s say, civic-minded ones, right? And that’s who the Gorras Blancas were,” he said.
Lorenzo Flores said the morada members of the resistance group was not a typical type of morada of Northern New Mexico. He said he is the hermano mayór, or high-ranking member, of the morada that is the subject of the museum exhibit.
“Our morada exists as an original native morada; it is homegrown,” Lorenzo Flores said. “It has its own [songs] and [prayers]. We are not connected to the European Catholic dogma or expectation.”
Items in the museum exhibit are unique to Las Gorras Blancas’ morada. They were being held for safekeeping by area families after the morada was vandalized by a group of youths in 1975 and “the elders decided to break it up” until a new morada was built, Lorenzo Flores said.
A new building is nearing construction, and Lorenzo Flores said members of the group decided to showcase the relics before they were stored in the new morada, giving the public a rare opportunity to see them.
Lorenzo Flores said the collection includes 120 religious statues, including one of Joan of Arc from 1820. Other items include a ballot from 1912 that includes the name of a member of Las Gorras Blancas who was elected to the state House of Representatives, and a book of songs published in Las Vegas in 1893.
“We also have the whip that was used in ceremonies. We have a belt. We have la corona de cristo, which is an actual crown of thorns,” he said. “We have a virgen that’s called la virgen sin ojos [a Virgin Mary without eyes]. The reason they made her was because when Las Gorras Blancas did the raids, they went at night. They could not take lanterns or torches because they would be seen, so they would have a ritual and they would pray to la virgen sin ojos to lend her eyes to the moon, and the moon was what gave them the light to see.
“There’s a lot more, but that’s what the exhibit is about.”
A unique heritage
In addition to the photos posted on Facebook, Trujillo, the mayor, said he was concerned about the “sacredness of the penitentes.”
“It’s a very sacred society and still functions to this day, so I became very concerned about the fact that these two groups [the nightriders and the penitentes] are mixed up,” he said, adding there was no professional curation of the exhibit.
“There was no white paper. There was no details. There was nothing,” he said. “All of a sudden, one of the rooms at the museum was filled with all these relics that came from quote, unquote, the morada and later I found out there were other pieces that were contributed by people in the community, so the integrity of the display, for me, failed.”
When the city manager requested the removal of the exhibit, he wrote the documentation and approval of the proposed exhibit failed to conform to city requirements. He also asserted the proposed exhibit did not reflect the mission of the museum.
According to the city’s website, the Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection “engages visitors in the rich history of the Las Vegas area by collecting, preserving, and presenting objects and themes relating to the region’s unique heritage, to increase our understanding of the link between the past, present and future.”
David Correia, a professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, said Las Gorras Blancas are part of Las Vegas’ history.
“Las Gorras Blancas defended the interests of land grant communities in Las Vegas in a way that defended the community itself from what was at the time a pretty remarkable wave of investment by East Coast capitalists that were trying to take advantage of these enormous open spaces that they considered available to them to flood the ranges with cattle,” he said.
Las Gorras Blancas’ actions frightened outsiders who understood their investments required the dispossession of land grants from the people who lived there, Correia said.
“Las Gorras Blancas … shut down a lot of that speculation and investment, and as a result, defended the town of Las Vegas itself, and by virtue of that, defended the ability of those moradas to continue to exist,” he said. “So it would be odd, I think, not to have that exhibit in a city museum.”
Las Vegas City Attorney Scott Aaron said the city has a loan policy for museum displays designed for traveling exhibits.
“This is a unique situation because No. 1, it’s not a traveling exhibit,” he said. “It’s just local people here who have some very historically significant and religiously, I guess, precious items that they want to display. So it makes it difficult for the city because it doesn’t really fit into our existing loan policy.”
In addition, he said, museum staff have been asked not to handle the items. Under the city’s loan policy, city staff “take possession and control over the artifacts,” allowing them to catalog them and put them on display.
“We don’t have the — what’s the right word? — I guess we probably don’t have the policies and the infrastructure and the experience in place to be able to take possession and control of an exhibit like that,” Aaron said.
Aaron said the municipal museum is “pretty basic” and in a basement and suggested the exhibit be displayed elsewhere in Las Vegas, such as New Mexico Highlands University.
“I think the bigger concern here isn’t the substance of the exhibit,” he said. “But it becomes almost a liability or a risk for the city to take on items that have this much religious significance to people because we want to be respectful of those things.”