This month we celebrate Women’s History Month, and last month it was Black History Month. Both have significance in New Mexico, since African Americans and women have played a key role in the historical landscape that is New Mexico today.
Indeed, “America’s first feminist,” as I call her, came with the Oñate colonists in 1598. Her full name was Isabela de Olvera. The following statement that she gave in 1598 is the reason I consider her America’s first feminist: “As I am going to New Mexico and have reason to fear that I may be annoyed by some individuals since I am a mulatto, and it is proper to protect my rights in such an eventuality by an affidavit showing that I am a free woman, unmarried and the legitimate daughter of Hernando, a negro, and an Indian, Magdalena.”
The role of blacks and women of varied ethnic backgrounds has been, even to this day, mostly ignored in our schools and history. Yet it wasn’t just Friar Marcos De Niza who “discovered” New Mexico in 1539. Along with him was Estebanico, or “el Moro.” This was the same Esteban who had earlier survived an odyssey with Cabeza de Vaca worthy of Homer and beyond. Closer to us in time is Melchor Rodriguez, son of Sebastian Rodríguez, Vargas’ African drummer and herald, from one of the original 12 families that established the beautiful village of Las Trampas in the 1700s. Not many U.S. colonial villages or towns can claim that one of their original founders was an African American.
And in commemoration of Women’s History Month in New Mexico, we have baptism certificates, marriage records, wills, court judgments, Inquisition records, etc., that document the vital role that Hispanic women played from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Women such as Doña Isabel de Bohórquez, Doña Teresa de Aguilera, Lola Chávez de Armijo, Carlota Gonzáles, Carmen Espinosa, Aurora Lucero-White Lea, Dora Ortiz Vásquez, Cleofas Martínez Jaramillo, Nina Otero-Warren, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, etc., etc., etc., are just a tiny list of some of the outstanding women included in the book Nuestras Mujeres, Hispanas of New Mexico, 1582-1992. (UNM Press, 1992).
For readers who love New Mexico history, the following sources regarding women’s history are essential: “The Independent Women of Hispanic New Mexico, 1821-1846” by Janet Lecompete. This amazing essay may be found in New Mexico Women: Intercultural Perspectives, published by The University of New Mexico in 1986.
Today, Hispanas’ roles in New Mexico range from nurses, teachers, actors, doctors, professors, lawyers, scientists, poets, playwrights, mayors and, of course, our first woman governor, Susana Martinez. I just can’t imagine the survival of New Mexico without our early great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers. They played such a vital role in our history that without their love, patience, kindness, endurance and vitality, most of us would not be here today.
With that in mind, I highly recommend that anyone who can attend a conference on March 6 at New Mexico State University do so. The conference commemorates the 60th anniversary of the filming of Salt of the Earth. The movie made in 1954 is a drama based on the actual strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico. It deals with the prejudice against Mexican American workers, and the role of the women strikers is not only inspirational but also a great tribute and contribution to Women’s History Month. A similar commemoration is planned March 11 and March 27 at the Santa Fe Community College campus.
As a final note, it is sad that in New Mexico, whose history is so incredibly rich with its multilayers of interaction, that our students are only required to take half a semester of New Mexico history in the ninth grade. It is no wonder that we are so ignorant of our history and cultures.
Orlando Romero is a historian and writer.