You could find automobiles on the streets in many a New Mexico town back in 1912, and yet it was just as likely you’d see a cowboy ride his horse up to a restaurant to get a bite to eat. The railroad, the telegraph and the telephone brought progress, news and visitors. “We were rural and poor, but New Mexico wasn’t disconnected from the nation,” Rick Hendricks, state historian, said Wednesday. New Mexico cemented its connection in 1912 by attaining statehood and effectively creating a state government based on its own constitution, a goal that was a good 60 years in the making.
Delayed and foiled over the years by, among other measures, bad timing, racism, anti-Catholic bias, Manifest Destiny, the untimely death of a statehood-supporting president (Zachary Taylor) and opposition by a neighboring territory, the 24-article constitution was finally adopted by a Constitutional Convention in November 1910, ratified by the people a year later and made law in January 1912.
The original state constitution, normally locked up in a climate-controlled vault, went on display alongside a number of other historical documents on Wednesday — for one afternoon only — at the State Records Center and Archives on Camino Carlos Rey near Cerrillos Road.
“People should have the opportunity to see historical documents we have in the archives,” Hendricks said Wednesday at the records center, noting that usually only historians can request access to the original constitutional document.
Hendricks and New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels both gave short presentations regarding the creation and importance of the state constitution during a noon opening ceremony. Among the visitors were David and Mary Darling of Albuquerque. Her grandfather, Sen. William Dennis Murray, was one of 69 state lawmakers who signed the constitution. Her husband’s grandfather, who ran a newspaper in Deming, was good friends with Murray.
“He ran a general store in Central New Mexico and opened the Murray Hotel in Silver City,” Mary Darling said of her grandfather. “I was such a child when he died; he didn’t speak about the constitution. Later, I read about him and realized he did a lot more important things for this state than I was aware of.”
The history of the constitution, as far as this exhibit is concerned, dates back to 1846, after Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny declared New Mexico an American Territory at the outset of the Mexican-American War. The exhibit includes Kearny’s proclamation, which asks the Spanish-speaking residents of the city of Santa Fe not to take up arms against the American military, as well as Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid’s Spanish translation of that proclamation. Vigil y Alarid was the last Mexican governor of the territory of New Mexico.
Jerry Vigil of Albuquerque, who said he is a descendent of Vigil y Alarid, was reading over that document at the state records building Wednesday. “These documents are wonderful,” he said. “This [proclamation] makes me very honored.” He said he was aware of his ancestor’s role in state history, but said he was not aware of this specific document. The state constitution — which in some ways mirrors the Constitution of the United States while also including provisions preserving the ethnic and cultural diversity within the state — “still speaks to who we are today,” Vigil said, though he acknowledged there always has been an undercurrent of racial divide within the territory.
The exhibit showcases the many abortive attempts by state leaders to draw up and ratify a state constitution in 1850, 1866, 1872 and 1889. In 1906, the state came closing to having both a constitution and statehood when its residents were given the chance to vote to become part of the United States as the state of Arizona (which would have enveloped New Mexico in that case).
“New Mexicans voted 2-to-1 for it, and Arizona voted 5-to-1 against it … primarily because of our ethnic diversity,” Daniels said in his remarks to the crowd. “Our Hispanic population concerned the people of Arizona. … There was a fear we wouldn’t quite be Americans.”
He praised the original constitution as a document that tried to preserve the culture, language and civil rights of New Mexicans, noting that one of the early provisions included ensuring the teaching of both Spanish and English in the public-school system.He noted that amendments to the constitution must be approved by three-quarters of both of the state’s legislative bodies — as well as state voters. Still, in the past 100 years, there have been more than 160 amendments.
“It’s a surprising number considering how difficult it is to do,” Hendricks noted. “Yes, it’s been changed. But it hasn’t been thrown out.”
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