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If these rocks could talk

Finding New Mexico women’s history

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“Watch out for the snake!”

The students initially scatter but then calmly walk around the rock hosting a coiled bull snake. Some of the braver students sneak a closer look, but they quickly keep moving on the vertical rocky trail at the Wells Petroglyph Preserve on Mesa Prieta in Lyden, New Mexico. As a professor in Northern New Mexico, I am blessed to work in a living classroom, with layers of stories stacked and scattered all over the land. A wonderful feature of Northern New Mexico College, where I work, is that students and faculty can take trips in our own backyards to listen to the voices of the past. 

Dr. Matthew Martinez of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, a professor of Pueblo Indian studies at NNMC, often accompanies me and my students to give tours of the petroglyphs, with the permission of preserve owner Katherine Wells. During a walking tour of a petroglyph trail, Martinez describes the time periods represented in the images carved on the rocks — Archaic, Ancestral Puebloan, and colonial/modern — and posits possible explanations of the designs. For, as the Mesa Prieta website states, “No one really knows why the ancients created petroglyphs or what they intended to communicate.” 

During each visit, Martinez encourages students to consider the layers of context, culture, resources and stories that the images hold. Often he shares the story of one petroglyph in particular, an image of a woman giving birth. He explains to students that the petroglyph images reflect significant events in the daily lives of our ancestors. Birth, of course, was one of them. 

The ancient image never fails to fascinate me. The birth scene carved on the rock centuries ago allows me to imagine history in New Mexico starting from a much different place than what I learned in school — an indigenous woman’s body. As we typically navigate New Mexico history, we are bombarded with historical narratives that start in 1598, with the arrival of Spanish conquistadores into the region, and follow the trajectory of war and colonial development by first Spain and then the United States. We talk of Oñate and De Vargas, of hosts of territorial governors and politicians, of Padre Martinez and Kearny. I crave the stories of women and birth.

When my students and I discuss the possibilities of the birth petroglyph with Matthew Martinez, we inevitably weave a web of stories about traditional birth practices, about imagining how and where women gave birth and how birth begs the question of relationship. How are the people of New Mexico related to each other? Was this rock the designated place to give birth? These questions always bring wonder and connection into our conversations about those humans emerging from this place through a woman’s body. We do not definitively know the answers, but the mere insinuation of a fecund origin inspires us to understand our place in the world from a different perspective. That is precisely what we need to do.

At many of New Mexico’s historic sites, Nuevomexicana history has been relegated to what Vicki Ruiz, Chicana historian and former president of the American Historical Society, calls “landscape roles.” The visitor may have a “vague awareness of the presence of women, but only as scenery, not as actors.” Or women’s histories are framed as historias escondidas, hidden histories that we must learn to discern in the shadows of dominant narratives. The reality is that we can see the contributions of women everywhere when we broaden our scope of history beyond the “great man/great event” narrative and ask: Where did New Mexican women’s history occur?  

In her text From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth Century America (1998), Ruiz reflects, “When I was a child, I learned two types of history — the one at home and the one at school. My mother and grandmother would regale me with tales of their Colorado girlhoods, stories of village life, coal mines, strikes, discrimination and family lore. At school, scattered references were made to Coronado, Ponce de León, the Alamo and Pancho Villa. That was the extent of Latino history. Bridging the memories told at the table with printed historical narratives fueled my decision to become a historian.”

Much as Ruiz describes, the history of New Mexico women often bridges these in-between spaces of the formal and informal. When looking for women’s history, we have to look in places other than the formal archives of established history.  

So much of what I know about women’s history in New Mexico comes from stories told around the kitchen table, personal correspondence, recipe books, Bibles and even textile work. Sites once relegated as ahistorical or having little historical significance, such as women’s kitchens, clotheslines and family gardens, create the lived-in spaces where stories are shared, and it is in the process of story sharing where much of women’s perspective and agency lies. Rituals such as peeling chile and baking bread brought women together to work but also to participate in the important business of sharing knowledge.  

In her 2017 book Archives of Dispossession: Recovering the Testimonios of Mexican American Herederas, 1848-1960, Karen R. Roybal discusses how Anglo territorial expansion in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands relied upon the denial of property rights to Mexican landowners. Roybal recenters the focus of dispossession on women, arguing that gender, sometimes more than race, dictated legal concepts of property ownership and individual autonomy.

Roybal locates voices of Mexican American women in the Southwest to show how they fought against the erasure of their rights, both as women and as landowners. Woven throughout her analysis are these women’s testimonies, their stories focusing on inheritance, property rights and shifts in power. 

Roybal invites us to look through broader lenses that engender the retelling of history from women’s perspectives. Women-centered history requires us to think differently about women’s functions in communities, which have largely been considered peripheral or supportive, and it encourages us to center women’s experiences as worthy of account. Women’s perspectives — herstory — also emphasize details that women considered important and that were not often or accurately included in male narratives. Herstory would have us living in a state where instead of contesting conquistadores, we raise statues to the homes, art, writing, schools, institutions, food, gardens, water and seeds that women are in relationships with on a daily basis. Grandmothers would be on pedestals.

This idea impacts New Mexicans of all genders equally because we know that representation matters. The fullest rendering of New Mexico history should include all stories and should force us to think about our relationships to these events, to these histories and to the full spectrum of our lives. Seeing and hearing women in New Mexico history is a labor of love, but it is one etched in stone if we choose to see it. 

Patricia Marina Trujillo, PhD, is the director of equity and diversity and an associate professor of English and Chicana/o studies at Northern New Mexico College. Trujillo is the creative writing editor of Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social. She is also a faculty adviser to the ¡Sostenga! Farm and serves on the boards of the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area, NewMexicoWomen.org and Tewa Women United.

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