'Taos Plaza: History, Myth and Memory'

Dr. Sylvia Rodríguez to shed light on community's past and present


A topic that is near and dear to newcomer and old-timer alike, the historic Taos Plaza, will be the subject of a talk by Dr. Sylvia Rodríguez Saturday (Aug. 5), 2 p.m., at the boardroom at Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, 118 Cruz Alta Road. The lecture is free and open to the public.

“The Taos Plaza: History, Myth, and Memory” is the title of the presentation. When Tempo asked Rodríguez about the present-day relevancy of any discussion concerning Taos Plaza, she said, “I think that’s true of a lot of history. History is still very much alive, like in other parts of the world. I don’t think you can understand today’s issues without knowing the past.”

The Plaza was once home to the Taos County Courthouse, a barbershop, a theater, a pharmacy, other stores and is still just steps from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. The Plaza was the living, breathing heartbeat of Taos.

“All of that has died out. Local people avoid the Plaza because it’s painful. Soon, no one will remember what it was once like. It will just be fiction,” Rodríguez said.

This professor emerita of anthropology at the University of New Mexico knows Taos. She is a native Taoseña and has spent four decades researching the cultural impacts of tourism, conflicts over land and water, as well as ritual and ethnic identity. In addition, her father once owned a pharmacy on the Plaza and Rodríguez remembers it well from when she was a child. “There’s all this talk of economic revitalization. I don’t know if you can revive a dead space without serving local people. For this effort to redesign the Plaza, I was at an early community meeting. People don’t understand the need of locals; they are designing for tourists,” she said.

Regarding the myth portion of her lecture, Rodríguez plans to discuss the mythology that there are tunnels under Taos Plaza. “The tunnel thing says more about the people about Taos than anything,” she said. “They represent the political unconscious of Taos.”

In her published essay, “What Tunnels Under Taos Plaza?” (“The Plazas of New Mexico,” Trinity University Press, 2011), she writes: “The story goes that they date from the original construction of the plaza, as an enclosed, gated, adobe square in which individual households were connected by underground tunnels where settlers hid from Indian raids. … Whether they describe days of warfare, gambling, running bootleg whiskey and drugs, the stories about what went on in the tunnels always evoke a violent and dangerous interracial past. The tunnels symbolize past and present realities that a safe, attractive tourist town must suppress. They express what some call a society’s political unconscious … an unconscious ideological response to a history of race and class domination.”

Rodríguez points out that there is no historical record or evidence of what the tunnels looked like. “The only photographs I’ve seen are the ones I took. I’ll show them at my talk,” she said.

This illustrated lecture is part of the Taos County Historical Society’s participation in the Taos Art and Cultural Consortium 2017 theme of “Taos Legends and Stories.” The Taos County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization and was formed in 1952 for the purpose of “preserving the history of the Taos area.”

Speaking on behalf of the historical society, board member Paul Figueroa said, “We are thrilled that Sylvia is going to talk with us again because of the continued interest in and the plans for the Plaza.”

He notes that the lecture series has enjoyed good dialogues after the presentations. The historical society has presented speakers on traditional Pueblo life and the flamenco tradition in New Mexico. Upcoming lectures are: “Route 66” (September) and “Pot Creek” (October). In November, the Taos County Historical Society will host a presentation about the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March.

A press release for the lecture states that Rodríguez’s talk will feature images of Taos Plaza from different eras and draw on historical sources, personal memory and popular myth to discuss its changing role over the course of the 20th century as it was gradually transformed from the social and political heart of the community into a theme mall for tourists. She will address popular myths about secret tunnels and public executions, as well as what caused the Plaza’s social death and whether efforts to reanimate it through ritual and other special activities can succeed.

Rodríguez further explains that her work has to do with place and the “palimpsest of history and the different layers of meaning and landscape put over place throughout the centuries.”

“One of the things that fascinates me about this social landscape is the overlapping layers of meaning; it is all contested ground. There are very different views, very different versions,” Rodríguez said.

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