HERstory Symposium shines light on women in New Mexico's past

·5 min read

Jul. 24—When American travelers started passing through Santa Fe in the 1800s, Mexican saloon owner Maria Gertrudis "Tules" Barceló was there, breaking gender norms and building economic power. When the popularity of flamenco dance grew in New Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s, it was female dancers, set designers and choreographers often fanning the flames and cementing the art into state culture.

Those are just a few tidbits of New Mexico's past that Meredith Machen, director of projects and immigration as well as education co-chairwoman with the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, hopes to dust off and put on display at a women's history symposium at Santa Fe Preparatory School on Wednesday.

"We've got to put women back in history," Machen said in a recent interview. "Here we've had the vote for over

100 years, but we're still totally underrepresented in official capacities."

The event, a collaborative project between the league and the New Mexican Humanities Council called NM Listens, is meant to remind everyone that women have always played large roles in the history of New Mexico and beyond, Machen said.

The reminder is timely, particularly in lieu of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning Roe v. Wade, she said.

"Women's rights are under attack at this point, so we've got to look back at what the long struggle has meant," Machen said. "We've fought too hard for these rights. They need to be respected and supported."

Machen, who leads NM Listens, will moderate "NM HERstory Symposium: Heritage and Innovation." The event will feature five local women historians presenting on subjects from social studies and women's suffrage to flamenco dancing and life on both El Camino Real trade route and the later Santa Fe Trail.

Audience members, both in-person and virtual, will be able to ask questions after the presentations.

Machen said she plans to post a recording of the session online so educators can use specific segments for lesson plans.

It won't all be praise: Women's history in New Mexico is as messy with power dynamics and racism as any strand of American history. Recently retired president of the Missouri Historical Society and former director of the Palace of the Governors, Frances Levine, will explore the lives of women connected to the Santa Fe Trail, including some of the first women to trek from Missouri to Santa Fe, Susan Shelby Magoffin and an enslaved woman named Jane who accompanied her.

Levine is seeking to cast a more nuanced eye on Magoffin, whose journal is often celebrated for its charming, detailed accounts of life on the trail in the 1840s. Levine said after moving to Missouri, she re-read the work through a different lens, which reveals the privilege and power dynamics between Magoffin and Jane that, Levine said, deserves more attention.

"We gave Susan a pass, for a long time. We were charmed by her," Levine said. "You can see her in many more dimensions with closer reading."

Levine, who has studied the Santa Fe Trail both in Santa Fe and in Missouri where it begins, insists the time period and events surrounding the trail are essential to understanding the U.S. — and that women are an undeniable part of it.

"You could really re-tell the history of the U.S. by using the Santa Fe Trail," Levine said. "As a story of politics and power relationships. And the American conquest."

Levine will also detail the life of Maria Gertrudis "Tules" Barceló, a Mexican woman and lauded gambler who owned a saloon in Santa Fe along the trail and amassed a great deal of wealth catering to American and Mexican traders. Levine calls her a mujerota — a strong, independent woman.

"She really both aids and abets the Americans, but she keeps control of what she can: the flow of money, the flow of information," Levine said.

The historian will also talk about Julia Archibald Holmes, a suffragist and abolitionist who also lived in New Mexico in the mid-19th century. Holmes is perhaps best known for wearing an American "reform outfit," which looks like bloomers, worn by suffragists of the time.

But Levine said Holmes, who spoke out staunchly against slavery in New Mexico, stands for much more.

"I think [she] speaks to us in this moment as much as she did in the 1860s, about the power of women and collective action," Levine said.

Deputy state historian of New Mexico, Nicolasa Chávez, will present Wednesday on how New Mexico made flamenco its own during the 20th century and into today. It's a relatively modern history, Chávez noted, which bloomed largely thanks to women flamencas dedicated to the Spanish dance form.

"We have several men that are important in our history, but women have really taken it to levels that have never been seen in this state," she said. "I think people often only think about flamenco women as dancers."

But, Chávez contends, they are also choreographers, producers, business owners and touring artists.

And while many popular narratives surrounding female artists in New Mexico are built around people who moved to the land later in life, Chávez hopes her portion of the panel discussion will maintain a focus on New Mexicans.

"it's time to start talking about the people who are here and were here," she said.

In a male-dominated field, Chávez said she's excited to hear the stories her fellow female historians will tell Wednesday.

"There's still so much about women's stories and women histories we don't know," she said. "And all these women on the panel have really dedicated their careers to bringing these stories to light."