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Olla, Maria Martinez

Maria Martinez, Olla, c.1926 (signed 1975). Southwest Museum, Autry National Center; 491.G.955

Cedric and Merdest Bradford

Cedric and Merdest Bradford, proprietors for 42 years of the U-Tote-Em Grocery (1938-1980), located on Chestnut Avenue across from Booker T. Washington School in Las Cruces.

History’s other half

Imagine the story of the American West and you’re likely to see gunfighters, Indian wars, and cattle barons. Where were the women? Everywhere, it turns out—from the Pueblo women who guided the domestication of corn to the pottery makers, blanket weavers, cowgirls, scientists, politicians, and soccer moms of today.

This summer, the New Mexico History Museum spotlights the unsung heroes of the West in a collection of exhibitions. The main one, Home Lands: How Women Made the West (on display from June 19 to September 11), sweeps across centuries of stories in the Rio Arriba of northern New Mexico, Colorado’s Front Range, and the Puget Sound.

“There’s tremendous optimism in the exhibit because you see so many beautiful examples of women’s craftsmanship and writing,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the museum. “They show that women rose above the limits of their status.”

Organized by the Autry National Center in Los Angeles and augmented by items from the history museum, the exhibition focuses on the universal desire to set down roots and create that place called “home”—an institution so deeply rooted in our psyches that it can break up families and set off wars.

Too often, historians documenting the West have relegated women to the shadows or to stereotypes as dance-hall barmaids, laundresses, and Calamity Janes. Among the women those stereotypes leave out:

  • Pueblo potter Maria Montoya Martinez, who almost single-handedly revived the art of San Ildefonso pottery and turned it into an economic mainstay.
  • Pablita Velarde, who broke from her pueblo’s women-make-pottery bonds to gain worldwide renown as a figurative painter.
  • Photographer Laura Gilpin, who hiked, drove, and leaned out of airplanes to capture the landscape of the West.
  • Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, a Las Vegas, New Mexico teacher and writer who elevated both the art and science of homemaking from the Depression forward, blending traditional practices with modern-day conveniences. In the 1950s, Cabeza de Baca’s expertise went global when she started home-economics programs in Central and South America for the United Nations.

Home Lands tells those stories and many more, with artifacts that range from a 1,200-year-old Mogollon metate to a twentieth-century station wagon, textiles, clothing, pottery, paintings, photographs, sculpture, books, and an art piece made of computer components by contemporary New Mexico artist Marion Martinez.

The exhibit weaves a crazy quilt of women’s stories that may change visitors’ minds about some long-held assumptions.

“Seeing women in history,” say Home Lands curators Virginia Scharff and Carolyn Brucken, “makes history look different.”

Buttressing Home Lands are three other exhibits celebrating unsung heroes of the West:

  • Ranch Women of New Mexico, through October 30, highlights 11 women who have cowgirled or owned ranches in New Mexico in excerpts from an exhibit originally prepared by photographer Ann Bromberg and writer Sharon Niederman.
  • New Mexico’s African American Legacy: Visible, Vital, Valuable, through October 9, tells the stories of the families who planted their roots in Las Cruces, Albuquerque, and the short-lived community of Blackdom following the Civil War.
  • Heart of the Home, through November 20, features historic kitchen items from the museum’s collections, including a Monarch stove that just might make you long for the “good old days.”

“Since its opening in 2009, the New Mexico History Museum’s exhibits have included the stories of men, women, and children—a conscious effort on our part to broaden the telling of history,” Levine said. “I think visitors will walk away from Home Lands understanding the complexity of women’s lives and the opportunities that women took when they weren’t given to them—the opportunities to make their lives better, even in the face of hardship.”

Free workshops, lectures, and demonstrations accompany the exhibits. For details, log on to www.nmhistorymuseum.org.

   

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