updated 7/15/2008 7:34:15 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:34:15

The oldest and the newest of America, some of our oldest settlements and some of our newest technologies can be found, in surrealistic proximity, in New Mexico. The oldest permanently inhabited city in the United States is not Plymouth or Jamestown or St. Augustine; it is probably Acoma, New Mexico, which apparently thrived long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1540 and seems to have been continuously inhabited for the nearly 470 years since. While the settlers of Jamestown and Plymouth were building flimsy wood houses, the Indians in New Mexico were living in extensive dwellings hundreds of years old, made with the adobe that is still the characteristic building material here, and on this rocky desert land used small pebbles as mulch to retain scarce moisture. Nearly five centuries later, much of what makes New Mexico distinctive derives from the people found here by the first European explorers—something true of no other state but Hawaii. The cultures in other states are mostly an outgrowth of what early white settlers brought to the land; natives have mostly disappeared, been killed off by diseases or driven onto reservations. Not so in New Mexico. New Mexico is the northernmost salient of the great Indian-Spanish civilizations of the Cordillera, which extend along the mountain chain through Mexico and Central and South America, to the southern Chile. The Spanish settled in Santa Fe in 1609, and though their hold on the town was often tenuous, their imprint remains. There are still 19 Indian pueblos in New Mexico today, plus the reservations of the Navajo and the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache. Today a very substantial minority of New Mexicans are descendants of those Indians or the Spanish, or both. New Mexico’s population is 43% Hispanic in 2006, the highest percentage of any state, and 10% American Indian. Almost one-third of the people in this state speak Spanish in everyday life, but relatively few are recent immigrants from Mexico; only 8% of New Mexicans are foreign-born, less than the national average.

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Yet New Mexico also is a civilization built on modern technology. It was to a remote mesa called Los Alamos that General Leslie Groves brought his Manhattan Project scientists during World War II to build a secret town and develop a secret weapon that would in two explosions end World War II and change the course of history. Los Alamos is still a government high-tech laboratory, and a source of controversy since 1999 when it was revealed that Chinese spies had obtained hundreds of computer files from there. New Mexico has other high-tech sites as well—the White Sands Missile Range near Alamogordo, where the first atomic bomb was detonated, and the Sandia Laboratories near Albuquerque, run by Lockheed-Martin for the government, a non-nuclear high-tech weapons research facility, with one of the fastest computers in the world, used to simulate nuclear explosions. Near Carlsbad is the federal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), where the Energy Department deposits transuranic radioactive waste. And at the western edge of White Sands near Upham is the Virgin Galactic spaceport, where British entrepreneur Richard Branson is planning to base his space tourism business. With the state and federal government financing the runways, and investors paying $200,000 each for rights to early rides, Branson plans to launch his SpaceShipTwo crafts from the bellies of aircraft at 55,000 feet, fly them at 3,000 miles per hour on an arc 70 miles into space, where passengers can float in glassed-in cabins for six minutes and then glide back down to earth below. The first rides are planned for late 2009 or early 2010. “This sends a message,” Governor Bill Richardson, a big booster and prospective early passenger, proclaimed, “that will be heard around the world—that New Mexico is a state that embraces entrepreneurs, adventurers and pioneers.”

New and old New Mexico intermingle in varying proportions in this land of majestically vast vistas. The Hispanic and Indian cultures predominate north and west of Albuquerque, with picturesque old towns and still-functioning pueblos, backward Indian reservations and lavish casino resorts. ‘‘Little Texas,’’ in the south and east, has small cities, plenty of oil wells, vast cattle ranches and desolate military bases, and resembles, economically and culturally, the adjacent west Texas High Plains. Here, as everywhere in New Mexico, government is a prime employer (accounting for 23% of jobs, one of the highest figures in the country) and often the moving force in the local economy. In the middle is Albuquerque, which, with the arrival of air conditioning, grew from a small desert town of 35,000 in 1940 into a Sun Belt metropolis of 800,000 today; it has a large Hispanic minority. Its economy is based heavily on high tech, especially nuclear power, but it has relatively low income and education levels: New Mexico ranks high among states in the percentage living in poverty and low in income—the downscale Sun Belt. It also has high rates of drunk driving (and a state law requiring ignition interlocks for DWI offenders), teenage pregnancies and drug overdoses. But over the years its amazing scenery and unique culture have attracted writers like D. H. Lawrence and painters like Georgia O’Keefe, and Santa Fe today is a magnet for young people with a taste for alternative lifestyles and trust funds to comfortably finance them. Different kinds of outsiders are attracted by the ten or so destination golf courses built by Indian tribes next to their reservation casinos.

For many years, New Mexico politics was a somnolent business. Local bosses—first Republican, later Democratic—controlled the large Hispanic vote. Elections in many counties featured irregularities that would have made a Chicago ward committeeman blush. New Mexico had for years another feature of boss-controlled politics: the balanced ticket, one Spanish and one Anglo senator, with the offices of governor and lieutenant governor split as well. But for all its distinctiveness, in national politics New Mexico was a bellwether, voting for every winning presidential candidate from 1912, when it became a state, until 1976, when it backed Gerald Ford. In the 1988 and 1996 elections it was just 1% off the national mark. In 2000, after some ragged vote counting, it reported a 365-vote margin for Al Gore; in 2004, it reported a 5,988-vote margin for George W. Bush. Currently, Democrats have a strong base in the north, from Hispanics and from liberal newcomers in Santa Fe and Taos. Albuquerque has been politically marginal; its migrants have been conservative culturally but liberal on economics. Southeast New Mexico is as conservative and Republican as west Texas. Southwest New Mexico, around Las Cruces and Silver City, is more Hispanic and marginally Democratic.

New Mexico politics also has its peculiarities. In the 1990s a Green Party formed, in protest against the practical-minded and sometimes corrupt politics of many Democratic wheelhorses; the Green candidate for governor won 10% of the vote in 1994, which helped elect Republican Governor Gary Johnson, an original, a fiscal conservative who favored drug legalization. The dominant figure in New Mexico state politics today is Governor Bill Richardson, who came to Santa Fe to run the state Democratic party in 1978, got himself elected to Congress in 1982, spent most of the rest of his years in Washington, where he became Energy Secretary; he also served as ambassador to the United Nations and from time to time as official or unofficial negotiator with North Korea. Richardson returned to the state in 2001, was easily elected governor in 2002, dominated the Democratic state legislature and produced a record popular with Republicans as well. In January 2007 he declared he was running for president; if elected he would be the first Hispanic to serve.

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