Diary of a Congresswoman

Mary-Charlotte Domandi:
So I wanted to ask you something today that’s a follow-up on something that you talked about the other day, when you were talking about your family and when your parents were young, they weren’t allowed to eat in restaurants and that whole scene. As I understand it, your family and other families did a lot to really change things. Is that something that you’re willing and happy to talk about?
Teresa Leger Fernandez:
Yeah, sure. So, so this thing that sometimes people don’t realize, but you know, I’m from Northern New Mexico, San Miguel County. My parents were from small villages. My dad, they were ranchers. So, you know, they would take the cattle in and like all people from Northern New Mexico, we look a little bit like everything. Cause you got Apache and Zuni and French and Spanish and pueblos and Sephardi, and so, you know, you have lots of different looks in the range, but they were Spanish speakers. And when they would take the cattle, so you take the cattle to market and Eastern New Mexico and Southern New Mexico literally had the signs that said, No Mexicans or dogs allowed. And that was the start of my dad used to tell us, and they were going through places for new Mexicans or dogs were allowed in the restaurants. And when my dad comes back from world war two, the GI bill, right except for blacks, right?
Because we were continuing our segregation as nature against blacks, but against Hispanos and Latinos, they did not suffer the same discrimination regarding the GI bill. They were allowed full access to the different sources of funding that came out of the GI bills, including education. So Vegas has Highlands. So that’s where my dad goes to school. And that’s where a lot of GIs go to school. And this is the first time you get Hispanos from New Mexico ending up at Highlands. Cause they weren’t there before. And indeed they weren’t there so much that the fraternities, which were white fraternities, would not admit Hispanos or Jews into their fraternities. So my dad and you know, so they started their own fraternity. So we grew up with all of these Jewish families who were like cousins to us. Cause they all became lifelong friends.
And also a lot of the other members of these fraternity being really at the forefront of a cultural Renaissance in New Mexico, where there was a real reclaiming of the cultural identity. And you know, my mom and dad you’d literally be punished like literally physically punished for speaking Spanish. And, cause kids didn’t speak English until they got to school, there were Spanish language newspapers. My mom learned to read early because her grandfather was going blind. So they taught her how to read at a very young age, like at four and five, so that she could read the newspapers to her grandfather as he goes blind. Cause there was, there were multiple Spanish language newspapers, radio was in Spanish, music was in Spanish. And then the school system starts beating Spanish out of the children. So my mom and dad basically are at the forefront and are part of this cadre of people who began a cultural Renaissance with a recognition that to lose our culture, to lose our language is losing our identity. One thing is to be poor. Some of the counties, San Miguel County, Mora County, you know, there are some of the poorest counties, I mean they they’re poorer than some of the Appalachian counties. They’re some of the poorest counties in the country. One thing is to be poor, but a worse thing in their mind was to be poor without identity. And so, you know, I say it in Spanish, which you understand perfectly, which is “si pierdes tu identidad, tu idioma, tu herencia, pierdes tu identidad, pierdes tu cultura.”
And so they fought against them. They helped buy and pass the 1973 multicultural bilingual education act by which all the native languages, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Keres, et cetera, Apache, Navajo, and Spanish were required to be taught in the schools. If there was X amount of students who spoke those languages at home or that language was spoken at home. And this is the beginning of, you know, you start seeing the mariachi bands forming in the schools. I was part of the west side singers, you know, West side story, and we were singing the Beatles, but we were also singing all the old corridos, and trios and all, a lot of the old songs. And we toured, we sang at the governor’s daughter’s wedding. I don’t know what song we sang, but it was a song in Spanish. And, and I think that when I try to think about in New Mexico, we have poor counties, but they are not angry counties, right? When you think about the divide that we see, you know, white extremists, white supremacists, a lot of that comes out of poverty. Right? We talked about that earlier, that you know, white Americans in poverty have a whole lot in common with black Americans in poverty who have a whole lot of common with Latino Americans in poverty. And that, that issue of poverty is common, but sometimes it doesn’t get addressed because they don’t see beyond their identity differences. But in New Mexico, we have a really strong identity as a Hispanos, as Latinos. We love it. Right? We have our fiestas and we still speak the language. Everybody participates in feast days. Everybody’s invited, everybody participates in the rodeo and state fairs and County fairs and they are open to everybody, right? They’re not exclusive. Now the Pueblo feast days, don’t try to take our religion. Don’t try to be a shaman or whatever, but you’re invited to come and see our dances and eat with me. So the Pueblos, you know, we’re open, we will share our traditions with you. So you can be part of the ever-expanding family, but you’re not one of us, right? They don’t like wannabes. You know, you don’t have to be a horseman to go to rodeo. Love going all of those things right, they’re just traditions celebrations that I’ll share. And I think that that’s one of our strengths in New Mexico.