El Camino Heritage Center

New Mexico State Monument

 

The El Camino Heritage Center opening touched hearts: “It set off my pacemaker," said one state Senator.

“It you build it, they will come.”

That line from the movie, “Field of Dreams” certainly applied Saturday, November 19, 2005, at the opening of New Mexico’s newest state monument, El Camino Real International Heritage Center, located in the northernmost reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert, just off Interstate 25, Exit 115, between the communities of Socorro and Truth or Consequences. 

El Camino Real Heritage Center entrance

The new Center celebrates the historic El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road to the Interior), which began at Mexico City and extended northward, to the Santa Fe area, a distance of more than 1500 miles.  Its construction, funded by the state and the Bureau of Land Management, was begun after the segment from El Paso, Texas, to Española, New Mexico, was declared a U. S. National Historic Trail.  The NHT is administered by the National Park Service and the BLM.  The Center is administered by The New Mexico State Monuments, a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs. 

An estimated 2000 people filled the Center’s parking lot to overflowing for the opening even though shuttle buses brought visitors from both Truth or Consequences and Socorro.  As many as 3000 visitors attended the opening events during the course of the day.

Flags of countries and states with a historical connection to the trail.

A distinctly multi-cultural and international feeling of good will quickly emerged among the participants.  It may have been best summarized by State Senate President Pro-Tempore Ben D. Altamirano, whose district includes Socorro County, where the site is located.   “I wear a pacemaker, and it set off on me when the Truth or Consequences group brought up those flags.”

Flying in a moderate breeze as Altamirano spoke were five flags posted by the nearby Hot Springs High School ROTC.  They included the flags of the United States, Spain and Mexico, the countries with historic ties to the trail, and those of New Mexico and Texas, the states through which the trail passes in the United States.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson speaking at the opening

“Governor (Bill) Richardson proclaimed this the ‘Year of the Child’,” Altamirano continued, “and it makes me feel really good that we are preserving our culture and history for them.”

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Governor Richardson, who cut the ribbon officially opening the building shortly after mid-day, praised Altamirano’s tireless efforts, and those of State Representative Don Tripp, whose district also encompasses Socorro, to get funding for exhibits for the monument.  He also had high praise for the BLM, which donated land to the state and contributed some $3 million to get the project started.  BLM is a partner with the State of New Mexico in the endeavor.

Crowd waiting to see the central exhibit in the heritage center

The Governor reminded visitors that this was the second state monument ribbon cutting this year.   On June 4, he cut the ribbon at the new Bosque Redondo State Memorial, part of Fort Sumner State Monument in east central New Mexico.  “I’d like to do one a year during my watch,” he said.

Providing a history lesson for the opening ceremonies, and cementing the multicultural flavor, was Joseph Sánchez, (Ph.D., history) superintendent of the Spanish Colonial Research Center of the National Park Service at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  Sánchez has also done extensive work in Spanish and Mexican archives for more than 30 years, and he is currently superintendent of Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque.

Pioneer woman of the trail, one of the re-enactors at the opening

“Todos hemos pasado por aquí,” Sánchez repeated throughout his remarks, paraphrasing the words that Don Juan de Oñate inscribed at the fabled El Morro, also known as Inscription Rock, near Ramah, New Mexico.  “We have all passed through here,” said Sanchez.  “El Camino Real is not just a route, but a series of routes for commerce, immigration and settlement.” He noted that early Spanish explorers, including Oñate, introduced a whole range of firsts into the Southwest, including European government before the House of Burgesses came into being at Jamestown.  “Juan de Oñate brought apple seeds. You might call him the first Appleseed Johnny,” Sánchez quipped. 

In remarks away from the podium, Sánchez said “El Camino Real is a conduit for the transmission of culture in New Mexico, and it is still alive through the descendants of the people who traveled the road...  It represents a pageantry of Native American, Spanish and Mexican settlers as well as Anglo-American frontiersmen who migrated to the area.”

Other speakers during the ceremony included dignitaries from both Mexico and Spain.  “I see an increase in commerce between our countries (the United States and Mexico),” said Juan Manuel Solana, the Consul of Mexico in Albuquerque, noting that trade between them has grown fourfold in the last five years.  “The Camino Real is very much alive and its history is part of our future,” he said.  Julio Montesino, Consul General of Spain, located in Houston and serving Texas and New Mexico, had a similar view.  The Heritage Center “is a true reminder of our common roots in the Americas and our common history during a time when Spain controlled much of the West,” he said.  “Initiatives like this will contribute to strengthening the ties between us.”

Consensus also came from speakers who were initially skeptical of locating the Center in a virtually uninhabited area between Socorro and Truth or Consequences.

“Several years ago, when people came to me about a visitor center here, I said ‘you want to do what, and you want to do it where?’ ” said Linda Rundell, Bureau of Land Management State Director.   But as she learned more, she came to understand the site’s importance, she said.  “Today I see nothing but beauty.  And I can’t even express how wonderful the exhibits are.”           

“I felt kind of like Linda Rundell, a little skeptical at first,” said Representative Tripp.  He said the idea of a building that was a metaphor for a ship “in the middle of nowhere” took some “getting used to,” but ultimately “it makes sense here.  You can experience what people of the trail experienced.”

The site was selected after a long public debate, not only as a compromise between competing communities, but also because it is a midway point along the 400 mile trail in the United States.  It is also an overlook to the northern end of the dangerous and historic Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead Man, the most dangerous section of the entire Camino Real, from Mexico City to Española.   The Jornada is the portion of the trail where travelers headed south moved away from the river and civilization and where travelers headed north returned to the welcoming waters of the Rio Grande.

El Camino Real Heritage Center sign

Stuart Ashman, Secretary of the Department of Cultural Affairs, who served as emcee, said visitation at the monument will be “a big boost for both Truth or Consequences and Socorro.”

“As New Mexico grows, the monument won’t seem as remote.  This is not an isolated corridor,” he continued, noting the high volume of traffic on Interstate 25 today.  “And it is important for the children that we tie New Mexico and Mexico together in a friendly way.”

The permanent exhibits turned out to be the smash hit they were expected to be, with visitors waiting in line for as long as 20 minutes to get in.  Rita Palacio of Bosque Farms, New Mexico, not only waited in line at the exhibits but also for a shuttle bus when the parking lot was overflowing.  It all became worthwhile, however, when she read a list of some of the first colonists to New Mexico posted on a 1587 to 1600 list.  There among the dozens of the colonists listed alphabetically, from Sancho de Acosta to Jorge de Zuminga was, to her delight, one named Palacio.

In her remarks, New Mexico’s Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish said, “This [the heritage center] demonstrates that El Camino Real is still alive and well and a part of all of our lives.  It’s a little more generous to us that it was to early travelers, but it brings us all together.”

 

Copy by New Mexico State Monuments, a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Photos by Jay W. Sharp

Lodging

There are motels and bed-and-breakfasts in all price ranges, and there are many camping and RV accommodations in or near Socorro. Click Here. (Rates, availability and reservations online)


Chihuahua Trail (Camino Real)
Socorro, New Mexico
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

 

 

 

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