Over spring break, I had the good fortune to take a road trip to Santa Fe, N.M. I had never been before and was excited to experience the native southwestern culture. I knew there were many shops and galleries in Santa Fe, but knew little else. The stereotype I had in my mind was a long stretch of arid desert and local vendors selling their goods by the roadside. What else could there be? It was New Mexico, for goodness sake.
We drove into town in the late evening, and I quickly learned of my misconceptions. Santa Fe was not a small village, rather a large city. Interstate-25 dropped us into an adobe metropolis that sported tumbleweeds and concrete on every corner. That night we settled into our casita and waited for morning.
The next day we ventured out into the city for a taste of the Santa Fe culture. We immediately drove downtown after many friends recommend it for shopping. When we arrived, the city was loaded with shops and galleries, but it was not how I had hoped.
The cultures of Santa Fe were over commercialized and exploited. The Plaza, once a defensive center of the Santa Fe Trail, according to the National Historical Landmarks Program, had become an outside mall for local and corporate vendors. Native American culture was sold for top dollar with turquoise and silver as staple goods. Even the local churches cashed in on the profit.
The Loretto Chapel, home of the “Miraculous Staircase,” charged visitors two dollars for a five-minute visit that inevitably ended in a gift shop that sold goods more valuable than the staircase itself. In the shop, tourists wallowed in the holy magnets and the books that describe what they just saw.
The miracle could be bought with cash, check or credit.
Back on the plaza, we saw a row of native peoples selling their goods. They sat in chairs with blankets and coats while the commercial vendors stayed warm in their surrounding shops. One child tourist was astonished by these people and asked his father, “Are those Indians?” He was like many tourists that day who clamored over the silver jewelry and other goods the vendors sold. One man asked a vendor, “Do you take credit cards?” as if the man could do credit checks from his lawn chair. People were more than eager to bring home a piece of Santa Fe.
I must admit: I did buy into the “cash culture.” I tasted the $10 margaritas and devoured the handmade guacamole. I did look for a good price on turquoise and paid five dollars for Pinon nuts. I was a cynical tourist who bought into the whole spectacle with a bag of nuts.
My biggest disappointment came the nest day on our trip to Chimayo to visit the famous Santuario. For many southwestern Catholics, the Santuario is a holy place, which many believers make a pilgrimage to every year to experience its holy dirt. As a child, I had heard many stories about it and hoped to make it one day. When we approached the church, we walked into a construction project that was installing a parking lot right next to the sacred spot. Gift shops and restaurants littered the outside perimeter and claimed to be holy as well. One restaurant down the road even had a picture of Jesus selling “Chimayo Holy Chile.” It was some kind of shopping super-center where people could buy spirituality, gifts and holy produce in one stop.
Despite all my criticisms, I did a have a good time in New Mexico. I have become more conscious of my presence as a tourist and understand the economic cruelties placed on tourist towns. I do not regret having bought into the whole experience; I just wish I could see what Santa Fe was like before it became so commercial.
Ben Sintas is a senior majoring in speech communication.