New Mexicans often seem to have such interesting names. Names like Megan Rodriguez and Fiona Martinez. Fiona Martinez? Would that make them Scots-Aztec?

Just a random thought….

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Las Cruces, New Mexico from the west

Las Cruces, New Mexico from the west

I have to admit, I never thought I’d wind up here, in Southern New Mexico. When my parents retired here in 1984 I thought they had moved to hell. The weather was nice enough, of course, but the place was so, oh, I don’t know, beige. Nothing like the green hills of rural Wisconsin in summer that I loved so.

My parents fought about moving here. My Dad always dreamed of going west when he retired. My Mother wanted to stay home. Finally, she relented. “I’ll go out west with you, she told him, but I get to pick the place.”

After exploring a few possible places to relocate, they rolled into Las Cruces on I-10 from Tuscson. From the rest area overlooking Las Cruces and the Organ Mountains, the one with big road runner statue made out of old shoes, my mother declared, “This is it! This is the place!”

My own life remained in the Midwest. I worked in Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, and back to Chicago. For three decades I remained in the “windy city.” In the 1980’s I renewed the political activism of my youth, worked for Mayor Harold Washington, became State Chair of the Independent Voters of Illinois.

Later on, after a hiatus from political life, I backed the Dean Presidential campaign in 2004 and went to Indiana to knock on doors for Barack Obama in 2008. This (actively backing Obama, that is) was a surpise to everyone, as my former State Senator and neighbor in Illinois was a frequent target of my scorn, at the time, for his marshmallow-like centrism. Shows how much I know, he’s now President, and I’m still nobody. Well, at least we’re both rabid Chicago White Sox fans.

I also went back to school and finished the degree I never finished in my 20’s. I became a non-traditional (as they call old students), and award winning history student at DePaul University and then went on to Graduate School at the University of Illinois. I guess I felt like I had something to prove, or just learned to love learning in a formal setting. I’m glad I did it. Lifelong learning is the key to the future for all of us in a global world.

When my Dad died and left me his house in New Mexico, I toyed with the idea of retiring there myself. I began re-making the house into my own in preparation for it, tossing out the things I didn’t like, rearranging the pieces I did and making the place over in my own tastes.

Somehow I never really believed I’d wind up here, like forever and always, in New Mexico. Not really. I figured I’d just go on working in Chicago and die with my boots on, or head for the cornfield and end my days in Champaign, Illinois, near the University of Illinois. All my friends, the few close and cherished ones I have, are in the Midwest.

For all it has to offer New Mexico seemed so far away, so different from home, and I really didn’t know anyone except my Dad’s second girlfriend, the one he dated after my Mother died, and a neighbor. Nice enough people, but hardly the sort of people I like to spend the hours with. Besides, New Mexico is still beige.

But in the end, it was New Mexico that got me.

****

I did say I’ve been a political activist, off and on in my life. Sometimes I’ve been effective, usually, not so much. I’m not very politic for a fellow with an interest in politics. I admit that I’m remarkably impolitic for a man with such a fine sense of pragmatism, but I don’t really need to be, after all, I’m not running for anything.

When I was young, in high school actually, my ideology was cemented by the anti-war and civil rights movements, and by the 1968 campaign of Eugene McCarthy. History and tradition fired me with the progressivism of my own home state, of the democratic vision of Robert M. LaFollette, “Fighting Bob,” the iconic Governor, Senator and Statesman of the Dairy State.

After a term in Congress in which La Follette defied the Republican Party bosses that sent him there, “Fighting Bob” was booted from renomination by the boss-run conventions that decided such things at the time. He fought back two years later and led an insurgent movement that swept the State, enacted direct primaries, overpowered machine politics and turned Wisconsin, in his words, into a “labratory of democracy.” He called the movement he began progressivism and it spread across the nation, a reformist impulse reaching deep into American life, and culminating politically in the bull moose campaign of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. In 1924 La Follette led his last fight, an independent presidential run that took 17% of the popular vote.

I called myself a progressive long before liberals under fire from the Reagan right started taking up the term to link up with some old American memory of something positive, something that sounded like Teddy rather than Franklin Roosevelt.

But liberals, like conservatives, tend to be elitists, stuffing their ideologies down everyone’s throat, whether they like it or not. Most of their organizations don’t have voting members, just boards of directors. I certainly have a philosophy, and that philosophy is well to the left of most, though considerably more pragmatic than some of the more left leaning types I know. I’m a progressive in the old sense of the word. I like participatory democracy. In the end, I like the wisdom of the many, rather than the think tanks of a few.

I got my progressive world-view from Wisconsin, I learned human rights and respect for diversity from my life in black Detroit in the 1970’s, and I honed my pragmatism in Chicago. I’m about as far to the left as any other dreamer, but I know how to settle for half a loaf and start working on getting the other half another day. I’m no rigid ideologue.

When I was in my formative years, as a young activist, I was involved in every campaign under the sun. In 1974, when I was 20-something, I help organize forums in Northern Wisconsin with a classmate of mine, a woman named Kathy. That was a sweeping Democratic year, just after Watergate. Two of the state candidates we organized forums for were Douglas and Bronson C.LaFollette. Distantly related, they hated each other.

Doug LaFollette was running for Secretary of State, Bronson for Attorney General. Doug LaFollette was a newcomer to Wisconsin politics, a native of Iowa. He claimed to be a relative of old Fighting Bob. Bronson, the grandson, insisted he wasn’t; that he was pimping off his families revered Wisconsin name. It was incredibly petty. Typical prima dona politician stuff. Doug hired a geneologist and proved the family tie. He was a cousin, twice removed. He was gloating, and letting the world know he was gloating.

Bronson was a handsome charismatic fellow. He’d entered policitics at 25, right out of law school and swept into the Attorney General’s chair, as a Democrat, mainly on the strength of his grandfather’s, fathers and uncle’s names. Four year later he ran for Governor. Wisconsinites weren’t buying the concept of a 29 year old Governor, even if he was a LaFollette. He lost.

In the election year of 1974 he decided to get his old job back, Attorney General. On the night we held his forum I needled him about Doug LaFollette’s genealogy. He was visibly annoyed. I love annoying politicians. Kathy tried to change the subject. “What does the C. stand for?” she asked. He hesitated, he obviously didn’t like his middle name. “Cutting” he said, “Bronson Cutting was a progressive Senator from out west, my Dad’s best friend.” It stuck in my head. It was history. I inhale history.

****

Recently, I rode up I-25 to Soccoro, alongside the old Jornado del Muerto, the El Camino Real’s “journey of death.” It may be desolate, but it seemed incredibly beautiful to me, and interesting. New Mexico has grown on me, after all. I wonder why I resisted it so. Now I’ve fooled around and fell in love with the place. Even the places New Mexicans call uninteresting, seem awe-inpiring to me now. I learned to like the desert, I love chiles, and the people are a friendly lot.

For all of its remoteness, New Mexico seems to offer a whole new world of new beginnings for me. As a child I longed for those trips to the countryside, and as an adult, I’ve travelled across the landscape looking for solitude in remote places. I’ve lived in cities all my life, and while the dense exitement of urban life thrilled me when I was 25, I’ve grown more and more tired of it as time and life wore on. In New Mexico solitude is everywhere.

Between Las Cruces and Socorro the desert spreads out in all directions and the road runners and jackrabbits vastly outnumber the people between the two communities.

In Soccoro, a city in central NewMexico and one of those “real” New Mexican places, well off the tourist trail, I spotted an item about an old New Mexico Senator. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico. It was a Pershingesque sort of moment.

I thought for a moment and said out loud, “Senator Cutting, I’m an old Wisconsin progressive and I am here!”

For my mother, New Mexico was love at first site. It took me a while to grow into the idea, but I have, and now that I have, I just can’t quite understand why I resisted the idea. Frankly, it’s the best damned place on earth!

This is the place!