Historic photo of Albuquerque

History and Race in Albuquerque – Dr. Gabriel Sanchez, UNM

City Alive Policy Change, Racial Equity

History and Race in Albuquerque – Dr. Gabriel Sanchez, UNM

We spoke with Dr. Gabriel Sanchez, Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico, to gather insights into what unique historical perspectives and demographics Albuquerque must consider when approaching race equity and economic mobility.

Gabriel Sanchez, PhD, is a Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and also serves as the Executive Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Sanchez is one of the leading national experts on Latinos and health policy. Sanchez is also an expert on politics in the Southwest having directed many research projects and polls for Latino Decisions in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. This Q&A focuses on historical perspectives on racial equity in New Mexico.

Q: What are some important historical contexts that should be considered when we talk about racial equity and economic mobility in New Mexico?

A: Most folks don’t realize that New Mexico as a territory was founded well before Jamestown. The Southwest region constituted some of the first territories in the United States. Yet, when we think about statehood, we were a territory for a long time but were one of the last states to enter the Union. This begs a question about structural racism—whether our state’s racial and ethnic demographics prevented it from being accepted on the same timetable.

New Mexico was also the first state in the nation to reach majority-minority status. This standing was driven by the large Hispanic or Latino population (now 47%) coupled with its Native American community (which constitutes 10.2% percent of the state’s population today).

Q: How does New Mexico’s history and demographics differ from other states?

A: The first perspective that is important to keep in mind—in terms of a national comparison and what makes Albuquerque unique—is that unlike the rest of the nation where racial inequalities are largely discussed within a Black-white paradigm, here in New Mexico the dominant narrative centers on a Brown-white paradigm.

In addition, most folks I speak with about New Mexico who are not familiar with the state, they take a look at our population that is 47% Hispanic or Latino, and their working knowledge of Latinos leads them to think it is a heavy immigrant and first generation population. That is pretty far from the truth. Many Latinos in New Mexico trace their roots back to 1500s Spanish land grant families, and many define themselves as white, racially. In Albuquerque the foreign born population is about 10% of the total Latino population, which is half of Phoenix’s 20% and even less than what we see in Denver at 16%. So despite being a boarder state, we don’t have a huge immigrant or undocumented population, making New Mexico particularly unique.

Q: What does race equity look like today in New Mexico?

A: The founding of our state has a lot to do with where we are now in terms of racial equity in economic development and political representation. When New Mexico became a state the longstanding Native American and Spanish/Hispanic families brokered access to the political sphere, but white families retained the majority of the financial power in the state. Many have looked at New Mexico and noted that we have more Hispanic and Native American representation in politics than in other states, but we don’t have that same semblance of equity in the economic sphere.

To paint the picture, one of the most commonly cited indicators of economic well-being is median household income because this data point tells us a lot about how a community is doing relative to others in the same state. The median income for Hispanic households in New Mexico in 2014 was $38,236, which is significantly lower than the $53,422 for White, non-Hispanics in New Mexico. And American Indian households face the greatest disparity, with a household income of $31,592.

Q: With a pretty challenging picture to look at, what do you think is the path to increasing economic mobility and promoting racial equity in Albuquerque?

A: In most contexts, the policy solution or the on-the-ground solution to economic access and mobility is to get underrepresented populations at the table. Yet, for New Mexico we have to ask why we don’t see these communities fairing better in health and economic indicators despite a relatively representative presence in government. And it is entwined with the fact that political power in New Mexico doesn’t have a broad command of resources; underrepresented communities don’t have nearly the same access to economic policy making or drivers of economic development.

But I think that, bottom line, it is going to take greater connection and collaborative energy from the banking industry, businesses and grassroots efforts. I think part of the challenge we’ve faced in the past is that these different sectors don’t see themselves on common ground. The Albuquerque Living Cities Integration initiative could be a catalyst to create those needed formal connections between sectors to make meaningful change to economic policy and development in favor of racial equity.

But absolutely, the path is also a long one. Some of the most powerful policy interventions are long-term; we won’t see the fruits of that labor until the next generation and that is the tough thing to realize in the political sphere. We have to be sensitive to the fact that that our policy makers will not be able to see direct outcomes of their labor and efforts during their time in office.


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