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Many Americans Can't Quite Place It : New Mexico Finds It's a Lost State

May 31, 1987|DORALISA PILARTE | Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If you think the state of New Mexico is part of Texas, you are not alone. If you think it is a foreign country, you have plenty of company. And if you think it does not exist at all, welcome to the club.

New Mexico, celebrating its 75th anniversary of statehood this year, is the lost state. It is the one many Americans cannot quite place.

The problem alternately annoys and amuses New Mexicans. It feeds a column in New Mexico Magazine called One Of Our Fifty Is Missing. It prompted a resolution from Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) calling on his fellow members of Congress to recognize that he does not represent a foreign country.

"The State Department has been known to refer my staff to its foreign affairs desk," Domenici said in the resolution that was entered in the Congressional Record last summer. "In addition to this, grocery and drugstores in the District have refused to honor New Mexico drivers' licenses, stating that it is their policy to take checks only from American citizens.

Questions on Visas, Water

"When individuals are planning a vacation in my fair state, there are frequent inquiries concerning visas, immunization and the relative drinkability of our water."

The resolution came after former New Mexico Gov. Dave Cargo was told by the Treasury Department that 30% of a treasury bond he wanted to put in his son's name would be withheld in taxes because Cargo lived in a foreign country.

"I wrote them back and said, 'I can only suggest that indeed there is life west of the Potomac and it is on the banks of the Rio Grande,' " Cargo said. "And to think that U.S. Treasurer Katherine Davalos Ortega is from Alamogordo."

That was not the only time Cargo, governor from 1967 through 1970, has run into trouble over his state's identity.

Cargo, now an Albuquerque lawyer, tells of a dinner he attended at the White House during the Nixon Administration.

"There was a Cabinet officer's wife seated at the table, and there was Henry Kissinger, and she turns to me and says, 'I've been listening to you and you speak beautiful English.' I just said, 'Well, I try.' "

Panama Canal Cruise

The woman also informed Cargo that, when she and her husband went on a cruise, they crossed the Panama Canal and went through New Mexico.

"I replied that I once went through the Suez Canal and passed Rhode Island," Cargo said.

There seems to be no end to the ignorance that makes New Mexicans feel, as Rodney Dangerfield, that they get no respect.

"We get quite a bit of confusion as to where it's at," said Jon Bowman, managing editor of New Mexico Magazine, the state-owned publication that has published the One Of Our Fifty Is Missing column since 1970.

"One Florida newspaper stuck New Mexico in the Texas Panhandle and showed Arizona as New Mexico," Bowman said. "I guess it's because Arizona and New Mexico were supposed to enter the Union together."

But the proposal that New Mexico and Arizona enter as one state never came to pass, and New Mexico became the 47th state on Jan. 6, 1912.

When New Mexicans began celebrating the 75th anniversary at the first of the year, events were held in cities throughout the state, including a gathering at the Capitol in Santa Fe of several hundred people who joined Gov. Garrey E. Carruthers in singing "Happy Birthday."

Book From Column

Bowman, who puts together the column from up to 100 letters received each month, said it is the most popular section of the magazine. It is so popular, in fact, that last year the magazine compiled the best examples into a book by the same title.

"It is the most popular book we have published," said Bowman, whose 65-year-old magazine is based in Santa Fe.

The book tells of instances in which even next-door Texans have called telephone operators to ask, "If it's Friday in Texas, will it still be Friday in New Mexico?"

There is also the story of a New Mexican who was stopped by the Highway Patrol in Pennsylvania. The trooper looked at the man's New Mexico license plates, then asked for his driver's license, identification card--and his visa.

The Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau purchased 1,000 copies of the book.

"I guess they've had trouble convincing people it's a city," Bowman said.

Last summer, a committee from the bureau traveled through several Midwestern states promoting Albuquerque and New Mexico, said bureau spokeswoman Jana Lee Aspin.

'Use American Money?'

"What they found was that even the tour operators and travel agents weren't sure we are a part of the United States," Aspin said. "We were getting questions like, 'Can we use American money there?' and 'Is the water drinkable?' "

The organization decided that it was about time to put together a publicity campaign to tell fellow Americans where the state is.

The campaign includes asking fourth-graders in five distant states--New Jersey, Massachusetts, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York--to write their views about New Mexico, Aspin said.

"We want people to know that we are part of the United States, that our water is drinkable and that we drive on the right side of the road," she said. "We think we're going to get some pretty fascinating answers from these kids."

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