New Mexico joined the United States in 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo gave the U.S. its western states. The United States had won what would become the state of New Mexico in its war with Mexico. Not everyone was ready to add a desert state to the Union, though. General William T. Sherman once said that “the United States ought to declare war on Mexico and make it take back New Mexico.”
New Mexico spent 60 years trying to become a state. New settlers coming in from the states have been strong statehood proponents in most territories. New Mexico was different, though. Until New Mexico became a state in 1912, the government leaders were appointed by the federal government in Washington. That meant that the new settlers had more influence in the territory than they might have had as a minority in a state.
Former Mexican nationals living in New Mexico, however, saw that as a state they would have more influence as the majority. They pushed for statehood in their new country. They elected a representative and sent him to Washington in 1849, but Congress refused to give him a seat.
In 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850, the United States paid Texas ten million dollars to give up their claim on New Mexico and organized the New Mexico Territory. There were several statehood bills between this time and the beginning of the 20th century, but Congress failed to vote on those bills.
The leaders of New Mexico invited President McKinley to visit and made sure to show him the parts of the territory which were not desert. New Mexico also made sure to send plenty of men from their ranches to serve in the Spanish-American War with then-governor Teddy Roosevelt.
The language question
On the other hand, New Mexico also sent as its non-voting delegate to Washington a Spanish speaker who required a translator to communicate with his colleagues in Congress. This encouraged fears that New Mexico would not be able to communicate with the rest of the states.
When they agreed on a Constitution, though, New Mexico — like Puerto Rico — made both English and Spanish official state languages.
New Mexico’s voters had trouble agreeing on a Constitution. They also went back and forth on statehood, depending which party was in power. Statehood proponents said that the people in favor of remaining a territory were not good Americans because they were supporting an “Imperial” government rather than participation in democracy.
New Mexico even tried to change their name more than once, proposing both “Montezuma” and “Lincoln” as state names. Local historians claim that there were, altogether, 50 statehood bills during the 64 years New Mexico was a territory.
One possibility that came up in Congress was the idea of putting New Mexico and Arizona together in a state called Montezuma. In 1903, both Arizona and New Mexico had small populations. New Mexico didn’t have a solid public school system. It seemed as though combining forces might be a good idea.
Arizona refused, however, and New Mexico went back to trying for statehood on its own. In 1912, after many failed statehood bills, New Mexico finally became a state.
Lessons for Puerto Rico
New Mexico was a Hispanic territory, just as Puerto Rico is, and the language question worried some Members of Congress. They also had lively statehood and anti-statehood parties, just as Puerto Rico does. They had quite a few statehood bills introduced in Congress, but Congress failed to vote on those bills. They tried the Tennessee Plan without success.
Not many people living today can remember New Mexico’s territorial history, but a lot of the controversies New Mexico faced have also come up for Puerto Rico.
Through persistence, New Mexico became a state. Puerto Rico will do the same. Tell your legislators you want them to be on the right side of history — supporting statehood for Puerto Rico.