David Wallace Adams. Three Roads to Magdalena: Coming of Age in a Southwest Borderland, 1890-1990. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016. 454 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2254-2.
Reviewed by Brandon Morgan (Central New Mexico Community College)
Published on H-LatAm (April, 2017)
Commissioned by Michele McArdle Stephens
When a Texan visitor loudly asked, “Don’t any white people live here?” the Magdalena, New Mexico, town marshall retorted, “No, only Mexicans and Texicans” (p. 158). With his response, the marshall, a local who was married to a Hispanic woman, illustrated the ways in which residents of Magdalena and the area immediately surrounding it simultaneously constructed and navigated a “complex ethnocultural borderland” in the American West between the late nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century (p. ix).
In Three Roads to Magdalena David Wallace Adams employs the lens of childhood to trace the processes through which Alamo Navajos, Hispanic Nuevomexicanos, and Anglo Americans created cultural borders between themselves while also finding ways to transcend those boundaries in certain situations. By considering the ways in which children in this small central-west New Mexico frontier town learned to understand and perform their cultural identities, Adams helps readers see how the hierarchy of power relations between members of the three different ethnic groups was constantly (re)created at the level of quotidian activities and relationships.
The research behind this study spans more than three decades. Adams’s work on this book began during his tenure as curriculum director of a school on the Alamo Navajo reservation in the fall of 1981. In that capacity, he was introduced to the place, its people, and its history. Because there was no extant written history of the area, Adams began to read the archives of local newspapers and to talk to residents. Informal conversations became a series of formal interviews in which he navigated the difficulties of gaining the trust of his interlocutors. With time, his status as a member of the local community, albeit a transplant, helped. This study is based on a collection of hundreds of personal interviews, along with newspaper records and other archival materials. Adams adeptly places the stories culled from those sources within current scholarship on borderlands, US western, and childhood history. As he notes in the preface, during one of his interviews Candelaria García told him, “Someday you will get all the stories.” Adams notes that he certainly could not learn all the stories of all the people in Magdalena and its environs, but “I got a lot of them” (p. xiii).
Analyzing and structuring a narrative around such a deep collection of oral history stories is no small task. By dividing the book’s eight chapters into three different sections, Adams focuses first on the ways in which Alamo Navajos, Hispanics, and Anglos constructed boundaries between themselves. The opening section, which includes chapters 1-3, outlines the roles of religion, work and play, and pleasures and taboos in teaching children how to see the world and to act as members of their respective ethnic communities. The second section, encompassing chapters 4-6, uncovers points of connection across ethnic borders through an examination of shared experiences, including school attendance. Due to the nature of Native American boarding schools in the US West, Adams dedicates an entire chapter to the experiences of Alamo Navajo children and adolescents at school. The last two chapters bring the stories of Magdalena up through the end of the twentieth century.
Importantly, Adams’s analysis of children’s cultural development and their ethnic border crossing emphasizes that the process of accommodation between the three groups did not always follow a trajectory toward that end. Instead, it was punctuated by moments of discord, such as the “Magdalena Burro Wars” (pp. 156-157). During that conflict, Hispanic and Anglo children battled one another for control of feral burros that provided a means of transportation around town. Despite relationships cultivated at school during the week, on the weekends the burro conflict turned the children and adolescents into enemies who attacked one another with slingshots in an effort to control the herd of burros.
Children’s innocence about how to relate to others was often tempered by prevailing cultural beliefs and practices taught to them by their parents, as well as by their own experiences with other people. Alamo Navajo Gilbert Guerro, for example, recalled meeting Anglo children his age outside of his hogan when he was about five years old. Surprised at his inability to speak English with them, he longed to learn more about them--something his father supported (p. 146). Alternatively, many other Alamo Navajo parents discouraged too much intercultural mixing, to the extent that they could. Along with ethnicity, class status often influenced parents’ and children’s choices regarding with whom they would fraternize. Young Hispanic women from wealthier Magdalena families, for example, entered white dance halls without trouble. When their less wealthy compatriots attempted the same, however, they were turned away. As Adams adeptly illustrates, the intersection of class and ethnicity were laid particularly bare in the lives of Magdalena-area children and youth.
Some of these interpretations might not seem novel to anyone familiar with coming-of-age stories. Adams’s major contribution to the historiography of borderlands and US western history is to utilize the lens of childhood as a method of uncovering the processes by which ethnocultural borders were, and are, created in rural New Mexico. The stories that he relates highlight the ways in which children in the Magdalena region internalized difference while simultaneously figuring out how to transcend the strictures of the worldview they had been raised with in order to find economic, social, and personal success. Also of particular interest is Adams’s argument that “because children are generally flexible and willing learners,” those of the dominant ethnic group (i.e., Anglos vis-a-vis Hispanic or Alamo Navajos, or Hispanics in relationship to Alamo Navajos) were more willing than might be expected to adopt others’ cultural patterns (p. 150).
Among potential areas that might have been better fleshed out in this study is the author’s choice of delineating socioethnic groups. As Adams notes in the preface, “Anyone writing New Mexico history is faced with the problem of choosing between referents for a group variously identified as Hispanic, Hispanos, and Spanish Americans” (p. xiii). Instead of justifying his choice of “Hispanic,” Adams simply states that he chose that identifier over the others without further explanation. In other areas of the book, however, he mentions that the distinction between Spanish American and Hispanic is particularly important for nuevomexicanos (another, mostly unused identifier) in the northern area of the state. As historians John M. Nieto-Phillips and Charles Montgomery have shown in their work (The Language of Blood  and The Spanish Redemption , respectively), historians have spent much time evaluating the significance of Spanish American identity in New Mexico as part of the New Mexico statehood movement and nuevomexicanos’ concomitant efforts to demonstrate their whiteness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Despite that shortcoming, readers interested in scholarship on the history of childhood, borderlands, and the American West will find new and important insights in this book. Adams’s writing style is engaging, and he presents readers with a plethora of intriguing stories from Magdalena.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-latam.
Brandon Morgan. Review of Adams, David Wallace, Three Roads to Magdalena: Coming of Age in a Southwest Borderland, 1890-1990.
H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews.