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New Mexico Features Spicy Food, Rich Mix of Cultures

The western US state of New Mexico has been home for thousands of years to Native Americans, including the Navajo, Pueblo tribes and others. The Spanish settled the region 400 years ago, and in the 19th century, the Americans arrived. The colorful history has produced a rich blend of cultures.

What first strikes a visitor are New Mexico's wide-open vistas. Around Albuquerque, there are vast expanses of desert, outcroppings of rock and elevated mesas. In other parts of the state, there are forest-covered mountains, capped with snow in winter.

If visitors stay for long, they will encounter the fiery food. New Mexico cuisine has its share of corn and beans, the result of its joint Mexican and Indian heritage. Mixed in with most dishes is red or green chile, which restaurateur Jim Garcia calls a spicy New Mexico staple.

"Oh man, fresh flamed-roasted chiles. It's got a great smoky taste to it, a real rich flavor of chili. I don't know, it's heaven," explains Mr. Garcia.

Garcia is director of operations at the state's largest restaurant, called El Pinto. Once each year, he and his staff take their fiery fare to Washington for the official White House meal on Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican cultural celebration May 5th. For President Bush, from the neighboring state of Texas, the festival is an important part of the annual calendar.

Edward Romero is a New Mexico native who cherishes his Southwestern Hispanic roots. His family has lived in New Mexico for hundreds of years. In 1998, President Clinton appointed Romero US ambassador to Spain, and he served three years in the post. Now back in New Mexico, he enjoys the state's mixed cultures.

"You have ancient Indian culture. You have old Spanish culture. You have so-called Anglo-Saxon culture. You have Mexican culture. And there's a remarkable cohesion between these different cultures that you won't find any place else," he notes.

Inter-cultural relations have not always been smooth, however. The region's Pueblo Indians rejected Spanish rule and the Catholic religion, and revolted against the Spanish in 1680. Roughly 12 years later, Spain regained control.

In the 19th century, Mexico ceded the territory to the United States after a bitter two-year war between the countries.

Over time, there has been a mixing of cultures, says Eduardo Diaz, executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

"You look at jewelry or you look at textiles or you look at ceramics, those are shared cultural and artistic practices that you will see in the Pueblo Indians or with the Navajos, and you will see them within our culture as well," he explains.

New Mexicans of many backgrounds cherish the region's finely crafted silver and turquoise jewelry, and the distinctive geometric patterns of its weaving and pottery.

At the Hispanic cultural center, artist Frederico Vigil is painting a huge fresco on the domed ceiling of a replica Spanish tower.

The artist, like many here, has Hispanic and Native American roots. He says the painting will cover 370 square meters. It will take two years to complete, and will depict the cultures that helped produce the state's traditions.

"We're creating probably the largest concave fresco in America, dealing with historical influences," he says. "I have Mayans, Aztecs, Olmec, Inca."

The painting will also show predecessor cultures in Europe and the Mediterranean, including the Phoenicians, Celts, Romans and Spanish Moors. He says traces of each can be seen in modern New Mexico, a state with its own distinctive atmosphere and flavor.