The “Southwest” is a term that usually refers to the two large desert states of New Mexico and Arizona. These states have a high native American population and have the largest Indian reservations in the country.
The southwest is home to Phoenix in Arizona, at more than a million people the nation’s fifth largest city. The large city of El Paso in the extreme west of Texas and its bordering city of Juarez in Mexico may also be included in the region. Tucson in Arizona and Albuquerque in New Mexico come next in the ranking, each with about half a million people. The region is otherwise not heavily urbanized. Santa Fe, New Mexico’s state capital, founded in 1607, is the second oldest city in the United States (after St. Augustine, Florida).
It is a mistake to think of Arizona and New Mexico as a single cultural unit. The north of Arizona features the Grand Canyon, one of the world’s great natural wonders. A huge portion of the northeast part of Arizona is taken up by Indian reservations, mostly inhabited by the Navajo, the nation’s most populous recognized tribe (though unofficially, the Cherokee are probably more numerous). New Mexico, which is bisected by the Rio Grande running north to south, has more than 20 other Indian peoples who live in autonomous communities called “pueblos.” These peoples, who number from several hundred to several thousand, each have distinctive cultures and languages (some vital, some in danger of extinction). They have little in common with either the Navajos or their linguistic cousins the Apaches.
Another phenomenon that sets New Mexico apart from Arizona is its “Hispanic” culture. Both states of course have Spanish-speaking communities composed of immigrants from Mexico and Central America (and their American-born descendants). New Mexico, however, has another significant Hispanic population that has nothing to do with Mexico, and which proudly traces its roots directly back to 16th and 17th century Spain. A number of small rural communities in New Mexico enjoy special privileges granted them by the Spanish crown hundreds of years ago that are still honored by the present day state and federal governments.
New Mexico also has a distinctive cuisine that must not under any circumstances be confused with Mexican, Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex or other hybrid southwestern types of cooking (even if the names of many of the dishes are similar). Each of New Mexico’s native American pueblo peoples have distinct cooking traditions, art and handicrafts. Even the Spanish-language folk music of New Mexico is unique.
Another difference between the two states involves elevation. The major cities of Arizona—Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa—are situated at elevations lower than 2000 feet and hence become extremely hot during the summer. Albuquerque ranges from 5000 to 6300 feet, and Santa Fe sits at 7000 feet; these cities get hot enough in summer, but have cool evenings every day of the year. The topography, called “high desert” is unique, and many areas are more alpine than arid. Both states have vast regions of spectacular physical beauty, but the arid desert vista filled with saguaro cactuses and mesas is more widespread in Arizona. Phoenix is also only a six hour drive to Los Angeles, while Albuquerque and Santa Fe are more isolated and self contained. All these cities are American cities of course—with fast-food restaurants, tire shops, shopping malls—but the New Mexico cities at the same time hold onto a special unique chunk of their own culture, in fact several chunks, if you factor in the native American influence.
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