Rethinking Distance

Originally Published on the LHIP Blog Site


One point emphasized in the many Route 66 oral histories I’ve looked through is how long it took to travel from place to place. It might seem obvious, but the way we experience travel today—getting on the freeway and driving anywhere between 60–80 mph—is not the same as it was in the mid-twentieth century. Road conditions were often precarious with roads not always paved, traffic piled up on roads through cities and small towns, cars required drivers to stop every hour to refill gas and water bags to prevent overheating, and extreme speed limit restrictions (by today’s standards) made every trip, even if it was to the next town over, a journey in its own right.

This is particularly significant for me because my research as a historian looks at the reproductive landscape in New Mexico, and considers how women in the state experienced birth both utilizing traditional healing practices (like curanderismo) and professionalized medicine. The facility I wrote my thesis about, the Santa Fe Maternal Health Center, provided women in the area vital prenatal, postnatal, gynecological, and general medical care. However, because the Center offered contraception to their patients, doctors in the city refused to work with them for fear that such affiliation would jeopardize their careers in Catholic Santa Fe and at the only local hospital, St. Vincent’s. Instead, Dr. Evelyn Fisher Frisbie of Albuquerque, New Mexico, would drive north once a week to treat patients and prescribe and administer birth control. When I originally thought about the path that Dr. Fisher Frisbie took, I pictured the route we use today using the interstate. It’s fairly direct, easy to traverse, and takes about an hour. However, when Dr. Fisher Frisbie would have started her weekly trips in 1937, the interstate was not yet developed and she likely had to drive using the Old Santa Fe Trail and portions of the pre-1937 Route 66. This would have taken far longer and made the journey and her devotion to these women that much more poignant.

What’s more, this new understanding of New Mexico’s transportation and travel environment emphasizes how difficult it was for women to access certain medical care unless it was already available in their communities. The Santa Fe Maternal Health Center was the only facility in the state for a good thirty years to offer contraceptives, and one of a small handful of maternal facilities in New Mexico as well. And yet, women from nearby, but remote, towns like Tijeras and in adjacent counties would save money, ride share with neighbors, and correspond with the facility to ensure they could get the care they needed. Route 66 and new development on other travel corridors in the state made access to the Center easier, to be sure, but the determination to make this journey on a regular basis and for better maternal care speaks volumes for the women, the facility, and the medical landscape in New Mexico as well.

Again, these are things I probably should have realized on my own. But in going through these documents about Route 66 and the experience many Hispanic families had on this road, I’ve been able to better understand how important this road was as a lifeline and how isolated many of these communities were. I’ve obtained a greater understanding of the landscape and how existing travel corridors were used, as well as how advancements in transportation transformed small town New Mexican communities and provided new access to healthcare, economic opportunity, leisure, and employment.

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Rediscovery

Originally published on the LHIP blog site.


When I was driving down the Albuquerque alignments of Route 66 last week, I was struck by how familiar everything was. These were roads that my family would drive whenever we’d take my sister to kickboxing, the area where I spent my lunches during a summer program at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, old paths that my mom would point out as the place where she grew up. This is, perhaps, one of my favorite parts about this internship: rediscovering old places that I’ve forgotten and viewing them with new context and significance.

The Red Ball Cafe (best known as Wimpy’s) was an iconic Route 66 restaurant. It also was where my mom used to eat as a teen and where, thirty years later, I would go to for lunch during my summer program at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.

The Red Ball Cafe, for example, has been known by residents as a great place to get a good burger without spending too much money. My mom ate there as a teen, and a generation later I did too. It is more popularly known as “Wimpy’s,” after the hamburger-loving Popeye character, but the restaurant took on its own mythos as a contributor to Albuquerque history, Hispanic heritage, and Route 66.

The Red Ball Cafe, up until it closed, was a Hispanic-owned business in the old Barelas neighborhood of New Mexico. This is an historic district that quickly adjusted and transformed to accommodate Route 66 traffic and take advantage of the new form of commerce. It takes its name from the Valera/Balera family who owned an estancia in the area as early as 1662. According to the National Register of Historic Places for the area, “At its peak from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, the Barelas-South Fourth Street Historic District was a thriving automobile commercial strip. It not only served highway traffic and was the primary shopping district for the Barelas neighborhood, but also offered South Valley farmers on their way to downtown a full line of businesses with congenial, bilingual proprietors.” (Sec. 7, pg. 7)

Meanwhile, the Red Ball Cafe served both as a private residence for the owners, the Padilla family, and was also a place where “people came from all over the area to buy hamburgers with red chil[e], six for a dollar.” (Sec. 7, pg. 15)  For my mom and me, though, “Wimpy’s” was just a reliable place to eat some great food that transcended generations.

This area is filled with places like Wimpy’s: personally significant for me and my family, but also considered historically and nationally significant. Hispanic business owners and consumers influenced these roads and chose to operate and frequent businesses that impacted the lives of travelers and residents alike. This is what this project is all about, to highlight the history of these areas and show not just their historical significance but their connection to Hispanic heritage that features transformation and navigation of new forms of transportation, technology, and commerce.

It’s a shame that Wimpy’s closed down. I keep hoping that it will reopen and I can eat one of their burgers again. But until then, there are plenty of other places I can visit along Route 66 in the Fourth Street and Barelas neighborhood, most of which are Hispanic-owned. There’s El Modelos, which has the best stuffed sopapillas known to man; the Dog House, which, while relocated to a different area, still has amazing chile dogs; B. Ruppee’s Drug Store, which is a great location to get herbal remedies based in curanderismo; the house my mother grew up in that is just off of this road and the Catholic Church that we would sometimes go to on Sundays; even the South Valley Animal Clinic, where I take my cat for her shots every year…all on pre-alignment Route 66. Everything has a history, and this area, which maintains a strong connection to Hispanic culture and heritage, is steeped in it.

“South Valley Animal Clinic,” Donatella Davanzo, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico.

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