Many believe travel is the geographic cure for what ails us in our daily routines. Physically relocating allows us distance enough from home, and our homelands, to put our lives in clearer perspective. Such was the case for me on a recent family vacation to Puerto Rico.
From the position of tourist in San Juan, on that Caribbean island roughly 2,300 nautical miles southeast from New Mexico, I had an insightful lens on the social and economic dynamics of Santa Fe's past—as well as its present.
There are lots of similarities between Santa Fe and San Juan, despite one being landlocked in the high desert and the other being a tropical island. For instance, both cities have the oxymoronic "majority minority" population. San Juan's Spanish colonial legacy significantly influences its people and, therefore, local culture. The powerful history of clashes between the Spanish colonists and the island's Indigenous peoples, along with racial slavery, plays a dominant role in their tourism.
Most relevant, however, is the fact that tourism is the lifeblood of both economies. Because tourism in both places focuses a great deal on colonial history, the narratives told by tour guides are both interesting and awkward for visitors. Let's face it—colonial conquest was the violent and genocidal practice foundational in establishing San Juan—as well as Santa Fe.
As I listened to the tour guides illuminate Puerto Rico's history, I was confronted with the romanticized framing I often hear of Santa Fe, which marginalizes historical realities in favor of more palatable, or simplified, explanations of both historical and contemporary relations.
I accept that one goal of tourism is to make money by putting the best possible face on a destination. I am also clear that few go on vacation to hear about colonial violence or the resulting economic, social and health disparities for minority and poor populations. But these too are important and related facts about the past and present of San Juan—and Santa Fe.
As a tourist in San Juan, I became acutely aware of the cracks in the face of things on the island and their similarities to my hometown. San Juan's budget battles, its water shortages due to drought and its current economic crisis were surprising and harsh contemporary realities informed by historical relations. As I listened to fellow American tourists from the mainland talking about how cheap certain property was there, and their plans to "take advantage" of it, I began to question the line between tourism as economically viable relaxation and outright exploitation. How is the money we paid for the resort hotel, with four freshwater swimming pools, helping the locals who are living without water for three days at a time due to unprecedented drought?
Here's the Thing: I believe that travel should, in addition to supporting businesses and economies, also support the people it's built around. While Santa Fe has a history that is easily romanticized, its cultural freight as we now live it is beautifully, socially and economically painful. We have a responsibility to the truth of that past and the reality of the present. As Santa Feans, we should consider how we reproduce narratives that avoid historical accuracy as well as tourism that supports economic disparity.
We cannot afford to ignore yawning economic gaps between the cultural workers and hotel maids and restaurant bussers who serve the tourism industry, and the wealthy who vacation and relocate here.
We need a brand of tourism that is accountable to serving our visitors as well as meeting the long-term needs of our locals. And, as tourists, we have the opportunity to seek out experiences that lift and sustain the locality we visit through connections with its people, culture, economy and histories. In this way, we are enriched, but so are those we visit in our travels.
Andrea is an American Studies scholar and Santa Fean who writes about contemporary culture and politics. Reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org