Arthur L. Campa, Sr.

Professor Arthur L. Campa, Sr. sits at his desk in his office in the Spanish Department at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico [1935?]. Image from Auraria Library via Denver Public Library Digital Collections.

Mexican American, Folklore, Federal Writers’ Project,
Cultural History

Arthur L. Campa, Sr.


With the 1914 death of his father fighting the villistas, Arturo León Campa’s family was one of thousands who sought refuge in the U.S. They fled for their lives, and Campa’s mother made her way with her children to El Paso and then Albuquerque. They received support from the Methodists for whom she and her husband had worked as missionaries. Their Harwood School prepared “Arthur” for a productive and distinguished career in Hispanic Studies, in the Spanish Departments of the Universities of New Mexico, Columbia, and Denver.

Campa was fascinated with “Greater New Mexico” (Nuevo México / southern Colorado), and her people. He recognized, first intuitively and later analytically, that their regional dialect, customs, and traditions were another manifestation of the many regional cultures of Mexico, formerly New Spain. Campa believed its cultura popluar, the expressive culture of its people, was reliable evidence of cultural evolution within their experience of history. Their presence in the Southwest predates the U.S. state. He was among the first to assert that the linguistic and cultural maintenance of Mexican Americans distinguished them from the accelerated assimilation patterns of immigrant groups from further abroad. 

Campa began his research on nuevomexicano folk narrative, then expanded it to include folk poetry and music. He later surveyed the remarkably extensive corpus of folk theater. He was a field worker in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) folk arts projects in New Mexico. He wrote dozens of articles and was in demand as a speaker at symposia, and for the U.S. State Department in Spain and Latin America. His comprehensive work as cultural historian was is compiled in the encyclopedic Hispanic Culture in the Southwest (1980), which covers the entire southwest borderlands.  

Campa was the first folklorist to challenge the notorious Hispanophile narrative, an Anglo initiated discourse whose broad acceptance by social elites and eventually by the rest of the population, was an ideological thread of the strategy to advance New Mexico statehood prior to 1912. 

By the 1940 Coronado Cuartocentennial, organized by boosters and chambers of commerce, the outdated Hispanophile discourse had become a grotesque parody of itself. In a series of newspaper articles the same year, Campa began his career as a public intellectual by challenging “conquistador” triumphalism and New Mexico essentialism, by providing historic counter-narratives and exposing shocking details of the disasterous 1540 Coronado expedition. He used all the tools of scholarship and fieldwork, but always chose an accessible, populist tone in his writing.

Before and during the Chicano movement, Campa participated in debates on cultural identity and the multiplicity of ethnonyms assigned to and used in the Southwest, often within families during changing times. As a linguist, he paid attention to what common people called themselves. 

In short, the powerful gift of Arturo León Campa to Greater New Mexico was a well founded sense of our own Mexicanidad.

For further reading:

Campa, Arthur L. Hispanic Culture in the Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

________. Treasure of the Sangre de Cristos (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

________. Spanish Folk Poetry in New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of NM Press, 1946.

Cortés, Carlos E., ed., Hispanic Folklore Studies of Arthur L. Campa. New York, 1976.

Enrique Lamadrid