María Adelina Isabel Emilia (Nina) Otero-Warren

Photographer unknown; public domain image

Nuevo Mexicana, Folklore, Federal Writers’ Project, Activism, Education

María Adelina Isabel Emilia (Nina) Otero-Warren


A woman of many talents and interests, Adelina “Nina” Otero Warren was a politician and advocate who advanced issues relevant to the early 20th-century nuevomexicano community. Otero Warren is best known outside of New Mexico for her promotion of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote in 1920. In 1922, Otero Warren was the first hispana to run for a seat in the U.S. Congress. Losing by a narrow margin, she nonetheless continued to engage with the changing social, economic, and political dynamics in New Mexico. She served in a variety of civic capacities, including as superintendent of schools for Santa Fe County and chair of the New Mexico Child Welfare Department, as well as on advisory and governmental organizations, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), based in New Mexico. Though her brief marriage produced no children, she was the de facto materfamilias of her large family, which revolved around the family home in Santa Fe (now known as the Otero-Bergere House).

A prominent figure on the Santa Fe social scene, Otero Warren’s connections across ethnic and social groups helped her foster important regional matters such as historical preservation, ranching and agriculture, and bilingual education.  She was a mentor to conservationist Aldo Leopold, who married her niece Estella. Her own Spanish-English aptitude connected her to her nuevomexicano community and informed her writing of Old Spain in Our Southwest, a collection of New Mexican folklore and history.

Although not an academic folklorist, Otero Warren sought to capture the cultural sense of traditional life in New Mexico.  Her book documents family histories she had been recording since her youth. These included orally transmitted songs, prayers, and sayings (in Spanish with her translations), as well as stories, beliefs, and practices, as in her eloquent explanation of the cultural significance of water in New Mexico. Otero Warren captures the humor that typified nuevomexicano life, seen in the story “The Beggar,” or in the explanation for the origin of Garrapata Canyon’s name.  In the book’s glossary, she records bilingual intersections in New Mexican speech and manifests historical regionalisms.
Old Spain in Our Southwest is Otero-Warren’s only book-length work, which her biographer Charlotte Whaley suggests she saw “as a teaching tool to educate the multicultural populations in the country and to gain approval, respect and admiration for her people” (152). In this volume, Nina Otero Warren marks out her early 20th-century vision of New Mexico’s folkloric past, making it legible for many audiences.

Otero Warren, Nina. Old Spain in Our Southwest. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1936. Second edition, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2006.

Anna M. Nogar