PROFILE: Working for Old New Mexico

Hometown ties motivate Mary Jane Garcia.

Even before she became involved in politics in the late 1980s, New Mexico State Sen. Mary Jane M. Garcia (D) was drawn to preservation, spearheading several successful historic rehabilitation projects over the years.

"I've always been interested in our old buildings and communities," says the resident of Doña Ana, a town of 1,400 situated 50 miles north of El Paso, Tex. "This place, for instance, is one of the oldest settlements in southern New Mexico. There's a lot of the past here that we should try to help."

A native of the state, Garcia attended New Mexico State University as both an undergraduate and a graduate student and wrote her anthropology master's thesis on the history of Doña Ana Village, the centuries-old core of the town. After working in oral history and genealogy for several years, she was elected to the state senate in 1988—and reelected three times.

The early part of Garcia's career was largely devoted to finding funds to restore the Rio Grande Theater, a once-threatened 1926 movie house in the nearby city of Las Cruces. "I began focusing on it in the 1970s, and the project carried over into my senate work," says Garcia. "The theater is really a success story, and is closely tied to the city's downtown revival. I have personal ties to the place; I used to go to the movies there as a teenager, and when I started research on the restoration, I was even able to identify where my old favorite seat had been. The Rio Grande has always been one of my main priorities."

Salvaged in 2003 by the Doña Ana Arts Council and supported by funds from multiple public and private donors—almost all of whom were sought out by Garcia—the theater is now being restored. In the wake of its rebirth, renewed tourist attention has been drawn to the shops, restaurants, and cultural venues that dot the downtown.

Garcia's preservation work has been widespread. She helped save her former elementary school, Doña Ana's 1916 Red Brick Schoolhouse, now privately owned; prevented a similar school building in Tularosa, N.M., 80 miles to the northeast, from being razed; and garnered a $5,000 National Trust grant to restore the Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, one of the oldest Catholic churches in the southern part of the state, in Doña Ana. She continues to aid a group known as Las Esperanzas, descendants of Las Cruces' original townspeople, in its attempt to prevent a new multimillion-dollar courthouse from rising across the street from a group of c. 1850 adobe homes.

To Garcia, who also serves as a Trust Advisor, such projects are integral to her dual role as senator and citizen. "Generations have lived, celebrated, and worshipped in these places," she says. "And I have strong ties to this area, too. I hope my work will help get people out of their homes and back into the community, seeing the importance of their history. When I was young, everyone was out, enjoying their town, and everyone's doors were open. That's how it should be again."

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