She was from Charleston, maybe Jacksonville . . . Kansas City? I can’t remember. But wherever the lady was from, her question echoed in my mind: Why was I, a resident of Orange County, urging a bunch of out-of-towners such as her to do business in Albuquerque?
I was in the hot seat, surrounded by about 30 people, all meeting planners from across the country being fêted by the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce and the city’s Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. We were inside the Torreón, a 45-foot circular tower on the campus of the National Hispanic Cultural Center that features a stunning 4,000-square-foot fresco depicting the history of the Americas and beyond. The visitors had just been blessed in the New Mexico sacrament of roasted green chiles, seen the center’s gorgeous permanent exhibit of Southwestern art, and had more activities planned for the day that would show them the glories of the Duke City.
So, why the hell was an OC boy so enthusiastic about ABQ? And why would city officials invite me, of all the people they possibly could invite, to drum up some business for the best-kept secret of the Southwest?
I brought up that point as I stood in the center of the Torreón, whose acoustics made whispers into booms and transformed my already-loud voice into something approaching Ned Beatty’s bombastic TV executive in Network. I had no notes, no PowerPoint; it was all corazón. And my pitch to the travelers was simple: I was once like them. I never gave any thought to Albuquerque outside of what television shows and the media told me to think. And then I came, I saw, and I fell in love—and they should do the same and spread the gospel far and wide.
There’s a new hashtag being used around town: #whyabq. Why? Because this is the best city you’ve never visited—and it’s waiting to make you a believer. Just like me.
* * * * *
I first came to Albuquerque in the spring of 2007, during one of the most tumultuous times of my professional career. OC Weekly had just imploded, three-quarters of the staff quitting within a month. My first book, ¡Ask a Mexican!, was about to get released. I had just turned 27 and was getting job offers for mucho dinero, but the Great Weekly Schism had worn me down enough to consider walking away from it all and returning to my first paid job: being a janitor.
And then I landed in ABQ.
Growing up, I only knew two things about the city: Bugs Bunny’s constant shoutouts after getting lost, and The Simpsons episode in which Homer discovers that the Springfield Isotopes were planning to move to Albuquerque. That latter gag proved so influential that the city’s real-life minor-league team actually changed its name to the Isotopes, making The Simpsons fan in me marvel, but the reporter part cringe. Was Albuquerque that much of a hick town it needed to drum up fake attention like that?
Quite the opposite. If anything, the Isotopes controversy was an insight into a people that take criticism and stereotypes with a laugh and a shrug of their shoulders—forgive America, for they know not what they do. And the first hint that the city was far cooler than people made it out to be came gracias to my ¡Ask a Mexican! column.
A year before my inaugural encuentro, the Albuquerque Alibi became the first newspaper to syndicate my Mexi-flavored rants. The alt-weekly got inundated with threats of boycotts, angry phone calls and enough mad letters that then-editor Steven Robert Allen suggested we do a cover story in which he’d ask me to explain the column, in an effort to calm them down. It worked. Suddenly, the opposite happened: The paper started receiving fan mail. Burqueños thanked me for standing up to racists and for giving a voice to people like them. Many of them assumed I lived in Albuquerque; when I admitted I’m in Orange County, nearly all suggested I go learn what the city was really about.
I finally visited at the invite of the New Mexico Library Association, which staged the 2007 Mountain Plains Library Association conference. The seminars were at the Albuquerque Convention Center, a large-yet-comfy gathering place that proved perfect for hosting a bunch of nerds. By a scheduling quirk, I’d be able to stay three nights in Albuquerque in return for attending the main dinner (the keynote speaker was Michael Wallis, a fabulous writer of the West who unfortunately spoke longer than he should have) and doing a workshop on how to get more Latinos into libraries. The rest of the time, I was on my own.
I stopped by the Alibi‘s offices, a quirky building off Central Avenue, the city’s former stretch of Route 66. But my Virgil into Albuquerque’s beauty was Dan Mayfield, a reporter whom I initially met in Los Angeles during a reporters’ seminar. He’s quintessential ABQ: family dating back centuries, more kraut-mick than anything, but proud of his raza roots. Dan is everything I’m not—a smooth talker, a looker and a chingón—but we hit it off in LA and painted the town Christmas (ask New Mexicans what that means). He took me to bars; introduced me to fans; and treated me to my first Frito pie, my first smothered burrito and my first Blake’s Lotaburger. And when he thought I was homesick, Dan and his friends took me to the Frontier Restaurant, a legendary 24-hour diner with a room filled with John Wayne memorabilia. Um, thanks?
The city immediately electrified me. There were a lot of great touristy things to do—museums, concert venues, shopping, hikes—yet it was the gente that charmed me the most. The old-timers were rightfully proud of Albuquerque’s history and hosting prowess, but the young folks knew they were on the cusp of something great and ready to let America know about it.
I’ve been back every year since, and ABQ gets even better all the time. For my Taco USA book, we had a sold-out crowd at the historic El Pinto restaurant celebrating its release with enchiladas and a set by New Mexican music legend Al Hurricane, the coolest person alive who wears an eyepatch. I’ve hung in the historic Barelas barrio, in streetwise South Valley, in trendy Nob Hill. With Pueblo Indians, Hispanos, Mexicans, gabachos, natives and transplants. Gotten borracho at biker bars, dined at James Beard-nominated restaurants and heard thrilling rhymes by the city’s inaugural poet laureate, Hakim Bellamy. A craft-beer-and-spirits renaissance is blooming, along with a food scene that knows America is watching (here in Southern California, roasting Hatch chiles has become a hipster thing in the past decade, while that’s August and September in New Mexico).
About the only thing I haven’t done is ride a hot-air balloon—because who needs to go up in the sky when you’re already floating on air? And while that might’ve been the worst sentence of my career, I stand by it: Every time I’m in Albuquerque, my batteries charge like a Tesla.
And it’ll do the same to you.
* * * * *
However you get to Albuquerque, it’s going to wow you. Fly in, and you’ll arrive in a little facility so charming (and with minimal wait lines) with its turquoise-and-adobe color scheme that it’s no mere airport; it’s called the Sunport, a callback to the Zia sun symbol. But to truly arrive, you gotta drive. Leave at 4 in the morning from OC, take the 91 to the 15 to Interstate 40, and drive. Journey through the remnants of the Mother Road, through the ponderosa pine forests of Arizona and the stunning cliffs that greet you as you cross into New Mexico. Through Gallup and Grants, trading posts and trucker stops. It’s only about a 12-hour trek, and you’ll get into Albuquerque in the late afternoon, as the sun turns purple and the city takes on a gold hue. You descend into the city, with the Sandia Mountains looming on the horizon and dramatic clouds creating alternating dramatic shadows and blinding rays over everything. If there’s a more stunning city landscape in the Southwest, you must’ve seen it on Minecraft.
Charles Fletcher Lummis famously called New Mexico the Land of Poco Tiempo, setting a template that has repeated itself ever since: the outsider-turned-acolyte who tries to define the state while drowning out actual native voices. I’m now guilty of that, and I don’t care. Because the Albuquerque I know and love is the Albuquerque that’s lived by some of the proudest yet most humble city boosters I’ve ever met. There’s Joseph Baca, a former wine critic who can trace his ancestry back to the 1600s and who once wrote a cover story called “Ask a New Mexican,” for which I asked Baca questions about New Mexico’s slice of the mestizo enchilada. Mayfield, of course, who once took me to the Albuquerque Press Club’s members-only clubhouse (oh, the cynical, chain-smoked humblebrags that happen there). Russell Contreras, a transplant from Houston who went native and now sends out some of the AP’s strongest regional dispatches. Through the Hispano Chamber of Commerce, I met COO Synthia Jaramillo and graphic designer Jen Montaño, two wisecracking chicas who nevertheless are all business about repping their town. They’re the ones who started the #whyabq hashtag as a way to grab back their narrative from others—and the last time I was in town, they asked me why I do ABQ.
“Because ABQ,” I replied. Good, but too easy. Fine, try this: Albuquerque at its best is informed by the past and is using that to blaze into the future. You’re not just in a town established before the American Revolution; you’re in an area where multiculturalism isn’t a fad or a future, but has been reality for generations. The ABQ ethos is the Southwest at its best—welcoming, fun, fabulous, historic and sabroso—and a model for the rest of the estados unidos to try. Lummis was right: There is too little time when you’re here, so you have to return again and again.
* * * * *
I’m not sure if I drummed up any business for the Hispano Chamber of Commerce and the city’s Convention & Visitor’s Bureau with my Torreón speech. I didn’t talk to the visitors afterward, since I had to rush off to give a speech at a local high school about tacos. But if those people were smart, they booked their conventions immediately; if not, have fun in Wichita or whatever podunk town you thought was cooler.
But people are discovering Albuquerque. On my last trip, I saw construction happening—roads getting widened, restaurants getting built, hotels getting expanded. I’ve had friends drop in for the first time and rave about it after. My wife fell so in love with Albuquerque that she and her business partner (who has New Mexican roots) decided to open a store stocking the foods of the region: green chile powder, craft beers, tortillas, even bizcochito mix. It’s already attracting a stream of New Mexico expats, but also Californians curious to see what this ABQ is about.
We stopped for a few days earlier this month and will return in August, when the weather isn’t too bad and the alluring smoke of roasted green chiles are starting again. Come then. Or arrive in the winter, and see snow as you’ve never seen it. Or visit during the International Balloon Fiesta, when adults turn into kids again and head to the northern edge of town to gaze upward. Or swing by during NCAA basketball season, when the University of New Mexico Lobos slay opponents in the Pit in front of another raucous crowd.
But come. Albuquerque, mi amor: I’ll see you soon. And I’m going to spend the rest of my days bringing as many people as possible to fall under your charm.