New Mexico was planning to celebrate its statehood centennial by inviting tourists to come experience the state's rich culture, take in its extraordinary views and have epic outdoor adventures.
But the Land of Enchantment's promotion hit a snag, raising questions about who exactly is being represented in the celebration -- and reviving historical insecurities.
It all started when the New Mexico Department of Tourism began planning a $2-million marketing campaign to attract outsiders to the state, which had observed its statehood centennial Jan. 6.
The department had learned that the state ranked 38th in a poll ranking tourists' preferred destinations -- and wanted to do something about that.
“We really want to move that needle up,” said Veronica Valencia, director of marketing and communications for the department.
Focus groups in Chicago and Los Angeles assessed the public’s perception of New Mexico, and “the feedback was that it was a dry, barren wasteland with nothing to do,” Valencia said. “So [the state] set on a course to change this misconception.”
Austin, Texas-based marketing agency Vendor Inc. was hired in January to handle the campaign, titled “Adventures Steeped in Rich Culture.” The agency soon contracted with On Location Casting to assign roles in the ad, which was to be filmed in March.
Soon a casting call went out on Facebook seeking “Caucasian or light-skinned Hispanic” people.
"Hearing that term brings to mind a vision of casting agents holding up paper bags next to people's faces to ensure they can pass," the New Mexican wrote. "We don't know, of course, who made it into the shoot and how New Mexico will be presented to the world once the campaign is unveiled. But really, light-skinned only? What were they thinking?"
The request seemed ironically appropriate to at least one historian, who noted the territory's long-ago efforts to attract more light-skinned residents.
“New Mexico's population in the 1900 census was 70% Nuevomexicanos [today called Hispanic] and 7% American Indian. In the quest for statehood, each group followed many of their traditions in language, dress, religion... all of which alarmed a few hardcore opponents of statehood in the U.S. Congress,” David Holtby, a research scholar of regional studies at the University of New Mexico, wrote in an email to The Times.
Perhaps New Mexico could have been celebrating more than 100 years of statehood by now if it could have proved to Congress that a significant percentage of light-skinned people inhabited the area at the time.
Holtby added: “Now we have the newest ‘tourism message’ being revised to ‘lighten’ the color of people. This can be seen as an example of a throw-back to racial bias of a century ago."
The hubbub, however, is all an unfortunate misconception, Valencia said.
“We were casting for the role of ‘tourist,’ ” she said. “It was never our intention to make any of this about race. It was more to focus on the experiences and adventures that someone could have in New Mexico rather than the background of the people having them.”
Valencia said the concept for the shoot came from a collaborative effort between the state, Vendor Inc. and On Location Casting, but the specific wording for the casting call was developed by people in the industry, she said.
Tina Kerr, a casting director for On Location Casting, said the request was filed by Vendor Inc. That company didn’t respond to repeated attempts for comment.
“We believe that people from all backgrounds visit New Mexico and it is not a place for any one type of visitor,” Valencia said.
The first ads will be launched April 16 in regional markets near New Mexico, and the state is developing more spots.
This time, Valencia said, industry standards will be shunned when casting the next adventurer.