Home Culture Another Day in Albuquerque

Another Day in Albuquerque

A 1,225-square-foot mural by artist Todd Hebenstreit evokes the glory days of Route 66 on the side of an apartment building in Albuquerque.

Relaxed vibe, small-town feel, mingled traditions, and a dash of the strange make New Mexico’s big city what it is today


Like Victorians out for a spin during the bicycle craze, the couple is dressed to impress. But instead of the baggy-kneed trousers or layered petticoats of the 1890s, their attire consists of flannel shirts, skull rings, a Heisenberg patch, a pink wig. Oh, and their masks: cracked doll-face for her and something that could be hazmat-inspired for him. What’s going on here? Is it Halloween? Or just another day in Albuquerque?

Breezing down Central Avenue on their lowrider bikes, the man and woman captured in a photograph by Eric Draper seem blissfully unconcerned with the hubbub around them. The Mother Road—a.k.a. Route 66—stretching across Albuquerque provides just one stage on which to document human behavior in the city. Draper, who first lived in the city in the early 1990s as a staff photographer for the Albuquerque Tribune, finds one place after another where he bears witness to what makes this place in the high desert unique.

Sometimes it takes someone like Draper, who has traveled to some 70 countries, to appreciate Albuquerque’s relaxed vibe. Originally from Southern California, he worked for the Associated Press before embarking on an adventure that gave him an exceptional glimpse into the corridors of power. For eight years, he was former President George W. Bush’s official photographer, assigned an office just steps from the Oval Office. Observing the administration’s high and low points, as well as its more mundane moments, all while traveling around the globe at a pace that would fatigue even the most hardened road warriors, Draper and his wife decided they needed a change. They decamped to Rio Rancho on Albuquerque’s outskirts.

Clockwise, from top left: Lowrider enthusiasts gather every Sunday on Central Avenue in downtown Albuquerque to show off their vehicles; 18-year-old Ramon Guzman hangs out on the hood of his 1948 Chevrolet delivery panel wagon; a 1954 Classic Chevy Deluxe displayed on Central Avenue.

“New Mexico is the opposite of DC,” said Draper. “The pace of life here is very manageable.” At the Albuquerque Tribune, Draper worked with Mike Davis, an award-winning photo editor who made the newspaper’s reputation for its innovative use of photography. Draper learned about layout and design at the Scripps-Howard afternoon daily, as well as making the most out of even the lowliest assignments. Davis went on to serve as Draper’s deputy at the White House. The Tribune, like so many other newspapers gutted by the changes sweeping the information industry this century, ceased publication in 2008.

Still, Albuquerque beckons. Indigenous peoples have been living in the area for at least 10,000 years. When the expedition led by the conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado arrived in 1540, they found thriving pueblos of Tiwa-speakers cultivating gardens in the Río Grande’s floodplain. Founded officially in 1706, Albuquerque endured, precariously at times, on the edge of empires. It wasn’t until 1950 that Albuquerque’s population reached almost 100,000; as the postwar boom intensified, the number of residents doubled by 1960 and kept on growing. The sprawling city now has a metropolitan population of about one million. But as Draper shows, Albuquerque can still feel like a small town, somehow part of the American experience and somehow foreign to it.

From Left: Costumed Day of the Dead revelers walk in the parade. On the first Sunday in November, people from all over the city come into the South Valley to remember the living and the dead; Miranda Sanchez, 26, proudly shows off her Day of the Dead costume during the annual Albuquerque Marigold Parade.

A flight-line referee gives the launch signal during the Mass Ascension at the 2017 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The referees, also known as “zebras,” always wear costumes with black-and-white stripes to stand out from the crowd. New Mexico United soccer fans show their passion during a recent home game.

Photojournalist Eric Draper moved to Albuquerque for a slower lifestyle and room for his two dogs after shooting for the Associated Press and major publications, and serving for eight years as chief photographer for President George W. Bush

Different traditions mingle in Albuquerque. The Balloon Fiesta goes on, filling the skies with the wonder each year. At the same time, new customs take root. For those who grew up in the state’s small towns, where basketball and football have long held sway, the rise of New Mexico United, the Albuquerque-based professional soccer team founded in 2018, reflects how newcomers—and new traditions—are pushing the city to evolve, as Draper shows in his pictures of The Curse, the organization of devoted fans adopting the inclusive motto “Somos Familia.”

Then there’s the Marigold Parade, which draws from traditions that include Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Another couple, costumed to the nines, stands out in one of Draper’s pictures from the South Valley. Like the lowriders, their identities are hidden behind masks and face paint, as if hinting they might still have one foot in the grave. Or are they smiling behind their masks? Is that a hint of a grin? As Draper shows, sometimes it’s hard to tell in Albuquerque, cryptic even until the masks start coming off.

Crowds view the Mass Ascension at the 2017 International Balloon Fiesta. For nine days in October the Balloon Fiestacreates an enchanting world in the sky. Top: At dawn, a young couple shares an intimate moment at the fiesta.Weather permitting, hundreds of hot-air balloons launch at sunrise during the Mass Ascension.

A bartender serves beer on tap at Albuquerque’s Marble Brewery. The city has become a hotspot for breweries serving craft beer. Top: A tourist tries on a cowboy hat at The Man’s Hat Shop in Albuquerque

On display at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center is Mundos de Mestizaje, Frederico Vigil’s 4,000-square-foot fresco, which covers the interior of a 45-foot-tall adobe tower and depicts 3,000 years of Hispanic culture.

Previous articleELUSIVE TAOS
Next articleMy New Mexico