Albuquerque, New Mexico (CNN)One could argue New Mexico is home to this country’s original Hispanics. Their roots can be traced to Isleta Boulevard, as it is called in Albuquerque — a stretch of what was El Camino Real, the royal highway that connected Mexico City with Santa Fe when Spain controlled this territory hundreds of years ago.
“And it ties itself to its original roots of the Spanish coming into the new world,” says Art De La Cruz, a commissioner in Bernalillo County, which covers Albuquerque.
Today, New Mexico has the largest percentage of Hispanics in the United States. According to a study by The City University of New York, commissioned by CNN en Espaol, 45% of the state’s more than 2 million residents identify themselves as Hispanics. And they register to vote and vote at a higher rate than the national average for this group.
De La Cruz credits this civic participation to the pride they have in their culture.
“There is that deep sense of belonging on two fronts, not only (to) the historic part of Spain, but also knowing that there is a native connection to the original people of this land,” he says.
But in New Mexico, not all Hispanics are created equal. The CUNY study found that 30% of the Hispanic electorate does not identify as descendent from any Latin American country.
“They don’t feel like they came from somewhere, generally speaking. They identified with Spain,” explains De La Cruz. “So even when Mexico became … Mexico, because they were able to evict the Spanish, the people here still identify themselves as Spanish. They didn’t identify with being Mexicans.”
De La Cruz adds that when New Mexico joined the United States in 1912, “They didn’t cross the border — the border crossed them.”
That difference can create tensions among native New Mexicans and Latinos who arrived from other countries. De La Cruz acknowledges that some of his Hispanic constituents don’t like the newcomers. He says even his relatives on his mother’s side, who can trace their heritage to colonial times, had a hard time accepting his dad because he came from Mexico.
“To them, he was just a guy from the south,” he says.
But when it comes to casting their ballots, Hispanic New Mexicans seem to favor those with last names similar to theirs. De La Cruz points to the current governor as an example.
“Susana Martinez is a Republican, yet she carried this district, which is heavily Democratic, because she was Latina. She was a female and she was going to create a legacy that people wanted to hang on to,” De La Cruz says.
That sentiment is echoed by Joe Monahan, a local political analyst who says that in opinion polls, an unknown Hispanic candidate would gather support just because of his or her heritage. But he adds that in a presidential race, Republicans shouldn’t think that just because they nominate a Hispanic to the top ticket, they can turn a state that voted solidly Democrat in the past three presidential cycles.”
But he sees in New Mexico the blueprint for politicians nationwide, as Hispanics consolidate their place as the country’s largest minority group.
“Because the Hispanic population here has had more of an opportunity to put down roots and become a part of a minority majority state, I think it’s a place to watch in the future as America becomes more like New Mexico in its ethnic makeup.” Monahan says.