Santa Fe Living Treasures – Elder Stories

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Fabian Chavez

Fabián Chávez Jr.

Honored October, 2008






Fabián Chávez Jr.

As much as any person in modern New Mexico history, and far more than almost anyone else, Fabián Chávez Jr., has worked to guide, shape and change our state--and always change it for the better. Growing up in an era when many restaurants, barbershops and beauty salons posted signs saying “No Negroes or Mexicans allowed,” he championed anti-discrimination laws as soon as he became a young state legislator. He was instrumental in reforming a corrupt judicial system, corrupt liquor rules, corrupt insurance regulations. He led the effort to establish the University of New Mexico Medical School. Under his guidance as the state’s tourism director, New Mexico became a major national and international destination. He enhanced state employees’ retirement benefits, but when they tried to name the PERA Building for him, he declined.

Nor did his service end at the state’s borders. Under President Jimmy Carter, Fabián was both assistant secretary of commerce and director of travel and tourism. He almost went to Congress, but the state’s political power structure, stung by his reforms and his refusal to be bought, blocked him. He also almost was governor, but lost a close race to popular incumbent David Cargo in 1968.

Public service ran in Fabián’s blood, and in his family’s blood. His father was tax assessor in Mora County and a Democratic activist in Santa Fe. His brother “Cuate” was a legendary municipal judge. His sister Nora was the superintendent of schools. Another brother became a priest and historian, and gained wide renown as Fray Angélico Chavez. As his own family grew, Fabián was never too busy to help his children and grandchildren with their homework.

Fabián’s personal hero was Martin Luther King. But his boyhood hero was the cowboy movie actor Tom Mix, who unintentionally played a role in Fabián’s development. At the age of 12, the boy hopped a train to Hollywood to try to meet his idol. Back in New Mexico, his father feared that his son was too rambunctious for his age, and arranged for him to spend a year at the state reform school for boys in Springer. As time rolled by, Fabián said that the strict regime of early rising, bed-making, study and discipline formed the guidelines that led him through his remarkable career and life.


Story by Richard McCord

Photo © 2008 Steve Northup