Mayor of Belen
Mayor of Belen, NM, saves the town´s public Nativity
By Rita Bocher
Belen, New Mexico, by tradition, has had a Nativity scene in the center of the public square. Then, in July 2015, that tradition was challenged. Jerah Cordova, Mayor of Belen, captivated the Friends of the Creche convention in Santa Fe with his description of what happened and what the outcome turned out to be.
The comments that follow are from Mayor Cordova´s speech.
Belen has been around since December 9, 1740 when two Spaniards, representing the King of Spain founded the community under a royal land grant. The name of the town, put in place by the Catholic Church, was Nuestra Señora de Belen which is Spanish for Our Lady of Bethlehem—Belen being the Spanish word for Bethlehem. The town is literally a direct reference to the city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Belen is a city of 7200 residents, nestled along the Rio Grande Valley 30 minutes south of Albequerque. The community is diverse and mainly agricultural, with an historic downtown . In addition to a strong quality of life, the town values self-determination and protection of its traditions of who it is as a people. Over its history, Belen has flown four different flags: the Spanish Flag; the Mexican flag; for a very brief time, the Confederate flag during Confederate occupation, and of course, the American flag.
In the 1850s, the adobe church in Old Town—adobe being mud bricks—was destabilized by a significant flood. The church became unsafe to use and a grand battle ensued between what was called “Old Town” and its newer part, now called “New Town.” However, New Town was missing a few key features that locals needed to build up their city. Most central to growth in New Town was the absence of the original Belen Catholic Church, the namesake of the town and a focal point of Belen civic activity. Old Town lost and the physical church of Nuestra Señora de Belen was now the center of New Town.
Ten years later, a German merchant named John Becker came to Belen and bought up large tracts of land. He personally negotiated for the massive railyard that powers hundreds of jobs in Belen. He established what became the Town Improvement Company and shortened the name of the town to simply Belen. In old Wild West style, Becker made his point about the future of the city by buying the remains of the old church, dynamiting them, and using the rubble to pave what he called Becker Avenue.
By the early 1900s, the intersection of Main Street and Becker Avenue got its first Nativity. The intersection was at the site of Becker´s flour mill, now the site of Belen City Hall. The Nativity, originally a wooden cutout, was complete with Mary, Joseph, Jesus, wise men, lambs, a camel and a donkey. Above them was a star, and surrounding them, a makeshift stable. (These figures have survived and are displayed every Christmas in the Belen Harvey House Museum).
Over time the Nativities were replaced with modern versions. The site also changed from Becker property to public property. In 1996, City Hall was located there and the area slowly developed into a new civic center, with a park and a town square. The Nativities placed there were cared for by Theresa Tabet, a matriarch of one of Belen’s most important families. In recognition of her work and devotion to maintaining the Nativity, the Nativity park was renamed Theresa Tabet Park, with a permanent plaque located there. The site also got a permanent Nativity donated by the Tabet family.
Further recognizing the significance of the Nativity to Belen, in 2007 the City of Belen erected a permanent metal Nativity on the site of the Becker and Tabet Nativities. There is no angel or star of Bethlehem, but there is a sign above the Nativity that translates Belen as Bethlehem.
In July 2015, Mayor Cordova received a letter from an organization called Freedom from Religion Foundation alleging a complaint from a private citizen. The complaint stated that the Nativity was erected on public property and violated the U.S. Constitution on the separation of church and state.
The group argued that Belen being Spanish for Bethlehem didn’t matter; Bethlehem could be many things and could go in many directions. While there was no explicit threat to sue, it was suggested that the Nativity be placed on private grounds, and there was a demand for a response.
There was no doubt that Belen wanted to keep its Nativity. But the issue was a critical one as the financial costs of a prolonged legal battle were significant to a small town.
The town prepared a comprehensive approach, looking at models of success and failure in addressing the issue of religious symbols in other towns. Their attorneys drafted a response stating the community had been founded in 1740 by two Spaniards and named in honor of the historic middle eastern town of Bethlehem.
After that the town took its argument to the media. Ultimately, the story was picked up by Fox News and CBS. Letters, emails, phone calls came in from all parts of the country. A major rally was held in the town square—the greatest show of town strength that had ever been exhibited.
The town still has its Nativity. The Freedom from Religion group has disappeared.
As a side note, Mayor Cordova pointed out that his first name, Jerah, was given to him after his mother read a magazine article about the innkeeper in the Biblical story named Jerah. Like the innkeeper, Jerah, Mayor Cordova felt his role was to protect the Holy Family and the universal values it represents.