In October, two international students from the University of New Mexico went behind a split rail fence and carved their nicknames on the sandstone walls of El Morro National Monument. They knew enough English to write “Super Duper Dana” and “Gabriel” but claimed they didn’t know enough English to read the sign posted just a few feet away that said, “It is unlawful to mark or deface El Morro Rock.” Now their graffiti joins “Pedro Romero 1758” and two thousand other signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs that have been left over hundreds of years by Puebloans, Spaniards, and Americans. They were recently charged with damaging an archaeological resource on public land and face fines, prison, and repair costs of nearly $30,000. For more details, see the Albuquerque Journal and Cibola Beacon.
El Morro is one of the most engaging places in America that I’ve encountered, so I’m really disappointed these two students thought it was okay (English-literate or not, there’s a four-foot high fence) to carve their names on a place that didn’t belong to them and was obviously a special place (I’m sure their teacher told them it was a national monument). It’s between the Acoma and Zuni pueblos and surrounded by wilderness, so other than the highway and the visitor center, it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years (or at least it feels that way). When you walk up to the base of the tall mesa, you encounter the pool that was one of the few reliable sources of water in the desert between the Rio Grande and the Colorado River, and then walk along the wall to see the names and dates of the explorers and travelers have come before. They and I were both sharing similar experiences in the same place, separated only by time.
According to the National Park Service, El Morro was, “a valuable water source and resting place, many who passed by inscribed their names and messages in the rock next to petroglyphs left by ancient Puebloans. The ruins of a large pueblo located on top of El Morro were vacated by the time the Spaniards arrived in the late 1500s, and its inhabitants may have moved to the nearby pueblos in Zuni and Acoma. As the American West grew in population, El Morro became a break along the trail for those passing through and a destination for sightseers. As the popularity of the area increased, so did the tradition of carving inscriptions on the rock. To preserve the historical importance of the area and initiate preservation efforts on the old inscriptions, El Morro was established as a national monument by a presidential proclamation on December 8, 1906.”