By: Meredith Machen
Nina Otero-Warren is a pioneering suffragist, political figure, and educator in early twentieth-century New Mexico. Descended from a family with Hispano roots which go back to original colonizing expeditions by Spain of Nuevo Mexico, she was born near Los Lunas in 1881.
Otero-Warren was raised by a mother who was educationally and socially active. In the early 1900’s her mother was the director of the Santa Fe Board of Education and her home was a locus of political and social exchange between Hispanos and the white upper-class community of Santa Fe.
After attending Catholic boarding school in St. Louis, where she was taught that women could have careers as teachers and community leaders, Otero-Warren returned to New Mexico where she taught her many siblings what she had learned in school and learned from her male relatives how to shoot to protect herself.
In 1897, her family moved to Santa Fe when her father’s cousin, Miguel Otero II was appointed territorial governor. This move introduced her to a wider circle of political and social acquaintances, and she became a popular addition to Santa Fe’s social life.
In 1908, Otero-Warren married Lt. Rawson D. Warren, a cavalry officer and commander at Ft. Wingate near Gallup, New Mexico. Two years later she returned to Santa Fe. There are several rumors regarding the reason for the end of the marriage, but it appears that Otero-Warren did not like to strictures of married and Army life. She must also have missed the political and social life of the state capitol, Santa Fe. Otero-Warren obtained a divorce, but continued to use her married name. She told people her husband had died and called herself a widow to escape the religious and social stigma of being a divorced woman in the dominant Catholic society of conservative, early twentieth-century New Mexico.
In 1914, Otero-Warren began working with Alice Paul’s Congressional Union in the fight for women’s suffrage. Because of her hard work and commitment to lobbying legislators for women’s suffrage, she quickly rose in the ranks of the state Congressional Union. The Congressional Union recognized the importance of have a native Hispana leader in the fight for suffrage. She was the first Hispana state leader of the Congressional Union in New Mexico, and her leadership rallied support from both the Spanish- and English-speaking communities. When Alice Paul asked Otero-Warren to take on this role, Otero-Warren replied, “I will keep out of the local fuss…but will take a stand and a firm one whenever necessary for I am with you now and always.” Because of Otero-Warren’s ability to bridge the differences between native Hispanos and the white, English-speaking population of New Mexico, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified by the New Mexico legislature on February 21, 1920. She played such an important role in this activist effort that Alice Paul, the leader of the Congressional Union, credited Otero-Warren with ensuring New Mexico ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. New Mexico obtained full suffrage as the federal amendment was ratified in 1920.
After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Otero-Warren turned her prodigious advocacy skills to improving life for Hispanos and Native Americans in New Mexico. Her first act was to run for New Mexico’s single seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1922. She received the Republican nomination for the seat, beating the incumbent, Nestor Montoya, in the primary. Therefore, she became the first Hispana to run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. She campaigned on improved education, healthcare, and welfare services. She also wished to preserve Hispano culture. She was defeated by John Morrow by 10,000 votes. Contributing to her defeat was the disclosure of her divorce, by her cousin, former New Mexico Territorial Governor Miguel Otero, and her stance on teaching Spanish in public schools and employment of Hispana teachers.
From 1917 to 1929, Otero-Warren served as one of New Mexico’s first women government officials as Santa Fe’s Superintendent of Instruction. She was committed to improving education for Hispano, Native American, and rural students. Among other innovations, she raised teacher’s salaries, repaired dilapidated school buildings, increased the school term to nine months, and changed the curriculum to emphasize bilingual and bicultural education. This included English language instruction in the classroom, teacher sensitivity to different cultures, Spanish instruction through the arts, no punishment for speaking Spanish in the classroom or in the schoolyard, and parent-teacher instruction of artisan trades. Otero-Warren referred to this as Americanization with kindness and it was revolutionary at a time when most schools in the Southwest punished Hispano students for speaking Spanish.
In 1923, Otero-Warren was briefly inspector of Indian Schools in Santa Fe County. She advocated against sending Native American students to boarding schools off the reservation and tried to temper attempts to Americanize the students by including opportunities to learn about Native history, culture, and traditions.
Throughout the thirties and forties, Otero-Warren held various public positions in the CCC and other New Deal administrations. She also worked on preservation of historic buildings in Santa Fe and Taos, and the preservation and celebration of Hispanic and Native cultures, arts, and languages.
In 2014, Santa Fe recognized its debt to her by naming a new school after her: Nina Otero Community School.