In ’37 House, pretty Ortiz y Pino de Kleven refused to sit

By Kate Nash
Tribune Columnist

SANTA FE – She was born before New Mexico was a state.

Elected majority whip before any other woman in the country.

And among the first women to run a ranch by herself.

Now 96, Concha Ortiz y Pino de Kleven can barely get the words out to describe those days.

Her voice is less than a whisper, an echo from decades past.

But the memories of serving in the earliest days of the Legislature are there, although they come in waves.

“I think that the attitude was that women sit in the corner and be pretty,” Ortiz y Pino de Kleven said of the years after her election to the state House in 1937.

“I said, ‘I’m not pretty. I’m not going to sit in the corner.’ “

She is pretty. But sit she didn’t. And still won’t.

If you lean in close, she’ll tell you she fought for bilingual education, for women’s rights. That not all the men were nice back then. That women today are too worried about styles. That she thinks her nose is too big.

“I thought that women should get elected,” she said. “I said to them, `We women come first.’ “

The bilingual Ortiz y Pino de Kleven, who has been honored probably a hundred times for her community service, her teaching and her work on behalf of the state, visited the Capitol last week. She was hugged and kissed and thanked by everyone, everywhere she went.

She travels inch by inch and with a blue walker. Yellowed oxygen tubes feed her air. But her mind is as sharp as ever.

Ortiz y Pino de Kleven was the third woman elected to the Legislature and served until 1941. At the time, only 532,000 people lived in New Mexico. John E. Miles was governor. Some 40 percent of homes had running water. It was a year before Los Alamos would become the site of the Manhattan Project.

In the 1950s, she commandeered the huge cattle and sheep ranch called Agua Verde in San Miguel County. She later went on to be a dean at St. Joseph’s College in Albuquerque.

She’s also the star of “!Concha! Concha Ortiz Y Pino, Matriarch of a 300-Year-Old New Mexico Legacy,” a biography written by author Kathryn M. Cordova.

It’s a cliche to say, but in her checked black-and-white wool outfit, with her hair pinned in a bun with clips that could be 40 years old, Ortiz y Pino de Kleven is a living legend.

Even her jewelry – giant pearl clip-on earrings and necklace – emanate the fashion, the flavor of another time.

That’s part of what makes her a role model for modern-day legislators.

Senate Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, a Democrat from Dona Ana, first met Ortiz y Pino de Kleven at church. It was so many years ago, she can’t remember when.

But Garcia says she does remember that she was so awe-struck by all the things Ortiz y Pino de Kleven had done that she was a bit intimidated to approach her.

“She has been a real role model for so many of us,” Garcia said.

And not just for the 34 women who serve now in the 112-member Legislature.

“She was an exception for her time,” said her second cousin, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat.

“She thought she was just as good as any man.”

As she talks from her seat in the Senate lounge, Sen. Pete Campos comes in and kneels down in front of Concha.

“What’s your name?” she asks in Spanish. He answers.

“He looks like an old-timer,” she says, taking Campos’ baby face between her hands.

“Gracias,” Campos, a Las Vegas Democrat, says laughing.

“You’re doing so good,” he tells her, twice.

“I have a new boyfriend,” she says of Campos.

She smiles but can barely get the words out.

Still, the memories come.

“It was such a pleasure. It was such a pleasure,” she said of those days.

“People were so friendly,” she whispers. “People wanted to be good.

“I’m so proud to be a New Mexican,” says the woman who for many is the ultimate symbol of everything our state is.

After a 15-minute interview, Ortiz y Pino de Kleven is too tired to speak much more.

So she’s taken home for the day. She lives just down the street.

She’ll be back.

Published Jan. 30, 2006.