“The First Hispanic Telegraph Operator”
by Felix Gabaldon
Shawn Kelley is an anthropologist and oral historian who has talked with all kinds of people throughout the Southwest. As part of the Abo Canyon Second Track Project, Shawn has interviewed over 60 people about their communities and life experiences along the Belen Cutoff.
Since the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway in New Mexico, numerous Hispanos have worked for the railroad. For many decades Hispanos were employed primarily as laborers on section and extra gangs, while specialized positions like engineers, conductors, and telegraph operators were held by Anglos. For many years, telegraph operator were critical components of the railroad’s communication system, ensuring trains were running safely and that freight and passengers arrived at their destination on time. In 1950, Felix Gabaldon was the first Hispano to be a telegraph operator at the Mountainair depot. Mr. Gabaldon, along with other strong-willed individuals, paved the way for later Hispanos to take higher rank jobs within the railroad. Below, Felix Gabaldon briefly describes what it was like to be the first Hispano working in the Mountainair depot.
~ ~ ~ ~ “1967 Map of AT&SF system in New Mexico,” Unknown (Author)
My first job was in Abo, about three weeks, maybe, and then I bumped somebody in Mountainair. I was there three, four years, then I went to Fort Sumner, worked there another maybe six, seven months. From Fort Sumner, I went to Roswell then to Dexter. From Dexter I came back to Willard, and I ended my career there. I worked in a depot, worked the teletype, typing orders like freight and the mail. In those days, the mail, the train would be comin’ through at 50 miles an hour or what, with the long pole for the mail hanging up, very scary at first. In Abo it was mostly a little freight, ranchers would load cattle, I just did the paperwork on where they were heading to.
To start off, like in Mountainair, I wasn’t accepted. I was the first Chicano working in a depot in the Pecos Division from Belen east; I broke the ice. I had to learn by records, old records of how it was done, like the freight, selling tickets there in the depot. It was unheard of, I guess. Here, in Willard, it was no problem. I think it was mostly Anglo people in just certain places; other places were Spanish people. So it made a difference, yeah. They were used to having Hispanics on track gangs, but I was the first Hispanic telegraph operator. I knew I needed that paycheck; otherwise I would have never made it.