By Larry Torres
Table of Contents
1. The Genesis of Hispanic Culture in Northern New Mexico
2. The Quest for Cultural Identity in Northern New Mexico
3. Defining the People of Mud
4. Is It True Chicanos are ‘Little People?’
5. Does Blood Type determine why we act how we act?
6. The Concept of Evil in Spanish Culture
7. Does ‘Evil” depend on your Point of View?
8. Exploring the Greek Roots of New Mexico Traditons
9. Northern New Mexico Saints take over Ancient Pagan Duties
10. Rediscovering more of our Ancient Greek Roots
11. An Advent Look at the Christ Child in New Mexico
12. Las Posadas: The Story of the Original Needy Travelers
13. The Arrival of Los Pastores in New Mexico
14. Borrow but Don’t Return: The Feast of the Holy Innocents
15. The Return of the Three Wise Men to Arroyo Hondo
16. Winter Meditations on Northern New Mexico Spanish
17. You Say ‘Atole’, I Say ‘Chaquegüe’
18. Los Comanches dance for San Pablo
19. Lucía becomes Candelaria during the Feast of Lights
20. Have you ever smoked through your ears?
21. Before Love comes the Feast of Chastity
22. Love Rituals and the Mating Call of Northern New Mexico
23. The Rites of Baptism in Northern New Mexico
24. How to become “Compadres” without having a Baby”
25. Mary of Agreda’s chile recipe: Too bad it’s Lent
26. Lenten Rituals of Northern New Mexico
27. Gypsies are remembered at the Church of St. Francis in Ranchos
28. Holy Thursday: The Lessons of Golgotha
29. Exploring the History of the Sweet Tooth in New Mexico
30. With the return of spring come Stories of the Sheepcamp
31. Where did all these Sheepherders come from?
32. Pastores in Sheep’s Clothing: The Shearing Industry in New Mexico
33. If she can’t throw a Level Floor, don’t marry Her
34. The Women would transform the House into a Home
35. The Faithful learn to deal with the Strict Rules of the Church
36. Grab your Eighth Grade Diploma and step into the future
37. In Exile from an Age of Innocence: The Kennedy Assassination
38. Sometimes I long for the days when Telephones had Party Lines
39. San Antonio de Padua does Triple Duty
40. Unsure of your Marriage Proposal? Have some Pumpkin.
41. Prendorio y Casorio: One for Her and One for Him
42. Santa Librada was the Original Lady Liberty
43. To Pee or Not to Pee? The History of the Outhouse in New Mexico
44. We too had a New Mexico-Style Mother Goose
45. St. James leaves his Scallop Motifs all over Northern New Mexico
46. This is how New Mexico Chile got its Sting
47. St. Lawrence’s Feast is a Time-Honored Tradition in New Mexico
48. What exactly is meant by “The Resurrection of the Body?”
49. Hispanic New Mexicans learn to live with the Dead
50. Who wants to learn Castillian Spanish?
51. If someone says “Hello”, just sniff at them
52. Has it been a year already?
53. When was the last time you talked to your Guardian Angel?
54. Just who are the Seven Archangels in Mexican Tradition?
55. Corn is sacred but Chicos are divine
56. Fear haunts the By Ways of Northern New Mexico
57. Harsh are the Lessons of the Bogeyman
58. The Family of Bogey Creatures gets bigger and bigger
59. Halloween is a Feast for Recognized and Unrecognized Saints
60. The High Holy Days are gone but the Mumming continues
61. Autumn Tales are used to inspire and astound
62. Here’s a Thanksgiving Tale to tell at the table
63. Exit Thanksgiving; enter Advent
64. Will the Real Santa Claus please step forward?
65. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
66. Let Us remember Christmases Past
67. Maybe it’s time to make Peace with the Pope
68. Who is the King of Glory, What shall we call Him?
69. The Tree is gone but Christmas Tales continue
70. Imagination used to be as strong as Reality
71. Let’s take a Lesson from Past Generations
72. Our Parents are our First and Lifelong Teachers: Part I
73. Our Parents are our First and Lifelong Teachers: Part II
74. Our Parents are our First and Lifelong Teachers: Part III
75. Our Parents are our First and Lifelong Teachers: Part IV
76. Our Parents are our First and Lifelong Teachers: Conclusion
77. Time to say “Farewell to the Flesh” –or is it?
78. The Taos Society of Portrait Artists follows in Historical Footsteps
79. Who is San José in New Mexico?
80. Strange is the result when Lent and Spring collide
81. How can we eat fish in This Miserable Kingdom?
82. Was there a Bunny at the First Easter?
83. These are Some Ritual Stories of Holy Week
84. What is “The Triumph of the Holy Cross?”
85. The Heart of a Mother knows no bounds
86. San Isidro marks a Special Day for All Farmers
87. New Mexico is the Cradle of Bilingualism
88. The Greatest Treasures of New Mexico lie in the Cemeteries
89. Multilingualism and Understanding were here from the Beginning
90. The Old Sheep Herder continues His Tale
91. The Old Sheep Herder concludes His Tale
92. The Young Boy becomes the Sheepherder
93. The Young Sheepherder learns to apply his Knowledge
94. What is The Radical Nature of Bread?
95. The Transformation of the Shepherd continues
96.The Sheepherder visits the ‘Bennett’ Morada
97. The Sheepherder is told to be prepared
98. The Young Sheepherder dies at last
99.The Sheepherder goes on the Road to Eternity
100. Cruising the Camino Real becomes ‘The Tales of the Hermit’
Much has been said about the state of education in New Mexico. Among the
ideas is the contention that some first-generation Hispanic students have a difficult
time assimilating into their new academic setting. The reasons that are given are
multiple: Perhaps their command of English is not what it should be for college.
Perhaps their home cultures are not recognized by their professors. Perhaps they
have different views of the state of world affairs, given their historical past.
With these ideas in mind, I have written a series of one hundred articles
collectively published through The Taos News beginning in September 2001 and
going through August 2003. They tend to address many of the questions as to the
cultural identity of some Hispanic New Mexicans.
In our modern zeal to promote measurable institutional education, we have laid
aside the idea that academics were a product of tribal-based education before there
were any state and federally-supported institutions. This same tribal knowledge is
not only what first-generation Hispanic students bring; this is also what all students
bring to the institution. Institutional classroom agendas have defined limits and
levels (syllabi) whereas tribal agendas are lived out beyond the classroom walls.
An anthropologist might refer to this difference as Etic and Emic. An Etic
education tends to favor detached and objective observation such as that found in
laboratories. It involves record-keeping and formulaic research. An Emic
education rarely involves itself with record-keeping or observation. It merely lives
out its life cycle in the guise of traditions, cultures and generational habits. The
former may be likened to a baker who mixes ingredients carefully in teaspoons full
and measuring cups and knows what the final cake must look like. The latter is
closer to one making a cake by putting in a pinch of this, a dash of that and a fistful
of the other. The cake will still be similar but the concern here is more with taste
than look in the final product.
It becomes not a question of one being better or of the other one being worse; it is
merely a question of being different. This addresses the idea that multiple
perspectives tend to yield multiple realities. The Hispanic history of New Mexico
from 1540 to the present is definitely one of multiple realities.
Those who would challenge this contention might say that this perspective is a
product of folk and pop culture. My response is that folk culture tends to come
from the tradition due to historical, cultural and geographical isolation. This was
the case with the New Mexico Territory. Pop culture, on the other hand, comes
from diffusion and contact and it tends to go in and out of style rather quickly. This
reflects modern-day American culture. The supposition is therefore not totally
Tribal-based education has evolved across the ages. In the field of agriculture,
for example, and ancient Greeks might have attributed the growth of all flora and
fauna to the goddess Demeter. Subsequent generations in Rome might have refined
this same field to the growth and cultivation of food-bearing plants presided over by
the goddess Pomona. Our early Christian and Hispanic ancestors would have
attributed the same thing to the intercession of Saint Isidore the Farmer. Modern
technology is now given credit for these very things. The ancient gods and saints
have now become replaced with fertilizers.
To many who have criticized the frequent allusions and Church analogies I use to
make my points I reply that Hispanic history and culture in the American
Southwest cannot be divorced from their Church traditions. They are, until
recently, one in the same and I have tried to do it without prostheletizing. Add to
this the fact that New Mexico has been a state for less than one hundred years (1912
to the present) and academic institutions are even younger than that, and you will
begin to see why I needed to show this perspective.
First-generation Hispanic students at many colleges and universities come with to
us with big agendas. We, as professors, often ignore and sometimes despise non-
textbook learning and promote the smaller agenda of the classroom. In trying to
understand how first-generation minority students operate, we the teachers need to
be educated in the field of cultural sensitivity while at the same time show students a
different way of addressing their lives without losing them. My aim here is to try to
raise this level of awareness and hopefully, begin to mend the rift between the
institutional and the tribal so that they may operate as one.
This series of articles inspired a second set collectively published in The Taos
News from September 2003 through August 2005 under the heading In the Footsteps
of the Hermit. It too deals with the history of Hispanic culture in New Mexico but it
is told from the point of view of a wandering anchorite who actually resided in the
New Mexico Territory between 1849 and 1869. This hermit, Giovanni Maria
Agostini Justiniani, was buried in the cemetery of La Mesilla near Las Cruces. This
series tends to delve more into church history and thought while revealing some
When In the Footsteps of the Hermit was over, a second spin-off series began with
the tongue-in-cheek title of ¿Habla Usted Spamglish? It began in 2005 and it is on-
going. This series still discusses ancient wisdom and tries to make is more palatable
to the transitional generations of today who were born into a different world but
have to live in the present. It uses humor and code-switching in language to make
its points. As with all my other published articles it too is being broadcast daily
through the courtesy of station KTAO 101.9 FM in Taos, New Mexico.
I wrote my series of articles to to understood by the common person in the street
who identifies with what I am saying. I did not write them to be analysed by
academics in institutions. They are not so much a treatise as a nudge that might help
to clarify a little why we do what we do.
It is my hope that you, the reader, will find that this collection of articles titled
Cruising the Camino Real to be informative and entertaining with a hint of an
invitation to look at your own lives as I tend to see mine.
I do want to express my gratitude and thanks to New Mexico State University,
and particularly to Jeanne Gleason Ph.D. and to her staff at the College of
Agriculture and Home Economics who made this publication possible through a
USDA grant. ¡Qué Dios los bendiga a todos y les ayude en su propia educación!
The Genesis of Hispanic Culture in Northern New Mexico
September is billed across New Mexico as Hispanic Heritage Month. It is the
month during which the Fiestas de Santa Fe fall, the month of the Old Trade Fair at
the Hacienda de los Martínez here in Taos and the month in which Mexican
Independence Day is celebrated. What better time to begin a column which
addresses the rich and varied history, culture, art, folk life and social events that
make northern New Mexico attractive to the outside world.
Perhaps the reason that the Taos valley is so attractive to the outside world is the
fact that both early and new settlers in this area come from such multicultural
backgrounds. Taking a look at the coming of the first entrada into New Mexico we
find that out of 336 men and 3 women who attempted a settlement under Francisco
Vásquez de Coronado, 227; that is 2/3 of them, weren’t even Spanish. There were
Greeks, Portuguese, Italians, Moors, Germans, Scotsmen, and several Frenchmen
listed in the expedition.
The question then arises as to why people from such diverse backgrounds were
traveling through the least-explored corners of the known world at the time. In
order to appreciate our history we have to reach all the way back to Mother Spain
which was under siege.
It was in the year 711 that the Moors had decided to cross over from the North
African coast into the Iberian Peninsula. One of the men, named Tarik is
historically credited with being the first Moor to cross from Africa to Spain via an
island between the two continents of Europe and Africa. The island has since
become known as Jebel-al-Tar in Arabic. That means “The mountain of Tarik.”
Jebel-al-Tar is now known as Gibraltar.
The Moors were to occupy Spain all the way up to 1492. Even though some
Moors did intermarry and carry on commerce with Spanish Christians, many were
resented. There was a long struggle to drive the Moors out of Spain. In the year
718 Pelayo de Asturias waged The Battle of Covadonga against the Moors and
centuries afterwards another man took up the struggle.
Don Rodrígo Díaz de Bivar, known to history as “El Cid”, came to the aid of his
country. He saw the kingdoms of Spain divided. He sought the unification of Spain
as one country. His spirit soon took hold of the masses. People came from all over
Europe as mercenaries to help drive out the Moors.
With the fall of Granada in 1492 there was no longer an internal enemy to be
fought. Shortly thereafter, in Mexico, Hernán Cortez was fighting with the Meshica
(Aztecs). The mercenaries, who had no reason to remain in Spain, left for New
Spain. Alas, the Aztec had already been subdued. When the Governor of New
Galicia in northern New Spain announced that he was going north to a ‘new
Mexico’ to seek a glittering new Tenochtitlán, many of these unemployed soldiers
The year was 1540. Soldiers listed among the ranks of the conquistadors
included Portuguese names like Archuleta, Pacheco and Chávez. There were
Arabic family names like Medina, Alcón, Alvarez and Salazar. French names like
Márquez, Jacques, Sambrano and Archiveque soon entered the area. So did the
Greek surname of Griego and the Scottish Durant. The Rivali and Prandi families
came from Italian descent. There were Crypto-Jewish names like Jaramillo,
Espinoza, Rodarte, and Raél. And, in all fairness, there were a few authentically
Spanish names like Aragón, Valencia, and Castillo.
The very descendents of this motley crew of family names still live and work in
northern New Mexico. The question now arises as to whether these people and
others like them are “authentically Spanish.” The answer is both yes and no. Yes
because, being under the protection of the Spanish crown and speaking the Castilian
language they would be Spanish. No because Spain hadn’t consolidated into a vast
national entity yet. Many of the international home customs of los primeros
pobladores live on among us in the form of sayings, religious outlooks, songs, dances
The Quest for Cultural Identity in Northern New Mexico
Last week we began to talk about an historical genesis that came to be the culture
of the Taos valley. Mixed with historical documents come apocryphal accounts as to
just how the people of the Sangre de Cristo area came to be.
It is commonly told among Hispanic families that in the beginning God created
the heavens and the earth. And God looked around and He said, “I’m lonely.
Angels are so predictable and since eternity consists largely of boredom, I’ll create
Man to keep me guessing.”
God then created the first race of men and named them after the first letter of
the alphabet. Thus the Alvarez clan came to be. And God said, “Behold, the
Alvarez are Moors and they will mix their creative culture with the people of Spain.
And God saw that it was good. He then created the second generation of men and
named them after the second letter of the alphabet. Thus the Barela came to be.
And God said, “One day, out of this clan will come the great santero Patrociño
Barela who will do me great honor with the santos he creates.” And God saw that it
Then God said, “Let us create the third generation of men and name them after
the third letter of the alphabet.” God created the Cabeza de Vaca clan and said,
“One day Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca will be the first Hispano to visit New
Mexico.” And God saw that this too was good. Thus it was that God continued to
create the fourth, fifth and sixth generations after the letters D, E and F. He named
the Durán clan after their Scottish forerunners. He named the Esquibel clan after
the E for they were the Crypt-Jews of the Pecos valley that were so dear to his heart.
He named the Fernández next saying, “One day they will give their name to Don
Fernando de Taos.” And God saw that it was good.
God was getting a little tired by this point but He persevered. He named the
seventh generation of men Gonzales after the letter G saying, “One day José de
Gracia Gonzales will create the great altar screens in the valleys of Trampas, Santa
Bárbara, Llano San Juan and Arroyo Seco. He named the eighth generation of men
Herrera, after the letter H saying, “Behold, the Herreras will be the clan of ferriers
that will shoe the horses going up the Chihuahua Trail and bring Christianity to
New Mexico. And God saw that it was good.
Next God thought of the letter I and said, “The letter I needs the people called
Ibarra. They will grace Spanish with a touch of Cajun culture from Louisiana and
travel up to New Mexico.” Then God thought up the Jaramillo family after the
letter J saying, “The Jaramillo clan will one day live in Cañón and produce a
powerful sobadora to treat the physical needs of the people. And God saw that this
too was good.
God was getting more and more weary but He persevered and pulled the next
generation of men out of the earth and said, “There are no Spanish surnames that
begin with the letter K. I believe that I shall have to create the Kennedy clan since
they’re Catholic and almost as good as Spanish Catholics.” And so it was. God
then faltered for a minute but continued his search for the perfect companion.
After the letter L He created the Lovatos saying, “One day Taos will have a mayor
named Phil Lovato who will serve his people well.” And God saw that it was good.
By now God was virtually exhausted and kept saying, “M! M! M!” He sighed.
Finally, throwing his hands into the air He announced loudly so that all of Heaven
might hear, “Let the rest of humanity be Martínez in honor of the letter M.” Thus
the huge Martínez clan came to outnumber everyone else in the valley by a ratio of
5-1. And God saw that it was good…
Folktales such as these give us a whimsical look at the demographic distribution
of the Hispanic population of Taos in an understandable way. We are reminded
that history and culture are indeed made up of very human elements such and logic,
humor and tradition.
Defining the People of Mud
Many people of Spanish descent have said just how much they resent the term
“Hispanic” which has been applied to them by American officials through
questionnaires, driver’s license applications and income tax forms. It’s not
uncommon to hear some say, “I’m not His-panic. I’m not Her-panic. I’m not
anybody’s panic.” By making fun of the term, they are looking for ways of learning
to live with it. What is most painful, resented or makes them feel uncomfortable,
becomes less offensive if it is not taken seriously. That is the nature of gallows
The truth of the matter is though, that “Hispanic” is a term which encompasses
the vast gamut of Latinos ranging from Puerto Ricans, to Argentines, to Cubans, to
New Mexicans. So the question how arises as to why not just call everyone
“Latinos?” Well, Latinos also incorporates the Portuguese, French, Italian, and
Romanians within its scope. The same resentment is sometimes found among
Blacks who are pigeonholed into the term “Afro-American” instead of being
referred to as Liberians, Nigerians, Ugandans, etc.
To find a means of dealing with the term “Hispanic” it is important to investigate
its roots. Spain was the country that was at the tail end of the known world of
Mediterranean culture. The Mediterranean Sea itself translates from the words
Medi (middle) and terra (earth) as “the sea in the middle of the earth.” Spain is
alluded to in the the Old Testament as the land of Tarshish.
With the rise of Greek civilization Tarshish became known as Hesperia. In the
ancient Greek myths the land of the Hesperides was the place where the gods kept
their fabled “golden apples.” These “golden apples” are now known as “Valencia
With the decline of Greek culture and the rise of the Roman civilization, old
Hesperia now became known as Hispania. The land of Hispania was the birthplace
of many important Romans including a couple of emperors.
From Hispania it is easy to deduce just how the term España evolved and now
the modern name of Spain. So then, are we Hispanic? The answer is a proud and
resounding “yes!” We have Phoenician, Greek, Latin, and Celtic, Vandal, Moorish,
Aztecs and American Native blood to prove it.
So what is the myth of those who are of “pure Spanish descent?” -Just that, a
myth. With the coming of American culture to New Mexico with statehood in 1912,
we didn’t want to be treated as “dirty Mexicans.” We invented the myth of being
hidalgos (hijos de algo); sons of somebody, as a means of combating the Black
Legend. If we could be sons of conquerors then we might just get the respect we
thought we deserved.
As so often happens historically speaking, a people will invent a myth for
somebody else and in time, their own people come to believe it. The myth was to
persist until the mid 1960s when it was to be debunked by the coming of the
The Chicano Movement was to make people of Hispanic blood aware of the idea
that whereas their pale, blueblood skin may have come from Spain, their high
cheekbones probably came from the puebloan people who live along the Río
Is it true Chicanos are ‘Little People?’
Irish legends often tell of marshes and bogs that are haunted by little people
known as leprechauns. The word “leprechaun” makes a lot more sense when we
realize that it is a corruption of the ancient words “le” (little) and “corpan” (body).
The definition of “leprechaun” then is “little body.”
The reason that all of this comes to mind in a column dedicated to Hispanic
culture is, because in the mid 1960s, a group calling itself The Brown Berets
marched into Taos Plaza, stood under the Bataan monument and declared all
present to be “Chicanos.” They hailed Che Guevara, whom we suspected was the
George Washington of their movement. Everyone was so bewildered, not
recognizing the term as legitimate Spanish. We all thought we were “Spanish.”
Others claimed that we were really “Mexicans.” Some thought we were a cross
between the two.
Speculation soon began to filter down that the word “Chicano” might possibly
derive from the words “chico” or “chiquito” meaning “little ones” since they were in
the minority. Others thought that the word must have come from a contraction of
the words “México-americano.” Still not satisfied with this, others went on to
explore other roots. It was proposed that since it was the Chinese; not the Spanish,
who laid down the railroad tracks across the great American Southwest, surely they
must have intermarried with the Mexicans and created a new race called Chi- (for
Chinese) and –canos (for Mexicanos). Some uncharitable souls even went so far as
to suggest that it came from the word “chicanery” meaning thieves and swindlers.
Amusing as these speculations all are, the truth of the matter is that the term
“Chicano” derives from the term “Meshicano” meaning “sons of the Meshica.” The
Meshica were the people that European civilizations would come to know as
“Aztecs.” Meshica is an old Nahuatl term meaning “we the people.” As sons of “we
the people” then, the Chicano movement recognized the dual nature of New
Mexican, Arizonac, Tejano, and Californio blood. (Except for the people of the San
Luis valley, Coloradoans were still trying to cope with the term “Hispanic.”) It
recognized that we were descendents not only of conquerors but of conquered
cultures as well.
Thus it was that Indo-hispano culture came to be recognized. Actually, Hispanic
blood pedigrees used to be quite a science; If, for example Spanish and Anglo blood
came together, the resulting offspring would be known as “Coyote,” Spanish and
Mexican Indian blood mix would yield a “Mestizo.” If someone Spanish bore
children with a Mestizo, the resulting child would be a “Castizo.” If a Castizo had
children from a Spaniard the blood would be “repurified” and yield descendants
called “Torna a Español.”
If the same Spanish blood mixed with New Mexico Indian blood, the result would
be a “Genízaro.” A crossed between Spanish blood and French blood would bring
the world a “Gabacho.” Now, if a Spaniard married a Gabacho, the result would be
a “Cholo.” The mixing of Spanish and Black blood was yield a “Mulato.” A cross
between Spanish and Mulato blood would yield a quadroon called a “Morisco.” A
mixing of Spanish and Morisco blood would yield an “Albino.” The list goes on and
on. The Spanish blood mix cast system at one time recognized at least 26 different
combinations. So, do we act according to our blood types? There are some who
would argue that we do.
Does Blood Type determine why we act how we act?
Laura Esquibel, in her famous book “Like Water for Chocolate”, tells the
compelling tale of a widowed woman who raises three daughters by herself. The
oldest of the daughters must be married first at all costs even if it is at the expense of
the youngest one who is the real object of the affection of the man who is forced to
marry her sister. The middle sister, whom the family tends to ignore, has a highly
developed sense of rhythm that the other two sisters find rare since her “father”
couldn’t dance and her mom hated it. The only possible explanation must be that
she must secretly be the daughter of her proper mother’s secret mulatto lover who
died years before. The daughters ask, “Where else could she have picked up her
It is of course foolhardy to stereotype and assume that only certain people have
natural rhythm or that only some have business sense or that only some can
appreciate fine wine. However, when we tend to favor certain behavior or
stereotypical ways it is assumed to be because we have such and such blood.
In years past the people of Arroyo Seco would make fun of the people Arroyo
Hondo. The people of Arroyo Hondo would make fun of Ranchos. Ranchos would
make fun of Peñasco. Peñasco would make fun of Chimayó. Chimayó would make
fun of Española, etc.
All of this would be quite laughable if we didn’t know that in Spain the people of
Andalucía mock the people of Valencia. Valencia makes fun of Aragón. The area of
Aragón laughs at Extremadura. Extremadura mocks León. León thinks Castilians
talk funny, etc.
All of this forces speculation of this side of the world that maybe Old World
rivalries are alive and well and being played out on a big stage called northern New
Mexico. Just how far does heredity and the gene pool travel?
People surnamed Gallegos probably had ancestors that came from northwestern
Spain from the province of Galicia; hence the origin of the name. Just and northern
and southern Spain might be critical of each other, likewise northern New Mexico
might tend to hold itself culturally superior to southern New Mexico. Eastern New
Mexico is more often thought to be a province of Texas than one tied to the culture
of the Río Grande. Western New Mexico seems to have more in common with
Zuñis, Hopis and Navajos that with Clovis, Hobbs or Tucumcari culture.
It has often been suggested that one of the reasons Hispanic culture advances so
slowly might be due to the interethnic rivalries as each corner of New Mexico tends
to express its superiority over the other. This “envidia” dictates that “we are better
than them.” Conversely though, whereas a cultural or regional group might
consider itself to be superior to another, the tendency is to be great together but not
individually. This fosters the idea the great individuals must come from somewhere
else. How can someone be great if we knew his father the farmer, his mother the
housewife and his grandfather who couldn’t even read or write?
It’s fascinating that even as blood calls to blood, when someone rises just a little
above us, we’d rather pull him down than encourage him. Crabs in a pot of boiling
water tend to do the same thing to their own when they try to scale the sides of the
pot. Perhaps then, it isn’t the proud Spanish blood than is to blame for our slow
progress but “el ojo malo” which gusts forth in the form of envidia.
The Concept of Evil in Spanish Culture
There’s an old story about a man who died and went to Hell. It was so hot and so
miserable there that he cried out for mercy. Just then the Angel of Mercy happened
to be passing by the Pearly Gates and heard the anguished cries of the man in Hell
below. Moved to pity, he then said, “I am going to lower an onion by its green
sprouts down to you. Jump up and grab a hold of the onion and I will pull you up.”
The man was elated! Finally, here he saw his chance to get out of Hell. When he
thought that no one was looking, the Angel of Mercy lowered the onion down into
Hell and the sinner jumped up and seized it, clinging for dear life. Sure enough, he
was being pulled by slow degrees out of Hell and into Heaven. As he rose higher
and higher, he suddenly felt himself grow heavier and heavier. He looked down and
saw that there was another man clinging to his feet. Under that man was a third
one also clinging to the second man’s feet and scores of others waiting to jump on
the onion ticket out of Hell.
The first man began to struggle and kick, trying to free himself from the others.
“Let go of me!” he yelled down. “This onion was meant for me and for me alone!”
He struggled and struggled but the others wouldn’t let go. Finally, all of that
struggling caused the onion to break away from its sprouts and everybody tumbled
back down into Hell.
The man who wanted to be the only one to get out of Hell while keeping all of the
others there, was suffering from envidia. He hadn’t realized that in order to make it
to the top, a man must help his fellow men. He hadn’t realized that no one climbs to
the top of anything without aiding those around him.
The concept of envidia is so ingrained among many cultures and it is certainly no
stranger to northern New Mexico. The story of how Evil came to New Mexico is a
fascinating folk tale often told to children here.
It seems that at the beginning of time, a spirit named Lucifer was created as the
most beautiful, shining being, second only to God himself in splendor. This spirit,
aptly named “the bearer of light,” couldn’t stand the idea of not being God himself
and so he seduced a third of the heavenly hosts into rebelling against the Almighty.
God then sent the chief of the celestial hosts, Michael the Archangel, to cast Lucifer
from the skies. In the ensuing battle, Michael poked Lucifer’s right eye out and
down it fell, naturally, to New Mexico. The other fell into China where the Great
Khan kept it in his court and Marco Polo saw there in his travels through the
The conquistadors coming up the Camino Real found Lucifer’s right eye in the
form of a great ruby. Ever greedy for treasure, they decided to divide it among
themselves. But Lucifer’s eye could not be cut. It exploded and the winds of north,
south, east and west blew its fragments in mighty whirls across the great American
That is why many people walking about on windy days will suddenly feel a sting
in their eyes and find nothing in them. This means that a piece of Lucifer’s eye is
lodged there. If that person is naturally inclined toward evil, as a black witch or
warlock, they can bring about the most terrible evil by looking at others and
muttering spells. If the person is more inclined toward goodness, they can still bring
about evil by complimenting someone and not remembering to touch them in some
way as they speak.
The traditional local way to ward off Evil is to make your fingers into the form of
a cross if a whirlwind is seen coming your way. It is said that Evil often travels in
this guise. Many babies are bedecked with turquoise and coral bracelets to keep
Should a baby happen to become ill due to the effects of the Evil Eye, he must be
taken to a curandera for purification and all who have had contact with the baby
must take a few drops of water in their mouths and spit them into the baby’s mouth.
It is a strange practice in northern New Mexico, but across the years it has proven
to yield great results.
Does ‘Evil” depend on your Point of View?
November 1st has traditionally marked All Saints’ Day in the liturgical calendar.
It is a time dedicated to remembering all hallows; that is, all saints, beginning with
hallows ev’en rituals the evening before. Children still dress in costumes and masks
and go from door to door asking for “Trick or treats.”
Such door to door asking for treats was indeed a cultural ritual in northern New
Mexico. However it was generally reserved for Christmas morning. Our tradition
of “mis crismes” which was preceded by “los Aguinaldos” and antedated by
“pidiendo al monigote” were all rituals along this same vein.
In reference to the Halloween costuming and mumming ritual however,
originally it used to be part of a ceremony impersonating the dearly departed and of
bringing food to their graves. This ritual feeding of the dead has been part of the
customs handed down to us from medieval Europe, and, in the American Southwest
at least, incorporated with native customs.
From our European roots comes the custom of wakes. Wakes for the dead were
occasions wherein, after the body of the dead was washed and dressed, it would be
laid out on top of the kitchen table. Food would then be placed around it. The
mourners, largely consisting of servants, laborers and other poor people, would
come to mourn and eat of the food placed around the body.
As the mourners ate the food, they would symbolically eat away the sins of the
dead man. The deceased person’s spirit would then be free to go straight to Heaven.
When these people would die, again, food would be placed around them and
someone else who was hungry would eat away their sins too. It was a clever way of
getting rid of “original sin.”
The natives of this area have long held to the custom of feeding the dead. Bowls
of prepared foods are taken to church and kept there during the service. At the end
of the service people would take the food home for themselves or place them on
gravesites. In places such as Mexico, marigold petals were also used in ritual altars
to the dead as part of the decorations.
Many people, not understanding the sacredness of connecting the space between
the living and the dead, began to misinterprete these rites as evil and even satanic.
Soon masks and costumes representing monsters, fairies, villains, superheroes and
even popular cartoon characters joined the family of what used to be dead
Ancient high holy days such as the vernal equinox, the optomnal equinox, the
winter solstice and the summer soltice were renamed to coincide with Christian high
hold days such as Michael Mass, All Hallows’ Even, Christmas and St. John’s Day.
Invariably, whenever pagan and Christian rituals clash, one party is designated as
The concept of evil in northern New Mexico dictates that it be personified as a
cycploean old hag named “La Tuerta.” This one-eyed creature is said to hover
through the night air in the form of balls of fire. People looking down into places
like Valdez, Talpa, Ojo Sarco or Córdova have born witness to seeing such things.
Evil lives in other Hispanic, northern New Mexico villages under other names.
Many of our Hispanic traditions in northern New Mexico can be linked directly to
Exploring the Greek Roots of New Mexico Traditons
There is a belief in northern New Mexico that if a baby takes too long before he
can utter his first words or if he has a severe speech impediment, it is because he
needs divine help. What the parents would then do is to borrow the key to the local
church door and stick it into the child’s mouth. Having done this, they would then
turn the key in the child’s mouth as if they were unlocking a door. If they do this
with full faith, the child should beginning to speak clearly within a few days.
The customs of this area, which we have long believed to be be part of our
Spanish heritage, now seem to point to other areas of the world. The Griego and the
Papas families of these valleys have more in common with Greek Orthodoxy and
even Greek paganism than with the roots of Spain.
Take for example the story of putting the church key into a child’s mouth in
order to unlock his speech. This is probably pious belief stemming from the
apocryphal story of St. John Chrysostom. According to the story, St. John
Chrysostom could not speak properly. One day, after praying ferverently, he rose
from his place of prayer, went up to the icon of the Holy Virgin and kissed it on the
mouth. Immediately his speech became clear and he became a great orator and
preacher. This holy story probably stems more from the Greek roots Chrys
meaning “golden” and Stoma meaning “mouth.”
In similar fashion, in the late 1960s when Pope John was cleaning house, the
Vatican declared that there was not enough proof that St. Christopher had ever
lived. If we look to pre-Christian myths, we will find the tale of Jason who was
standing by the side of the stream and saw an old woman trying vainly to get across.
He offered to carry her on his back. He put her on his shoulders and as he moved
across the current, she became heavier and heavier. When he put her down on the
other side he was amazed to see that the old crone was now the radiant Queen of Mt.
In looking as the St. Christopher legend, a giant of a man was standing by the
side of a swollen stream. He saw a little child who begged to be taken across. As the
man carried the child upon his shoulders, the child grew heavier and heavier.
When the two reached the other side, the man turned to the child and said, “I feel as
if I have carried the weight of the world upon my shoulders.” The child is
purported to have said, “Not only did you carry the world; you carried He who
made the world upon your shoulders.” The words Christos means “anointed” and
pheros means “bearer of” in Greek.
Recently we began to investigate the stories coming out of Chimayó about the
Healing Lord of Esquípulas which is the effigy of the crucified Christ hanging at the
main altar. The origins of the name “Esquípulas” have long been debated by
scholars. If we look at ancient Greek myths there was a man whose power of
healing was so great that people came from all over the world to seek him out. He
grew so powerful in his craft that he could even bring the dead back to life. Soon
people began to erect temples to this man, Aesclepius. They would sleep in his
temples and thus the first hospitals were born. He was aided by his daughter
Aesclepius had a serpent wrapped around a stick that taught him the secrets of
healing. This serpent on a stick is now known as the caduceus and it is the hospital
symbol for medicine.
In any case, it seems rather more than just a mere coincidence that if the letters L
and P are transposed (called metathesis) in the name of Aesclepius, it bears a
striking resemblence to the name of Esquipulas, the healing Lord.
One of the reasons that the polytheistic religion of the Greeks changed into the
orthodox belief in one God is that with so many gods and goddesses running around,
it was easy to forget to pray to one and incur their wrath. With the coming of
Christianity, there was only one God and the minor details were taken care on
through the intercession of the saints.
Northern New Mexico Saints take over ancient Pagan Duties
It is easy to mistake Catholics in northern New Mexico for idolaters. We keep
statues and pictures of saints and virgins at private home altars, on our car visors
and even on our dashboards. Many, who do not understand the teachings of the
ancient form of Catholicism here, figure out that we are praying to someone other
than God himself.
This, of course, is not correct. It would be a big mistake for anyone to pray to
someone other than God. That would be a pagan practice. What the faithful and
devout need to understand is that we pray for the particular saint or virgin to
intercede for us before the throne of God. It is like going to mom when you need to
borrow dad’s car in the hope that she will soften his heart and you get your wish.
When the concept of God is too abstract, saints become more approachable as
Now, as to the statues and pictures themselves, they are not the actual object of
veneration. They are mere representations; focal points if you will, to help the
devout person concentrate on what he is saying. It is like keeping a picture of your
wife on top of the desk. It isn’t actually your wife, just something to remind you of
With this introduction, it is now fairly safe to launch off into the nature of saints
in the valleys of northern New Mexico. In pre-Christian days, minor gods and
goddesses were assigned roles to keep harmony in the world of men. The Seasons
controlled the weather. The Hours measured time. The Fates decided the span of
all things. And there were gods controlling everything from sleep (Hypnos), to
dreams (Morpheus) to laughter (Momus) to speed (Hermes).
Saints are not gods or goddess; they are simply people who actually lived and are
thus honored for their exemplary lives. Across the vagaries of time, many of these
saints have been given power over certain elements, coinciding with their histories.
In Greek mythology Zeus himself was the god of thunder. In Christianity Barbara
was a beautiful lady who swore perpetual virginity. When her mother died, her
wicked father tried to seduce her and she prayed for deliverance from him. He was
struck dead by a bolt from the blue. Barbara is now invoked against thunder and
lightning. She is honored in the valley of Santa Bárbara just beyond Peñasco.
In Greek mythology Demeter, whose name means “barley mother”, was the
goddess of agriculture. In Christian times Isidore of Seville was a simple farmer
who preferred to pray rather than till the fields of his employer. While he was
praying, angels would come and plow for him. Now he is honored in Los Córdovas
as the patron of agriculture.
In Greek mythology Hades was the dread lord of the dead. He even stole
Persephone, the goddess of spring and made her the ice-cold queen of the
underworld. In Christian times Joseph was the lowly carpenter from the royal
House of David. Aside from apocryphal stories related to us in the old miracle play
El Coloquio de San José, little is known about him. In the book “The Life of Mary
as told by the Mystics”, Joseph is reported to have died in the arms of Jesus. Saint
Joseph is now invoked as the patron saint of the blessed death. His is honored in the
valley of Las Trampas as San José de Gracia.
In the world of nature and animals, Pan was the goat-legged goat that presided
over all according to the ancient Greeks. In Christian times two saints have been
made patrons of animals. The first is Saint Anthony of Padua who is honored in the
valleys of Valdez, Questa and Peñasco. Anthony would preach and people would
not listen. One day as he preached in the marketplace a donkey kneeled down to
listen. When he preached by the river’s edge the fish would poke their heads out to
listen. As last the people too got the hint.
As to Francis of Assisi, he popularized the notion of seeing God revealed in
nature. He treated the very stones upon which he trod as brothers. He is honored
in the village of Ranchos de Taos as its patron saint and indeed the whole
Archdiocese of Santa Fe claims him as its intercessor.
Rediscovering more of our Ancient Greek Roots
The most fascinating thing about studying culture, tradition, language and
history are the multiple points of view from where they can be examined. A
hundred people can read the same article and come away with a hundred different
points of view. It is commonly said that multiple perspectives yield multiple realities.
Sometimes historians will use two words when defining perspective. They are
“etic” and “emic.” An etic perspective is a culture as seen by those who come from
outside of that culture. It is like the ethnologist who comes to Taos, studies the
manners, traditions and customs and then writes a learned analysis. That analysis
tends to be very objective.
An emic perspective is one by which a culture is seen by those who participate in
it. Rarely does an emic perspective analyze the culture; the emic simply lives it. In
looking at both etic and emic perspectives it is like two bakers who set out to make a
cake. The etic will follow the list of ingredients to the letter and come up with what
the cake looks like. The emic will take a pinch of this, a fistful of that, following
many years of experience and habit and come up with that same cake as the etic.
This approach is more heartfelt, more subjective. It is more concerned with what
the cake tastes like.
Both approaches to the cake are different. Now, the question arises as to which is
better: The objective etic/look or the subjective/taste approach? Again, it is not a
question of better, it is merely a question of each being different. Occasionally one
may find people who straddle both the etic and the emic worlds. The late Jim Sagel
for example was a perfect etic who became an emic. Sometimes people from within
the culture will take time of analyze it as well. The late Enos García was an emic
who became an etic.
In continuing last week’s cross-cultural comparison of the duties of ancient gods
with those of modern day saints in northern New Mexico, the tendency as we saw,
was to use the saints as intermediaries between mankind and a powerful, almost too
abstract God. But, as the Spanish proverb says: “Cuando Dios no quiere, santos no
pueden.” That is, “When God doesn’t will it, no saint can help.”
In any case, saints are often allotted roles outside of nature as well. In old Greek
mythology for example Apollo was the god of music. He was supposed to lead the
choir of the nine muses and play on the lyre. In Christianity this role has been
assumed by Saint Cecilia.
In Greek mythology the goddess Hestia was the goddess of the hearth and home.
She was the first swallowed by her father Chronos and the last vomited, thus she is
known as both the oldest and the youngest of the Olympians. With the coming of
Christianity the role of the perfect housekeeper and mother was assigned to Saint
Anne. Tradition holds that St. Anne was the wife of St. Joachim and mother of the
Virgin Mary. She schooled Mary in the domestic arts. There are several churches
dedicated to St. Anne in New Mexico.
Perhaps the most fascinating cross-cultural comparison that we can make from
the ancient world to ours is the idea that the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, is an
interesting prototype to our own Man-God. Dionysus was begotten on the mortal
woman Semele by the chief god Zeus. When she questioned his true identity, he
revealed himself to her as the the great thunder god, but she caught on fire and died.
Zeus then removed the unborn fetus from Semele and sewed it into his own thigh.
Thus Dionysus was both born of woman and god.
Jesus himself was begotten on woman by “…the power of the Holy Spirit.” As
the second person of the Most Holy Trinity he was both fully man and fully God. It
is often said among the Spanish people of this area that He turned “el servicio del
vino” into “el servicio divino”; “the service of wine” became “the service divine.”
An Advent Look at the Christ Child in New Mexico
During the holy time of Advent in northern New Mexico many wonder about the
symbolism found displayed in the homes of the faithful. It is rarely the traditional
elves and reindeer. Perhaps it is not even Santa Claus, sometimes referred to as
“Chris Kringle.” This last designation though is probably more accurate for, you
see, Chris Kringle is a corruption of the words Christ Kindel which means “Christ
the Child.” In northern New Mexico we call The Christ Child, El Santo Niño.
The village of Chimayó, just to the east of Española, takes its name from an old
native word meaning “place of obsidian.” At the heart of the village, El Santuario
de Chimayó is the most revered shrine in New Mexico. It is the home not only of the
great healing Lord of Esquípulas but of the most honored statue of El Santo Niño de
Atocha. The Holy Child of Atocha enshrined in the inner sanctum, is held in high
regard by the faithful who will take baby shoes to El Santo Niño only to find their
soles completely worn out the next day.
In order to understand the mystery of the worn out shoes, it is necessary to
investivate the traditional stories about the Child himself: Atocha used to be an old
village close to Ma-jerit, Spain. Ma-jerit, meaning “wet place” in old Moorish
language, is now ‘Madrid,’ Spain. Atocha is a suburb of Madrid housing a most
interesting botanical garden. In the old days however, when Spain was occupied by
the Moors, Atocha was the site of a raging battle. Many Spaniards were captured
by the Moors and held prisoners without access to food and water. The Spaniards’
families were not allowed to come near the prison site.
One day a handsome child approached the Moorish camp dressed in the
trappings of a pilgrim. He wore a feathered hat and a traveling cloak adorned with
the scallop shell that was the hallmark of those who had made the pilgrimage to
Santiago de Compostela. The child wore sandals upon his feet and carried a staff to
which there was a water gourd attached and in his arm he carried a basket.
Such a mild-looking boy was allowed to visit the prisoners. He would feed them
from his basket that never emptied, no matter how many he fed. Soon the child
became a familiar sight among both Christians and Moors. It was whispered
among the faithful that The Christ Child himself had taken on the guise of a pilgrim
in order to tend to the needs of all.
It is possible that the devotion to El Santo Nino stems from the veneration of
Nuestra Señora de Atocha herself. The legend of the basket that never emptied was
transferred to St. Martin of Porres in Peru. In any case, the first statue of El Santo
Niño was brought from Madrid to Fresnillo, Mexico. Now, how did the statue of El
Santo Niño come to Chimayó?
The local story says that Mr. Bernardino Abeyta and his daughter were tilling
the fields one day. The daughter could not concentrate on her work for she kept
hearing the ringing of bells. She thought that the sound of clanging metal might be
coming from her father’s plows. As she listened closely, she came to realize that the
bells were ringing underground. She walked toward the place of the sound and told
her father to dig there. Great was their astonishment when bells were indeed found
underground. In addition, a wooden statue of El Santo Niño surfaced. Others say
that the cross of the Lord of Esquípulas was also unearthed. A chapel was built
over the place of the holy dirt and the statues were enshrined therein.
Since then, El Santuario de Chimayó has been a place of healing. Pilgrims come
from all over the world to fulfill promises made to El Santo Niño de Atocha. Many,
who came on crutches and walkers, leave them behind when they leave completely
healed of their infirmities. Some, whose babies have taken their first steps, will
bring the little shoesies and put them at the feet of El Santo Niño. In the morning,
the soles of the shoes are worn out as the Holy Child walks around the world
bringing comfort to the needy and imprisoned and help to travelers.
Las Posadas: The Story of the Original Needy Travelers
The deserts of New Mexico are replete with strange stories of unwary travelers
who have become lost in the shifting sands just before sunset. Just when all seems
hopeless they inadvertently come upon a humble, tumbledown dwelling. Inside they
find a man, his wife and a child who take them in and give them food and shelter for
the night. In the morning when the travelers wake up, they find that they are all
alone in an abandoned ruin and the kindly family is nowhere in sight. Surely then,
they must have been cared for by The Holy Family: St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary
and The Christ Child. Willa Cather, in her book, “Death Comes for the
Archbishop”, makes allusion to this story.
It is easy to believe in such stories if one considers the tale of how the Biblical
Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem of Judea by order of Caesar Augustus
to be counted in the census of the world. Mary, being “heavy with child” had to find
a place to bear her baby. The couple was denied shelter with the harsh words,
“There is no room at the inn!” Thus it was that the baby was born in a little stable
while angels sang above and shepherds watching the flocks were led to the stable by
a shining star.
Certain questions arise such as just whose sheep were the shepherds watching?
In those days the shepherds would have watched the sheep of some wealthy person.
New Mexico tradition upholds the custom that the sheep belonged to Mary’s rich
cousin Elizabeth who came to be the mother of John the Baptist. The tradition is
taken from the ancient morality play “El Coloquio de San José.” Even more
interesting is the fact that the local seasonal novena called “Las Posadas” is taken
from the eleventh scene of “El Coloquio de San José.”
Las Posadas will begin nine days before Christmas and be presented every night
until Christmas Eve. Local villagers dressed in the garb of Joseph and Mary will
travel to nine different homes across the valleys and re-enact the centuries-old
ritual. Accompanied by a chorus of neighbors they will arrive at each home and
sing of their struggle through the chilly night and then beg for a place to rest. “’Tis
Joseph with Mary; apple of his eye, who at your door seek shelter, from harsh
The people from within the house will offer all kinds of excuses as to why they
will not let them in: “We’ve no vacant corner where you two can hide, but the fields
are empty. Why not stay outside?”
Unbeknownst to Joseph and Mary a devil keeps running just one step ahead of
them, hardening the hearts of the innkeepers so that they will not allow Joseph and
Mary in. In the valley of Arroyo Seco this devil used to be portrayed by the late
Toribio Cruz. In the original play there were three devils named Luzbel (Lucifer)
Satanás (Satan) and Astucias (Wiley). Eventually, at the bidding of The Most High,
an angel will swoop down from Heaven and slay the devil so that Joseph and Mary
will at last be let in.
As the procession of weary pilgrims at last comes in, all sing: “Come inside ye
holy pilgrims, holy pilgrims. Don’t let fear keep us apart. Although humble be our
dwelling, be our dwelling, we offer it with full heart.” Prayers are then offered
imploring that The Christ Child come during the holiday season to comfort the poor
and visit the afflicted.
The mystery, miracle and morality plays of New Mexico came with the original
Franciscan friars and the settlers were encouraged to take up the roles of saints,
angels, devils and the like. It was a way in which to pass away long winter nights
and at the same time instruct the people in their faith. Within the scope of world
theatre then, New Mexico folk theatre is unique in that many of these dramas have
remained unbroken for centuries. Indeed, it was The Church that kept theatre
from dying out many times.
The Arrival of Los Pastores in New Mexico
It was on a chilly day, just after Thanksgiving Day of 1984 that snow flurries
began to fall. It was also the day when I had first decided to revive the centuries-old
folk drama titled “Los Pastores.” The potential actors began to arrive in my
parents’ living room just after lunch while they themselves, loaded my dad’s truck
with Christmas trees for sale in El Paso. It was hardly the time or setting for what
would become a New Mexico Renaissance of folk drama. Alas, many classics have
started under lesser, more humble circumstances.
Most of the actors present had only heard of “Los Pastores” and none had seen
them. Working from an old manuscript penned by Aurora Lucero-White, I worked
with Mary Francis Reza in Santa Fe to have the musical notes transcribed. The
costumes hadn’t even been thought of yet. La Compañía de La Santísima Trinidad,
as we decided to call our troupe of folk actors, foundered about, trying to make
sense of the ancient Spanish words. The rehearsal to the first performance was less
that four weeks away.
The play recounted the story of how some shepherds were out tending the flocks
at night when suddenly a host of angels appeared in the sky singing praises to the
newly-born Messiah. As the shepherd boys Lipio and Tubal rushed back to camp
with the glad tidings, they were quite unaware of the fact that Lucifer himself had
also seen the portent above. Lucifer, filled with rage and sorrow as he felt that his
reign was coming to an end, decided to make one last stand. He would go to the
camp of the shepherds and try to confound them so that they would not go to the
stable to adore the little baby.
Lucifer then hurried to the camp and tried to tempt the holy man Hermitaño into
stealing the shepherdess Gila. At first Hermitaño was afraid of Lucifer and held up
a cross and rosary to him, but soon he was seduced by lust. Lipio and Tubal ran up
and declared that the Messiah had just been born. All of the shepherds began to
prepare rustic gifts for the child. The little lame shepherd named Cojo planned to
prepare a rattle. Little Bacirio would take the Child a little lamb. Gila would play
music for him. Gila would weave him diapers and a swaddling cloth. The lead
shepherd, the wise Bato, approved of the gifts. Only the fat, lazy shepherd Bartolo
refused to leave his bed, preferring to sleep and let the others do the work.
Lucifer decided to make one last stand but he was driven away by the power of
Michael the Archangel. The play ends with the adoration of the Child in the arms
of Joseph and Mary and slothful Bartolo learns to cooperate.
In looking at ancient New Mexico folk dramas one wonders at the inventive
genius that composed the verses which are considered by scholars to be among the
best Spanish poetry ever produced in these parts. Sometimes though, the genius is a
little too inventive. How, for example, one might ask, can Hermitaño hold up a cross
and rosary to chase Lucifer away if Jesus hasn’t even been born yet? If He hasn’t
been born yet, then it stands to reason that He hasn’t died yet and the saving power
of the Cross is unknown. St. Dominic hadn’t been born either and therefore the
rosary hadn’t been invented yet. These are enchanting anachronisms that make for
delightful speculation over bowls of roasted piñón in the dead of winter.
What caused the dramas to decline in the last century? Was it modernization or
a lack of faith? The answer is probably best answered by looking into the state of
world affairs in the 1900s: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, The
Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf Crisis, etc. took many of the men from the villages.
When they returned, they had “outgrown” some of their culture and indeed, many
had even lost proficiency in their home language.
The revival of Los Pastores was to spawn an interest in producing other folk
dramas that had been dormant for decades. Just a scant two years afterwards, in
1986, the village of Arroyo Hondo gathered to produced its home drama which
hadn’t been seen in over a century. But first, they had to endure the rituals of the
Feast of Holy Innocents.
Borrow but don’t return: The Feast of The Holy Innocents
Santistevan is a very recognizable name in in the Hispanic world. Even Padre
José Antonio Martínez of Taos had a mother whose maiden name was Santistevan.
We often tend to forget though, that the name is comprised of the two words Santo
and Estevan or St. Stephen. The feast of St. Stephen is always celebrated on the 26th
of December; the day after Christmas. This is why the song about Good King
Wenceslas who is looking out on the feast of Stephen, is considered a Christmas
He is the first known Christian martyr and his name is recorded among the first
seven ordained deacons in the Acts of the Apostles. Being a Jew who was born in a
foreign land, his name would have been Stephanos; the Greek equivalent to the
Aramaic Kelil, meaning “crown.” St. Stephen was stoned to death because his
words were misinterpreted as being heretical.
Lesser recognized are the unofficial martyrs of Christianity such as the innocent
children who were slaughtered by order of King Herod. Early Christian tradition
holds that when King Herod was advised by the Magi that a new “King of kings”
had been born, he flew into a rage and ordered the massacre of every male child
under the age of two or three. Their mothers mourned for their children while The
Holy Family safely escaped into the land of Egypt.
El Día de los Inocentes, as the feast has come to be known in northern New
Mexico, is always celebrated on the 28th of December. It is recognized by those wise
enough to remember, playing tricks on those foolish enough to forget it. It’s kind of
like pinching people who have forgotten to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day.
On the feast day of Holy Innocents, anything that is borrowed does not have to be
returned, following local custom. The ritual might begin by someone coming up to a
member of the family or even a neighbor or co-worker and saying, “May I see your
watch for a second? Mine seems to be broken.” The unwary lender might hand
over watch in good faith without thinking of the consequences. The borrower would
then say, “Dios te lo pague por inocente.” (May God repay your [foolish] innocence?)
The forfeiture of a watch would then be a small price to pay for daring to forget that
many paid the price so that the Baby Jesus might live.
Of course if the lender is aware of the ritual, he might hand over his watch but
say, “Bueno, pero no por inocente.” (You may borrow it, but not because I’m
innocent.” In this case, the word “innocent” becomes synonymous with “naïve” or
“foolish” or “forgetful.”
Such local customs of borrowing anything from an ox, to a child to a watch, are
not readily appreciated by those who have not lived in this environment. It is even
suspected that this kind of ritual stealing pre-dated April Fools jokes, before the
change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
There lived a man in Taos in the 1920s who was known as Mr. Posner. He would
make little brooms and give them away to people on the 28th of December saying,
“Tomen, para que barran su inocencia.” (Take these, that you may sweep away your
innocence.) He probably figured that people needed to step away from their
innocence not by borrowing but by learning about their cultural past.
This was the case with the people from Arroyo Hondo, who began to look into
their own literary heritage.
The Return of the Three Wise Men to Arroyo Hondo
Many have said that the late Reyes N. Martínez of Arroyo Hondo was a very
handsome man. Unfortunately no picture of him has ever surfaced. What is known
about him for sure though is that he was a learnèd man who penned the folk drama
titled “Los Tres Reyes Magos”, or “The Three Wise Men.” It had existed only in the
oral tradition for many years. He was a close friend of the late Conrad Hilton who
founded the hotel chain that still bears him name. In fact, both Reyes and Conrad
had spent many a happy hour fishing in the Río Grande. Perhaps the very fact that
Reyes N. Martínez’s first name recalls the day of The Three Wise Men called “El día
de los Reyes” in Spanish, was one reason why he decided to write down the play for
People named Manuel or Manuela will be serenaded on New Year’s Eve in an
old, local mumming tradition called “Dando los Días.” The word “Emmanuel” in
Hebrew means “God is with us.” By singing to Emmanuel on the first of the year,
many blessings are acquired. In similar fashion, on the 6th of January, people
named Reyes or Reyecita will be serenaded, for it is their special feast day and, to
most of Latin America, the day that marks Christmas.
Biblical scholars have argued for centuries over just how many Wise Men there
really were. The number ranges anywhere from 1 to 24. The most commonly
agreed number is, however, that there were 3. This is probably due to the idea that
there were only three known continents at that time, namely, Africa, Asia and
Europe. The dark king, the turbaned king and the blue-eyed king probably
represented the three corners of the ancient world. Now, how did the The Wise
Men come by their names?
It used to be common to place the expression Christus Mansionam Benedicat over
the lintels of many doors. The expression merely stands for “Christ, bless [this]
home” in Latin. Sometimes the expression was abbreviated into C+M+B. It is
thought that from these very initials stem the names of Caspar, Melchior and
In January of 1986 when the good people of Arroyo Hondo decided to perform
the play that is their birthright, they gathered at the Church of Nuestra Señora de
los Dolores to rehearse. Isabel Rendón, Genara Sánchez, Teddie Padilla, Odilia
Medina, Edwina Gonzales and Rosemary Vigil all constituted a choir of matrons to
sing the transfer scenes from one to the next. Draped in black like a Greek Chorus,
they naturally fell into harmony with the actors. The late Jerome Vigil played the
evil King Herod. His son Suetonio was played by Charles Trujillo Jr. Paul Sánchez
became the Spirit of Evil and Adelmo and Regina Vigil did the parts of Joseph and
Mary. The part of the Christ Child was played by [then] baby Joaquín Martínez
who cried during the whole performance. The Wise Men were played by Dominic
Martínez, Miguel Padilla and Gregorio Sánchez.
As the play began, King Balthazar, who had been scanning the heavens and
reading the book of the Prophet Balám, announced to Kings Caspar and Melchior
that the Messiah had been born. In regal splendor they set out to seek the Child in
order to do Him homage. A comic figure named Chapín, played by Stephanie Vigil,
announced the arrival of The Three Wise Men to the court of King Herod. Herod,
having been tempted by Lucifer to slaughter the Child, asked the Three Wise Men
to come and tell him the whereabouts of the Child so that he too might go do Him
homage. The Wise Men presented the Child with gifts of gold, frankincense and
myrrh, thus proclaiming Him to be king, priest and prophet. The Magi were then
warned by an angel, played by Michelle Taylor, not to return to King Herod.
Herod, having found out that he was deceived by the Magi, set out to slaughter the
innocent children under the age of three years. As the wailing mothers ran through
the streets trying to hide their children, they were brutally ripped from them and
killed in the streets. It was only when a merciful look from the Child brought all of
the innocents back to life that the play ended in comedy rather than in tragedy. All
ended by singing praises to God.
Winter Meditations on Northern New Mexico Spanish
The lull that happens after the furious activity of the Christmas season in
northern New Mexico tends to leave us breathless. As we sit quietly by the window
and watch the snow fall gently upon the plain, the traditional carols of this area still
echo in our ears. They will continue to do so until just beyond the end of January
and the Feast of Candlemas.
We can still recall the words: “Vamos todos a Belén, con amor y gozo. Adoremos
al Señor; Nuestro Redentor.” If we could have counted on any one Christmas carol
to be native and typical to this area, it would have been this one. Suddenly, we have
to do a double take. This most belovèd of local holiday carols is not Spanish at all!
With the arrival of Jean Baptiste Lamy to Santa Fe at the start of the 1850s, his
outlook on the territory of New Mexico would not allow him to see our culture as
anything but “rustic” and “barbaric.” With his lack of appreciation for local color,
he suggested to his companion, Fr. Joseph Machebeuf, that perhaps if some of the
French hymns were translated into the Spanish of the day, then just maybe these
rustic New Mexicans might become “civilisés.”
And so it came to pass, according to the late Fray Angélico Chávez, that the
French communion song: “Le voici, l’agneau si doux; le vrai pain des anges. Du ciel
il descend vers nous; adorons-le tous.” became the famous “Vamos todos a Belén.”
Paulette Clark of Taos goes one step farther by suggesting that the Spanish song of
praise to Christ The King called “Tú reinarás, éste es el grito” is really the local
translation of the French “Nous voulons Dieu, C’est notr’ prière.”
It certainly seems that French was one of the major contributors into what would
become known as Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, according
to a dictionary by that very name, compiled by Dr. Rubén Cobos. While Spain and
Mexico were busy arguing about the gender of the word “sartén” (frying pan) as
either “el sartén” or “la sartén” we, in northern New Mexico, simply called it “la
Now, “puela” sounds nothing like “sartén.” Remembering that the Louisiana
Purchase of 1803 had brought French speakers to the very gates of New Mexico,
then we begin to understand that “puela” is a variation of the word “poêle” in
What other interesting parallel can be drawn up between local Spanish and local
French culture? The old Christmas Ogres called “Los Abuelos” haunt the valleys
and mountains of northern New Mexico. They sleep up in mountain caves all year
long until the coming of the Feast of Guadalupe on December 12th. They will then
awaken from their year-long sleep and come down the mountains, cracking their
whips and asking if we remember the ancient ways. Children are especially the
target of their visit if they do not know the culture or language. Abuelos will walk
the earth until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th before returning to their
The French equivalent to the Abuelo figure in northern New Mexico is to be
found in “Le Père Fouetard” or “Father Whip.” He too is an ancestral figure who
comes for children who have not been good and leaves, not candy, but a little switch
in their stocking.
Time-honored Spanish surnames like Márquez, Jacques, Archiveque, Gurulé,
Sambrano and Montoya suddenly begin to sound awfully similar to the French
surnames Marquis, Jacques, Archévèque, Grolet, St.Vrain and Monteuil. The
creolization of the language of northern New Mexico then begins to take on new
You say ‘Atole’, I say ‘Chaquegüe’
A specter is haunting the Río Grande valley. It is the specter of an archaic form
of Spanish that is disappearing rapidly all the way from the river basin to the peaks
of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As our children are inundated with the latest in
electronic, visual, and audio signals, they are besieged by a language that leaves little
room for any other.
That a language should evolve is only natural. It is the nature of the beast. By its
very definition, language is a dynamic, living, ever-changing and sometimes, only
means of communication. Thus, within recorded history in northern New Mexico
we have gone from Tiwa, to Spanish, to English as a primary means of
When Francisca de las Hozas arrived in New Mexico in 1540 with two other
women and 336 soldiers, she probably dressed her hair in braids to keep the wind
from commanding it. She would have called her braids “trenzas.” By the time she
left Hawikuh (Zuñi) village though, according to local speech, her braids would now
be called “chongos.” The beads she may have worn would be known to her as
“cuentas.” By the time she returned to Mexico in spring of 1542 she would have
probably referred to them as “chaquira.”
Mexican Indian speech had contributed many words to 16th and 17th century
Spanish. What linguists call the –atl words, (chocolatl, tomatl, avocatl, patatl, chantl,
coyotl, etc.), gave us the Spanish words chocolate, tomate, avocado, patata, chante,
coyote, etc. In similar fashion, as European culture moved up the Río Grande
valley, words common to Puebloan culture became part of the Spanish language and
At each paraje or stop at the end of a day of travel, the early colonizers would
have prepared a blue corn meal porridge known to them as “atole”, in the Spanish
of Mexico. By the time they arrived in the Jémez valley, that same porridge would
be known by its Tewa name of “chaquegüe.” If they ate a whole lot of the food,
instead of saying they ate “mucho”, they would have eaten “tepushques” of the corn
mush. Any left over gruel could have been given to the “chulo”, Tiwa word for
The wild Japanese plum that grows with such profusion in northern New Mexico
had been called “cirgüelita del pueblo” when the first Spanish explorers stumbled
upon it. Since that time up to now, it is commonly known by its Tiwa name of
Since there is never a coming together of cultures where both are not mutually
affected, it can be said that Spanish too, was to have a linguistic impact on Native
culture. “Manzana”; the Spanish word for “apple” was to evolve into the Tiwa
“man-zanu.” “Mano”; the Spanish word for “hand” would become the Tiwa “na-
ma-nemah.” The Spanish words “compadre” and “comadre” for “godfather” and
“godmother” respectively would become the Native “kumpaile” and “kumaile.”
Even the Spanish word “monarca” for “king” would become the Tiwa “monanca.”
Sometimes the blending of Spanish and Native cultures went way beyond mere
linguistic tradeoffs. Even dances were swapped as is the case with Los Comanches.
Los Comanches dance for San Pablo
Comanches are not native to New Mexico. Neither are Spaniards, for that
matter. Comanches hail from the plains of the Wyoming area and Spaniards come
from across the sea. In a certain year, however, according to the traditions of this
area, both parties came together to fight for New Mexico at the Battle of Ojo
Caliente. This much is commemorated in the New Mexico folk drama “Los
The Comanche, who called themselves the Nuhmuhnuh, first made their
appearance in New Mexico in 1706 led by leaders such as Chief Ecueracapa who
continued to devastate local settlements until 1776. When Governor Juan de Anza
took office in 1778 he began aggressive campaigns to win the Comanche over
through gifts of tobacco until he had forged the enduring peace treaty of 1786.
As often happens when cultures collide, they tend to band together whenever a
common enemy appears on the scene. Enter the Apache. The Apache and the
Comanche were often at odds and, according to local lore, the Comanche had to
take refuge among the Spanish settlers in order to escape their foes.
Local stories say that in fleeing from the Apache, the Comanche came over to
take refuge in the area of Ranchos de Taos. It is reported that the Comanche
tonsured their hair and put on Spanish clothes in an attempt to hide from the
Apache. The Apache rode up, eager to chastise the Comanche, but to their
frustration, found that they were undistinguishable from the Spanish people of the
area. Angry at the populace that harbored them, they burned the entire plain that
still bears the name of “Llano Quemado” [Burnt Plain] even unto today. This,
according to Comanche dancer Levi Mondragón.
However, the melding of Spanish and Native culture did yield cross-cultural
contributions. Comanches, who were sometimes raised in Spanish households as
servants, came to sing their Native songs to the children. This is the beginning of the
Indita Ballads of New Mexico.
Babies in northern New Mexico are lulled to sleep with cradle songs using
Spanish words but with Native rhythm: “Jeya, jeya, jeya, ya tuvo la Andrea, cuatro
cochinitos, y uno sin zalea, jeya, ya ya.” Sometimes the Indita ballad also indicates
its place of origin such as in: “Reque, reque, requesón. Las inditas de San Juan,
piden pan y no les dan. Piden queso y les dan hueso. Y se sientan a llorar en las
trancas de un corral. Reque, reque, requesón.” [For a bowl of curds and whey,
Indian maidens cry all day. Ask for bread but given none, bones; not bread they get
for fun. And at San Juan’s gates they sit, asking for a little bit of a bowl of curds
Getting back to Comanches now, they have been dancing for people named
Manuel on the first of January, for Reyes or Epifanio on the 6th of January and now,
for people named Pablo on the 25th of January.
The dance of Los Comanches, as performed by the troupe of Levi Mondragón,
contains six parts. Movement number one is titled “La Fila.” [The Procession] The
second movement is “La Patita.” [The Little Foot] The third is “El Espantado.” [The
Frightened One] The fourth is “El Cautivo.” [The Captive] The fifth movement is
“El Aguila.” [The Eagle] The final part of the dance is “La Estrellita.” [The Little
The dance is generally led by the chieftain Cuerno Verde [Green Horn]. He is
accompanied by a maiden named La Nana de las Pecas [The Girl with the Freckles].
The dancers, called Comancheros, don the plumed, plains headdress called el
plumero, and carry a shield, called el chimal. They dance to the music of drummers,
called tombeceros. Abuelos [Ancestral figures] and Mudos [Animal-headed
creatures] are also a part of the ritual. The Mudos are always enchained and they
may not speak until the return of the light to the earth, called Candlemas.
Lucía becomes Candelaria during the Feast of Lights
The Feast of St. Paul is traditionally the last day during the Advent season when
the Comanches of northern New Mexico dance. St. Paul, who holds the revered
place in the Orient that St. Peter holds in the Occident, has another claim to fame in
New Mexico. He is credited with coming to break up the ice in the riverbeds, and
melt the ice on lakes. He does all of this in preparation for the coming of the light to
the Earth. This is the day when new plants are put into potting soil indoors to root
and get strong enough to be transplanted outdoors in the early spring.
At the start of December, New Mexicans celebrate the feast of Santa Lucía who is
the Queen of lights and Patroness of good eye sight. She always carries her eyeballs
around in her hand. It is fitting then, that the Advent season should close with the
return of light. Lucía, at the start of the Advent season, is now renamed Candelaria
at its close, even as Old Lady Death, who is usually called Sebastiana when she is
dressed in black, is aptly renamed Catrina when she is dressed in her finery.
Candelaria, as the Queen of Lights, arrives on the second of February. That
feast day is honored by the blessing of the candles. The word “candle” comes from
the word “candeo”, meaning “I burn.” Candles blest on that day must be composed
of beeswax because of the belief in the virginity of bees. Jesus then, being described
as the offshoot of virgin birth, is represented by the waxen columns on the altar.
The candle is the symbol of virginity, the wick is the symbol for Jesus and the flame
is His divinity which absorbs and dominates both.
Candles must always be present at six out of seven sacraments offered in the
Catholic Church. Candles are lit during Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation,
Holy Orders and Extreme Unction. Only the sacrament of Penance (Confession)
does not require candles to be lit.
Candles are required to escort the gospel readings or bishops entering a church.
Candles are required to greet dignitaries. Six candles are needed for a High Mass
and two for regular Masses. Masses for the dead and for Holy Week have yellow or
unbleached candles. Twelve candles are required for the Exposition of the Blessed
Sacrament but six will suffice in poorer churches. Fifteen candles are required on
the tenebrarium used in Penitente rites on the last three nights of Holy Week.
Candles are needed for the reconciliation of penitents and for excommunications.
This last act with candles was borne out in Taos in the early 1860s. When
Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy decided to excommunicate Padre Martínez of Taos,
he sent his Chancellor Fr. Joseph Machebeuf with the Paschal Candle to Taos. He
posted the writ of excommunication at the church door and as Padre Martínez
approached, Machebeuf raised the candle, pointed at Martínez and said, “In the
name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Martínez of Taos, you stand
excommunicate from Holy Mother the Church and in peril of your immortal soul.”
He then took the candle and plunged it into the baptismal font. Eye witness
accounts, that live on perhaps only in legend, say that the minute the candle was
dipped into the font, the water began to boil and bubble as the soul of Martínez
fried in Hell. Machebeuf then went to Arroyo Hondo with the Paschal Candle and
pronounced the same excommunication over Padre Lucero.
La Fiesta de la Candelaria is also known as the Feast of the Purification. It is held
40 days after Christmas. After they were blest, it used to be custom to offer a
number of candles at the altar equaling the length of the person for whom prayers
were requested. Now, blest candles are used to escort a priest who is coming to give
last rites to the dying in a private home.
Perhaps the most prominent use of candles is for use on the first day after the
Fiesta de La Candelaria. That is, The Feast of St. Blaise. Two of the blest candles
will be placed in the form a cross upon the throat of the faithful as the priest says:
“Per intercessionem Sancti Blasii, liberet te Deus a malo gutteris et a quovis alio
malo.” [Through the intercession of St. Blaise, may God preserve you from throat
troubles and every other harm]. Sometimes, when St. Blaise was slow in coming,
people would revert to traditional remedies to treat infections of the ears, eyes, nose
Have you ever smoked through your ears?
One cold and windy November day, two years ago, my family had just finished a
nice lunch at a restaurant in Las Cruces. My father casually pulled out a cigarette
and lit it. My brother-in-law turned to my sister and said, “I didn’t know your dad
smoked.” She replied, “He doesn’t”
As my brother-in-law continued to gaze at my father, he took the cigarette and
stuck it in his ear without missing a word of what he was talking about. My
brother-in-law panicked: “He’s going to burn off his hair!” My sister looked up
casually and said, “Naw, he’s okay. He’s just curing an earache.”
Her husband looked around nervously to see if anyone might be watching. He
got up sneakily, leaned in and whispered, “How embarrassing!” He walked away
from the table so as not to be associated with these “Taos hillbillies.”
Home remedies in northern New Mexico tend to scandalize people from other
parts of the country who aren’t as culturally savvy in the ways of mountain folk.
Strange to say now though, is that using a lit cigarette to suck cold air out of the
inner ear, was something that used to be commonplace around here. Now modern
day books on home remedies are recommending using a blow-dryer on a low setting
to drive away an earache. What’s the difference? -Merely different times and
difference instruments; same principle.
How did people in northern New Mexico decide what to use? There was a
definite hierarchy of knowledge. Say for example, that a horse went lame.
Immediately the man of the house would know just what to do about it. However, if
his father showed up at the stable, then the younger man would cede to his father’s
suggested treatment. If the younger man’s wife showed up at the stable, her medical
knowledge would automatically supersede both of the men’s knowledge. And if the
grandma showed up at the stable, then automatically she knew everything about
curing a horse and nobody else knew anything.
There are wonderfully colorful remedies used to treat ailments of the ears, eyes,
nose and throat. But, as with all other unknown treatments, comes the warning:
Kids, don’t try these at home.
Early New Mexicans had very few sweets besides fruits and natural honey.
Particularly prized was piloncillo; or coned brown sugar, that came up from
Mexico. Wonderful as it was, it could cause tooth decay. Sometimes the gums got
so inflamed that something had to be done before the tooth could be pulled. The
most immediate treatment for an abscess was a compact of cloves applied to numb
the gums. In the absence of cloves, a dried plum was warmed on top of the stove
and then set against the abscess. If it was winter and no cloves or plums were to be
found, then a little wad of lamb’s wool soaked in calf’s urine was put on the abscess.
Yes, the treatment was often worse than the malady.
Treatments for inflamed tonsils or the mumps included having the ailing person
lie on the bed while his neck was swathed with a mixture of soap and bicarbonate of
soda. The patient would lie perfectly still until the mixture dried and flaked off
onto the bed sheets. Should fever accompany the illness, then sliced, unpeeled
potatoes would be soaked in vinegar and affixed to the patient’s forehead, held in
place with a cloth bandage.
To treat a stuffed nose, the patient was given boiled mint water whose vapor was
to be inhaled while under a towel directly over the boiling mixture. It was very
important to have one’s nasal passages clear because St. Valentine’s Day was fast
approaching and the young man would need his sense of smell to be in perfect
Before Love comes the Feast of Chastity
Next Thursday marks the Feast of Saint Valentine filled with all of the love
rituals that accompany it. It has been observed that birds begin to mate around the
middle of February. But, as we observed during the feast of Candlemas, bees are
creatures of chastity. When parents talk to their children about “the birds and the
bees” then, they must speak of both love and chastity.
The feast of chastity has not gotten as good coverage across the years as the feast
of love. For some reason bees busy doing their work don’t inspire the same kind of
mental sensations as a pair of turtledoves cooing and billing in the springtime.
However, one goes right along with the other.
The first Franciscan friars who brought the faith to New Mexico were cinched
with a cord about their waist. The cord had three knots that stood for three vows.
They were the vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity.
This year, as we were celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 21st,
we forgot that it was also the Feast of Saint Agnes. Agnes is the personification of
chastity, according to the Roman Martyrology. She was a young twelve or thirteen
year old girl who, during the time of the persecution of Christians in fourth century
Rome by Diocletian, boldly declared her faith. Her chaste body was exposed to
heathen gazes and, according to tradition, the man who dared to look upon her with
lust, was struck blind by divine intervention.
Perhaps because the name of Agnes is a direct variation of the name “agnus”, the
Latin word for a lamb, St. Agnes is always shown carrying a little lamb whenever
she is depicted by painters of retablos in New Mexico. It is an apt relation to her
virginal innocence. On her feast day, two lambs are solemnly blessed and from their
wool, are made the pallia sent by the Pope to newly-consecrated archbishops.
The pallium of today is a circular band of carded and purified white lamb’s wool
woven by Carmelite nuns from Santa María del Trastévere in Rome. It is about
three fingers wide, worn about the neck, breast, and shoulders. It also has two
pendants hanging in front and in back of the Pope or archbishop. The pallium is
about twelve inches long and weighted with small pieces of lead covered with black
silk. It is ornamented with six black crosses on each of its extremities. It is
generally worn over the chasuble. Only the Pope has the right has the privilege of
wearing the pallium full time. Archbishops are confined to wearing it only during
Mass on high holy days and they are buried wearing it.
Besides its association with the feast of St. Agnes the pallium is important in the
history of New Mexico because it was first worn on this side of the Mississippi by the
first archbishop of Santa Fe. Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy had assumed the pulpit of
Santa Fe under the title of “Lord of Agathonica”; by the grace of God, “Lord
Bishop of Santa Fe.”
As time went on silver mines opened up in Arizona and gold fields were
discovered in Denver City. The Apostolic See at Baltimore, Maryland then asked
Lamy to also minister to the spiritual needs of Montana. This proved to be too
much even for a man as ambitious as Bishop Lamy. He wrote to the See in
Baltimore, Maryland asking that the three areas be divided into three separate
dioceses, each with its own bishopric. He proposed that young Salpointe be made
bishop of Arizona. He wanted Machebeuf to be made bishop of Colorado and he
himself would continue to minister to New Mexico. Instead, Baltimore proposed
that Lamy himself to made archbishop of Santa Fe in a supervisory capacity other
the other areas.
In due time Jean Baptiste Lamy was anointed and given the title of “Lord
Cyzius”; by the grace of God, “Lord Archbishop of Santa Fe.” The pallium was put
upon his shoulders as a direct representative of the Pope in “this miserable
Yes, vows of chastity have played a major role in the history of New Mexico, but
then again, so has love.
Love rituals and the Mating Call of Northern New Mexico
If you happen to be lucky enough to gaze into “El Gran Grimorio” or “El Libro
Negro”, as the book of rituals and spells in territorial New Mexico used to be known,
there are several ways of making someone fall in love with you.
Most highly recommended is that you take a hair from the person that you’re
pining away for. Next catch a cockroach and tie one of its little legs to the end of the
hair. Loop the opposite end of the hair and fasten it to the floor with a thumbtack
or small nail.
Now, while concentrating of the belovèd’s name, repeat the following words:
“Ojalá, ojal, oja, oj, o.” As the word is repeated and foreshortened, the cockroach is
running around the nail, making the hair get shorter and shorter. Once the
cockroach reaches a point when it can no longer move, squash it with your foot.
That person will be bound to you in love forever, guaranteed.
In doing the analysis of this spell, it is interesting to observe that the word “ojalá”
which is Spanish for “hopefully”, is a variation of the Arabic word “Inshallah”
which means, “If it is the will of Allah.” It is then safe to assume that the spell dates
back to the Moorish occupation of Spain.
Much older and harder to trace is the love spell that dictates that if a woman
wants to make a man fall madly in love with her then she should rub a few drops of
her urine into her hair. The man will then come and smell her hair and fall
hopelessly in love with her. This is a common practice among some native tribes
across the world.
Love festivals are events dating back to ancient times. The Romans used to slay
goats, eat the meat and then whip each other with strips of goat skin, in the hopes of
infusing fertility among young women. The festival was said to last as long as a
month. The Romans sometimes donned wolf skins during the February feast of
Lupercalia which gave us the word vir, meaning wolf + man. Descendants of the
same wolf-headed creatures, called Mudos, still haunt New Mexico nights during
The coming of Christianity dealt a near-death blow to these ancient love festivals.
A new effigy was needed to quell that ancient drives and frame love within a ritual
of monogamy. Enter St. Valentine.
In 496 Pope Gelasius outlawed the feast of Lupercalia. The wolf-headed
creatures were banished from Christian society, to be replaced with a personage
who represented one-on-one love between man and woman.
According to the Roman Martyrology, there were at least 3 references to St.
Valentinus as having been some sort of priest or bishop. His feast day fell on
February 14th, halfway through the month-long love festival of the ancients. Early
Christian leaders condensed the month-long feast of love into a single time period
and named it St. Valentine’s Day.
Some people insist that the day was sacred to the ritual of love because it was
observed that February 14th was the day when birds traditionally sought out new
mates. In any case, mating rituals eventually lead to babies and babies lead to the
rites of baptism that are so important in establishing who a baby is and what he is to
The Rites of Baptism in Northern New Mexico
Thoughts of love rituals in colonial and territorial New Mexico lead naturally to
thoughts of birth and birth control. With the coming of early spring, the little
plants begin to raise their sprouts up from the cold soil. Among the hardiest of
plants is the local favorite called “Malvas” in Spanish and “Globe Mallow” in
Malvas, when harvested, could be smashed into a poultice or plaster to be put on
severe flesh wounds. If they were made into a tea and drunk however, local lore
says that they acted as some kind of a birth control tea. In a place where large
families were encouraged by both religion and as necessary for help on the vast
farms, malvas still had their place among the mysteries of women.
Suppose however, that the malvas failed to impede birth and the child came into
the world. What would happen next would be to try to protect the child from all
evil until such time as he could be baptized. The most immediate thing to do in the
absence of priesthood was to pour water over the child’s forehead since evil has no
power over water. If the baby who had the waters poured over him died, he would
immediately become and angel and the church bells would peal continuously in joy.
It was a commonly held belief that there were four places to where a soul could
go after death. The first, of course, was Heaven. The second was a waiting place
called Purgatory. The third was a place for wicked sinners called Hell. The fourth
was called Limbo and it was a place specifically held for babies who had died
without having the baptismal waters poured over them. It was held to be a place in
which babies spent eternity thirsting and begging for water.
The arrival of a baby was always a reason for rejoicing. Tradition held that the
male child would be named José something and the girl María something in honor
of the parents of the infant Jesus. The name that came after José or María was
usually the saint’s name on whose calendar day the child happened to be born. The
third most common way of naming children was after a deceased brother or sister
or after a parent.
Sometimes the parents of the child had very little input as to what the child
would be named. That was one of the duties of the godparents. The prospective
godparents were among the first invited to see the newborn child. They would
arrive, make the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead and pin a religious medal
or a few grains of corral or even put a turquoise stone bracelet on the child’s wrist.
Great care had to be taken to insure that whosoever came to see the baby, would
touch him in some way. Not to do so would invite terrible evil on the baby in the
form of The Evil Eye.
Finally the godparents would take the child to be baptized at the local church.
The parents would remain at home preparing to receive the little one when he would
be brought back. The godparents would come to the door and knock, but not enter.
The parents would open the door, but not invite them in. The godparents would
begin by saying: “En the pila del bautismo me paré con toda fe, y así del mal del
guarismo, luego lo/la descautivé. Mil años le deseo a su divina Merced, con los
dulcísimos nombres de Jesús, María y José. Compadre y compadre, reciban esta flor
que de la iglesia salió con los santísimos sacramentos y el agua que recibió.” [At the
font of God’s baptism, with full faith I stood within, and plucked this baby from all
harm and ill-begotten sin. A thousand years I wish to him, in Jesus’ name I pray,
and that of Mary and her spouse, St. Joseph here today. Co-parents of this baby,
receive this precious flower that got the holy sacraments in church by God’s own
The parents would then stretch out their arms and say: “Recíbote flor hermosa
que de la iglesia saliste con los santísimos sacramentos y el agua que recibiste.”
[Receive we now this precious flower that God’s own grace did lift from harm with
all his sacraments as his baptismal gift.] The godparents would then be invited in
and from that moment ever after, the parents and the godparents would refer to
each other as “compadre” or “comadre” since they were now bound by tradition as
co-parents of the child.
How to become “Compadres” without having a Baby”
Technically speaking, public schools are supposed to be places for learning.
Because of our human natures though, they tend to be as much places of
socialization. Sometimes students go out into the world and then come back to
marry childhood sweethearts. Often the friendships fostered in school can last a
Imitating adult behavior is one of the things that children do best. They tend to
mimic whatever they see. This accounts for why children will often play at dressing
up or making mud pies or running around in processions like they see in church.
Little girls often hear their mothers referring to each other as “comadre” because
they have baptized each other’s children or because they have stood in as
“madrinas” during wedding ceremonies.
There have been several cases in Taos of little girls baptizing each other’s dolls
and becoming “comadres del dedo.” This means that by joining pinkies when
holding each other’s baby dolls, they are bound as co-mothers for life. This kind of
pinkie-swear is accompanied by the recitation of the following words:
“Carretita-carretón, con agujero y sin tapón, el que se vale a la comadre y luego se
desvale, se le parte el corazón.” [“It was meant right from the start, with no stopper;
flowing out. We are now kin, this we shout; one sole horse with one sole cart. If
from this vow we depart, it would shatter our poor heart.] These childhood
swearing-in ceremonies can last into adulthood and have at their base nothing more
than an obscure childhood rite. Even some adults have been known to baptize each
other’s dolls for the sheer pleasure of being compadres. Having another adult take a
saint’s picture or statue to be blessed is yet another way of becoming compadres.
Another way in which non-blood residents of the same village could become
compadres was by asking for an “hábito.” An hábito is the ritual clothing by which a
saint is recognized. The habit of the Sacred Heart, for example, must always be
made of red and white cloth. The habit of San Antonio must always be made of
brown cloth. The habit of Guadalupe must always include the colors of red and
What happens is this: A person falls ill to the point of being in danger of death.
Common in territorial New Mexico was death from diphtheria, tos ferina [whooping
cough] pulmonía [pneumonia] or hipo [hiccough]. If the person who was deathly ill
could not speak, then his parents or children would go to a devout neighbor and beg
for an hábito. The neighbor would then design a loose-fitting garment such as a
shirt or even a bib with the colors of the saint to be invoked.
With ritual prayer and fasting the habit would be completed and taken over to
the local priest to be blessed. The habit was then quickly taken over to the home of
the ill person. The ill person would be dressed in the habit of the saint or the habit
would simple be laid on the ill person’s chest. The maker of the habit would become
the compadre or comadre of the ill person by safeguarding them from death with
their prayers and habit. The ill person would become the “ahijado/a” or foster child
of the habit maker and his children or parents would become compadres of the habit
maker. If the person died anyway, his was buried in the habit and the habit maker
was still considered a compadre of the deceased person’s family.
Although this beautiful ceremony is no longer practiced in New Mexico, it is
fascinating to see that Mexico shared in the same tradition. When one visits the
Casa de las Momias [The house of the Mummies] in Guanajuato, Mexico, one is
touched by the ritual habits that some of the dead wear. Little dead children are
seen in the guise of San Juan Neupomok in his traditional colors or green and pink
or Santa Teresa in her traditional beige and brown.
The reason that compadrismo was so important to territorial New Mexico was
because it helped to strengthen familial ties. The ceremonies of compadrismo often
called for a feast and what better thing to serve than real New Mexico chile.
Mary of Agreda’s chile recipe: Too bad it’s Lent
For centuries the Roman Catholic Church has been cautious about
authenticating any reported phenomenon such as bilocation (being in two places at
the same time) and levitation (rising and hovering in the air). Yet, among many of
the saints themselves, this was as natural an occurrence as standing up. San Martín
de Porres (1579-1639) was a known bilocator in Peru. Joseph of Cupertino (1603-
1663) levitated so often that he is now the patron saint of aviators.
In our own New Mexico, strange reports from Las Vegas bespeak of the self-
exiled Italian hermit Giovanni Maria Agostiniani (1799-1886) as was having been a
bilocator. And now, we come to the strangest case of them all: María de Agreda
(1602-1665) not only levitated for hours on end, but she even beat some of the
conquistadores by coming to New Mexico decades before they did!
When the Spaniards first arrived in what is now the Great American Southwest,
they were astounded to learn that many of the native people were already aware of
the saving power of the Cross. When questioned closely by Franciscan missionaries,
the Jumano Indians told the story of a lady in blue who had often come to them and
explained about Christianity in various New World languages. At first the
missionaries thought that the Virgin Mary herself may have been visiting in this
part of the world but then, surprising reports started coming from the north central
village of Agreda in Spain.
The stories told of a cloistered nun named María who had been graced by many
unusual gifts. As a decalced Conceptionist nun, she had often prayed for the
salvation of the world by fasting and sacrifice. Seized by the first of many recorded
ecstasies, María de Agreda was “carried by angels” to many foreign countries while
in mystical ways, never leaving the cloister where she actually lived. As her
revelations intensified in character and clarity, and at the urging of her confessor
Fr. Andrés de la Torre, María began to record her experiences. Her writings were
compiled into a four volume set titled “Mystical City of God.” It is essentially an
autobiography dictated to her by the Virgin Mary.
The Catholic Church, in its efforts to authenticate and verify her mystical
experiences, sent a priest in the person of Fr. Alfonso Benavides-Custos to New
Mexico where the famous “lady in blue” had made many appearances. What has
emerged is a virtual chronicle of María de Agreda whose recorded bilocations,
levitations and ecstasies far surpass those of any known, confirmed saint.
Some rather surprising documents have also come to light. Did you know that
María de Agreda is purported to have come up with the first recipe for chile con
carne? The recipe, dated 1662, is written with the following words:
2 lbs. of beef, mutton, venison or antelope,
(The original recipe called for venison or antelope only.)
1 lb. of fresh pork,
(The original recipe called for javelina instead of pork.)
4 cloves of garlic chopped up fine,
2 tablespoons of lard, beef suet or antelope fat,
3 bay or laurel leaves
1 quart of ripe tomatoes
1 onion about 2 inches in diameter chopped up fin or one leek chopped up fine,
1 cup of chile pepper pulp or 6 level tablespoons of chile powder mixed with one
level tablespoon of flour,
1 level tablespoon of oregano,
1 level tablespoon of salt,
1 level teaspoon of cumin powder
According to the directions for preparation, the meat should be cut up into cubes
about one half inch square. Take a good-sized covered cooking pot and melt the
beef suet in the pot. Dice the onion or leek and add garlic and brown them in the
suet. Put in the meat and 3 level tablespoons of water. Cover and steam well for 5
minutes. Rub the tomatoes through a colander and add to the mixture in the pot.
Stir in the chile pepper pulp and cook for 20 minutes.
If you use chile powder, mix it with the flour in enough cold water to form a thin
paste then stir it into the beef suet, onion and garlic after they are browned. Stir
until smooth then add the meat. Now add the oregano, cumin and salt and cook
slowly for about 2 hours. Add a little water to keep from burning but add as little as
possible. Serve over beans.
The food is simply heavenly. [She didn’t say that, I did.] It is a mouth-watering
dish and since so many local people give up meat for Lent, I thought I’d tempt you a
Lenten rituals of Northern New Mexico
The return of spring in northern New Mexico is pocked with stories and
traditions marking the season. Among them is the story of the return of the birds.
First on the scene to herald the return of warmer weather is the red-breasted robin.
Across the history of New Mexico this bird was hunted down by boys because the
fleshy breast of the percha, as it was known locally, made for some very tasty eating.
In other parts of the world, this same little bird is called a “petirojo” instead of as
“the bird who perched.” Those who have heard the story of how the robin got its
red breast, on the other hand, tend to listen to its song, and keep from hunting it
down. As the season of Lent nears its end, it is well to be reminded of it again.
According to local lore, about 2000 years ago there was a man who was brought
before Governor Pontius Pilate by an angry mob. The man had been falsely
accused though the envy and bitterness of those who were in political and
ecclesiastical power. He was sorely beaten, crowned with thorns and sentenced to
death on a cross.
The man struggled up the Via Dolorosa, as the road of Calvary would become
known, falling three times. Compounding his agony was the fact that after he had
fallen the first time, he suddenly caught sight of his mother coming toward him. Not
wishing her to see the depths to which his enemies had brought him, he pleaded with
her to depart from him. His weakened state increased, causing him to stumble
Afraid that he would die from weakness before he got to the place of crucifixion,
his enemies conscripted an egg farmer who was standing by the side of the road and
pressed him into service to help the man carry the weight of the wood. The farmer,
traditionally known as Simon of Cyrene, left his egg basket by the side of the road
and helped the suffering man to continue with his cross.
Common lore says that because of the good deed that Simon did for his Lord,
when he returned to his egg basket, they had all been transformed by beautiful
colors and designs as a heavenly reward for his compassion. This is purported to be
the origin of the tradition of making Easter eggs during this time of year. With the
spread of Christianity, the colored egg became a symbol of the tomb from which
Christ was to rise again after three days.
But even the help given to him by Simon of Cyrene could not stop the angry mob
from crucifying Jesus. Sadly he looked down from his cross upon the multitude,
seeking with his weary eyes for one compassionate look. All were silent. In this
oppressive silence, a little brown bird happened to be flying by. He stopped short
and perched upon the right arm of the cross upon which the man was hanging. He
looked into the man’s sad eyes and gazed upon the blood trickling down his
forehead from the crown of thorns that had been fixed to his head. The robin too
looked down at the crowd and still no one was moved to help the man on the cross.
He perched a little closer and inspired by the man’s suffering, he leaned forth
and plucked a little thorn out of the man’s forehead. Blood flowed from the wound
but the pain was gone. He leaned forward again and plucked another thorn and yet
another. Each time that he did, the blood would flow out a little more so that some
the little brown robin’s breast was covered in blood.
When he had plucked the last thorn from the forehead of Christ the little robin
stood back exhausted. The dying Christ gazed up kindly and whispered a quiet
“thank you” to the little bird. He then hung his head and died.
Ever since then the percha has worn the color red upon his breast as a badge of
honor as “the one who perched” and dared to be compassionate.
Gypsies are remembered at the Church of St. Francis in Ranchos
In this day and age, there are many recognized santeros living and working in
New Mexico. In the 1800’s through the early 1990s there were only 16 catalogued
santeros whose work has survived to the present day. These santeros didn’t just
pick up a brush and paint an image. They fasted, studied the life of the saint to be
depicted and prayed to be made worthy of creating the image on wood. They rarely
signed their work, for it was not theirs. The santo was not a work of art, but an
object of veneration.
Many of the smaller works adorned home altars and moradas. The flat images,
called retablos, were sometimes joined together into a larger piece called a reredos.
Some of these images survive in many of the old churches. In Arroyo Seco,
Trampas, Santa Bárbara and Llano San Largo, for example, we may still
contemplate the reredos of the santero José de Gracia Gonzales. In the church of
San Francisco de Asís in Ranchos, the reredos in the sanctuary consists of painted
wood, embellished with oil paintings, often thought to be from the School of El
Greco because of their elongated forms.
Close to the hearts of many of the local people though, is the reredos that is to the
right of the transept. It is a piece painted in muted colors, of sage, gray and rose
and preserved with beeswax. This reredos is attributed to Antonio Molleno who
worked in the Taos area roughly between 1800 and 1830. It depicts Saint Lawrence
carrying his grill in the center panel. Above this panel is another on which a bare
arm and a robed arm are transfixed by a single nail. The bare arm is, of course, the
arm of Jesus and the clothed arm is that of St. Francis. It is part of the coat of arms
(literally) of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Now, let us direct our attention to the top of the two arms. There, the astute
observer will find three nails resting in a fan-like pattern. Children in territorial
New Mexico would often ask, “If Jesus has two hands and two feet, why are his feet
bound to the cross by a single nail?” Mercifully, local parents knew the answer:
It’s because of the gypsies.
Gypsies are people who tend to move from place to place. Many areas of the
world have been pointed out as their traditional place of origin. Los gitanos, were
said to come from Egypt or perhaps from Bohemia and perhaps from places as far
away as India and Afghanistan. They still live in many areas of Spain and are
famed in cities like Granada, Málaga and Córdova.
Locally, gypsies were known as las turcas; literally, the Turks. They were known
to set up camps and tell fortunes to local residents for a fee. Many locals often hid
their treasures whenever las turcas were said to be in town. They remembered the
reason why the gypsies steal.
There is a local tradition that says that gypsies were present at the scene of the
crucifixion of Jesus. It is said that the man staggering under the weight of the cross
was brought to Golgotha and stripped. He was then lain down upon on the cross
while four nails of silver were placed at strategic places at the extremities of the
cross. A young gypsy lad saw the silver glittering in the afternoon sun. He created a
distraction by wailing out a saeta, or arrow-song, that has since become synonymous
with the alabados sung in this area.
While the tormentors were distracted, he stole a silver nail and slipped it into his
pocket. The tormentors came to Jesus and transfixed his right arm with the first
silver nail. They then went to his left hand and transfixed it with the second silver
nail. When they arrived at both his feet they found that there was only one nail left.
Having no other recourse, they had to transfix both of Jesus’ feet with but a single
Now, continues the story, God the Father looked down from Heaven and saw the
fourth silver nail hidden within the folds of the gypsy lad’s pocket. He smiled and
said, “Because the gypsy has spared my Son an extra measure of suffering, I now
sanction his thievery for all time.” And that is why, it is said, gypsies can steal by
Holy Thursday: The Lessons of Golgotha
Looking up at Taos Mountain with its receding snows, it wasn’t so long ago that
the whole hillside was covered in white. Sometimes, when the visitors come to Taos,
they tend to see an outline near the right side of the peak made of a combination of
bluish trees and barren snow-covered areas. With a little imagination they tend to
see the shape of a human skull on the mountainside. More than one winter tour
guide has referred to this place as “Skull Mountain.”
For many of the pious who believe that all earth is holy, the place is in no way
evil but a place for personal meditation on the cycles of life. The “place of the skull”
was the name traditionally given to the place where the crucifixion took place. In
Latin, the place of the skull was Calvaria from which the Spanish word calavera
descends. In Greek it was called Kranior from which we get the word “cranium.”
In Hebrew, the place of the skull was called Golgotha.
People who witness the religious rites in northern New Mexico ask why the skull
is sometimes depicted at the base of the processional cross. Is it because Jesus died
on it? -Not for a people who believe in resurrection. One theory says that the rocky
slope of the crucifixion site had barren boulders upon it that look like a skull, when
seen from a distance. This would coincide with the ancient Hebrew root meaning
“to roll” as in the expression “rolling hills.”
It could have also taken its name from the various human skulls that were left
strewn about after public executions. The victims were often abandoned to animals
and birds of prey. Such was the fate of Jezebel in the Old Testament.
Other ideas say that the site of the crucifixion coincided with the place where
Adam’s bones were held to lie. According to this belief there was a tradition that
before the Deluge, the skull of Adam had been given over to Noah for safe keeping.
Tradition also holds that Noah gave it to his oldest son Shem (from whom the
Shemitic or Semitic tribes trace their roots). Adam’s skull then passed over to the
keeping of Melchisedech who then deposited it at Golgotha, according to the
Vatican Library Archives. This theory ties the tomb of the first Adam with the
tomb of the “second Adam”; or Jesus. This is the skull and crossbones found at the
foot of the Cross.
During the Middle Ages, other traditions arose regarding the nature of Golgotha.
Various scholars such as Eustachius and St. Melania declared that the Tomb of the
Resurrection, the altar of Abraham’s sacrifice and the cell where the Cross was kept
were also located there. A small piece of the stone, into whose fissure the base of the
Cross was inserted, was also kept there. The greater portion of the stone was being
taken to Constantinople and it is now at the bottom of the ocean after its carrier
Wonderful are the stories associated with the place of the skull. An apocryphal
tradition also mentions that as the blood of Jesus trickled down the Cross, some
drops landed on the skull of Adam and brought him back to life. In fact, under
Calvary stands the Chapel of Adam containing a picture showing this very scene.
The altar underneath the painting is that of Melchisedech. There is a second
tradition that an olive tree a few yards beyond this chapel is the very tree in which
the ram’s horns were caught for Abraham’s sacrifice.
Whatever we may choose to believe or not about that nature of the original
Golgotha, we are indeed blessed to have our own place of the skull among the peaks
of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Happy Easter to all!
Exploring the History of the Sweet Tooth in New Mexico
We have often spoken about the multicultural influences that have gone into the
make-up of the modern New Mexico mind. Every culture that has passed by here
has left, among other things, a bit of its own sweet tooth with us. Since Lent is now
officially over and the ban on sweets has been lifted from many of the faithful, it
might do us well to explore the roots of those local culinary delights that make life
781 years of Moorish influence in Spain have certainly had an impact on the
history of our desserts. A local favorite, whether for weddings of for funerals, has
been the bread pudding called sopa. This “poor man’s baklava” is called capirotada
in other parts of New Mexico and literalists have criticized it by saying that the
word “sopa” really means “soup.”
The word “soup” is akin to the Italian word “zuppa” in that respect but if we
look beyond the literal to the cultural, we find that it is called sopa because it is a
blend of bread sops [sopitas] laced with caramelized sugar, cheese, piñón and
raisins. Soup has nothing to do with the name or designation of this dessert.
Just as popular are the traditional anise cookies called biscochitos. The word
“bis” means twice. When referring to music, the notation “bis” means “repeat this
measure or score.” So the word really means “twice” and “cooked” because when
this delicate cookie is made according to specifications, it must first be cooked once,
taken out of the oven and sprinkled with whiskey or wine and then cooked again. It
makes perfect sense when compared to other words like “bis-cotti” in Italian and
“bis-cuit” in French and English. Its predecessor, the “puche” doesn’t seem to exist
any more as a New Mexico cookie.
A great favorite among the sheep herders of the Sange de Cristo Mountains was
the blending of dried apple rings and prunes into a compot boiled on top of the
stove, cooled down and then laced with canned evaporated milk. It even surpassed
their taste for rice pudding with raisins or for dried chokecherries, rehydrated in
boiling water and laced with milk. Wild combed honey called “miel virgen” was also
a great favorite.
For modern New Mexicans on the move, a primitive sort of trail mix, called
“pinole” could be made from jerked deer meat, pounded between stones and mixed
with piñón nuts and coned brown sugar called piloncillo.
Queso de vaca is a homemade white cheese whose curds are separated from the
whey by the renet glands of sheep or by more modern junket tablets. The cheese
flavor burst forth when laced with molasses, sugar or homemade chokecherry jelly.
Of course the same chokecherry jelly is a delight to eat as a dip with fried potatoes
or with white cream gravy and bread sops.
The only dessert that used to be permitted during Lententide was the local
favorite called panocha. Panocha was a thick, oven-baked pudding made from
sprouted wheat flour. A sack of wheat was soaked in water overnight and then
placed wet behind the wood stove for a few days. The humid mixture would begin
to sprout and then be ground into flour. The flour was mixed with an equal
measure of whole wheat flour, caramelized sugar, butter and water and then baked.
Nowadays, it is made in crock pots and used as a topping for ice cream instead of
standing on its own historical merit.
People who are new to Taos sometimes grimace at the thought of eating the local
prune pie specialty called pastelitos. For local people in the know though, there is no
With the return of Spring come Stories of the Sheepcamp
Daylight savings time came back to us on Sunday, the 7th of April this year. The
early morning sound of bells, as sheep quietly graze in the meadow and the shrill
bleating of little lambs that have strayed away from their mothers mark the fresh
air before sunrise. The snows have just about fled from all except those shadowy
places where the sun cannot see. It’s a good morning for castrating the lambs.
The household on the farm awakens to the scent of atole bubbling on the kitchen
stove. The boys tumble out of bed, put on their grubbies and head toward the
breakfast table. Mother has placed baskets of bread and tubs of butter next to the
atole. The sugar bowl and the creamer stand ready. All the menfolk will need their
The flocks of sheep are quietly herded into the big corral. The girls keep the dogs
back so as not to frighten the sheep. The boys fan out behind the sheep waving
willow branches in their hands. The sheep start forward and into the corral.
The gate is closed and the sheep are carefully filtered out, leaving their babies
within. There is a virtual communal bleat from all of the lambs who have suddenly
found themselves orphaned inside the corral. They look innocently at the boys as
they begin to drive them toward a dark corner.
Father is already standing just beyond the gate sharpening his pocketknife on a
whetstone. The youngest brother captures a little lamb and slings it to his chest
holding the lamb’s forelegs and hind legs apart. This one is lucky; it’s only a female
lamb. Father carefully pulls her tail down, measures an inch and a half away from
the animal and with one flash of the knife, bobs her tail.
The little lamb is then tossed outside of the gated area and her tail is laid on the
ground as the first of many to be counted today. The next lamb turns out of be a
young male. He will be harder to deal with. As his forelegs and hind legs are
spread apart, father’s sharp knife will cut the scrotal sack and then, with his teeth,
pull out the part of the lamb that would have made him a ram in the due course of
time. Another flash of the knife and his tail too is bobbed and laid next to the first.
The lamb’s testes are dropped into a jar of salt water, to be prepared later.
The process continues all morning long in a rite handed down from father to son
since time immemorial. The lambs’ tails are stacked into little pyramids of ten
counts, and totaled up at the end of the morning.
This first flock was easy; there were only 100 lambs. It’s time to move on to their
uncle’s herd. The lambs are let out of the corral all together and the sheep make a
mad rush toward them, each hoping to find her lamb by sheer sense of smell. The
little lambs wag their bobbed tails contentedly.
While the men are gone, the girls will come, gather up the lamb’s tails, and wash
them down with water from the acequia. They will then build a small bonfire made
of dried fruitwood. The fire will burn down to ashes and then the girls will toss the
cleaned lambs’ tails into it. They, amid the embers, the tails will be singed of their
remaining fleece and skin. In about an hour the girls will poke the roasted lambs’
tails out of the ashes and set them on a platter for whenever the men come back to
In the meantime, mother will empty out the saltwater from the jar holding the
lambs’ testes. She will clean each by hand, stripping them of their tough
membranes and leave only the chewy muscle part. Again, she will place them in
saltwater overnight. The men folk will home tired and achy, eat and then gently roll
off to bed early.
The following morning, again, there is the soft clanging of bells in the fresh air.
The men awakened to the smells of breakfast. But wait! It isn’t the smell of atole.
Now is it the smell of Rocky Mountain Oysters; tender, succulent lambs’ oysters
being fried up with scrambled eggs. Another pan holds homemade fried potatoes
and onions. There is also a basket of baking powder biscuits and a jar of
chokecherry jelly. The boys tumble out of bed and get dressed. Today, it is will be a
good day to move the sheep to their summer camp.
Where did all these Sheepherders come from?
It is kind of interesting to see homes scattered all over Las Colonias in the wilds
formerly known as Arroyo Sequito. Who would have thought that the area would
become the Earth Ship capital of the world? Just as interesting are the places on
this side of Carson near Cerros de Taos and El Cerro de Las Tres Orejas. All of
those areas on the other side of the river (La Otra Banda), to where people who need
open space have now moved, used to be the winter camps for the vast herds of sheep
that disappeared after the forest service stopped honoring the Taylor Grazing Act of
The sheep industry of northern New Mexico caught the imagination of early film
makers such as Joseph Crumgold and culminated in the classic “And Now, Miguel.”
The film chronicled a way of life that has all but disappeared from this part of the
country. Mercifully, there is still a generation of local sheep herders that
remembers the waning days of sheep raising here.
In the days before the Río Grande Gorge Bridge spanned the chasm, the flocks of
sheep were walked from these valleys, through to Arroyo Hondo, down to the John
Dunn Bridge, and up the meandering road into the lava fields. It was highly
infested with rattlesnakes and so the sheep herders liked to ride on horseback. The
younger boys would follow closely behind the hundreds of sheep shaking empty
milk cans stuffed with a few pebbles. These homemade rattles attached to wires
would keep the youngest of the weary lambs from falling asleep on the trail.
The first stop toward the summer pastures would be the hillock known as Los
Pelones because of its sparse growth of trees. The next day would find the sheep
right up against Tres Piedras. On the third day the sheep would walk up near
Heron Lake. On the fourth day they were within sight of the great cliffs of Tierra
Amarilla. On the fifth day the flocks would arrive at the high pastures of Tierra
Amarilla or go on to the Brazos River near the Cumbres Peaks.
The days could be long as the sheep were grazing and the camps were often
peaks away. The sheep herders of this area learned to be by themselves and they
cultivated their natural skills. Some wrote ballads and folk poetry. Some became
great orators as they prayed before an audience of sheep. Still others became wood
sculptors. There are still many dendroglyphs (carving on living trees) from those
days that attest to the names of the sheep herders who spent their summers there.
Strange is the fact that even though they were people from this area, their
surnames were not exactly Spanish. Their names would end in letters like “i” which
point more to a Basque ancestry. Their descendants still use the names Ulibarrí and
Jauremberrí and Echeverrí but with more anglicized pronunciations.
Their ancestors would have lived in an area of the Pyrenees Mountains caught
between France and Spain. It was an area in the Iberian Peninsula that was not
occupied by the Moors. Many of the first Basques in America went off to make
their fortunes in the gold fields on the California Gold Rush on 1849. Some found
that it was easier to follow their herding professions and provide food for the miners
instead. Several political changes and upheavals especially during the Franco
Regime in the mid-1900s also drove several of these Basques away from their home
country and into the Americas.
In the vast plains of northern New Mexico and the high plateaus of Wyoming,
these very Basque shepherds would relive their herding experiences daily. They
would get together at night to have ciphering competitions. Many could add
numbers up to six figures in their heads without the aid of paper and pencil. Some
passed the ancient knowledge of herding to the younger generation.
Pastores in Sheep’s Clothing: The Shearing Industry in New Mexico
When one lives alone, one tends to do a whole lot of thinking. Past events seem to
take on new meanings in post-analysis and re-analysis. The ancient sheepherders
would sometimes ponder the question: To whom would the sheep that were being
watched on that holy night so long ago, have belonged? Sheepherders rarely owned
their sheep. They decided that the sheepherders tending the flocks, when they saw
the star over Bethlehem, would have belonged to Mary’s rich cousin Elizabeth.
They could give logical reasons for how they reached their conclusions. They
were also versed in making historical, cultural and literary allusions. One of their
favorite riddles was this: ¿Cómo puede ser que un hombre en el servicio de Dios, se
case con hija y madre, siendo doncellas las dos? (How can a man of the cloth in the
service of God verily, be wedded to both daughter and mother, though virgins both
The answer to this riddle of course, would be: Padre Martínez of Taos. He was
married to a daughter of the Church and when she died, he married Holy Mother
One sheepherder would make shepherd’s bread after sunset. It was like a big,
fat baked tortilla. Another would sharpen the shearing scissors against a whetstone.
The morning would bring lots of work.
By the time the sun had risen, the sheepherders had washed their faces in the
basin of cold water kept just outside of the tent flap. They had filtered the mountain
spring water through a muslin cloth and put it in the shade. The sheep had been
herded into their pens the previous night and had not been let out in the morning.
The time when the lambs had been castrated, their mommas had been siphoned out
of the corral. Next the lambs were tossed out of the pen while the sheep remained
inside. The sheepherders sat quietly smoking their home-rolled cigarettes of punche
mexicano. Slowly they got up and lay down some plank platforms where the
shearing was to take place.
One at a time they would use the bent end of their shepherd’s crook to catch a
sheep by the right hind leg. The sheep was then set on her rump on the plank
platform between the shepherd’s knees as he hunched over her. With his left hand
he would hold the sheep’s forelegs as he sheared off the wool with his right hand.
He would then move down her belly toward the hind legs. Having shorn that side,
he would move to the sheep’s back and finish with its head.
The sheeps’ shorn wool would be tamped into large burlap sacks set on scaffolds
with a younger shepherd boy using his full weight to make sure the sack was
stretched to capacity. As each bag was filled, it’s open end would be sewn shut with
a large, curved needle. Another empty sack was then set up. The wool of black
sheep was often separated into smaller sack bundles to be processed for family use.
The shearing routine would repeat itself all day long with the sheepherder taking
an occasional break to stretch out his back and to massage his cramped shearing
hand. The silly-looking sheep, denuded of their woolen identities, would be reunited
with their lambs, one at a time. The lambs didn’t care what their mommas looked
like. They just wanted to nurse from them.
Once the momma and lamb were reunited, they would both be recaptured and
branded with paint. The brand on each would be an identical set of numbers. In
this way, once the sheep were taken to the high pastures, should they become
separated, the sheepherders could easily match them up again.
The sheepherders would retire back to their tents for the evening. Before
bathing in the mountain springs, they would take the time to inspect each other’s
hair and body and remove any ticks. These garrapatas, if not removed soon, would
burrow into their skin and cause sickness later on. Cleanliness was important in the
life of the settlers in this area.
If She can’t throw a Level Floor, don’t marry Her
It is fascinating to study the social order and the familial expectations that our
ancestors had among themselves. There was a reason given for everything. The
men folk were in charge of animals. They sheared them, they grazed them, they
bred them and they slaughtered them. The women folk were in charge of
everything that was related to the interior of the house.
At this time of year they were expected to give the household a thorough cleaning
before the time of planting was upon them. They would empty out the rooms of all
the furniture and prepare to wash all sheets, linens, blankets and quilts.
The water had already begun to flow in the acequias. As the moms dragged the
heaviest coverlets off the beds and took them down to the acequias, the children
would stand ready on the banks. There, they would take the heavy blankets from
each corner and walk into the middle of the water. They would put the blanket
down upon the water and hold it in place until the fabric was thoroughly drenched
and settled at the bottom of its own accord.
Then the fun began! The girls would hike up their dressed and proceed to dance
on top of the submerged blankets. This process would remove the superficial dirt
and grime from them. As they did this, the boys would be heating up water in
barrels set over an outdoor bonfire.
In the meantime, the lady of the house was joined by her sisters to prepare the
canoa for the real work. The canoa was a hollowed-out cottonwood tree trunk that
had to be swept clean and rinsed. It would be stopped up at the drainage hole with
rags. The men would have gone early to the neighboring foothills to pull up some
yucca plants. The yucca root is what was harvested. The root, called amole, would
be used as a cleansing and sudsing agent.
The blankets would then be dragged out of the acequias, one at a time and new
ones put in to soak. The wet blankets would be put into the canoa and this wooden
trough was filled with hot water and amole. The ladies would beat the blankets with
paddles and dunk and re-dunk them. The clean blankets would then be hung out to
dry on special rails or against a wooden fence.
The process generally took all day long, with every family member participating.
Before the blankets were put back on the beds, the ceiling had to be cleaned. When
we look at the vigas and latillas on our modern ceilings, we tend to forget that they
didn’t always look that glamorous. Our forefathers used natural native materials
to fill the holes in their ceilings and to keep the weather out. These fillers generally
consisted of a bed of cedar bark and chamiso set on top of the latillas and then a
sealer of mud was piled on top in several coats.
This was all fine except for the fact that little pieces of debris and spiders would
occasionally tumble down and sometimes the rains penetrated the ceiling itself and
produced a leak on top of the bed in the middle of the night. Something else was
The ancestors came up with a muslin covering tacked up under the vigas. This
false ceiling was called a manta. The manta caught the debris that fell from above.
In order to redirect any leaks on a rainy night, the people would attach an iron to
one corner, thus pulling the rain flow to one specific area. The stained mantas were
the last items to be washed.
If the water leaked unto the floor, that wasn’t too bad since they were made of
tamped dirt. This packed-earth floor had to be put on in several layers. The mud
mixture was laced with straw and ox-blood. The coagulated blood and straw would
act as a bonding agent. A man would not even consider a girl worthy of marriage if
her mother had not taught her how to throw a level floor. Later on, commercial
products such as linseed oil would replace ox-blood as a bonding agent and it didn’t
smell like quite as rancid on hot days.
The Women would transform the House Into a Home
The second day of spring cleaning was one filled with anticipation, especially for
the children. The old mattresses had to be re-stuffed with straw. The mattresses
would first be un-sewn and the children would shake them out against each other.
It was like having a gigantic pillow fight out in the patio. This shaking would also
drive out any chinches (bedbugs) that might be hiding in them. The fresh stuffing of
straw was put into the empty mattress bags and they were re-sewn. If the
mattresses had been stuffed with wool, then it too had to be washed and re-stuffed
and intermittent bastones (strips of cloth) pierced the mattress every square foot or
so to keep the wool from wadding on one side of the mattress.
The walls had to be cared for next. They were given a whitewash with fine local
dirt called tierra vallita. It was applied with a piece of soft lamb’s fleece. For those
households that had no wallpaper, designs could be printed on the wall by dunking
wads of wool into a commercial liquid bluing that was sold locally as a whitener
from clothes. If some of the local mercantiles sold wallpaper, then this was the time
to put it up…but with a word of caution.
Wallpaper added an interesting dimension to the uneven adobe walls. It could
only be made to stick with the use of home made glue called poliaditas. Poliditas was
a mixture of flour, starch and water. (When this same mixture was laced with
cinnamon and sugar, it was given to children as a cure for diarrhea.)
Poliditas was fun to slap on the back of wallpaper because the glue was edible.
But if it were edible for humans, then it had to be edible for bugs. The bedbugs that
used to hide in the straw mattresses eventually moved out of bed in favor of the
homemade glue behind the wallpaper.
The interior of the house was now ready to receive the furniture back into it.
Now it was time for the people themselves to wash thoroughly. They used to make a
local lye soap called jabón de lejía. This soap could sear the skin right off the body
and so it was used more for laundry. A milder version of this soap was made of
tallow, paraffin wax, beeswax and rosemary leaves boiled in a cauldron in the patio.
The commercial soap of those days was sold in little cakes and had a goat head
stamped right on it. For this reason it was called jabón de cabra.
The adults would bathe by the light of the moon in the acequias. If they were too
infirm to get into the acequia, they might bathe in the kitchen, in a tin tub set in
front of the stove. For the sake of modesty, sometimes chairs draped with blankets
would be set in a circle around the tub. The first two or three bathers got the clean
water but by the time the eleventh or twelfth person got in, it was just warm adobe
For mothers who bathed the children, it was easy to comb the boys afterwards.
They would merely rub a little lard into the boys’ hair and slick it back. For the
girls though, it was a little tougher.
The girls needed to have their hair made into frizzled ringlets called rizos. In
order to make rizos on her daughters, a mother would divide the girls’ hair into two
hemispheres, by combing it straight down the middle of the head. She would then
subdivide the two halves into quarters. Each quarter would yield two risos. As the
daughter sat quietly, the mother would ask her to hold the tip of a long strip of
white cloth (about two feet long) at the top of her head. The mother would then
quickly wrap the girl’s hair around the strip, beginning at the top.
Once she got down to the end of her daughter’s hair, the mom would then take
the part of the cloth strip closest to the hair and retrace her steps, this time,
wrapping the cloth around the hair from bottom to top and tie it to the opposite end.
She repeated this process eight times. When she was finished, the girl looked as if
she had a ristra of lamb’s tails hanging around her head. The girl would sleep with
her wet hair wrapped in this manner and the following morning, all the mom had to
do was to untie the strip and carefully pull it straight down so as not to disturb the
The family would get ready to go to church. The dad would walk proudly beside
his squeaky-clean family and everyone admired the moms’ handiwork. But wait!
After the boys had walked in the sunlight, the faintest odor of chicharrones would
fill the church building. It was coming from the lard hair dressing that they were
wearing. Soon, everyone’s stomach was heard to rumble in hunger since the whole
congregation had fasted all morning.
The Faithful learn to deal with the Strict Rules of The Church
Once upon a time, local priests would hear the oddest confessions. The sinner
behind the screen in the confessional might say something like this: “Bless me
father, for I have sinned. It has been three weeks (certainly no longer than that)
since my last confession. These are my sins: I have crossed my legs in church…”
Yes, it was considered sinful for any church-goer to have their legs crossed as they
watched the Mass being celebrated.
Just as bizarre was the fear that if someone went to communion and the
consecrated host stuck to the roof of their mouth, and they had a hard time
swallowing it, then surely, that person must not have made a good confession. With
the multitude of problems facing the modern day church, these little pecadillos seem
downright laughable now. But in those days, crossed legs and dry palates might
send someone straight into Purgatory if they died with those sins on their
Just as interesting was the idea that one could not eat anything after midnight
and the time he was to receive Holy Communion the following day. Water could be
imbibed up to three hours prior to Mass. Some of the strict adherents to the rule
might even refrain from purposefully swallowing their own saliva, preferring to spit
it on the floor instead.
An offshoot of this practice was the belief that if babies died before the waters of
baptism were poured over them, then they would automatically go to a private little
corner of eternity reserved just for them. In this place, called Limbo, they would
never see the face of God and they would thirst and beg for water until the end of
Chewing gum was very popular in church at one time. The reason for this was
that the priest always faced away from the people and he recited all of the prayers in
Latin. The congregation, uneducated in the ways of the mystic language, felt rather
excluded from the sacrament that was being celebrated. They had three choices:
They could learn Latin, or they could kneel in boredom carving their initials into
the pews in front of them or they might chew gum. From this comes the belief that
chewing gum, especially at night, meant that the culprit was chewing on the bones of
And heavens preserve the parishioner who happened to go to the movies during
the time of Lent. Priests would ask entire congregations to rise and take oaths that
they would not go to any movies, dances or (later on) watch television until the after
Easter Sunday. There was even a Church Index of forbidden books that were
considered heretical or contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
This last one lasted until the mid 1960s.
For the church historian it is interesting to observe that Rome tried to put a more
human face to the Church with its Second Vatican Council, popularly known as
Vatican II, and known locally as Betty Cantú. (We had bad pronunciation.) Church
Latin was secularized to fit the languages spoken in the regional populations of the
world. Priests ceased to wear their black cassocks in public and they could even be
seen at parties and receptions.
Suddenly, after 30 years of showing a human and vulnerable side of the church,
the current trend was to reversal to strict conservatism. It is doubtful that the
church will revert to Latin prayers. However, mention of mortal sins, venial sins
and evil incarnate are getting more press again. The sacrament of Confession is
being encouraged with the variation that now the sinner and his confessor may face
each other without a screen divider.
The pendulum may swing back to another era but now both the human and the
divine must be recognized.
Grab your Eighth Grade Diploma and Step Into the Future
Speaking English in Arroyo Seco in the early 1960’s was never an easy job. In
the school playground we spoke Spanish and played in the woodshed (which we
pronounced as “wee-ched.” In the classroom, heroic teachers like Adelaida
Romero, Elisa Romero, Escolástica Liebert and Joe L. Mondragón struggled to
teach us English. Mercifully, if we slipped and said something in Spanish during
class, everyone understood and so the lesson just kept going. There was no
punishment meted out; the teachers were of our same culture. They understood our
First grade teacher Adelaida Romero doubled as a catechism teacher. In the
mornings we’d learn new words from flashcards, do arithmetic, sing “Found a
peanut” or “Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu.” Years later, people would
wonder how we’d learned these songs dating back to the time of the Depression.
The answer, of course, was that our teachers learned these songs in English from
their teachers of an earlier age and then taught them to us.
From second grade teacher Elisa Romero we learned to dance the Hokey Pokey,
sing about “My Billy Goats Three”, read about a cow named Lacy May and a goat
whose dream had always been to eat a tin can. We would watch Mrs. Romero run
off purple lettered handout sheets on an early, hand-cranked duplicator.
Mrs. Liebert would teacher her students Early American History from a book
titled “Red People of the Wooded Country.” Mr. Mondragón introduced us to
Weekly Readers. The first one featured an early piece on re-cycling titled: “Used
Christmas trees make news.” He also gave us our first homework. How excited we
were! (Silly kids! We were so innocent).
Palemón Cárdenas taught fourth grade and tried to show us how to do karate
and the value of exercise. Cándido Valerio was the fifth grade teacher and would
co-ordinate Christmas programs. Eleuterio Gallegos was the 6th grade teacher who
often played the violin for the classes. Elizardo Valerio doubled as 7th and 8th grade
teacher as well as school principal.
The most eagerly anticipated time of year for us all though, was the the 8th grade
graduation ceremony. Since the school systems in Taos County were not yet
consolidated, a diploma from 8th grade was all that was needed to help us find our
way in life. The teachers would pull open the WPA-era partition doors making an
auditorium between the 4th and 5th grade classrooms. They would borrow the
homemade tables from the 1st grade class to make a stage and then they adorned the
backdrop with crèpe paper roses.
The rehearsals would then begin. The graduating class would have to sing a song
about their accomplishments before a crowd of eager parents who marvelled at the
fact that their kids were actually singing in English. The graduates would walk up
to the stage in double file with a right step pause, left step pause routine. There was
a genuine sense of local pride as we listened to the strains of “Pomp and
Circumstance” played off a dusty record on a Victorola.
Now came the school song, sung to the tune of “Ruben, Ruben.” It went
something like this: “School books, school books we are going far away to foreign
lands, just because we’re smart and peppy; don’t you wish you were that way?
Teachers, teachers, we do thank you. We surely appreciate. All you did was try to
help us. You must know before it’s late.”
Having heard the valedictory speech in Spanish-accented English, all would rise
as the graduates filed outside. They would stand on either side of the sidewalk; boys
on the right, girls on the left. The Seco families would pass between them, shaking
their hands in congratulations and offer them gifts like handkerchiefs and bottles of
The next day the boys would pack their diplomas in their suitcases and go look
for jobs in Taos, Santa Fe or Albuquerque. The girls might hang around the
neighborhood and be substitute teachers the following school year. Meanwhile, the
rest of the kids still had tons of learning to do before they were ready for a rapidly-
In Exile from an Age of Innocence: The Kennedy Assassination
How fascinating to think that before the consolidation of the local school system
in the mid 1960s, the school board was run by political parties. If prospective
instructors wanted a decent job, they had to make sure that they were supportive of
the political party in power. To incur the disfavor of the ruling school board might
mean exile into Amalia, Costilla, Cerro or –God help us-, Arroyo Seco. It was
thanks to the fact that many of us received our early education in those far-flung
reaches of Taos County that we learned to survive beyond the classroom walls. The
teachers cared deeply for their kids and consequently, they earned our life-long
It is still unheard of now in our middle age, to address former teachers by their
first names. Perish the thought. They will still and always be Mr. Mondragón, or
Mrs. Romero or Mrs. Ortiz. Those very names can still inspire recollections of hard
lessons and patient guidance.
It was close of three o’clock in the morning when I woke up with a start.
Whenever I can’t sleep I usually just lie around and recite passages, stories or
volumes of material learned in school. On that night, I decided to see if I could
recall all the stories that Mrs. Ortiz taught in her Reading class 33 years ago.
Yes, the first was titled “A Lesson in Discipline.” It began thus: “We were the
worst class ever. It was a far cry from teacher to teacher. We were the worst. That
is, until the new teacher arrived. She said: My name is Virginia Baracombie—Ms.
Baracombie to you…” The next story was about a poor Okie girl who found her
only security in always having a desk waiting for her at school no matter where the
migrant pickers’ life took her. It was titled “I was a Hobo Kid” later made into a
film called “A Desk for Billie.” Next came a poem called “The Flower-Fed Buffalo”
about a rough and tumble herd of buffalo who sat around eating daisies all day
long. Then came a story titled “My Aunt Daisy was the First Girl Scout.” It was
followed by “On Skating” and by “Ah, That Wonderful Pain!” Then came the
poem “The road not taken.” I thought, “If I can recall every word in these stories,
in exact order, at three o’clock in the morning, 35 years after the fact then…God!
I’ve got to get me a life!”
That’s a sobering thought at 3 o’clock in the morning until we realize that we
are, many of us, composites of all the educational information that went into our
brains early in life. In being asked to define “Love”, the late Ayn Rand said: “Love
is a command to rise to the highest ideals we have of ourselves.” We could say that
it is also the definition that we could well give to “Education” and I might add, in
the process, help others to rise to the highest ideals they have of themselves. (It’s
kind of fun to wax philosophic at 3 o’clock in the morning.)
Our age of innocence at Arroyo Seco Elementary School was to be shattered one
day in November when the principal came to our classroom and said: “We are
going to dismiss school today. The President has been shot.” We didn’t know what
“shot” meant except for when the school nurse, Liz Budlong, would come by to give
us our shots. She would open wide her red lipped smile and say “It’s just a little
mosquito.” before she stabbed us with the needle. From that we were able to deduce
that “was shot” must have been something bad.
We went home and our parents weren’t there. We tried to watch cartoons on our
black and white Zenith television but there was nothing on except for some
incomprehensible story of some guy in Texas. And the same show kept repeating
itself over and over again. We turned it off and went to play with our stick horses
The rest of the school year was kind of a blur. Finally late May arrived and we
sang our farewell song: “In the air there is a voice. On the breeze its tone ‘comes
clear and it is a call we gladly shall obey. Oh, it makes our hearts rejoice, for the
voice we love to hear, ‘tis vacation calling us from school away. Tra-la-la, vacation’s
coming! Pack your books and store them ‘way. Good-bye school; we’re tired of
you. No more lessons we shall do! Tra-la-la vacation comes, hooray, hooray!”
Now we were officially out of school, at least until the fall session. The big
question on our minds was what to do for the summer. There had to be a way of
Sometimes I long for the Days when Telephones had Party Lines
A few years ago, one of my sister’s kids was only two years old. While visiting in
Seco he went up to my mother and said, “Grandma, computer?” My mother was
startled. She asked him, “Why do you want a computer, m’hijito?” As clear as a
bell he replied, “Internet!” My mother turned to me and said, “”I never would have
expected that one of my grandchildren would one day come around asking to use a
Our private little world on the slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains had
changed very suddenly. We, who grew up among horse carts, holy day processions
and outhouses, found ourselves thrust into a world of cars, telephones, calculators,
micro-wave ovens, satellite dishes and personal computers. We had gone from an
agricultural age to an industrial age to a technological age within a matter of
decades. Yes, we still had our home altars bedecked with with santos, rosary beads
and a myriad of candles. But now, lying top of these same altars we could detect a
cell phone carelessly put down or a subscription to Omni Magazine tossed aside.
Mercifully the changes in these here valleys had come gradually, giving us enough
time to absorb and get comfortable with them. It was just as when there was a
rumor in the mid-60s that thousands of hippies were coming to the Taos valley. I
suppose we expected an over-night invasion. But they had come gradually and they
were all here before we even noticed.
The year was now 1967. My father casually mentioned that our neighbors had
just gotten a telephone. Perhaps we could hook up to their line too. What a treat
that was to be! My mother polished an antique table where the telephone would be
enshrined just as the little santos were on their own altar. We had two colors for the
phone from which to choose: either harvest gold or avocado green. We went with
the avocado green since it was all the rage.
Now we had to learn the ringer codes. Two short rings indicated that the call was
for our neighbor on the right. Two long rings meant that the call was for the
neighbor on the left. One long and one short ring meant that the call was for the
neighbor across the field. One short ring and one long ring meant that the call was
for us. It really didn’t matter; when we, the kids heard the phone ring, we’d run
and pick up the receiver regardless of who was being called.
A voice on the other end of the line was already talking to one of the neighbors:
“Did you hear that (so and so) put her dog in the pressure cooker because it
wouldn’t stop barking?” How could anyone possibly put down the receiver after
hearing a lead line like that? We would keep listening with our little hands over the
speaker: “Where’s your ‘jito’ now?” “-Oh, he went to fight las lumbres.” (It was
better than any supermarket tabloid.)
Sometimes the only way to get to use the telephone was to trick the two speakers
into hanging up. We would pinch our nose and suddenly say during a lull, “Oh,
here comes someone. I have to go now!” Both of them would then say, “Bueno,
bye!” and hang up. -And woe to anyone who should have to make an emergency
phone call when we were on the line. We’d simply say, “Sorry, we got it first.” And
if we wanted to be particularly nasty we’d leave the phone off the hook and thus tie
up all the lines. There was no beep or operator warning call in those days. The
would-be caller simply lived with it. And if there was nothing good on the television
or radio, we could always count on listening just for fun.
Sadly, sometimes we would get so involved in the unknown caller’s dialogues that
we would blurt out something like, “That’s a lie!” …”Oops!” and have to hang up
No, party lines didn’t make for very neighborly relations. We simply learned
more than we needed to know about each other. With the invention of fiber optic
lines though, our immediate world got smaller because we now had private lines but
our contact with the outer world got larger.
San Antonio de Padua does Triple Duty
Once upon a time a holy man came to town. He sought to make the citizens of
the area aware of the dual nature of their daily lives. He approached a woman and
gave her some money saying: “Take this money and go buy the best thing in the
world. Bring it back to me in a sealed box.” The woman thought long and hard and
promptly went off to buy the best thing in the world. She returned with the object
in a sealed box.
The holy man when gave her an equal amount of money and said to her: “Now,
go out and with this money, buy me the worst thing in the world.” Again the
woman thought for a while and then promptly went off. She returned with the
worst object sealed within a box.
The holy man, without unsealing the boxes, said to the woman: “I can tell that
you have thought over this matter. I can also tell that the best thing in the world
and the worst thing in the world are one and the same thing.” The woman was
astonished, for it was true.
Inside each of the boxes was a tongue that the woman had bought at the
butcher’s shop. “With a tongue,” she explained, “one can sing songs, recite poetry,
describe the wonders of nature, praise children and spouses and proclaim the
glories of God. With the tongue, one can also curse, speaking profanities, bemoan
one’s lot in life, scold and malign children and spouses and swear in God’s name.”
The holy man went away, satisfied that the people understood the dual nature of
The reason that this old New Mexico folktale becomes import to us, is that today,
on June 13th, the people of this area of the world celebrate the wondrous life of Saint
Anthony of Padua. Only St. Francis of Assisi himself vies in popularity in the
number of churches erected in his honor in New Mexico.
Anyone who has ever lost something, forgotten something or left something
behind, certainly knows the value of his intercession. San Antonio is known as a
thaumaturgist, which is a fancy word for “worker of miracles.” The entire villages
of Valdez, Questa, La Loma and Peñasco are dedicated to this popular saint and
will often invoke his aid:
San Antonio de Padua, que en Padua naciste, hábito vestiste, cuerda ceñiste y al
estudio te diste. Al primer sermón que fuiste echado, a ti te fue revelado que a tu padre
iban a ahorcar por un falso testimonio que le iban a levantar. De ida y vuelta se te
perdió su santo breviario. El Santísimo lo halló y en él algo aposentó. Entonces tres
voces oíste: “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio! He aquí tu santo breviario y en él he
aposentado que el que fuere tu devoto tres cosas le concederás: Lo perdido; hallado, lo
olvidado; acordado, y lo alejado; acercado.” Padre mío San Antonio, ruega por
nosotros ante Dios Nuestro Señor, Amén.
(Saint Anthony of Padua, in Padua you were born. You donned the habit, girded
loin and studied night and morn. When first you gave a sermon, revealed was this
to you: your father would be hanged that day, by witnesses untrue. As you went to
defend him, your book was lost to fame. The Most High found and wrote within a
promise in your name. “I speak to you dear Anthony”, a voice three times
exclaimed. “Within the book a promise penned to all who call your name:
Whatever’s lost; soon found shall be, forgotten; recalled verily, and what is far,
brought close to thee if in your name be made the plea.” Dear Father Saint
Anthony, intercede for us before Our Lord, Amen.
Just as a point of clarification, Anthony died in Vercelli on June 13th, 1231. He
was entombed in Padua. However, he was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195. The
allusion to his father (Martín Boullion) being falsely-accused refers to an episode
when a dead man was found in his garden. Martín was tried for murder but his
silver-tongued son asked that a surprise witness be called to the stand. The witness
he summoned was the dead man himself. He said: “I charge you to tell me in the
name of the living God whether or not it was my father who killed you.” The
cadaver got up and said: “It was not your father who killed me.” Thereupon he lay
down again in death.
So eloquent a speaker was Anthony said to be that 30 years after his death, his
body was found to be completely turned to dust but his tongue was still as fresh and
pink as it was when he had been preaching. Also surviving intact to this day are his
lower jaw and his vocal chords.
Many New Mexicans cannot remember the entire prayer in honor of St.
Anthony. For them we offer this one in case they should lose something: “Tony,
Tony, look around. Something’s lost and must be found!”
Unsure of your Marriage Proposal? Have some pumpkin.
Walking down the Alameda in Mexico City or strolling past the Champs Elysées
in Paris, regardless of the season, one is likely to see lovers sitting on park benches
whispering sweet nothings to each other. Since many of the young adults have no
cars, this bench courting is the only viable option open to them. There is no
Blueberry Hill or Inspiration Point where the young can park. Their courting
rituals are more open and strangely, also more discreet.
When one stops to observe the lovers on the parks benches (from a diplomatic
distance, of course), certain things become noticeable: There is sometimes an older
lady pretending to knit just a few benches down. Sometimes there is a little child
eating ice cream under a tree. These tactful chaperons are part of the culture to
make sure nothing improper is taking place between the lovers.
In northern New Mexico such customs would have been commonplace at one
time. Young suitors would wait to catch a girl’s eye in the churchyard after a
service. Sometimes, at a dance the clumsy, inexperienced dancers would be caught
dancing together for the first time. They would then be taken up onto the stage
amid jeers and cat whistles and they would not be released until their parents
agreed to host the next dance. Sometimes the only way for a boy to get a girl to
notice him would be to work for her dad. No, love was not easy.
Supposing that the would-be lovers had been able to agree to get married, the
next step would be for the boy’s parents to name a commission to contact the girl’s
parents. This commission was usually comprised of three generations from the
boy’s family: usually his parents, a great uncle and a small child. They would call
on the (unsuspecting) girl’s parents and hand them a letter without a word being
spoken. The girl’s parents would then read the letter that was written in very
“Muy estimados vecinos, el torito de nuestro establo ha echado ojo sobre la rosa de
vuestro jardín y ha hallado en ella, la flor más sublime y primorosa que las demás. A
nosotros, como vuestros humildes servidores, se no ha solicitado para que hagamos
petición a vuestras mercedes para implorar a su hija en el sacramento de matrimonio.
Esperamos en la gracia de Dios que la respuesta será afirmativa y así ambas nuestras
casas tendrán razón para regocijar y dar alabanzas a Dios. Quienes confían en su
dulce “sí”, Don y Doña…”
“Most esteemed neighbors, the young bull from our stable has cast his eye upon
the rose of your garden and he has found in her, the most sublime and precious
flower, far exceeding the rest. We have been contacted, as your humble servants, to
make petition unto your lordships, begging that your daughter be given over to the
sacrament of Matrimony. We trust in God’s grace that the response shall be
positive and thus, both our homes may be united as one and have reason to rejoice
and render glory unto God. We, who trust in your sweet “yes”, Don and Doña…”
Only the language of the eulogist at a funeral would have been more flowery. It
was in fact, sometimes the village eulogist who would be the official scribe to write
these letters of petition.
Now, should the girl decide to accept the proposal of marriage then her family
would name a commission to go take the written response back to the suitor’s
family. That was the easy part. If there was a delay in getting a response letter to
the suitor, he might well have reason to fret. He would try to avoid gazing at the
floor of his porch; for fear that he might spot a pumpkin on his doorstep.
A pumpkin on a doorstep was the communal sign that his marriage proposal had
been rejected. The Spanish word for pumpkin is “calabaza” and from it derives the
verb “calabazear”; meaning “to give pumpkins to someone” or to reject a proposal
of marriage. It was sometimes said that in more genteel circles, if the suitor’s family
was invited to the girl’s family’s home for dinner and any kind of a pumpkin or
squash dish was served, the suitor knew the answer.
Since many of the marriages were arranged, for the sake of land, money, or
prestige, sometimes a prospective bride and groom would not even meet until the
actual wedding day. This actually happened in Arroyo Seco where a poor 16 year
old girl was given in marriage to a 67 year old rich bachelor. Since it was the wish
of her parents that she marry him, she had to comply.
Prendorio y Casorio: One for Her and One for Him
Having dutifully accepted an honorable proposal of marriage, the days of
feasting were set. The Prendorio, or formal handing over of the bride, marked the
first day of feasting. This engagement party was a solemn occasion that always took
place at the home of the bride-to-be where she was endowed with gifts.
The groom’s family would arrive at her home, led by an official spokesman who
carried the letter of acceptance from the bride’s family to the groom’s. He would
make a speech marking the union of the two households in holy matrimony. The
groom’s father and mother would then take the bride by the arms and lead her
about the house introducing her to her new family. They would say things like:
“This is your older brother so and so.” or “This is your Tía María...” The bride
would next greet all of her new relatives with a hug. In the meantime, the bride’s
own father and mother would seize the groom and escort him around the room in
similar fashion, introducing him to his new family.
The first feast that marked the prendorio was always given at the home of the
bride. It was a sit down affair in which people were led to the table by official
monitors called serviciales. Most of the family would wait outdoors or in the next
room anticipating the call to the engagement table. While they were waiting to be
seated, they would be called in groups to a smallish table called la mesa del banquete.
There, they would stand and be invited to eat a few sweets such as cookies, soda,
candy or cake. No plates were given. Each invited guest would simply reach and
grab a morsel and then cross their arms or clasp their hands together in a fig leaf
position. Sometimes a shot of whiskey or a drink of chokecherry wine was offered.
Now that their appetites were spoiled, they would be led into the kitchen for the sit
down meal. The serviciales would then wash out the shot glasses and restock la
mesa del banquete for the next go around.
That night, the bride would traditionally go to the home of her maid of honor to
spend the night. It was important that she be chaperoned on her last night as a
single woman. The maid of honor was in charge of helping her ready ready and vest
for what would be the greatest day of her life.
The following day was the day of casorio, or wedding. By the time the bride and
her maid of honor arrived at the church, the groom and his best man were already
standing up by the altar. The couple was joined in holy matrimony, this or course,
only after the bans of matrimony had been published publically for a month. This
was called rodando, in case there was an unknown reason why they should not be
Having cleared these hurdles, the couple was joined by the priest who blessed
them publicly and advised them privately. The bridal party would then drive of
walk over to the bride’s house where her parents would be waiting to receive them.
The bridal procession would stop a short distance from the house so that their
musicians (a fiddler and a guitarist) could strike up the march. The bride’s family
then came out to welcome them. This was followed by a second feast held to the
same standards as the prendorio feast. All during this time, the maid of honor had
to keep hold of the bride’s train, lest some rapscallion try to steal her.
That night there was a wedding dance held at the local town hall. Some members
of the groom’s family would drive up and down the town or valleys honking their
horns. This was called corriendo gallo and it was an open invitation to all to come to
the dance regardless or whether or not they had been invited to the wedding. At the
dance, the bride and groom would be seated together at one point as a village
balladeer would sing la entriega, an age-old ballad about the duties and
responsibilities that they now owed to each other. Their parents and grandparents
would then bless them and only then could the bride be released by her maid of
Santa Librada was the Original Lady Liberty
In many a capilla found in northern New Mexico are to be found crucifixes with
images of a young, smooth-shaven Christ clad in a long tunic. Sometimes he even
sports a tiny suspicion of a moustache. These types of representations were quite
common before the eleventh century, that is, before the time of Saint Francis of
Assisi. Francis helped to popularize the notion of a near-naked, bleeding, older
Jesus on a cross. Jesus was no longer a young, handsome, richly-dressed man with a
crown but rather, a broken, skeleton of a man that might appeal to the poor.
In any case, the reason that such depictions of the young Christ on a cross
survive is due to the fact that in northern New Mexico, as in the Europe of the
Middle Ages, the young, beautiful Christ was sometimes mistaken for a girl.
Soon pious legend arose that the girl on the cross was a representation of Saint
Livrade, the holy (if apocryphal) daughter of the king of Portugal. Legend held that
Saint Livrade (Santa Librada in Spanish) had taken vows of perpetual virginity even
though her father and mother had promised her hand in marriage to the son of the
king of Sicily. They desperately wanted to have grandchildren. Saint Livrade
appealed to God for divine intervention; she needed some kind of a physical
abnormality so that the prince of Sicily might no longer want to take her to wife.
Hearing the plea of his faithful servant, God caused young Librada to sprout a
beard and moustache on the night before her wedding. So disgusted was the prince
of Sicily that he fled the country. Livrade’s father was so angry at his
hermaphroditic-looking daughter, who had cheated him of grandchildren, that he
had her crucified.
The original misinterpretation of the Volto Santo (bulto santo); or Christ
crucified, while wearing a tunic, is kept in the Basilica of Lucca. The image of the
young person on the cross is known internationally by many names. It is known as
Wilgefortis in Germany. It has been suggested that the name “Wilgefortis” might
derive from the Latin “Virgo Fortis” or, “Powerful Virgin.” But the Germans
believe it to be a variation of the name “Hilge Vartz” or “Heilige Fratz” meaning
“Holy (grimaced) Face.”
Santa Librada is also known be the name of Uncumber from the belief that
anyone who invokes her at the hour of their death will be “ohne Kummer” or
“without anxiety.” Her other litany of names include Kummernis, Komina,
Comera, Cumerana, Hulfe, Ontcommene, Ontcommer, Dignefortis, Eutropia,
Reginfledis and Liberata.
The other oddity about this saint of dubious identity or gender is the fact that she
is often depicted with one shoe off and one shoe one. Pious legend tells the story of a
poor fiddler who had nothing left in the world. One day he sat down to play before
the crucified image of Livrade. She is said to have reached down from the cross and
handed him one of her golden boots. The authorities soon caught up with the
fiddler and charged him with the theft of the golden boot. He was condemned to
death. Before he died, he was granted his wish of playing his fiddle before Livrade
one last time. He played so sweetly before the image that soon he/she began to sway.
Soon the image on the cross kicked off the other boot and it landed on the fiddler’s
lap. That was to be the sure sign from Heaven that the fiddler was innocent. He
was set free.
There are several motifs going on here: The idea of a divine image sporting only
one shoe is found several times in the past. The Holy Child on the lap of Nuestra
Señora del Perpetuo Socorro (Our Lady of Perpetual Help) has only one shoe. He
lost the other in a fright as he gazed into the future and saw his own death. The
image of San Cristóbal also wears only one shoe, having lost the other in the mud of
the riverbed as he carried the Christ Child on his shoulder. Even Greek mythology
talks about the heroic Jason wearing but one sandal.
As far as the motif of the poor entertainer who had nothing to offer the holy
image but his talent, that too is reflected in the medieval tale of the poor Juggler of
Santa Librada paid dearly for the idea of being allowed to be whom she chose to
be. On a day like today, it would be good to reflect on all the personal liberties that
we take so much for granted.
To Pee or Not to Pee?: The History of the Outhouse in New Mexico
It is inspiring to read about the heroic exploits of the Spanish explorers and
about the valiant resistance of the indigenous people of this area. The histories
bespeak of valor and honor, self-sacrifice and of a willingness to defy all odds.
Strangely though, there are no history books on the Great American Southwest that
tell of those parts of the heroic adventure that were not as, -well, heroic. Whether
the heroes who were pushing the limits of new frontiers were conquistadores or
indigenous people, a very human factor seemed to be missing from many history
books: Where were the toilets?
For the 336 men who entered New Mexico with Francisco Vásquez de Coronado,
any old tree to pee behind would have been just fine. For the three Spanish ladies
that came with him, the lowly chamiso bush would have been adequate. It’s so easy
for modern day inhabitants of the planet to forget that flush toilets have only been
in existence for a very short time. In fact, it was the plumber Thomas Crapper who
first patented a siphon discharge system that allowed toilets to flush effectively in
the early 1900s.
Let us first consider local Hispanic attitudes on potty-training. Shortly after a
child begins to talk, mothers will ask one another, “¿Ya avisa?” (Does he tell you
when he needs to go yet?”) In training a child to inform the mom when he needs to
pee, the mom will ask “¿Tienes que hacer pí?” if the child is male and ¿Tienes que
hacer chí?” if the child is female. Yes, little Spanish boys make pee and little
Spanish girls make chee. In asking why the name difference I was told by a member
of the older generation that the name given to urine depends on the sound it makes
when it exits the body.
Relegated to the annals of history too are the chamber pots that used to be kept
under the bed before the advent of plumbing. The chamber pot, called a basín in
Spanish, was the standard means of storing night soil for children who were too
scared to go take care of business in the dark of night. After all, the Coco man was
out there lurking in the shadows. The basín was made of enameled tin called peltre
in Spanish. Really fancy households had ceramic chamber pots complete with tops
lined in fourteen carat gold leaf. A mom’s first duty at dawn after morning prayers
was to go empty the chamber pot into the común. She would casually throw her
robe over her shoulders in order to hide the basín that she was carrying under it.
Such morning rituals were not for prying eyes.
The común was the name given to ‘the common room’ or outhouse. The
structure of the outhouse dictated that it should have enough cracks or knotholes in
it to keep it well-ventilated. It was sometimes a two-seater and had two holes side by
side on the main sitting space as well as a smaller sitting opening for children.
The común was a place to take care of nature’s call as well as a place of
socialization. The two sitters would be elbow to elbow with the latest Montgomery
Ward catalogue between them. They would crumble and work the pages into
pliable tissue paper. The glossy pages would be avoided. Particularly prized was
the Christmas catalogue that featured all the toys and candy of the season. One
could sit there and dream of what Santa might bring. Pre-adolescent boys would
quickly skip through the pages that featured the mannequins in bras and girdles.
They would say, “Yuck, yuck, yuck!” Curious older boys tended to linger more at
those pages. But not for too long…
There was a local bogey creature that lived under the outhouse. She was known
as La Jedionda (The Smelly One). If boys sat too long in the outhouse she was likely
to reach up from under them and grab their butts and pull them under. She was a
monster to be avoided. In rainy weather the común was a wonderful place to play
house and to scribble graffiti on the walls.
With the coming of flush indoor toilets and bland, generic toilet tissue, a lot of the
restroom culture disappeared.
We too had a New Mexico-Style Mother Goose
In a recent survey, 47% of students at Taos High School could not complete the
phrase “Hey diddle-diddle, the cat and the fiddle…” 52% didn’t know the rest of
“Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater…” And a shocking 98% did know how “If wishes
were horses and beggars would ride…” went. At one time a solid knowledge of
basic nursery rhymes was something that bound an American childhood together.
Well, some of us might argue, we spoke Spanish first; therefore English nursery
rhymes didn’t mean much to us. Besides, there wasn’t really a Mother Goose…or
was there? Scholars who dabble in doggerel and fancy will often cite Bertha Big
Foot, the mother of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, as being the original
Mother Goose. Queen Bertha, who lived some twelve hundred years ago, had a
mal-formed club foot, sometimes called a goose foot.
She is credited with having come up with such rhymes in French as: “Hompté-
Dompte assis sur un mur. Hompté-Dompté en tomba très dur. Ni les chevaux ni les
soldats du roi, n’ont pu recoller ce grand maladroit.” In English we know this as:
“Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s
horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again.” And
in Spanish we say: “Huevo-Huevito muy sentadito en la alta pared. Huevo-Huevito,
ten cuidadito; te vas a caer. Ni los caballitos ni los hombres del rey, nunca, nunca te
These are nice interpretations but were there any local Spanish nursery rhymes
used by moms to enrich a New Mexico childhood? We offer for your consideration
one used to tickle the baby’s tummy as he is being put down for a nap: “Lanza-
lanza se fue pa’ Francia y de allá viene y pícale la panza.” (A lance, a lance went off
to France. From there it poked your belly by chance.) As his mom is making little
swirling, spiraling movements with the idex finger extended, the baby squeals with
anticipation as the finger comes closer and closer to his belly button. An English-
style variation of this is: “Bumbledy-bee goes around the tree, over hill and over
dale, and then it zooms in on thee.”
As the baby gets to the point where he can sit up, his mom will begin to rock him
to the tune of Indita ballads. The Indita ballad is a New Mexico form of song that
uses Spanish words set to the rhythm of a native drum: “Reque-reque, requezón.
Las inditas de San Juan, piden pan y no les dan. Piden queso y les dan hueso y se
sientan a llorar en las trancas de un corral. Reque-reque, requezón.” (For a bowl of
curds and whey, Indian maidens cry all day. Ask for bread but given none, bone,
not cheese they get for fun. And at San Juan’s gate they sit, hoping for a little bit, of
a bowl of curds and whey.)
Now the baby becomes a little bit more coordinated. His mom will take his little
hand and using her index and middle fingers begin walking them slowly up his arm
beginning at the palm and ending up in the baby’s armpit. As this is happening, she
says the following: “Ésta era una viejita, juntando su leñita, llegó una llovesnita, y
corre, corre, corre en su cuevita.” (There was an old lady, please let me explain, she
was out of her cave and ran, ran, ran, out of the rain.) When the mom says the
word “rain” she tickles the baby’s armpit.
And there is also a New Mexico version of “This little pig went to market.” It
goes like this: “Éste halló un huevito. Éste lo puso a asar. Éste lo meneó. Éste le
echó sal. Y éste cuzco, cuzco tamalero se lo comió.” (This one found a little egg. This
one cooked it up nice. This one stirred it so so gently. This one added the spice.
And this greedy little one ate it up faster than rice.)
The nursery rhymes were often linked to the older generation as well. A mom
would take the baby’s little feet and rotate them faster and faster as she said:
“Estos dos piecitos van pa’ la casa de los abuelitos, a juntar alverjoncitos. Corre uno,
corre el otro, corren los dos juntitos.” (These two little feet to grandpa’s house will
go. To pick some peasies from their pods you know. First runs one then runs the
other, then they run together with one another.)
Yes, we too had a Mother Goose in the Río Grande Valley. She was a
conglomerate of all the moms who taught their babies the culture through child’s
Saint James leaves His Scallop Motifs all over Northern New Mexico
Anyone who is a collector or even an admirer of Spanish colonial furniture as
produced in northern New Mexico can hardly fail to recognize the scallop shell
motif carved over much of it. It is said that this same scallop shell first appeared
together with a cross on a banner born by a knight that galloped out of the clouds at
the Battle of Clavijo.
In order to understand just what this might mean for us here, we need to revisit
the site of the famous battle [that perhaps never took place]. Popular lore says that
about a hundred and fifty years after the Moors had established themselves in
Spain, they lived in opulence in their famous city of Córdova. Spanish lore reports
that they would demand annual tribute from the Christian kings in the form of
hundred virgins to populate their harems. The Spanish, it is said, finally got tired of
this tribute and appealed to King Ramiro I of Galicia to put an end to the tribute.
It was then that Ramiro decided to meet the Moors on the battlefield of Clavijo in
the year 844 A.D. The battle raged fast and furious with the Spaniards quickly
losing a lot of ground after the initial contact. That night, Santiago (Saint James)
appeared to King Ramiro in a dream in which he gave him explicit directions for
how the fighting was to proceed the following day.
On the morning following the dream, just as the Spaniards were to engage the
Moors, a knight mounted upon a white charger was seen to gallop out of the clouds.
He held a battle standard emblazoned with a red cross and scallop shell. The
Spanish soldiers were so inspired that they shouted the name “¡Santiago!” in
unison. The thunderous roar had the effect of knocking down 60,000 Moors dead at
the same time even as the blast of trumpets had knocked down the wall of Jericho
The humble fisherman who had been called by Jesus to become a “fisher of men”
was suddenly transformed into a soldier; defender of the Church Militant here on
earth. It has been suggested that the association between Santiago and the scallop
shell stem from the fact that he was a fisherman. Others say that perhaps the shell
grew important as his symbol because he used the scallop shell to pour the waters of
baptism over the heads of his new converts to Christianity.
Other legends depicting the shell are even more fascinating. Pious legend has it
that as his two disciples were returning to Spain with the body of Santiago after he
was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa, they beheld a wondrous sight: They saw a
mounted knight riding across the waves of the sea supported by a road of scallop
shells interwoven by a net of seaweed.
Another legend says that a Spanish prince was on his way to meet his bride when
suddenly a grotesque giant came upon him and carried him off when he was only a
few steps from his beloved. As she watched, the giant strode over to the sea and
plunged the bridegroom into it. His bride wept bitter tears. In desperation she
appealed to Santiago for help. The noble saint raised the bridegroom from the
ocean depths but as he rose from the water, his cloak was studded with scallop
The powers of the wonders of Santiago were such that many holy men and
women made the trek to Compostela to visit his tomb. The Milky Way itself used to
be known as “el Camino de Santiago” during the Middle Ages. King Alfonso II had
Santiago declared the official patron saint of Spain and the news was spread to all
corners of Christendom by Pope Leo III.
The French, through whose country many pilgrims came to visit the tomb of
Santiago, even created a dish in his honor. Scallops soaked in citrus juices are
called “Coquilles Saint Jacques.” The recipe requires that thinly-sliced scallops be
marinated overnight with lime, lemon and orange juices mixed with a little grated
rind from each fruit. The acid in the juices will cook the scallops. At serving time
the scallops are spooned into shells and garnished with slices of lime.
The Taos Fiestas are a long way off from the sea. But the effect of the scallop
shell lives on in the collective memories of the inhabitants of northern New Mexico.
This is how New Mexico Chile got its Sting
A question frequently asked of elementary school kids is this: What’s the
difference between a fruit and a vegetable? They will generally answer: “Fruit
grows on trees and vegetables grow closer to the ground.” Some will make a further
distinction: “Fruit is sweet and vegetables aren’t.” Well then, what about sweet
corn? That’s a grain. What about the sweet potato? That’s a tuber. What about
the carrot? That’s a root. What about mint? That’s an herb.
The astute teacher might then ask: “What about strawberries?” When kids
proclaim that strawberries are fruit, the teacher will ask why it doesn’t grow on
trees. (It’s a berry). A good teacher will help clarify matters by making yet another
distinction: Fruit have their seeds on the inside of the edible part. (Strawberries
have the seeds on the outside of the fruit.) By this logic then, tomatoes are fruit,
squash are fruit, cucumbers are fruit, watermelons are fruit, bell peppers are fruit
and even green chile is fruit. Oddly, that is in fact, exactly what they are. These
fruits, which grow along the ground, are more closely related to mangoes, apples
and pears than they are to lettuce, cabbage or celery.
Chile is at the very heart and soul of cooking in New Mexico. It, along with the
pinto bean, has been designated as the Official State Food by proclamation of the
New Mexico State Legislature. Chile is at its best when it is plucked from the plant
while green, roasted over a grill, peeled of its parched skin, lightly salted and
sprinkled with garlic and wrapped in a fresh flour tortilla.
Others prefer to let the chile ripen on the plant, turn red, pick it, and sun dry it
before it is rehydrated and blended into a red sauce. It is then laced with everything
from flour, to cumin, to oregano, to garlic and used as a base for meat, fish, eggs,
onions or potatoes. Generally speaking, red chile tends to be more piquant than the
There are wonderful stories in New Mexico in which fruits and vegetables are
personified and act just like human beings. Don Cacahuate (Mr. Peanut) and Doña
Cebolla (Ms. Onion) are New Mexico hillbillies who somehow manage to scrape out
a living. They manage to do quite well in the folktales of New Mexico but it is
generally because Ms. Onion is smarter and gets her husband Mr. Peanut out of his
unforeseen messes. Along the same lines Don Café (Mr. Coffee) and Don Atole (Mr.
Corn Gruel) are always arguing about which of them is better suited to meet the
needs of the citizens of New Mexico. There is also a folktale that traces the brown
and white colors of the pinto bean to the blending of Native and Hispanic cultures as
they sit down at the same table to share a meal. The bean, which used to be of a
uniform tan color, separated its skin into brown and white to honor the cultures
that share it in peace.
Capsicum is the element that gives its piquancy to chile. Interestingly now, this
same capsicum is blended in medicines as an ointment to treat arthritis. But just
how did the people of New Mexico explain the burning sensation caused by eating
Well, there is a legend that says that at the beginning of time, chile was the
sweetest fruit in the Garden of Eden. It grew, not on the Tree of Knowledge but on
the Tree of Life. It was the favorite food of Adam and Eve. Now, the Devil needed
to trick Adam and Eve into eating from the Tree of Knowledge but he knew that
they were too clever to go against the orders of God. The Devil approached the Tree
of Life and asked the chile if he might borrow a pod or two to offer to God. The
green chile, not understanding the wiles of the Devil, blushed red at the thought of
being so honored, and let itself be picked. He succumbed to flattery.
The Devil then wrapped himself about the trunk of the Tree of Knowledge
holding a chile pod in his left hand. As the lady Eve approached The Devil held out
the chile to lure her closer. Since it was still the dawn of time and Eve couldn’t see
very well, the Devil quickly substituted the green chile for the forbidden fruit and
Eve ate of it. Great was her sorrow when she realized that she had been tricked.
God drove the Devil out of the Garden of Eden for having tricked Eve. He was
also mad at the fact that something as good as chile had been used for a bad
purpose. Chile, however was not at fault. Because it had been held in the Devil’s
left hand though, God called that hand la mano siniestra (the sinister hand). God
also gave chile a little sting to remind it that, like Eve, it too had let itself be tricked
into being used for a bad purpose. He also caused chile to grow closer to the ground
in order than it should be let itself be flattered by growing in lofty trees like the
That is why even though chile is still the food of choice for the people in New
Mexico its string reminds us that it paid a high price for its incaution. When red
chile is too hot to be eaten, New Mexico folklore says that it is because the cook was
mad when she made it. And, as with all good fairytales in Spanish, we end with the
color red: “Colorín, Colorado, este cuento está acabado.” (Red as red can blend, this
tale is now at an end.)
The Feast of Saint Lawrence is a Time-Honored Tradition in New Mexico
It is a widely-recognized fact that many local boys from northern New Mexico
fought for our country in the Philippine Islands. There are stories of the infamous
Bataan Death March when some of them were captured. What rarely survives
though are the stories of the promesas; vows that some of the soldiers made to God
through his saints, if they could somehow manage to survive and return to their
One made a promise to Saint Aloysius Gonzaga that if he watched over him he
would pay for so many Masses to be offered in his honor. Another promised Saint
Martín de Porres that if he were to return safely to Taos he would build a chapel in
his name. That chapel was, for the longest while, part of the García Funeral Home
complex. Some promised the hair of their children to be donated to grace the heads
of the religious effigies. This accounts for the red-headed Christ of Ranchos. But at
this time of year when one speaks of “la promesa” it is clearly to be understood that
it refers the promise made to San Lorenzo over 400 years ago by the people who
now live in Bernalillo.
San Lorenzo was an early Christian deacon in Rome who was martyred under
the persecutions of Valerian in 258 A. D. Apocryphal stories from that time speak
of the emperor ordering Lawrence to bring to him all of the treasures of the church.
According to the stories, instead of bringing him gold and silver, Lawrence gathered
together the poor, the lame, the deaf, the dumb, the blind and the feeble. He
presented them to Valerian saying “These are the real treasures of the church.”
The emperor flew into a rage at the impertinence of Lawrence and ordered him
to be roasted alive. As his lay there quietly roasting on a gridiron, Lawrence’s dying
words were, “I am quite done on this side. You may turn me over now.”
Lawrence’s soul flew heavenward and his tears fell down to Earth in the form of
shooting stars. Inhabitants of New Mexico still refer to the meteor showers of mid-
August as “las lágrimas de San Lorenzo” (the tears of Saint. Lawrence.)
Many people who study cultural traditions often ask just why Saint Lawrence
was chosen as the patron saint of so many places in New Mexico. In the year 1680,
after having endured many years of abuse from Franciscan priests who flouted the
Puebloan religion, some native leaders decided to rid themselves of everything that
was Spanish. A Native leader named Popé from San Juan Pueblo, met with three
other leaders named Catiti, Tapatú and Jaca to formulate a plan for the expulsion
of the Spaniards.
Beginning at the very gates of Taos Pueblo, they led the other Natives in killing
the local Franciscan friars, smashing the holy images, burning the fruit trees and
slaughtering the lambs. So great was their indignance against their Spanish
oppressors that they even bathed in the river and washed away their Christian
baptismal names with the root of the yucca plant. They drove the settlers before
them even into Santa Fe where Governor Otermín was unsure as to how to proceed.
In what became known as “The Pueblo Rebellion” the Spanish settlers were driven
south to El Paso. They were not to return to New Mexico for 13 years. The
martyred Franciscan friars are still remembered in Taos by an alley way named
“Martyrs’ Lane” between Civic Plaza Drive and Bent Street.
The people returned to New Mexico by slow degrees and the settlers of Bernalillo
made a promise to Lawrence in 1693 that as long as he continued to watch over
them, they would dance Los Matachines on his August 10th feast day. The matachín
dancers still dance through the streets of Bernalillo from mid-morning to mid-
afternoon. Suddenly, at a given signal, the matachines pause in their dancing and
the entire village gets up, moves rank and file into the street, and everybody dances
for the saint. This tradition has remained unbroken for 309 years.
Closer to home, in the village of Picurís, where Lawrence too is the patron saint,
the effigy of Lawrence has been stripped of his traditional rose and green dalmatic.
He now sports a loin cloth not unlike those of the Native dancers.
By tradition, any image of San Lorenzo must be kept underneath a canopy. The
belief in northern New Mexico is that, since he was grilled to death, should the sun
touch the statue, he will go up in flames.
What exactly is meant by “The Resurrection of the Body?”
In his story “Rip Van Winkle”, Washington Irving tells the delightful tale of a
man who goes up into the mountains to explore just why he can hear the thunder
roll. He runs into a band of merry little men who invite him to play at a game of
nine-pins. Every time the ball strikes the pins, thunder rumbles across the
mountain tops. Unfortunately for him, as Rip Van Winkle is playing, he indulges in
one too many cups of ale. He falls asleep in the mountain peaks and when he wakes
up and tries to find his way home, he finds that the entire village has changed. Alas
for him, he’d slept for 20 years.
The tale is not unique to the inhabitants of the Hudson River Valley. Indeed
there is ample proof that it was probably an adaptation of the tale of “The Seven
Sleepers of Ephesus.” According to this apocryphal tale, seven Christians were
going to be persecuted by one of those early Roman emperors who so loathed the
new religion. The seven Christians crept into a cave to pray. Weary from their
flight they soon fell asleep; a sleep that was to last for hundreds of years.
When they awoke they were very hungry and elected one of their own to sneak
out of the cave and go buy food for them. As he skulked about he was amazed to see
churches with crosses erected over them. The pagan temples he’d known were no
longer standing. He came to realize that he and his companions had gone to sleep in
one era and woken up in another.
The idea of waking up to a new world after a temporary death is one of the basic
beliefs in The Apostles’ Creed, which is a cornerstone of Catholicism. Among the
many stories told of the apostles before they went off to evangelize the corners of the
world, is the belief that each one made a single contribution to the creed as a
premise of faith. The first article of The Apostle’s Creed states: “I believe in God
the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth…” Another one states: “I
believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the
forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body….”
The reason that we like to explore this theme in northern New Mexico is due to
the fact that August 15th marks, for many of the faithful, the Feast of the
Assumption. This feast day marks the traditional belief that after the death and
resurrection of Jesus, the Virgin Mary wandered around in the company of her
nephew, John the Evangelist until she came to Ephesus, where her home still stands.
When the time came for her life on earth to be over, instead of having her body
undergo the corruption of the grave, it is believed that she was assumed body and
soul into Heaven.
The Eastern Orthodox Church tends to call this “The Feast of the Dormition” in
the belief that Mary did not die but merely “fell asleep.” As she is assumed into the
skies her veil is purported to have fallen off and it is now kept in the Cathedral of
the Dormition in Moscow.
Local Penitente mysticism holds that Mary’s Assumption is considered even more
glorious than that of Jesus’ own Ascension because he himself accompanied her to
Heaven where she was crowned as Queen of Heaven. That feast day celebrated on
For Spanish Catholics of this area, sunset rituals and processions in honor of the
dead have now come to be linked to the Feast of the Assumption. The idea that no
one dies forever and the promise that we will see our dearly beloved again in
another life is a comforting thought and a source of solace.
On this day, the head of Santa Inés del Campo (St. Agnes of the Fields) is
venerated in the chapel of La Santa Scala in Rome. In northern New Mexico, St.
Agnes blesses the fields on that day and local herbologists and curandera/os gather
the herbs and roots at the height of their potency, compliments of St. Agnes.
Hispanic New Mexicans learn to live with the Dead
Growing up in northern New Mexico prior to the coming of electricity in the
1960s was quite an ordeal in the outlying valleys. We would heat water on top of the
stove to be used for washing dishes, clothes and for bathing. We would spend our
evenings sitting around the table after dinner by the light of the kerosene lamp. The
shadows cast by the lamp and the evening breezes rustling the pantry curtains,
conjured up tales of monsters, witches and the dead. Even though we children
would be frightened to pieces by the telling of these tales, the only other alternative
was to go sit in the dark; but then again, that’s where the dead hung out.
Settlers stuck in an unknown and often inhospitable environment tended to
project their fears of nature and the elements into fantastic monsters that made
more sense to them. Their natural fear of rattlesnakes created the Viborón, or king
serpent, that was hatched from a rooster’s egg, or some say, from an egg that had
been incubated by a snake. Of course this led to the telling of the story of la culebra
mamona in which a mother who had recently given birth would get up in the middle
of the night to breast feed her baby. Since it was dark she had no idea that there
lived a huge snake under the bed that would crawl into her arms and nurse from
her all the while sticking its own tail into the baby’s mouth to keep it quiet. This
went on every night until the baby died of starvation. Were we afraid to sleep in the
dark? Well, those images continued to haunt us even into adulthood.
But fearful as we were of the monsters, it was the dead that made us huddle
together in the dark of night. Without funeral homes prior to the late 1950s, the
dead were dressed at home and lain on top of kitchen tables for their wakes. As
neighbors would come by to pay their respects they would mention how they’d had
premonitions of the death of the person: “I saw a man with a white shirt pass in
front of my window at night.” Or, “I heard a rooster crow with its tail to my front
door.” Also, “Once when I was sitting quietly in the living room, his picture fell off
my wall.” Or, “A black bird humped its head on my window.” As well as “I felt
someone pulling my feet when I was asleep.”
It was uncanny to see friends and family members die at home. A piece of glass
would be held under their nostrils to make sure that they were really dead when it
didn’t fog up. There had been too may tales of premature burials. Their mouths
and eyes were often open until a charitable soul would put coins on their eyelids and
bind their jaws shut with cloth, until rigor mortis set in. If the death occurred in the
summertime, the stench would send the people out to hold vigil for the dead under
the trees. A heavy iron was sometimes set on the belly of the dead in other to keep
them from bloating. There was nothing glamorous, or cosmetically perfect about
The neighboring ladies would cook all night long to feed the masses of people
who would come to help with the funeral arrangement. The various civic and
religious societies would each have a task to do. Los Labradores, for example, would
make the coffin, chop the wood and skin the hog for the funeral meal. Los Mutuos
would be in charge of digging the grave using only picks and shovels. Los Penitentes
would be in charge of praying and singing alabados all night long. Los Literarios
would compose a eulogy in praise of the dead. The priest would anoint the body and
set up the six huge candlesticks required for a funeral Mass. If the death had been
caused by suicide, it was up to the priest to bar the church door as the body was
brought forward so that it should not enter the church. Suicide was considered an
unforgivable sin since it was the “sin of Judas.”
The body of the deceased would be carried to the cemetery by six sturdy young
men, en peso, as it was called. They would set the coffin down at places along the
way called descansos. Once the eulogist had completed his duties, the body was
lowered into the grave and the penitentes would intone the song of farewell called
“Adiós Acompañamiento.” Everyone would come by and deposit a fistful of dirt on
the coffin. The coffin itself was made of plain pine planks lined with black cloth on
the inside and adorned with a plain white cross on the outside. The women would
all be dressed in black and they would embrace each other. They grieved in private
by casting their headdresses, called tápalos, over each other’s heads.
We, the children, loved the cemetery. It was the one place where the dead stayed
dead. Cemeteries were special places for remembering the dead fondly and not as
the gruesome dead of tales told around the kerosene lamp.
Who wants to learn Castillian Spanish?
The village of Taos is known throughout the world for its cultural background,
its art and its unique place in history. Visitors come from around the globe to
immerse themselves in local color. Often though, the big criticism of those who have
taken at least two classes in Spanish is this: “Oh, You guys aren’t speaking real
Sadly, many native Spanish speakers have fallen into the trap of believing this
fallacy and have started to fulfill this prophesy expressed by the not-so-informed.
They have begun to give up on teaching their own children the language because
someone else said it “wasn’t correct.” The same critics who express this opinion are
that very same who will go to the opera and say: “Oh look, there’s Roberto sitting
under the portal on a banco.” Everyone applauds because the speaker used the
words “portal” and “banco.” Why, he must be practically bilingual.
Now, let’s change the scenario. A local Spanish speaker goes to the opera and
says: Oh miren, allí está Roberto sentão abajo el porch en un bench.” Everyone
snickers. The fallacy here is that English, as the overriding national and
international language of today, can take in words from foreign languages and it
rises in its level of status and prestige. It is considered to be a high-brow language.
However, whenever Spanish, in its archaic local form, takes in English words, it is
considered low-brow or inferior language. Many would consider this to be linguistic
snobbery: “Why, it doesn’t sound at all like the Spanish I learned in college!”
The difference of course is that an academically learned foreign language may be
correct but it rarely contains the culturally learned references, innuendos,
variations, intonations; in short, the favor of a native language. Now we are talking
about reverse snobbery. We are setting up a situation between natives and non-
natives which can only end in mistrust.
It sounds very grand to be able to say that one speaks Castillian Spanish. The
language of Castille was the overriding national dialect of the Iberian Peninsula
when Spain was at its zenith politically, religiously and militarily speaking. By
definition, it carries and element of romance. Locally we might even refer to it as
jaitón (high-toned). It contains elements of Iberian, Celtic, Phoenician, Greek,
Latin, Germanic, Hebrew and Arabic.
The Spanish of New Mexico too contains all of these elements of old world
languages plus more. It has been enriched by words from the island cultures, South
American native cultures, Mexican native culture, New Mexico native culture and
Anglo American cultures.
We can agree that native Iberian words like cachorro (doggie), izquierdo (left),
manteca (fat) and sapo (toad) are perfectly good Spanish words. So are Greek root
words such as cronos (time), hidro (water), grafos (writing), teles (far) and fonos
(sound). Add to them Latin words like arbore (tree), vicina (neighboring), cantare
(to sing), amicus (friend) and tempore (time). From the German we get queso
(cheese) and the Arabs gave us albaricoque (apricot), naranja (orange), noria (well),
tarifa (tax) and albañil (brick layer). No one would argue that these are all perfectly
correct words and roots in Spanish usage.
Now let’s move over to the new world. We use the word “chocoque” to express
that something is bitter or sour. No, it isn’t local slang. It stems from the Aztec root
choco (bitter) as found in the water choco-atl (chocolate=bitter water). The
Carribean cultures gave us words like jején (mosquito), huracán (hurricane), maizi
(corn) and Cuba (big island). From the Zuñi we get cunque (coffee grounds). From
the Tiwa, chulo (dog) and from the Tewa we get oshá (wild parsley root). The
Apache gave us gila (mountain) and the Hopi gave us chongo (braided hair).
The Crypto-Jews of the Pecos valley gave us Ladino Spanish such as: “Las
presiones a las jualas fue sometido de parte de sus ermanos, porke era ijo…” It is not
that the Spanish is incorrect it is just that it carries ladino spelling.
So now we live in a culture where English tends to domination the other
languages. Is it still incorrect then to use words such as greve for gravy, cuque for
cookie, espauda for yeast powder, dompe for dump and troca for truck? -Not if we
have accepted the historical and linguistic contributions of all of the other cultures.
To leave English words out of our Spanish language in New Mexico would just be
plain old, -well…snobbery.
If someone says “Hello”, just sniff at them
A person who recently moved to Taos decided that he would try out his college
Spanish on the local Hispanic population. He went out one morning and met a
viejito on the street. He went right up to the old man and said, “Hola.” The old man
just sniffed at him. Perhaps the viejito had not understood. Again, the new resident
said, “Hola.” And once again, the old man just sniffed at him. A little bit
exasperated, the new comer said again in a louder voice, “¡Hola!” The old man
then raised his voice and said, “¡Ya holí, dos veces!” (I already sniffed, twice!)
It is important to mention that what is happening up to this point is that the new
comer to Taos believes that the word “hola”, which is used in other parts of the
world as the greeting “hello”, is a universal greeting in Spanish. He is unaware of
the fact that in the 16th century Spanish of northern New Mexico “hola” means,
“Here. Smell this.” No wonder the old man sniffed at him.
The verb oler; to smell, is a radical stem-changing verb. What this means,
linguistically speaking, is that the “o” in the verb changes to an “ue” in the first,
second and third persons singular and in the third person plural (huelo, hueles,
huele, huelen) in modern Spanish. In the Spanish of the little hamlets of northern
New Mexico though, the “o” remains constant, thereby, giving the word a different
What then, might have been a proper greeting for someone in northern New
Mexico? If a new comer greets an old timer with the correct “Buenos días”, (Good
morning), he is likely to be told “Buenos días dijo el diablo por no mentar a Dios.”
(“Good morning” said the Devil so as not to mention God.) The old timer should
have been addressed with the complete phrase of respect: “Buenos días le dé Dios.”
(God grant you a good morning.) To such a greeting, the correct response is: “Dios
se los dé felices.” (May God return them to you joyfully)
In similar fashion, modern day textbooks teach students of Spanish that the
greeting “How are you?” is ¿Qué tal?. Sometimes the texts will even teach that the
inquiry “How are you?” should be addressed as “¿Cómo está?” Much more
respectful in the hearts of the local population is the expression “¿Cómo le va?”
¿Cómo está?” is an inquiry into the person’s internal situation. ¿Cómo le va?”
addresses both the internal and external factors about a person’s well being.
In asking the name of a person that one is meeting for the first time, it is perfectly
acceptable to ask, “Cómo se llama usted?” (Literally, “What do you call yourself?”)
In a former time, the inquiring person might have asked, “¿La gracia de Vuestra
Merced?” (What is the name of Your Honor?”) It similar fashion, when inquiring
where a person is from, the correct question would have been: “¿De dónde es
Vuestra Merced?” (From where does Your Honor hail?)
In asking to be remembered to the person’s family, the expression: “Saludes
(saludos) a la familia” (regards to the family) would be used. The correct response
would be: “Recibirán su memoria.” (They will receive your remembrance.)
After the usual courtesies and the accompanying chit-chat, the two persons
would be ready to take their leave of each other. Textbook Spanish would requiry
them both to say, “adiós” for goodbye at the end. In modern Taos Spanish, even the
Spanish/English combination, “Bueno, bye.” would be correct. Among the older
generation though, the correct valediction from one to the other would not be
“adiós” but rather, ¿Qué le vaya bien.” (May all go well with you.) To this, the
second person would answer, “Igualmente” (Same to you.)
Yes, the times, they are a-changing, even for the way in which northern New
Mexico greets itself and takes leave of itself. As with art, architecture and food,
Spanish in Taos is varied in its quality and usage.
Has it been a year already?
It was in mid-September of 2001 that The Taos News Editor Gary Maitland
approached me with the idea of writing a column that might reflect the multiple
cultures and traditions that interweave this area of the world. As this, my 52nd
column of “Cruising the Camino Real” approaches its first anniversary, it is
important to reflect back on all that has transpired since its initial publication.
There are certain times in history that tend to stand out above the others when
one looks back on life. The day of the Kennedy Assassination, for example, is a
milestone date in the lives of many in my generation. We all seem to remember
exactly where we were and what we were doing as if that very moment were
crystalized in our collective communal consciousness. It was the first time that the
foundations of our innocence had been shaken. After the Korean War, the people
before my generation had reveled in a relatively prosperous period during the 1950s
that had become known as the “Happy Days.” Suddenly, we witnessed the fact that
even the top leader of the strongest nation in the world at that time, could be struck
Revolution seemed to follow on the heels of the Kennedy legacy. Our local fear
that the Hippies would take over the world had everyone whispering in the valleys
on Taos. Suddenly, a leader named Reyes López Tijerina would create another
earth shattering moment crystallized in local history. It was that fateful day, June
2nd of 1967, when he led the raid in Tierra Amarilla. It had the effect of shifting the
focus away from the Arab-Israeli War in the Middle East, over to a sleepy, little
town in northern New Mexico. Tijerina’s platform, as he tried to effect a citizen’s
arrest of federal judge Scarborough, was to illuminate the idea that the United
States of America had failed to honor the terms of the international Treaty of
Guadalupe-Hidalgo. We all clung to the radio with baited breath expecting that the
promises of Tijerina would return the land grants to the Hispanic people as he
forced the United States government to honor the treaty. His tactics failed but he
did open the eyes of the people to the injustices done at home.
The third moment crystallized in the minds of the people here was the terrible
morning of September 11th when the terrorists slammed two airplanes into the twin
towers of The World Trade Center in New York. By that time, we all had access to
television and the horror, as the morning dragged on was compounded by the fact
that no one knew just how many people would escape the carnage. Would the
firefighters be able to evacuate the people before the inevitable collapse of the
towers? Suddenly other areas of the United States, namely Pennsylvania and
Washington D.C. made us realize just how carefully the terrorist plan had been put
together. Local people who worked at the Pentagon sent in reports of being trapped
in cellars under the rubble. Taoseños in the military forces emailed in their reports
of preparatory measures for the upcoming raid on Afghanistan.
In my case, I was en route to UNM-Albuquerque to inspect the art department
when the radio began to blast the horrifying news. My colleague Mary Lutz and I
could only stare at the road in horror and drive in silence as the details of the
disaster came in. Having arrived in Albuquerque just after noon, we were quickly
told that the president of the university had ordered all classes cancelled and
everyone off campus. We turned around and came home.
Despite all of the events that took place since the first the publication of
“Cruising the Camino Real” to the 50th, what is important to remember is that the
time of our lives should not be measured so much by what divides us, but by what
unites us regardless of creed, religion, sex or color. May the next year of “Cruising
the Camino Real” bring us closer together as a people who use our differences as a
source of strength and not of division.
When was the last time you talked to your Guardian Angel?
There is a subtle little change in the morning air. No matter how hot the
previous day has been the air just before sunrise cools to a brisk temperature. This
is the time of year when locals begin to think to gathering wood for the coming
winter and perhaps also, of going off in search of piñon seeds to while away the
hours when the cold comes. Children love to accompany their parents on these
excursions into the woods, eat outdoors and chase squirrels and birds.
From this local practice comes the story of a little girl who went up into the
mountains to help her parents chop wood one day. As the day wore on, she
wandered away from her busy parents who were busy loading the wagon. At the
close of day, when it was time to return home, she was no where to be found. They
searched and they called in vain but all to no avail. Finally they were forced to
return to the valley and summon the neighbors that they too might help them go
looking for their little girl. They searched and called in the mountains all night long
by the light of the homemade torches and kerosene lanterns.
By sunrise they had given up all hope that she would ever be found. Just as the
sun was coming up over the rounded peaks of El Salto, they caught sight of the little
girl coming toward them, singing softly and carrying a small bouquet of dandelions
that had bloomed late that season. With signs of great affection her parents
gathered the little girl up in their arms, and she just smiled at them, unaware of
what might have caused their great anxiety.
“¿Dónde estabas, hijita?” –“Where were you?” they cried out to her.
“I was up in the mountains.” she replied. “Cuando se hizo noche,me puse a rezar y
una mujer vino y me tapó con su delantal.” (“When it grew dark, I started to say my
evening prayers and a lady came and covered me with her apron.”) That’s when
her parents realized that her guardian angel had looked out for the child on that
night so long ago.
Even now, when local children look up to the tree line on the peaks between El
Salto and Taos Mountain, they can still see the outline of a little girl with bangs on
her forehead and a ponytail, with her head bowed reverently, saying her evening
The most dismal, unexplored areas of New Mexico are replete with stories of
innocent children whose lives have been shielded from danger by unaccountable
circumstances. The children seem to credit their survival to “beautiful beings” that
cannot be explained away. The people of this area have a great devotion to angels of
all kinds. Mention of angels used to be quite common in the Old Testament since
they acted as intermediaries between the spiritual and the physical world. With the
coming Jesus in the New Testament, however, they were replaced by the direct
contact Man now had with the spiritual world through Jesus himself.
Tradition has it that there are nine types of angels: Seraphim, Cherubim,
Powers, Principalities, Thrones, Virtues, Dominations, Archangels, and guardian
angels. Seraphim angels for example, are believed to have six wings; two to fly, two
to shield their face from the overpowering splendor of God and two to cover their
feet in modesty. Cherubim are the innocent little ones who carry the saints around
since saints were not created as pure spirits and cannot fly of their own accord.
Early Christian literature contains few references to angels. The ancient
Athenagoras refers to the duties of angels “whom God appointed to their several
posts, to occupy themselves about the elements, and the heavens, and the world.”
The belief in angels goes back to pre-Christian times. They were mentioned all the
time in the Old Testament and even Jesus said, “See that you despise not one of
these little ones; for I say to you, that their angels in Heaven always see the face of
my Father who is in Heaven.
As the feast of the guardian angels approaches at the end of September, it is good
to reflect on the idea that benign spirits watch out for our well-being.
Just who are the Seven Archangels in Mexican Tradition?
September 29th marks the Feast of the Archangels. For those not familiar with
angel lore, there is a tradition that says that there are seven chief spirits that stand
before the throne of God. All the archangels have names ending in the suffix –El,
meaning “of God.”
Most popular of all of the archangels is Saint Michael. There are 27 place names
in New Mexico named after him. He is considered the prince of the heavenly hosts
and the defender of mankind against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. He is
the angel of the Eucharist. Above the hill of Mont Sant Angelo in the Gargano
Mountains in Italy, Michael is purported to have made an appearance in the 400s.
The story says that a man was out looking for his lost bull. Suddenly he spotted
the bull kneeling within a cave. Wishing to scare the bull out, the man shot an
arrow into the cave. Instead of striking the bull, the arrow turned completely
around and struck the man himself. He then heard a voice saying, “There is to be
no sacrifice of animal blood within this cave. I myself had consecrated it to myself.”
The Archangel Michael then left his foot print on a stone within the cave and for
1600 years, pilgrims come from all over the world to the cave of forgiveness to be
cleansed of their wrong doing. Stones taken from within the cave have an amazing
power to drive away plague or incurable diseases.
Above the entrance to the holy cave of St. Michael are chiseled the following
words: Terribilis est locus illus. Est domus Dei et porta caeli. (Awe-inspiring is this
place. It is the house of God and the door of Heaven.) Popular lore in New Mexico
holds that before Jesus gave Peter the keys to Heaven, it was Michael who held
Also popular in New Mexico is the name of Saint Raphael. He is recognized by 6
sites named after him. Raphael first appears in the Old Testament in the Book of
Tobit where he cures the blindness of Tobit’s father with the liver of a fish. As such,
Raphael is honored in New Mexico as the patron saint of curanderos and
curanderas. No folk healer would ever pick herbs or try to affect a cure without
invoking the intercession of St. Raphael. Raphael is also the angel of the
There are two places in New Mexico named after Saint Gabriel. Gabriel is the
archangel who is also known as “The Announcer.” It is Gabriel who first “declared
unto Mary” that she was to become the mother of the Messiah. Gabriel is said to be
the angel who will sound the trumpet blast at the end of the world. He is the patron
saint of radio announcers and the angel of Baptism.
The fourth of the seven great archangels is known as Uriel, Ariel, Remiel or
Jeremiel, depending on the translation. His name indicates that he is the “fire of
God.” According to the tradition of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and expulsion
from the Garden of Eden, God sent a spirit with a flaming sword that points in
every direction to keep anyone from ever entering it again. He is the angel to waits
for souls as they are awaiting resurrection. In the mean time he is called the angel
of summer as he takes care of the harvests.
Less known are the last three archangels whose names are rarely recognized even
by scholars of angelology. Baraquiel, also known as Gratiel or Galathiel, has a
name whose meaning in Hebrew is “lightning of God.” Judiel, also known as
Jophiel, has a name meaning “praise or beauty of God” in Hebrew and the last
archangel is known as Sealtiel or Sadiel or Salatiel, and almost nothing is known
Saint Frances of Rome was given not a guardian angel but an archangel to guide
her in life. She could see him clearly on a daily basis. It was reported that whenever
she was in the presence of sin, the archangel would go away. Whenever she said
something unworthy, the angel would disappear and would not come back until she
had gone to confession.
The 35 places in New Mexico named after archangels bear witness to the
devotion that local people have to them.
Corn Is sacred but Chicos are divine
Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who had a child so precious that
they could not get enough of him. They doted on him day and night. The little
boy’s father could hardly wait to get home after work just to play with his son. The
boy’s mother would play with her baby to the exclusion of all of her house work. As
often happens in these cases, the baby was so cute that eventually he attracted the
attention of The Evil Eye and he died.
Great was the sorrow of his parents so that all of their joy now turned to
bitterness. They began to curse the name of God whom they thought, had stolen
their baby from them. They stopped believing in Him and lost themselves in their
work. They failed to keep holy, their traditional day of worship. One day though,
as they were shucking their corn out in the field, a strange thing happened. As her
husband peeled back the corn husks from the ear of corn, his wife saw the startled
expression on his face.
There on the corn, made of blue, pink and golden kernels, was the image of a
lady in the revered position of prayer. Her hands were clasped on her breast over
her rose-colored gown as her blue mantle cascaded from her head down to her
shoulders and back. The awe-stricken couple immediately recognized her as The
Corn Mother; the mistress of all growing things. They wept tears of joy for they
realized that even in the hour of their deepest sorrow the Mother of God had never
abandoned them. The tale continues to say that for that reason we still have blue
and pink corn kernels among the golden corn as a sign that the Mother of God
never abandons her children even when they have lost hope.
The lore associated with corn is particularly dear to the people of northern New
Mexico. It has been the staff of life long before the coming of European culture to
the American Southwest. Cornmeal was often sprinkled upon the ground in
Puebloan cultures, to mark sacred events. The preparation of the corn dictated that
it had to be roasted in an horno or dried in the wind.
The horno had to be swept out from its year-long vacancy. It would be heated
with fruit wood, which is the wood that burns the hottest. In order to test the
temperature, a wad of wool would be dropped into it. If it got singed before it hit
the horno floor, then that meant the oven was ready.
In the meantime, the corn had been soaked within a gunny sack placed in the
acequia, still fully encased within its fresh cornhusks. The door to the horno would
be popped opened and the wet cobs would be tossed on top of the ashes. The ashes
and water would create a steam that had on be trapped quickly. As the horno door
was shut rapidly, the children would observe it to see if there was any steam
escaping from within. They would slap wet mud plaster over the cracks to keep the
temperature constant inside. Then, all they had to do was wait. Some would hold
an all-night vigil over the horno in anticipation of the roasted corn that would be
raked out in the morning.
As the rooster crowed and the sun peeked over the mountains tops, the door to
the horno would be opened and the delicious aroma of newly-roasted corn would be
released into the morning air. Corn roasted in this fashion was called chicos in the
Spanish of northern New Mexico and chacales in the Spanish of southern New
Mexico. As the first food to be consumed in an early autumn morning, the taste was
Whenever the corn was shucked and stripped off its cob, the kernels could be
ground on a metate into cornmeal. This meal was then mixed with water and boiled
into a hearty porridge. The porridge, named atole, was then mixed with cream and
sugar and eaten for breakfast.
Fear haunts the by ways of Northern New Mexico
Now that the harvests have been brought in, the fields lay fallow. There is
naught but a stray, dried-up, old vine hanging about or a bunch of empty cornstalks
standing like skeletons upon the cold earth. Everything in nature, as it prepares for
its dormancy, bespeaks of old life dying and new life taking root. Sometimes the old
stalks are stuffed into old clothing and made into effigies that look like monsters
standing in the empty fields. Whenever these effigies are silhouetted against the
setting sun, it is easy to see how they might give rise to the tales of monsters that
haunt the by-ways of northern New Mexico. This kind of corn stalk-stuffed effigy is
the very basis of the Cucuy Festival of the village of Questa.
But, what exactly is a “Cucuy?” “Cucuy” is a southern New Mexico Spanish
word that descends from the earlier word “Coco.” As far back as Greek, the word
κακο meant “ugly.” Brazilian Portuguese culture has a similar swamp creature
called the “Cuca.” The Coco then is a bug bear or a bogey creature that haunts
dark places, isolated brambles and the dark of night. It is sometimes called La
Loba, El Bute, La Marimanta, La Reina Mora, La Gitana or La Aurora in Spain. In
northern New Mexico though, every village has its own bogey creature complete
with its own characteristics and physical description. A Coco can take the form an
ancestral spirit called an Agüelo, a mute animal-headed creature called a Mudo or a
homemade tortilla monster called a Calamasa.
One of the best depictions of the Coco can be found in a collection of etchings by
Spanish artist Goya. In the etchings, one can see the look of terror on a little girl’s
face as a faceless man, wrapped in a blanket comes toward her in the dark of night.
She runs for the protection of her mother’s lap. According to the late Federico
García Lorca, the power of the bogeyman lies in the fact that he remains faceless or
not depicted. Once a face has been put on the bogeyman, he begins to lose his
The bogeyman in northern New Mexico can be either feminine or masculine.
Sometimes it can even have a dual-gender as in the case of La Pirojundia. The late
Antonio Lorenza Márquez (née Códova) invented a generic term meaning “female
bogey creature. She called such a female creature a “Cocona.”
For every monster that may be found, there is also a divine creature that protects
against it. St. John the Baptist, for example, guards against La Tuerta, who is the
mother of the evil eye. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the intercessor against the wiles of
the New Mexico devil called El Diasque. St. Joseph of the Blessed Death protects
against La Sebastiana. The Christ Child can keep the Agüelos and the Mudos at
Despite the fact that these creatures can haunt both the sleeping and the waking
hours of children all over northern New Mexico, when one strips away their masks,
one finds that their primary role was either to keep children safe or to teach them
discipline. By far the easiest Coco to create is one made of simple bread dough. As
a mom is preparing to make tortillas for the evening meal, the children love to jump
on the bed. Quietly their mom will roll out a tortilla and poke eye holes and a
mouth piece into the dough. She will then overlay the dough mask on her face and
wrap a kitchen towel over her hair. She will then howl as she comes into the
bedroom where to children at jumping on the bed. The children can almost swear
that the Calamasa creature is their mom but…they’re not quite sure. They quickly
hide under the bed or run outside. They no longer jump on the bed. Mission
An old New Mexico lullaby tells about the Coco who will come for children who
won’t fall asleep. (In modern New Mexico such a creature is called the Jalú.) The
lullaby goes something like this: “Duerme, duerme niño que tengo que hacer: lavar
tus pañales y hacer de comer. San José lavaba. María tendía y el Niño lloraba de frío
que hacía. Duerme, duerme niño porque allí viene el Coco y se lleva a los niños que
duermen poco.” (Go to sleep my baby for I’ve work to do. I must wash your
diapers and make supper too. Joseph did the washing. Mary hung it out and the
Child whimpered from the cold without. Go to sleep my baby. Bogeyman will
creep and he’ll steal the children who refuse to sleep.)
Harsh are the lessons of The Bogeyman
In this day and age, anyone can put on a mask or costume and indulge their
fantasies fully. In another age here in northern New Mexico, costumed creatures
were special. They were considered sacred clowns or tricksters who served various
purposes. Those purposes might have been a means of keeping children safe or to
teach children discipline or merely to instill a sense of hygiene in them. In
unmasking the bogeyman one can almost imagine how the creature originated,
whose purpose such a creature would have served or pinpoint the fears of an entire
village. Yes, just about everybody knows who La Llorona was, but she is only one of
many in a family of creatures who served to educate and to discipline.
In looking at an alphabetized list of creatures of the night, the first one that
comes to mind is El Agüelo. He is the guardian of tradition and he comes around
during the Christmas season just to make sure that children haven’t forgotten the
ancient ways. He sometimes harrasses adults if they do not know their prayers. He
might suspect that the people are not true Christian; that they might be crypto-Jews
hiding in the hinterlands of nortern New Mexico as happened in Pecos and in
Questa. The Agüelo is sometimes accompanied by the animal-headed Mudos who
are creatures who drag the chains of their animal natures and who may not speak
until the coming of the Messiah.
Just as interesting in the study of night creatures are La Botas and La Larga.
They capture children who might happen to be outside after sunset without their
parents’ permission. La Botas is a creature particular to the people of Arroyo Seco.
La Larga, who lives in Desmontes, calls to children in a voice as sweet as honey and
then chops them up. She is known by many names in many countries. She was
known as “Siren” to the Greeks, “Lorelei” to the Germans and “Banshee” to the
The villages of Valdez, Talpa and Ojo Sarco are said to be the special places for
Las Brujas. Brujas are local witchfolk who must remove their eyeballs before they
can fly through the chilly night air. One never speaks of Brujas on Fridays because
they can hear them when they fill their tin tubs with water and use them as
reflecting mirrors. Also particular to the valley of Valdez is La Tuerta. She is the
mother of the evil eye and can be seen hovering in the night sky as a ball of fire.
In the village of Peñasco lives La Chapetona. She is a creature who hides in attics
and whenever children sneak up to steal some jerked meat or dried fruit, she will
put them down the stairs or ladder. Obviously her role is to keep children from
climbing onto high places or eating food that is being saved for winter fare.
Not far from Peñasco in the village of Las Trampas lives La Jorupa. She is a
creature that lives in the clouds and tends to shower smooth stones on the roofs of
homes during certain times of the year. The scientists of Los Alamos call such
stones “tektites” but the people of Las Trampas know better; such stone showers
announce the death of someone close.
Hygiene was very important to the people of the valleys. In order to keep their
kids from lice and fleas, their parents invented La Cucucana who lives in chicken
coops and sheds her curucos (vermine) on the children. La Garrienta was the
Raggedy Lady who would appear to children who were playing in the dirt or with
mud. El Duende is a little creature who loves filth. If the bed wasn’t made or the
dishes washed one could expect a visit from the Duende. If the kids’ grandpa were
to walk into their rooms and say, “¿Qué bailaron los duendes aquí anoche?” (Did the
duendes dance here last night?) that was a coded message that meant: “Clean your
We come now to La Malogra. Maloga is a creature formed from the wads that
fall off cottonwood tress. The wads gather into a white creature that can flucuate in
size. Again, as with the case of Larga and Botas, she pursues children who are out
after dark without permission. The creature of Arroyo Hondo, called La Negra
serves a similar function.
The Family of Bogey Creatures gets Bigger and Bigger
One upon a time, a family not welcome in a neighborhood, might have moved
into a valley in northen New Mexico. This family could expect to be visited by La
Mano Negra. La Mano Negra was the imprint of a human hand dipped in soot and
then stamped upon the door of unwelcome residents. The new residents could well
have reason to fear. The mark of La Mano Negra might lead to a midnight raid by
night creatures called Las Gorras Blancas. Las Gorras Blancas were a vigilante
group who would come by cloak of night and cut fences, burn corrals or shoot
livestock. They were genuinely to be feared. Just as fearful in the minds of early
settlers would have been other night creatures born of human fears and insecurities.
El Diasque, for example, is the New Mexico devil also known as Cola Larga, El
Mashishi or simply as El Diablo. He is a creature who promotes fun, frolic and
dancing during the holy time of Lent. He is a handsome man who will sprout cloved
feet and a cow tail at midnight. In tales of the southwest El Diasque and God are
often portrayed as walking side by side bidding for the souls of certain towns and
villages. Sometimes they will even make bets as to whom which of the souls of a
particular place will go that night: toward salvation or perdition.
From the village of Ranchos comes La Grangolina or La Rangolina. She is a
creature who knows when children have been playing with matches. Since she does
not like little pyromaniacs who might start forest fires or burn corrals, she will
appear to them at night and cause them to pee in the bed. Bed-wetting used to be
taken as a sure sign that children had been playing with matches.
The village of Questa is also the source of the tale of La Jedionda (The Smelly
One). She was a creature that belongs to outhouse culture. This monster would live
under the outhouse and if children did graffiti on the walls or sat for too long in the
outhouse, she would reach up, grab them by the butt and pull them down. She was
a creature to be feared.
Along the highways and byways of northern New Mexico one can still see crosses
where souls have been spilled in car accidents. Sometimes the Fleshless Ones, called
Descarnados, can be seen standing by their crosses. They are trying to complete
their journeys but have lost their way. For this reason, many motorists in northern
New Mexico will not pick up hitchhikers who might happen to be standing within
thirty three feet of a roadside cross. Should a Descarnado be picked up, one can
expect him to disappear into thin air shortly after he enters the car.
El Viborón is a feathered serpent who is purported to feed on the flesh of Spanish
children. He was known in Mexico as Quetzalcoatl, in Egypt as the Basilisk and in
Medieval Europe as the Cockarice. Viborón, meaning the King Viper, was hatched
from a rooster’s egg or some say, from a chicken egg that was incubated by a snake.
Viborón can paralyze its victims with just one look. He can grow to a length of
several meters and whenever it comes down from the mountain, he flattens tree en
route to be fed. Like the house snakes of ancient Greece and Crete, Viborón is the
guardian of sacred underground temples and caves.
In the final analysis, the bogey creatures of the American Southwest distill down
to our overwhelming fear of the creature called La Sebastiana. La Sebastiana is the
personification of Death who carries a bow and arrow. Thus armed she is named
for Saint Sebastian, an early Christian martyr who was shot full of arrows in the
Roman Forum centuries ago. A dog howling in the night announces that La
Sebastiana is near. She is clad in a black hooded robe accentuating her long teeth
thus giving her the nickname of La Dientona. However, whenever old lady Death is
dressed in sky blue robes and decked with a feathered hat, she is known as Catrina.
Halloween is a Feast for Recognized and Unrecognized Saints
Halloween, or the Eve of All Hallows, is one of the most misunderstood of
popular holidays. Many today have tried to equate it with witches’ Sabbaths, times
for promoting devil worship and other such ungodly affairs. The truth of the
matter is though, that it is the vesper before the day set aside for the honoring of
both recognized and unrecognized saints (hollowed or holy people). There were
many saints who were martyred for their beliefs and since many of them died on the
same day, it was impossible to set apart a special day to honor every single one of
them on the church calendar. Just at the Church of Saint Praxides in Rome alone,
holy Praxides spent months sponging away and gathering the blood of the
thousands of early Christian saints who were martyred there.
It was a movable feast day in the early days of Christianity and finally, it was
Pope Gregory III who affixed the anniversary for the first of November.
According to Pope Urban IV, “…it was a time to supply any deficiencies in the
faithful’s celebration of saints’ feasts during the year.”
Modern man has gotten away from the spiritual aspect of the feast day and has
indulged the mystical or lesser understood portions of it. Now the sensational idea
of putting on costumes and masks seems to have superseded the original intent of
dressing in the guise of martyrs such as St. Lucy carrying her eyeballs around in a
dish or St. Cecilia carrying her breasts on a platter or St. John being boiled in oil or
St. John the Baptist carrying his severed head. We have yet to see someone dressed
as St. Bartholomew, who was martyred by being flayed alive, carrying his own skin
around or Isaiah, carrying the saw with which he was split in half.
Perhaps the idea of dressing like the beheaded doctors Cosmas and Damian or
Anastasia and her teacher Chrysogonas or Perpetua and her slave Felicitas, scares
us. So maybe the idea that dwelling on the stories of saints whose lives are less
frightening is what many prefer to remember. Consider the life of Saint Claire who
had so many visions and ecstasies that she is now considered the patroness of
television. Many might be surprised to learn that on his own deathbed, St. Francis
of Assisi requested a plate of marzipan, his favorite desert treat. Or perhaps it
might be more fun to remember that Saint John of Cupertino levitated so often that
he is now considered the patron saint of aviators. It is also interesting to consider
that the local reference to epileptic seizures called “baile de San Vito” is known
throughout the world as “Saint Vitus’s dance.”
The celebration of Halloween does coincide with a Celtic tradition of pre-
Christian origin called the festival of Samhain. The Celtic tradition of beginning the
celebration at sundown of the preceding day continued in the celebration of All
Hallows’ Eve. These early people saw this time of year as the dying away of the sun
and the crops and a time when the night began to lengthen. Masking was a part of
the medieval tradition. People were very superstitious and believed in the power of
ghosts and demons. The church was concerned that dressing up as these figures
would give the demons and ghosts extra power but the result was just the opposite;
the fun and frolic had the result of making the figures lose their strength over the
lives of people.
The day just after the Feast of All Hallows (November 2nd) is the day dedicated to
the remembrance of All Souls or everyone who has died. Since All Saints’ Day and
All Souls’ Day are often confused, it is no wonder that the costumes and masks
reflect a blending of both.
In the tradition of Mexican Indians as well as in the traditions of local indigenous
people, the feeding of the dead is a pre-Columbian practice. Marigold are often
scattered on the tombs of the dead. Locally, orange crepe paper was the preferred
substitute. Yellow was the color of death in pre-Columbian rituals.
The High Holy Days are gone but the Mumming continues
The feast days in honor of All Saints and All Souls have passed. The length of the
night is slowly overtaking the length of the day. The recent wearing of masks and
costumes reminds us of just how much pre-Christian influence is still prevalent
among us. There was a time when ritual masking though, would not merely be
confined to specific seasons of the year.
Enter the Charivari. Charivari was an ancient god of fertility. He was sometimes
depicted as a man wearing a mask of leaves and costume of animal skins. There is
more than enough reason to suspect that the cult of Charivari extended as far back
as the Stone Age. In many countries during the Middle Ages he was often invoked
by concerned neighbors.
Now, suppose that a couple, who might have been married for a long time, was
still found to be childless. The Biblical Sarah, Anne and Elizabeth were such
examples. It was more common that might be imagined. (In Arroyo Seco alone
there were eleven barren couples recorded between 1930 and 1980.) It was then
that Charivari might have been invoked.
In the quiet of the night the concerned neighbors would array themselves in
ritual masks and skins and sneak toward the home of the barren couple. Suddenly,
they would let out a yell and bang on drums, doors and windows. The childless
couple would be frightened into clinging desperately to each other, fertility was
induced and a child would be born. Mission accomplished.
With the coming of Christianity, the cult of the Charivari diminished but some of
its elements can still be felt. In the American Southwest a young man and a young
woman might decide to elope. In those days (1800s-early 1930s) the entire village
was asked to come to the celebration, if not to the actual wedding itself. For anyone
to be slighted would be a grave insult. This is the theme of the Sleeping Beauty
legend. How much more insulting then would it be for a couple to go off and get
married without telling anybody?
In the dark of night their neighbors would get together and sneak toward the
young couple’s house. At a certain signal, they would beat on the doors and
windows, clink tin cans and shout and whistle. This was called sonando los jarros.
The ritual din would continue until the couple opened the door and promised to
throw a party or give a dance for them. This was call desempeñarse.
It was not uncommon for a groom to be reticent about making the marriage
public. In that case he might be carried off into the night by his neighbors who
would remove his articles of clothing one by one and then leave him naked far from
his house. The bride would then have to follow the trail of clothing and help to
dress her husband up again. This type of chivari is not unlike the early Charivari.
The word chivari seems to live on in the local Spanish word trivilín. The letter C
and the letter T are sometimes interchangeable in the Spanish of this area as in
using the word tritiquear for criticar (to criticize).
Ritual mumming would continue into other aspects of local culture as well. In
the dance of Los Matachines, for example, the ancestral ogres called Agüelos were
masked figures who were responsible for keeping the traditions alive. The female
ogre, called Pirojundia, was always a male disguised as a female. In that respect
Pirojundia would have the traits of dual-gender: the strength of the male and the
power of the female.
The mumming could extend to the time of the New Year when the mummers
would come to the door of anyone named Manuel or Manuela and awaken them
with knocking, whistling and ritual songs and poems. This was called Dando los
Días. Such mumming was even done for anyone named Reyes or Epifanio on the 6th
of January and for anyone named Pablo on the Feast of St. Paul. Since Day now
wore the mask of Night, the mummers imitated that mask through ritual.
Autumn Tales are used to inspire and astound
The late autumn is a time when people in northern New Mexico like to huddle
indoors and tell tales that both entertain and astound the children. All gather
around the kitchen table with a bowl of freshly-roasted piñón in the middle. The
dad, mom or grandparents will begin then to tell stories of days gone by. “En una
vez había…” Once upon a time… as the children fall silent and become all ears.
One of the favorite tales recounts the story of a pious priest who would go to the
church every morning to open its doors to the faithful. He would then stoop to kiss
the feet of a crucifix that hung by the side of the altar. The smallish crucifix was a
delight to behold since the corpus on it had been carved out of the whitest, purest
ivory. It glistened in the morning light as the priest would unlock the church doors
to let the faithful in.
People marveled at the piety of the priest who was both modest and humble in
his daily life. But, as so often happens even to the pious and unsuspecting, his daily
ritual aroused envy among certain members of the community. They began to
wonder if indeed this priest was as pious as he led others to believe. The evil
whispers were ignited by a wretched man who couldn’t stand to image that someone
else might be more pious than he.
“I’ll expose this priest for the hypocrite that he is.” said the man to himself. ‘I’ll
see to it than this priest pays dearly for his hypocrisy.’
That evening, after most of the faithful had left the church building after mass,
he crept stealthily to the side of the altar and he removed a little flask from his
pocket. With a small brush he began to apply rattlesnake poison to the legs of the
ivory Jesus so that when the priest would stoop to kiss the feet, he would take some
of the poison through his lips and be exposed.
The following morning began like any other. The priest got up early and went to
unlock the church doors. In his usual fashion he approached the side of the altar
and stooped to kiss the feet of the ivory Jesus. Strange to say though, every time he
tried to kiss his feet, the figurine on the cross would bend its knees upward, causing
the priest to kiss nothing but the wood of the cross.
That first the priest was broken-hearted. Was he possibly so unworthy that even
the crucified Jesus did not want his lips upon his feet? As the priest gazed with
great sorrow at the crucified figure, something caught his eye: the lower portion of
the torso began to change from ivory white to ebony black as it absorbed the surface
poison that had been painted on it. Now that the transformation was complete, the
figure froze with its feet permanently pulled upward.
The people took it as a sign that it was its way of rewarding the holy priest by
keeping him from impending death. Other stories of miraculous figurines point to
the tale of Santa Cruz de la Cañada near Española where a statue of Jesus is
missing two fingers. The people of that area love to tell the story of the time when
the entire village was devastated by flood. Entire flocks of sheep were being swept
away by the raging waters. Having no other recourse the people went to the church
and snipped an index finger off the ancient statue of Jesus that stood on the right
hand side of the transept. The finger was then tossed into the raging waters and the
deluge quickly began to subside.
Shortly thereafter the people of Santa Cruz experienced an epidemic of small pox
that caused many of the children to die. Remembering the miraculous powers of the
wooden image in the church, the people went and snipped off a second finger from
the statue. They burned the finger with great ceremony and anointed the foreheads
of the children with its ashes. Soon, the epidemic began to subside. The faith of the
people had been rewarded.
Here’s a Thanksgiving Tale to tell at the table
Thanksgiving in northern New Mexico is a time when children will journey from
the cities, universities, other states or even other nations to be with their families
and all that makes them feel secure. In short, they are no different from other
families around the United States except that maybe the side condiments to the
holiday turkey might also include green chile or red salsa in addition to stuffing and
The children who use this as a time to make a yearly pilgrimage to mom’s
kitchen are sometimes alarmed by how much she has slowed down since last
Thanksgiving. And yet, their father has still stayed with her. Their father will then
tell the tale that explains his fondness for “his old lady.”
In days gone by, a couple moved to northern New Mexico from their home in the
east. They were intrigued by the “quaint local customs and traditions” of the
people. They loved the seasonal folk dramas and dances but there was still
something that they didn’t understand: Why did the locals venerate their withered,
old statues that had stood for centuries in their church buildings? Why didn’t they
just replace them with newer, more modern replicas?
Thankful for all of the bounty they had received across the years, they decided to
replace the old statue of the Madonna in the church with a recently painted, plaster
one, straight from the factories of Atlanta, Georgia. Knowing that the church was
always open day and night, they sneaked in one evening and replaced the old effigy
with “the more beautiful one.”
Several days passed and no one had said anything. The couple was positive that
the people of the valley would be pleased with the modern addition to their church.
A few more days passed. As the newly-arrived couple sat reading the newspaper by
the fireside one evening, they heard the faint sound of singing coming up their
They opened their front door fully expecting that the villagers had come to thank
them for their generous contribution. The people gathered in their front yard in a
semi-circle. Still singing, they made room for a pretty young girl who was led
forward. The young girl was dressed in a white communion dress complete with
veil and looked for just like a beautiful bride. She was led forward and introduced
to the man as “his new wife.” The owner of the house was flabbergasted! He
already had a wife; an older, wrinkled woman who had stood at his side for many
years since their wedding day so long ago.
With great embarrassment, he tried to explain to the people that he already had
a wife and that he loved her. True, she wasn’t young and attractive like the girl that
he was being offered but she had stood at his side through thick and thin. The
people would say nothing; they simply nodded knowingly while he was speaking.
It was then that he realized that they weren’t really offering him the girl. They
were merely making a point: Their old Madonna was not as beautiful as the new,
plaster version, but she was their Madonna and they loved her. Quietly, he went to
return the old statue to the church early the next morning.
Thanksgiving is an opportunity for people to reflect on the graces, however
small, that they have received throughout the course of the year. “New” doesn’t
always equal “better.” In an ancient land such as this, a time of Thanksgiving has
been chronicled since the days of Coronado in 1540. The old Franciscan friars used
to refer to it as “Eucharist” which is a Greek term meaning “to give thanks.”
Exit Thanksgiving; enter Advent
The time of Thanksgiving has gone as quickly as it had come upon us. The left
over turkey has been recombined into a myriad of dishes from turkey-green chile
pot pie to turkey enchiladas to turkey and Spam casserole. But we wonder, if it was
always this way. The tales from the New England States speak of the original
Thanksgiving Day as a time when the early settlers and the indigenous people sat
down to share a meal in 1621.
The chronicles of the southwest as recorded by Pedro de Castañeda speak of a
much earlier date. Castañeda speaks of the Coronado expedition sharing a meal of
thanksgiving in 1541 with the Querecho Indians just on the other side of what is
now Tucumcari and west of the present day site of Amarillo, Texas. He reports
having shared meat from “shaggy humpbacked cattle” called cíbolos. It does beg
the question as to whether buffalo meat might have been more appropriate as a
Thanksgiving feast than turkey. Food for thought…
Incidentally, the first recorded song of Thanksgiving in the American Southwest
would not have been “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” In 1850 when
[then] Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy arrived from Franklin (El Paso), Texas into the
Doña Ana valley, the people of Las Cruces had set up triumphal archways over the
streets and greeted him with the song of thanksgiving titled “Te Deum Laudamus.”
They were giving thanks to God for having sent them a spiritual head to fill the
pulpit of Santa Fe.
Having arrived in Santa Fe, Lamy was again escorted into the city with the
throngs singing the Te Deum Laudamus as they brought him before the “mud pie
palace” that was to be his first cathedral. Until just recently, it had always been
traditional to greet all visiting bishops with this song of thanks
Now we are at the beginning of the time called Advent. The word “Advent”
derives from the Latin word for “to come to.” It is a 28 day cycle that begins on the
Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrew (November 30th) and embraces four
consecutive Sundays. Whenever it starts on December third, then it only lasts 21
For many in northern New Mexico Advent used to be a time for fasting and
almsgiving, not unlike the time of Lent. The rich scarlet cloth that decorated
churches was only slightly brighter than the stark purple of Lent. The symbols of
the season also had much to do with Lent. The wreaths of prickly holly and red
berries used to be seen as precursors to the crown of thorns and drops of blood
marking the holy days of Lent.
There is a nine night ritual re-enactment of the Joseph and Mary’s travel to
Bethlehem of Judea. It is called Las Posadas. Again, as the holy couple arrives at
the door and they are turned away for nine nights, local people see it reflected in the
Lenten season later on when the Hermanos Penitentes come to the church door on
Palm Sunday and are turned away from the closed door until the coming of the
Candles representing the Lumen Christi play an important role throughout the
entire Advent season as well. The Advent wreath will contain three purple candles
and one that is rose-colored. The first two will be lit during the first two weeks and
the rose candle will be lit on the third week for Gaudete (Joyful) Sunday. The last
purple candle corresponds to the fourth Sunday.
In some households ritual candles in honor of Santa Lucía will be lit on the 13th
of December. Symbolically, this patroness of eyesight will ward off the darkness
until the celebration of the feast of La Candelaria (Candlemas) 40 days thereafter
when the days begin to lengthen again.
Will the Real Santa Claus please step forward?
In a tomb in Bari, Italy lie the bones of one of the most popular men who ever
lived, at least as far as children around the world are concerned. The relics in that
tomb belong to the ancient Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (Turkey) who lived in the
300s. Although almost nothing is known with any degree of certainty about the man
named Nicholas, legend says that he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine, was
cast into prison during the persecutions of Diocletian in Rome, and that he was
present at the Council of Nicea. As to just how he happens to be in Italy, is the
story that some merchants stole his body from Myra and brought it to Bari in the
Across the centuries the life of this pious gentleman was to be celebrated in
folklore and apocryphal stories that blended around the world with local traditions
and customs until he was universalized. Sometimes known as Sinter Klaus,
sometimes as Schwartz Peter sometimes as Père Noël sometimes as Bufana,
sometimes as Père Fouetard sometimes as Kris Kringle sometimes as D’yed Maróz
or locally as El Abuelo, Nicholas of Myra has now become the spirit of the
When the stories to Nicholas reached the remote corners of Christianity, the lives
of local heroes were often blended indistinguishably with that of St. Nick. Among
the Teutonic tribes in Germany, the ancient thunder god Thor lent some of his
characteristics to Nicholas. His chariot drawn by goats was to evolve into a sleigh
and reindeer. Nick’s own pointy, red bishop’s miter evolved into a stocking hat.
Otto II, the King of Germany was married to a Greek lady named Theophano. It is
likely that she helped to popularize the name of Nicholas among the Nordic tribes
since St. Nick was already immensely popular within the Greek Church.
In an effort to tie the Nicholas myths with some Mid-eastern traditions it was
said that he started the idea of gift-giving. It seems that a poor couple had three
daughters. They had no money to get them married off honorably. They decided to
sell them into prostitution. Nicholas, who happened to be standing outside their
window, heard of the plot. That night he opened the window to the girls’ bedroom
as they slept and tossed three sacks of gold coins therein. The girls now had dowries
and could be married off honorably. This, of course, ties St. Nicholas to the stories
of the Three Kings and their special gifts.
From southern France comes the story of a miserable butcher who was running
short of supplies and so he killed some schoolboys and pickled their flesh and bones
in some barrels of brine. The holy Nicholas happened to be walking by and came
into his store for a snack. The cruel butcher tried to feed him the flesh of the boys
but he, recognizing the abominable crime, struck the butcher dead and raised the
boys to life again. Again, this tale probably stems from the early depictions of St.
Nicholas with three bags of gold that were erroneously interpreted as bags
containing the heads of three children.
Before he came to New Mexico, St. Nicholas had already been declared patron
saint of Greece, Russia, the Kingdom of Naples, Sicily, Lorraine in France, the
Diocese of Liège in Belgium, Campen in the Netherlands, Corfu in Greece, Freiburg
in Switzerland and Moscow in Russia. Gifts given in his name were distributed on
December 6th. Slowly the tradition of gift-giving moved to Christmas Day itself.
In New Mexico this spirit is represented by the Christmas Ogres called Abuelos.
They are the ancestral dead who sleep up in the mountain caves and are awakened
right after the Feast of Guadalupe on the 12th of December. They come down from
the mountains cracking their whips and asking if we remember the ancient ways.
They will warm their weary bones by bonfires and execute two dances called the La
Paloma and El Jorundundù.
Every year, as they lead the dance of Los Matachines, the female ogre, called La
Pirojundia, will go into labor and she will be delivered to the most adorable baby
ogre. This little Abuelito will be taken up into the caves in the mountains to sleep for
a year and the following season he will return as the new Christmas spirit. Since a
new Christmas spirit is born every year, there are now over 500 of them who walk
the American Southwest making sure that the season is properly honored.
But even the Abuelos recognize that, like St. John the Baptist, they are merely
“voices crying out in the wilderness.” They themselves are not Messiahs; they
simply come to herald the arrival of El Santo Niño. They are often accompanied by
Los Mudos who are animal-headed men with their mouthed laced shut. They carry
small crosses in the their hands and they may not speak until the arrival of
Christmas Eve when, at midnight, their mouths will be unlaced and they will sing
praises to El Santo Niño.
I heard the Bells on Christmas Day
There is a beautiful old story about the ancient church of San Miguel in Santa Fe.
It contains, as part of its patrimony, an old bell that was cast in Andalusía, Spain in
the mid-1300s. According to the belief that is linked with the bell is the idea that it
has strange powers. Whenever the wind whirls about it, the bell tends to make clear
sounds like the kind made whenever one runs a finger along the lip of a crystal
It was precisely during those moments that the miracle used to occur: Once
upon a time a blind holy man used to come to make daily visits to the Church of San
Miguel. He would sit quietly in meditation waiting for the wind to pick up. The
minute the blind man would hear the hum of the bell, he would rise to his feet and
open his eyes really wide.
As long as the bell was resounding, his blindness would leave the holy man. He
would stand within the church and describe everything around him. He would talk
animatedly about the colorful paintings, the shade of the priest’s vestments and
about whatever visitors to the church happened to be wearing. The minute that the
winds died down and the bell stopped making a sound though, the man would be
completely blind again.
People would try to ring the bell in the hope of reawakening the holy man’s sight
again. But a bell tolled by human hands had no effect on the sight of the blind man.
It was commonly held that only the brush of angels’ wings on the bell could restore
the blind man’s sight for a short while.
Bells have always been held in high esteem in the villages of northern New
Mexico as the heralds that call the faithful to worship and the voice that called the
dead back to their heavenly home. Whenever a bell would be tolled three time and
then pause, that would advise the villagers than a man had died. If a woman had
died somewhere in the valley, the bell would be tolled only twice and then pause
before it continued again. And if a baby died, the bell would be pealed continuously
as if it were for high holy mass.
That would announce to the people of the village that a baby or a child had died
and the reason for the continuous peal was because the baby was “un angelito” and
had gone straight to Heaven. Lastly, on the feast of All Souls it used to be customary
for the people of every village to visit the church and toll it in memory of their
deadly departed ones. The tolling of the bell was heard all day long.
In our own villages the bells carry colorful stories. In the valley of Arroyo Seco
there are three bells that grace both the old and the more recent church. The
biggest and oldest of them all is called “El Padre.” The smaller ones as designated
as “El Hijo” and “El Espíritu Santo.” Since the village of Arroyo Seco is the only
church in the entire Archdiocese of Santa Fe that has The Most Holy Trinity as its
patron, the bells are aptly named for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Whenever all
three are rung together, the whole valley resounds with crystal purity.
The village church of the valley of Arroyo Hondo has the hollow, clanking sound
that corresponds to the Lady of Sorrows. The bell, when it was first hung, had no
rope so that it could be tolled. The sacristan would help hoist little children up the
side of the frontal buttresses before they were removed in 1915. The children would
take stones out of their pockets and use them to clang the side of the bell.
The village of Valdez had a bell that was named after a dead woman. In the days
that it was being cast, the two brothers from Embudo who had tried fruitlessly to
cast it several times, eventually grew frustrated. They thought that perhaps some
witches and duendes (imps) were putting a curse on it because the newly-cast bell
would crack that minute that it was unmolded. It so happened that one night a lady
named Doña Jesusita Valdez died and everyone in the vicinity went to her wake in
Valdez. That night the two brothers cast the perfect bell and clanged it all the way
from Desmontes down to the valley of Valdez the following morning.
High up in the steeple of the Church of El Santo Niño in the village of Las
Colonias, hangs one of the smallest bells in Taos County. Its sound though is
historical for the bell was not cast specifically to be hung on any church. It used to
be the bell that hung on the only train that used to run through these parts. When
the train ceased to run, its bell was donated to the chapel in Las Colonias, or Arroyo
Sequito, as it used to be called.
Let us remember Christmases Past
Long before the practice of Trick or Treat was brought to the valleys of northern
New Mexico, ritual door to door mumming used to be done on Christmas morning.
The children would get up at the first light and dress warmly, putting socks on their
hands since they had no gloves to keep them warm. Once they were properly
bundled, their moms would give them each an empty flour sack and send them out
into the freezing morning.
They would begin with the neighboring households by sneaking up to the front
door and yelling in union: “¡Mis Crismes!” They would pause and wait for the
door to be opened. If there was too much of a delay they would reiterate: “¡Mis
Crismes!” Their neighbors would then shuffle out of bed, open the door and give
them handfuls of Christmas tidings in the form of hard candy, peanuts, apples and
The children would wish them a Merry Christmas and then proceed to the next
house. They would pass other clusters of children coming from extreme sides of the
village. One could almost tell the time by the children’s groups as they meandered
through the streets. First came the Martínez clan from the southern end of the
village. Next came the Madrid sisters from behind the church. They were followed
by the Torres boys and then the Valencia Sisters. The Márquez family lived in
Desmontes so they were always about a half an hour behind the others. Every child
walked. No one chauffered them around.
As the morning sun began to rise over the mountains, the snow sparkled like
fairy dust. The chilly air created little icicles under the children’s noses as their
moco froze. The children’s cloth bags were now more full and they would drag
them wearily over the top of the snow. The damp cloth would cause the candies and
peanuts to stick together into one huge lump of goodies.
The tradition of ¡”Mis Crismes!” is now gone. It disappeared in the 1960s when
an influx of new dwellers into these valleys meant that local children could no longer
go from door to door safely. No longer did neighbors recognize and trust their
Before there was a ¡”Mis Crismes!” tradition for the children, their own parents
had had something similar but more ornate. Their parents’ own mumming ritual
on Christmas morning consisted of reciting a poem at each door: “Oremos, oremos,
angelitos semos. Venimos del cielo a pedir oremos. Si no nos dan oremos, puertas y
ventanas quebraremos.” (We come forth from Heaven as angels to pray. We ask for
some goodies from your homes today. If you will not give them we’ll break down
the door and break every window and then…-pray some more!” The last known
version of Los Oremos was recorded in the village of Amalia in 1985. They too were
In the generations of the 1930s and 1940s the Feast of the Kings, which always
fell on January 6th, was the time-honored traditional day of Christmas. It
recognized a distinction between the gifts brought by St. Nicholas in early December
and the gifts that the Wise Men brought to the Christ Child in early January. Since
then, both traditions have blended into one.
The ritual mumming on the Feast of the Kings, also called the Feast of the
Epiphany, asked that the mummers sing for the holiday goodies. The treats handed
out on that day were called “Aguinaldos.” To receive any, the children would have
to sing: “Denos aguinaldos. Denos aguinaldos. Sí nos han de dar. Sí nos han de dar.
Que the noche es fría y tenemos que andar. Que la noche es fría y tenemos que
andar!” (Give us Christmas tidings. Give us Christmas tidings. Sure you won’t say
no. Sure you won’t say no. For the night is chilly and we’ve far to go, for the night
is chilly and we’ve far to go.) There are very few people left who remember the
melody let alone the words to this ritual.
No longer remembered is the mumming ritual in which a rag doll was ransomed
at every door on Christmas morning. The rag doll was called a Monigote. All that is
remembered was that the mummers would knock at the door and ask: “Monigote,
Monigote, ¿Quién me compra el Monigote? (Rag doll, rag doll. Who will ransom my
rag doll?) Those on the inside would retort, “¿Y si muere el Monigote…? (And if the
rag doll dies…?) This verbal jousting would continue for several minutes in the
style of a trovo poem. The rest of the ritual is lost in the mists of time.
Maybe it’s Time to make Peace with The Pope
There’s a shadow box hanging at about eye-level on the eastern wall of the
sacristy. The sacristy is located in the old church of La Santísima Trinidad in
Arroyo Seco, New Mexico. Mounted within the box is a gold-plated copper
medallion. It is stamped with the image of Pope Pius IX. Such medallions are
usually minted only during the papacy of the pontiff on it. To the casual observer,
this medallion is not terribly significant. To the astute observer though, it
represents a deep wound in the history of the Catholic Church in northern New
As to just why the golden medallion happens to be hanging there is a fascinating
story. In 1996 the good people of Arroyo Seco set about trying to raise funds to
restore the venerable old church building that dates back to 1834. Led by Fr.
Vincent Chávez, several philanthropic foundations and volunteers set about to
restore, as authentic to the time as possible, the church that was falling down. Many
elements had to be put into place as the work progressed: French drains were dug
to channel water away from the foundations. Tons of pigeon droppings were
shoveled away to ease the massive weight on the roof vigas. The altar screen dating
back to 1861 had to be retouched and stabilized. The floor boards in the sanctuary
had to be inspected.
That’s when the discovery was made. As the rotting boards and other debris
were cleared away from underneath the altar, a dull metallic object was unearthed.
It was buried face down in the moist soil. Once the mud was swept away from it the
inscription was clear enough to identify it as bearing the image of Pope Pius IX.
There was excitement in the air. That was a name that had been unpronounceable
for decades. What would have created such resentment against the Holy Father of
Rome in the heart of an obscure little parish in northern New Mexico?
Pius IX was The Pope between 1846 and 1878. He was elected to the papacy only
two weeks after the death of Pope Gregory XVI. His coronation took place in the
Basilica of St. Peter on June 21, 1846. He came to the Vatican at a time when there
was much turmoil within the Catholic Church. Part of the controversy revolved
around the question was the Immaculate Conception. As early as 1849 when he was
in exile in Gaëta, he issued letters to the bishops of the Church soliciting their views
on that subject. On December 8th, 1854 in the presence of more than 200 bishops, he
proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin as a dogma of the
Church. He erected several Dioceses in 1850. Among them were those of Monterey,
Savannah, St. Paul, Wheeling, Nesqually and Santa Fe. Now, that’s when the
As spirital head of Santa Fe, he anointed Jean Baptiste Lamy with the title of
Lord of Agathonica. He demanded, after Lamy’s presence in Santa Fe, his
mandatory visit to Rome called the ad limina in Latin. While there, Lamy gave the
Holy Father an accounting of the state of the Church in New Mexico. Within his
report he told him of a group of men called Penitentes whom he saw as a challenge
to the spiritual authority of the Church. Pius IX asked Lamy to work toward have
Unknowing of the revered position that Padre Antonio Martínez held with the
church in New Mexico, Lamy visited him in Taos and confided to him the
conversation that he had had with Pope Pius IX. Padre Martínez, who was
considered the spiritual head of the Penitente Brotherhood, was understandably
furious. Bishop Lamy’s insistance on the undisputed authority of the Church was
made known throughout the region…
Now comes the conjecture, since we have no documents to prove the following:
An old Gene Kloss etching of the church building in Seco shows that at one time it
was cruciform. Today, one arm of that cross-shaped building is missing. In the
renovation of the church some foundation stone were unearthed indicating that
perhaps another room had been attached to the church. Strangely, the missing arm
of the church building almost coincides with the edification of the morada farther on
up the road. The question is this: Did the Penitentes take their adobes and go home
when they learned that they had been censored by The Pope?
In any case, some new evidence has come to face hinging on the possible
canonization of Pius IX. Perhaps the great disfavor that The Pope showed to the
Penitentes of New Mexico was due more to inexperience than to malice. Recently
revealed reports show how Pius IX used to sneak away from his papal chambers in
the middle of the night, barefoot through the snow to meditate in the crypt of the
Church of St. Mary Major. There, he would pray, rest and sleep in the presence of
the crib boards of the Infant Jesus that are housed within a crystal reliquary.
Somehow the image of the powerful Pope humbled before the boards of the Nativity
change his status to that of a man who deserves a second look and a second chance.
Any man who ca humble himself before a baby’s crib is certainly a man who might
have been different if he had only been better informed. Merry Christmas, Baby
Jesus from the Penitentes of northern New Mexico!
Who is The King of Glory, What shall we call Him?
A man whose first language is not English and who is hard of hearing
approached me on the street the other day and asked, “Why is it that in church they
sing such strange Christmas carols?” I was puzzled but he continued. “On
Christmas morning the choir was singing: “What the Hell the angels sing?” It took
me a moment to understand his drift. Then it came to me. “They weren’t singing
What the Hell the angels sing.” I replied. “They were singing Hark the herald angels
It’s certainly difficult enough to understand something being sung in a foreign
language but not understanding what a “herald angel” is, is like a double whammy.
Most people wouldn’t know their seraph angels from their cherub angels let alone
their herald angels from their guardian angels.
With the approach of Latin American Christmas celebrated on the 6th of
January, many hymns mention these celestial beings that populate both earth and
sky. One of the classic hymns echoes the old prophetic words: “Who is the King of
glory, what shall we call Him? He is Emmanuel; the promised of ages.”
The first thing that comes to mind is to ask who exactly is singing the question
and who is singing the reply. An old interpretation says that the nine choirs of
angels are divided into Seraphim and Cherubim, Thrones, Powers, Dominations,
Principalities, Virtues, Archangels and Angels. Even though, wherever they may be,
all angels gaze into the face of God at every moment, their perceptions of Man are
said to be somewhat different.
The six-winged Seraphim are held to stand closest to the throne of God. They
are the ones who sing “Holy, holy, holy.” They, the Cherubim and the Thrones are
classified as the highest of three hierarchies within the choir of nine. Sometimes
they are referred to as the Higher Angels. The Lower Angels are comprised of the
Virtues, Archangels and Angels who are more in direct contact with mankind on
It has often been discussed that it was the Lower Angels who sang “Glory to God
in the highest and peace on earth to men of good will” when they were spotted by
the shepherds over Bethlehem of Judea. So great was their joy at the Incarnation
that they swooped up into the heavens singing about the Man God Emmanuel. The
Seraph angels who couldn’t understand how a man could be exulted to such an
elevated position, asked the question “Who is the King of glory, what shall we call
The reply came from the Lower Angels who had been awaiting him since the
time of Adam and Eve. They replied: “He is Emmanuel, the promised of ages.”
The word “Emmanuel” in Hebrew means “God is with us.”
Now, how does all of this relate to us here in northern New Mexico? It is
traditional to say the name “Emmanuel” as our first words on the eve of the New
Year. Saying the word in and of itself is believed to bring many blessings
throughout the year. It is at the very root of the mumming tradition called “Los
Días” or “Los Manueles.”
As the New Year begins to dawn, many towns and villages are awakened by the
sound of guitars, violins and rustic, hastily-improvised choruses of friends and
neighbors. Beginning at midnight, they will sing praises at the doors of all men
named Manuel and women named Manuela. If the owner of the house happens to
be named Manuel de Atocha then the blessing is double.
A typical chorus might go like this: “Aqui caigo y aquí vengo, con the voluntad to
Dios. Manueles y no Manueles, buenos días les dé Dios.” (I’ve come thither
unexpected, by the grace of God I know. To all Manuels and non-Manuels morning
blessings I bestow.)
After a series of six or seven verses praising the honor of the inhabitants of the
home, the mummers will be led in from out of the cold. Buffoonery and teasing are
the order of the day. If the owners of the home should take to much time in offering
food and drink to the mummers, then perhaps they might sing this verse: “Ya me
duele el corazón. Ya me duele la garganta. Será porque no he bebido de esa agüita
que ataranta.” (Oh how my heart feels so heavy and my throat is parched and dry.
Perhaps that’s because it’s missing some good wine to make it fly.)
Once they are properly fed, the mummers will go out again into the night seeking
another home to impress with their performance skills. But the name of
“Emmanuel” will remain on their lips until the rising of the new sun.
The Tree is Gone but Christmas Tales continue
It’s rather odd to see so many pine trees promptly discarded just after Christmas
and New Year’s Day holidays have past. Immediately what comes to mind is the
old tale by The Brothers Grimm who told of an ex-Christmas tree that would hold
court by the garbage heap. He would tell the rats that were willing to listen to him
about the one night in which he had shone splendidly will candles and ornaments.
(Incidentally, it was Martin Luther who began the custom of decorating Christmas
tree with candles.)
Once upon a time people of northern New Mexico used to keep their Christmas
trees up until the Feast of The Presentation on the second day of February. The
time between the first Sunday after the New Year and the Feast of the Presentation
was filled with tales that focused on the juxtaposing themes of Virginity and
There’s an old custom in New Mexico, for example, in which a woman who has
given birth would take her baby’s first wet diaper and rub her cheeks and forehead
with it. She believed that the baby’s first urine would help to get rid of the facial
discoloration that sometimes accompanied childbearing. Now where would such an
odd custom come from? It probably stems from the folktales often told by local
There is a story that says that when the Virgin Mary herself was about to give
birth, she was helped in the manger by the midwives Philomena and Salome. As
Salome was wrapping the newly-born baby in swaddling clothes Philomena is
purported to have said to her in reference to Mary after helping her: “She was a
virgin before birth, she was a virgin during birth and she was a virgin after birth.”
Salome was skeptical about the claims made by her colleague. She went to the
Virgin Mary, lifted her skirt and stuck her hand underneath to see for herself if the
claim of virginity were true. It was reported that her hand immediately atrophied
and shrank before her very eyes for daring to doubt the claim of eternal virginity.
Her hand was to remain in a dried-up state until she rubbed it with the baby’s first
diaper. Then it was “miraculously” restored to its normal state.
After they had given birth, Spanish ladies in New Mexico used to have to remain
in bed for eight days in order to get completely well. They were fed pap consisting
of a cornmeal gruel called atole with lots of cream. They were allowed to go outside
only after twelve days and only if their heads were protected by a bandana. Finally,
women could attend regular church services only on the fortieth day after giving
birth; that is, they could be seen in public only after their “purification” was
Some of these Spanish customs can be traced to biblical traditions brought to
New Mexico by the Crypto-Jews who often took refuge in New Mexico since the
1500s in order to hide from the Spanish Inquisition that was burning then in Spain
and in Mexico. In fact, in looking at the history of the Pecos valley by Santa Fe, it
was found that many of its early settlers, led thither by Gaspar Castaño de Sosa,
were actually people wanted by the Inquisition. Their descendants still carry names
like Pérez, Carbajal, Cruz, Raél, Ramírez, Espinoza, Anaya and Rodarte.
Fertility was reflected in the rituals of light returning to the world after the
winter solstice. The light ritual began with Santa Lucía who always carries her
eyeballs in her hands. She is patroness of light and of eyesight. The light rituals will
then take the form of Advent wreaths where three purple and one rose-colored
candles with be light for four weeks in a ritual ceremony. The bonfires lit for
processions and Matachines are also an attempt to dispel the darkness. And finally,
the first major local holiday celebrated after the Feast of the Purification is known
as “La Candelaria”, or Candlemas, in early February.
Imagination used to be as strong as Reality
A group of concerned citizens was holding a meeting recently at a local café
discussing the idea of bringing to Taos some kind of a means of creating jobs that
wouldn’t deplete the natural resources of the area, that wouldn’t siphon off the
talents of locals out to other places and that wouldn’t create a local atmosphere that
would make this place look like so many indistinguishable towns across the country.
“Bringing in high-tech industry might spell death for the already low water-tables
in this valley. And what if we created a great center of learning but then we
couldn’t offer jobs to our kids? Where would they go?” As an eavesdropper in an
adjoining table, I marveled at the concern and the bent of the discussion.
Walking back to my office I pondered the gravity of the discussion that I had just
overheard. What natural, God-given wealth did we possess locally that could be
exploited and yet not depleted? Did we have any natural talents that could grow
and unfold and increase with each usage? Then the answer became very obvious:
Creativity and Imagination.
Way back in our distant past (between 1547 and 1616 to be exact) in a town in
Spain whose name I can’t remember, there lived a country gentleman. He was
named Don Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra. (Even though Cervantes was never a
common name in Taos, the surname Saavedra certainly was.) In any case,
Cervantes told the tale of a mad knight who was fed up with man’s inhumanity to
man, tired of the slovenliness of his village and sick of people who would take and
take and give nothing back. His personal search for high ideals caused him to
escape into his own imagination and into a world where chivalry was not dead,
where there was still room for courtesy and where the process of living was just as
important as life itself.
But since every hero seems to have a tragic flaw, Don Quixote also had his own:
He hadn’t invited the rest of his village to join his unconventional world; to
collaborate in his vision of what could be. Therefore, he must be mad.
As grandchildren of El Quixote the very people of these valleys can still reach
back into their youths to a time when creativity and imagination reigned supreme.
It was a time when stick-horse Rocinantes could still race across the fields and they
were more real than the old plow horses used by our grandparents. It was a time
when children imitated in their own games what they saw the adults doing but, they
could change the outcome of the games to something else more gentle and more
acceptable to themselves. It was a time when old tin-can stilts could cause children
to tower higher than any Giant Mambrino. It was a time when making the sign of
the cross could banish any evil and bring a good night’s rest. It was a time when
yellow apples tasted like “banana” because we had never tasted a banana. It was a
time when we could afford to dream of everything because we had so very little.
As the years passed though, creativity remained in the realm of childhood play.
How could imagination ever be an industry? A living was something we earned
with hard work; it was not something we were supposed to enjoy.
Now here’s the rub: If imagination and creativity sound like so much fun, then
why don’t more people cultivate them? Imagination doesn’t cost anything.
Creativity doesn’t cause our water supply to dwindle. By use of the imagination a
man becomes rich in direct proportion to the number of physical things he can do
without. And if one man’s imagination could change the face of literature as in the
case of Don Quixote de La Mancha, what then, could the concept of Collaborative
Creativity and Communal Imagination do for a sleepy village in northern New
Mexico? Not even the sky is the limit.
The answer to the future of Taos has been staring us in the face to the point
where it has become too obvious to perceive. Taos must become conscious of its role
as the Capital of Creativity. We must meld the quest for that unreachable star with
the actual reaching of that unreachable star. And, at the risk of putting too many
platitudes into one single column, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, for what
is a heaven for?”
Let’s take a Lesson from Past Generations
The snow falls lightly on the ground but the children don’t notice; they’re much
too busy having their young minds drained by video games and hand-held electronic
devices. They haven’t even noticed that the sun has just peeped out from behind the
snow clouds above. Their grandmother glances up from her knitting and says, “The
new Pope has just been born.” Their mom glances up and says, “A momma mule
has just had a baby mule.” Their father, who is restocking the wood-burning stove,
looks up and says, “A liar is telling the truth for the first time.” The kids haven’t
heard any of the comments from the older generation; their video game hasn’t quite
finished draining their minds yet. Besides, those comments by the adults mean
nothing to them.
In days gone by in northern New Mexico, whenever adults spoke up, it was a
signal for the young to listen. Bits of folk knowledge, ancient wisdom and
traditional beliefs used to be transferred from one generation to the next in this
manner. This was the way in which children learned, for example, how to tell good
piñón from bad, how to braid a chile ristra or how to suck out an infection from a
wound. They weren’t really formal lessons; the lessons were learned by simply
living and learning within a context.
This is where we come to the crux of the matter. If the children aren’t moving
nor even looking up, then there is no “context” into which traditional, cultural
knowledge can be infused. The generations-old bits of knowledge could be passed
on through innuendo within a given context. Let’s say that an old maid and a young
buck happened to get married. All that a scandalized gossip-monger would have to
say was “No falta un roto para un desconcido” (Literally: For every tear there’s a
seam that comes apart). That was a culturally-coded message implying that there is
someone for everyone.
In similar fashion one could comment on someone having made the same mistake
that he or she had made when they were younger. An older but wiser person would
say “Se espantan los muertos de los degollados.” (Literally: The dead are astonished
by the executed). Its cultural equivalent in English might be: It’s a case of the pot
calling the kettle black.”
Commenting on a particularly long sermon or public speech in which a person
wasn’t in a position to leave he might say “Teníamos la lengua de corbata.”
(Literally: We were wearing our tongues as neckties.) That means that the
congregation or audience was so bored that their tongues were literally hanging out
of their mouths from exhaustion and boredom.
The concept of envy is something that haunts many cultures. One way of dealing
with envy is to malign the recipient of the good fortune as a means of excusing those
who haven’t been so lucky. The other way is to offer up one’s own disappointments
to God by saying: “Al que Dios se las tiene, San Pedro se las bendice.” (Literally:
Those whom God favors are also blessed by Saint Peter). That means that the rich
get richer and since it seems to be the will of Divine Providence, the rest of us can do
nothing more that to wish them many more blessings.
There are some among us who pass for very wise people. But since “lies that
come from far are held to be true,” people of this vicinity require proof. It’s always
well to consider the source of a rumor. Culturally speaking, we might then say, “A
buen santo se encomienda.” (Literally: To such a saint you commend yourself).
That means that the first truth is not the only truth. Just because something
appears in print does not make it true. The Internet is a resource; not a gospel, etc.
The kids have finally gotten bored of their hand-held devices and they come into
the kitchen to see what the adults are talking about. But alas, they don’t even have
a passive understanding of what the adults are saying. Even if by some fluke they
might be interested in gaining some bit of folk wisdom, they don’t have the
vocabulary necessary to such knowledge. Who’s to blame? It’s certainly not the
kids’ fault. And it can’t to the fault of the parents. Oh! The fault must lie with the
schools. Those teachers really should have taught them better…
Our Parents are our First and Lifelong Teachers: Part I
A little over a half a century ago, a very learned man named Enos García set out
to compile his master’s thesis based on the history of education in Taos County in
northern New Mexico. He began to look at old newspaper clippings, biennial
reports of Taos School Board meetings and earlier writings by Arthur Codmus
Davis such as “Status of the Classroom Teacher in Taos County” written in 1942.
He also chose as a basis for his study Dr. J.T. Reid’s book “It Happened in Taos”
and Dr. George Sánchez’s book “Forgotten People”, published in 1940.
He reminds us that even though New Mexico had applied for statehood as early
as 1848, it was to be denied that privilege until 1912. So he saw it incumbent upon
himself to explore the Spanish and Mexican Territorial Periods of education in Taos
County and to try to reconcile the material onto Statehood and the educational
events leading up to 1950 when he completed his own study.
Upon reading the long and scholarly thesis by Enos García we come to realize the
importance of several events that took place touching on the coming of formal
education into this area. First of all, we learn that the county of Taos was officially
created by an act of legislative assembly on January 9th, 1842. The first legislative
council of the Territorial legislature was presided over by Fr. Antonio José
Martínez of Taos. The act of creating the county of Taos was written and passed in
Spanish reading thus:
Section 2. The limits of the County of Taos will be designated as follows: On the
south it will be identified by the last house in Embudo on the upper side where the
canyon of Picurís, below the pueblo, ends; from said house in Embudo, a straight
line is drawn toward the south over the mountains to the flats of the populated
corners until arriving opposite the last houses of Trampas on the same side to the
south; from there drawing a straight line toward the east which crosses to high
mountains until it touches the point where the Mora and Sapelló rivers meet, and as
far as the end of the territory, from the last house in Embudo, already mentioned,
drawing the line to the north over the mountains across the Río Grande with
direction towards the west it shall terminate with the end of the territory; and to the
north it shall be all the portion of the land which contains the territory of New
Mexico. All of this was recorded in Charles F. Coan’s “The County Borders of New
The defined borders of Taos County were to remain intact until February 1st,
1860 when the Tenth Legislative Assembly created Mora County to the east and
twenty years later, on February 10th, 1880 when the western part of Taos County
was annexed by Río Arriba County.
The only known source of education up until the time when is was formally
organized would have been, first, oral instruction by the puebloan people of this
area. This oral tradition would have been based on ancestral lore and ideals passed
from one generation to the next. When the lieutenant governor of Nuevo León in
Mexico visited this area in 1590 he made no mention of formal education among the
Spaniards living here. A few years later, in March of 1609, the viceroy of Mexico
instructed Governor Peralta who was to travel to the present area of Taos to “teach
all the Indians, especially the children, the Spanish language.” No provision was
made, however, for the formal education of descendants on the Spanish settlers until
as late as 1721, when public schools were established in New Mexico by royal decree.
However, because of an overwhelming lack of funds, which still haunts the school
systems today, much of the education of the youth was left to the care of the
Catholic Church and to its mission schools.
Taos Day School as it is known today, started out as a Catholic mission school in
1886. Inocencio Valdez was its first teacher. It was a school sponsored by Bishop
Salpointe and Fr. Antonio of Santa Fe. Its first location was in the old community
building then used in the 1950s as a jailhouse. Some of its first teachers were
Donaciano Quesnel, Lena Scheurich, Fidel A. Valdez, and Maggie Simpson. In 1892
the school was moved to a house that had formerly been a granary. The
government took over the school in 1893 while it was still at that location. Mr. Neal
was the first teacher in charge under the auspices of the United States Government.
He was succeeded by Mrs. Dwire for 15 years and then successively by Mr.
Bolander, Miss Howard, Mr. Marks, Mr. Franklin, Mr. Whiteman, Mr. Jackson,
Mr. Kramer, Mr. Reyna, and Mr. Doyle.
Our Parents are our First and Lifelong Teachers: Part II
It is amazing to look back into the annals of history and to notice just how much
of the educational process hinges on events that took place during the months of
January and February. In speaking of the history of education in Taos County we
would be terribly remiss if we did not focus on the developments that took place
during the 25 years of Mexican rule, between 1822 and 1847. Pivotal to this time
period was Fr. Antonio José Martínez of Taos who not only opened up the first
schools on this side of the Mississippi River, but was the earliest known proponent
of co-educational studies in this area. It is largely to the efforts of this priest that
Taos was to attain its sobriquet of “The Cradle of Education in New Mexico.”
According to some selections taken from the New Mexico Historical Review,
Antonio José Martínez was born in Abiquiú, New Mexico on January 17th, 1793. By
the age of five he had learned to read and write correctly as well as to do a little
arithmetic. He had entered school in October of 1797. In March of 1804 his family
moved to Taos. In May of 1812 he married María de la Luz Martínez who died in
childbirth in July of the following year. The child, who was named María de la Luz
lived until November, 1825.
On March 10th, 1817 he entered college in Durango, Mexico for the purpose of
educating himself for the priesthood. After studying Latin, rhetoric, philosophy,
logic, metaphysics, religion, morality, mathematics, general physics, sacred
theology, and the rules for the celebration of the holy sacraments, he was ordained
presbítero on February 10th, 1822. After serving at the curacy of Santo Tomás in
Abiquiú he was entrusted the curacy of Taos in May of 1826. From 1826-1856 he
was involved in educating young people of both sexes in reading, writing and
arithmetic and for young men wishes to take on holy orders, he taught Latin,
grammar, religion, and moral theology. Twenty seven area youth were retained by
Bishop Juan Laureno Zubiría of Durango, Mexico and three others by Archbishop
Jean Baptiste Lamy.
The first children to attend the schools opened up by Padre Martínez were his
own nephews. The few books that Padre Martínez had were printed on his own
printing press which he had brought to Taos from Mexico. His original school was
held in one of the rooms of his own house. Once Padre Martínez established his first
school, it was not discontinued until it finally gave way to the public schools which
were founded during the American occupation, according to the late Enos García.
Many outstanding men received their preliminary education under Padre
Martinez. Some of those included José Manuel Gallegos, who served as a delegate
during the American Congress; Diego Archuleta, a prominent figure in the political
affairs of New Mexico; Antonio Joseph and Francisco Manzanares, both United
States congressmen; and Captain Francisco Gonzales of the American army.
During the Spanish and Mexican occupation of the territory of New Mexico, the
inhabitants had very little formal or institutional education. The settlers simply
couldn’t see much value in it. In fact the Spanish proverb dating back to that era
states that: “Educar a un Mexicano es hechar a perder un buen pastor de borregas.”
(To educate a Mexican is to ruin a perfectly good sheep herder.)
In August of 1846 when General Stephen Watts Kearny and the Army of the
American West proclaimed territorial occupation and promised to take “not an
onion, not a pepper” but took everything else, all schools except one in Santa Fe had
been discontinued. Enos García remarked that it was “the start of the Dark Ages in
the realm of education in northern New Mexico.”
It was not until the legislative session of 1891 that a comprehensive, modern,
public school system was inaugurated. The law created the Office of
Superintendent of Public Instruction and a Territorial Board of Education
comprised of the Governor, Superintendent of Public Instruction, the presidents of
the University of New Mexico, the Agricultural College and St. Michael’s College.
Ramón Sánchez was to become the first county superintendent for Taos.
Our Parents are our First and Lifelong Teachers: Part III
After the legislative session of 1891 created the Office of Superintendent of
Public Schools several men were to serve in that capacity in Taos County. All the
way from 1891 to the coming of statehood in 1912, there were 8 men who were
county superintendents. Ramón Sánchez held that post from 1891 to 1892. He was
followed by Melaquías Martínez from 1893 to 1895. Third on the list was Santiago
Abreu from 1895 to 1896. Serving in 1897 was Escolástico Martínez. From the
years 1898 to 1901 Francisco M. Martínez held that post followed by Antonio B.
Trujillo of Arroyo Seco, between 1902 and 1904. Between 1905 and 1906 Taos
County Superintendent was Daniel Sisneros. Isaac Dwire served from 1907 to 1910.
New Mexico was granted statehood in 1912 after having applied for it 64 times.
Various homes, where teachers boarded with families were used as instructional
bases for various grades. They were overseen by such County Superintendents as
José Montanér (1911-1916), Pablo Quintana (1917-1918), José Montanér again
(1919), Alfredo Miramón (1920), Cristóbal Quintana (1921-1922), J. P. Raél (1923-
1924), Joe B. Martínez (1925-1926), and Floyd Santistevan serving his first term
from 1927 to 1930.
County Superintendents continued to oversee education in Taos County until
1950. They included Cristóbal Quintana serving a second term from 1931 to 1932.
He was followed by Floyd Santistevan serving the second of three administrations
from 1933 to 1936. After him came Leonides Pacheco (1937-1938), Floyd
Santistevan again (1939-1940), Abiguel Maés (1941-1942), Espiridión E. Ortiz (1943-
1946), Abiguel Maés in his second term from 1947 to 1948 and finally, Felipe
Trujillo who completed the list of County Superintendents from 1949-1950).
Assisting the County Superintendents were School Supervisors that helped to
coordinate education at various schools. They included Ruth Miller (1931-1932),
Vidal Trujillo (1933-1934), Joe L. Otero (1943-1947), Bernabé Chávez (1947-1948),
and Gregorio Vigil (1948-1950).
The following superintendents served between 1950 and 1966: Jacobo Bernal
(1951-1954), Pancracio Romero (1955-1956), Juan Romero (1957-1960), Bernabé
Chávez (1961-1964) and Tito Martínez (1965-1966).
In the early 1960s there was a concerted effort to bring the public and
independent school under one municipality. Taos County was carved into four
school districts: Questa’s Independent Schools, Peñasco, Ojo Caliente and Taos.
The Taos Municipal School Dfistrict incorporated all of the county schools from San
Cristóbal to Pilar. The concept of Taos Municipal School was further developed by
Joe L. Otero who became Superintendent in charge of Taos Municipal Schools from
1947 to 1971. He was followed by Orlando Ortiz (1972-1978), Roy Martínez (1978-
1981) Leonila Serna (1981-1987), Edwardo Abeyta (1987-1991), Juan Aragón (1990-
1995), Andrés Gallegos (1995-1999), Roberto Gonzales (1999-2002) and Mark Space
All along, since the coming of statehood several attempts were made to improve
the quality of education. In 1891 there were 21 school districts in Taos as compared
to 45 by 1912. There were only 28 teachers in Taos in 1891 as opposed to 43 in 1912.
Enrollment in Taos County went up from 979 pupils in 1891 to 2133 registered
students in 1912. There were 28 schools in the county in 1891 and a leap to 45 by
1912. In 1891 only 3 months of the year were used for instruction as opposed to
seven months by 1912. Some of the teachers who made their debut in Taos County
around the time of statehood were Dionicio Martínez from Ranchos, Fidel Córdova
from Taos, Solomón Ortega from Peñasco, Jesús José Vigil from Cerro, Felix
García from García, Colorado, Laureano Mares from El Prado, Benito Córdova
from Questa, Melaquías Peralta from Taos, Onécimo Martínez from Arroyo Hondo
and Antonio Pacheco from Arroyo Seco.
According to the notes left to us by the late Enos García, “The White House clock
stood at 1:40 P.M. January 6th, 1912, when the stroke of a pen ended the drama of
sixty years of efforts for the struggle for statehood by the Territory of New Mexico.”
In his A Concise History of New Mexico, L. Bradford Prince noted: “Then President
William Taft said a few words of congratulations and then affixed his offical
signature. The postmaster general presented a gold pen with the request that it
should be used, and Delegate Andrews produced the unique gold-banded quill
feather taken from the great American eagle captured in Taos, and furnished for
the occasion…The President wrote half of the signature with the former and the
remainder with the latter, returning the pens to the donors as mementos of this
great historic occasion.”
Our Parents are our First and Lifelong Teachers: Part IV
Despite the dashing start that the late, great Padre Martínez of Taos had given to
parochial schools, there were some private, Presbyterian schools that formed the
basis for early instruction after statehood. In 1878 the Board of Home Missions of
the Presbyterian Church sent Dr. Roberts to Taos to work among the students he’d
hoped to garner at Taos Pueblo. Since institutional education was still suspect in its
goals, Dr. Roberts found a more receptive pool of willing school children at Ranchos
de Taos. He started a boarding school in Taos and housed it in the building that
was to later occupy St. Joseph’s Parochial School.
Also sponsored by the Board of Home Missions, Miss Alice Hyson, a twenty-three
year old girl from York, Pennsylvania worked diligently until some friends sent her
$1,300 in 1887 to acquire a much-needed building. In 1894 she had the largest day
school in the Territory with an enrollment of 135 students. After her death in 1915
Alice Hyson was succeeded in her post by Grace Russell then by Maud Hartt, Ora
Speer, Sarah Rolofson and Ethel Tompson successively until 1928.
The Sisters of Loretto were brought to Taos by request of Reverend Gabriel
Ussol in 1863. Sister Euphrosyne Thompson and two companions came to Taos
where Fr. Ussol purchased a land lot for a horse and buggy and he also gave $600
toward the edification of a new building. The school was called The Academy of
Our Lady of Guadalupe and later it was changed to St. Joseph School. Originally,
the school was a private school for girls until 1891. Since then it had been co-
Taos High School itself was not built until 1917. It was on July second of that
year when the newly appointed members of the board of education went to
commissioners Leocadio Martínez, Jacob Posner and Manuel Barela to approve the
proposed high school. The site of the first Taos County High School was where the
present Presbyterian Church now stands. Its first teacher was Miss Jessie Howard.
Miss Emma Keanan took charge of the high school after Miss Howard left and
remained as its head until 1921. The high school was to remain at its site until 1939
and then it was moved to its site into a building that was a W.P.A. building (now
Enos García Elementary School).
The first graduating class of Taos High School was comprised of six students. It
was the Class of 1921. The following year, only one student was graduated.
Peñasco High School was founded in 1926 as a two-year high school. In 1931 it
was moved to a new building as a result of Superintendent Floyd Santistevan and
Fr. Cooper. Fr. Cooper agreed to supply the site and the building if the county
would pay the teachers’ salaries. The teachers were to be Dominican nuns from
Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 1949 however, the Supreme Court of New Mexico
passed a law banning Catholic nuns and brothers from receiving payment for
teaching in public schools and it also banned school buses from transporting
parochial school pupils. Incidentally, the Class of 1928 graduated only one student
from Penasco High School.
Fr. Barrat was a pivotal figure in the founding of Costilla High School in 1920. It
remained open for only three years. The reasons given for its closure were that the
county could not support the school financially and not enough qualified teachers
could be found. The school remained closed until 1928 when Fr. Oelman talked
three Sisters of Mercy from Grand Rapids, Michigan into reopening it. It succeeded
for only two more years. The first class to be graduated was the Class of 1932 with
all students being from Questa.
Since the students of Questa were being bussed to Costilla between 1930 and
1940 the first high school of Questa had a difficult time in getting started. In 1940 a
second attempt was more successful at establishing a high school. Mr. Abrán
Fernández was the first principal assisted by Mr. Perfecto Jaramillo and Miss
Waggner. Others who followed Mr. Fernández as principals were Mr. Bialquín
Rodríguez and Mr. Manuel Berg.
Ojo Caliente High School dated back to 1936. Its first principal was Mr. Robert
Vialpando. In its first graduating Class of 1938, five area students finished high
school. The early successors of Mr. Vialpando were J.W. Evans, Abrán Fernández,
Pete Sisneros, Eddie Medina, Perfecto Jaramillo, and Ralph Trujillo.
Our Parents are our First and Lifelong Teachers: Conclusion
We have come to know the names of several men and women who were
important in the establishment and evolution of education in northern New Mexico.
These people were parents of our parents’ parents’ parents. Their legacy in just
what they thought important enough to pass down to us still lives on in the laws and
efforts of their descendents today. But even as education evolves so does custom,
tradition and language. New ways of living are invented and the means of
interpreting those new ways of living also change. Let us, for the minute though,
relive those ways of playing that were so dear to our hearts.
The playground and the classroom were and are the heart of school where
children learn to work and play together. Social skills were learned by doing rather
than by studying them. Even now we can still point to our collective childhoods and
recall when so-and-so did such-and-such in Mr./Miss’ class. As an eminent
professor stated, “We like to talk about the past not so much to relive and good ole’
days and it is to maintain a critical view of the present.”
Many can still remember the singing that was encouraged in the individual
classes. Songs such as “Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu” dated back to the
Depression Era. A perennial favorite was “Found a Peanut” in which the students
gestured as they sang including “…going to die now and went to Heaven. Across the
years this song found a more modern counterpart in the song “I’m bringing home a
baby bumblebee.” Most recently songs such as “Chicken lips and lizard hips…with
a booger on top” seem to top the list of children’s favorite school songs. A brief
flirtation with bilingualism in the 70s and 80s returned some forgotten Spanish
songs into the classroom. In the 90s the Spanish songs were mere reinterpretations
of English children’s songs.
Ball games have always been important in helping students to work as teams.
These kinds of interdependence games yielded such early favorites as Las Iglesias
(The Churches) wherein girls would play a sort of softball game but the ball was
caught in their long skirts. The girls would stand with their feet apart and catch the
ball in their tight, steeple-shaped skirt. The boys, in the meantime, would play two
sorts of golf games. The older of the two was called “El Chueco” (The Curved Stick)
with clubs made of young oak saplings that had been shaped and molded in
bonfires. The second game for boys was called “El Canute” (The Cane) which was a
variation of the first. Co-ed games included “Landy-Over” (a local variation of
Annie-I-Over) in which a rubber ball would be tossed over a roof of a house from
one team to the next. Another favorite was the rolling and racing keg and barrel
hoops using only a short stick. This was called “El aro y el chimal.” These games
slowly yielded to stick horses and dolls, quickly to be replaced by marbles and jacks.
Since playgrounds were rather loosely supervised, and since many a boy carried
a jack knife in his pocket, games of skill such as “La Navajita” (The Jack Knife)
were very popular. The trick was to take turns at bouncing the open jack knife off
one’s palms, fingers, elbows, shoulders, chin, ears, nose and forehead and have it
stick on the soft ground. Of course as children matured more games like chasing
the girls and holding them at bay in the outhouses also developed.
Yes, education has made wonderful strides in New Mexico especially considering
the natural differences in the various cultures and languages. English is spoken in
the classrooms now and rather well considering its less than century old presence
here. Many a local graduate has made Taos proud in the world beyond the valleys.
Time to say “Farewell to the Flesh” –or is it?
The day before Ash Wednesday is known by a couple of different names. The
faithful from an earlier age would have known it as Shrove Tuesday. The word
“shrove” derives from the infinitive verb “to shrive” meaning “to go to confession.”
In those days no one would think of beginning a forty day observance without first
going to be absolved of all of their sins. In order to keep people from using the last
few days just before Ash Wednesday as a time for getting in the last few bits of
debauchery before Lent, the Pope decided to add a little incentive.
Pope Benedict XIV wrote a letter adressed to all of the archbishops and bishops
of the Papal States. It was titled the “Super Bacchanalibus” and it was a plenary
indulgence granted in 1747 to those who took part in the Exposition of the Blessed
Sacrament for three days right before Lent. Although a few people took advantage
of it, several others were more attracted by the earthly pleasures of Carnaval.
Carnaval is a celebration much heralded in Venice and in Latin America as a
time for donning masks and getting all of those nasty little urges and inclinations
out of the system before the upcoming forty days of self-denial. Literally, the word
“Carnaval” means “farewell to the flesh.” It might be interpreted in two different
ways. First in could be a farewell to the pleasures of the flesh. Secondly, it could
mean the Christians were not to eat meat for forty days. In any case, it meant time
of sacrifice for all involved.
Lent derives from the Middle English word “lengthentide” since the days are
getting longer again. In Spanish it makes a lot more sense locally since its
equivalent “Cuaresma” comes from two sources. Both the number cuarenta
meaning 40 and quarantine meaning to keep away for 40 days come from the same
Both the French and people in franophone countries refer to the day just before
Lent as Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday.” Long before the parades and drinking
that mark the occasion these days, there was another form of Mardi Gras. People
dressed in the guise of royalty, clergy or scholars would go from house to house
asking for donations in a sort of Halloween style. This would be done in two
different ways: they could either approach the house quietly pointing to their own
palm in a begging posture. This was called “The Supplicant” position. The second
means of collecting any donations was by riding noisily on horseback to the house
pretending to take donations by force. This was “The Raider” position.
Oftentimes the masqueraded figures were asked to sing, play or perform before
they were given a chicken or a pig or money. They would lash one another with
gunny sack whips in imitation of the ancient days of Lupercalia when participants
would lash one another with wolf skins. The ritual mumming was transferred
across the years from spring mumming to winter mumming as is still seen in Los
Días on New Year’s Eve and Los Matachines on Christmas Eve.
The concept of gathering food stuffs to make a communal pot of stew was an
attractive idea since the food supply right before spring would have been at a very
low point. The idea of “getting fat” before an enforced forty day fast was a kind of
consolation wherein the entire community would be on equal footing. Come
midnight, all festivities had to end and the people would return home in time for the
early morning mass.
The priest would come in and intone: “The people who walked in darkness have
seen a great light” echoing the words that their parishoners had heard at the start of
As the faithful would approach the priest he would mark their foreheads with a
sign of the cross and say: “Memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.”
(Remember Man that thou are dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” Thus armed
with a visible outward sign of their mortality, people would return home to try to
live more contritely (at least for forty more days).
The Taos Society of Portrait Artists Follows in Historical Footsteps
Taos, New Mexico is a land of dreams where historical romance mixes with both
fact and fiction. It was to this place that two artists, fresh from the art schools of
Paris, France came in the year 1898. According to the tale that has often been
reiterated in tourist brochures for over a half a century, Ernest Blumenschein and
Bert Phillips had a broken wheel on their wagon. While waiting to have the wheel
repaired in the rustic, little village both men suddenly saw “whole canvases waiting
to be painted, everywhere they looked.” Thus was born, the fabled Taos School of
Closer to reality though, was the fact that there was a meat-packing magnate
named Oscar Mayer in Chicago, Illinois who needed to peddle his wares to the
western side of the Mississippi River. American sensibilities, while already
fascinated by the lore and lure of the American West, were somewhat retiscent
about traveling to a place where the end of the day might be decided by the quickest
draw or by someone speaking Spanish or a Native language. A set of illustrators,
hired primarily by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, was commisioned
to capture the “real American West” and set it down on canvas. A more idyllic
American West needed to be, if not invented, at least enhanced in order to entice
commerce to the west. Thus was born the first art collaborative in Taos, New
Mexico that became known as the Taos School of Art.
The first organized Taos Society of Artists included such promising artists as
Walter Ufer, Herbert “Buck” Dunton, Victor Higgins, Kenneth Adams, Joseph H.
Sharp, E. Martin Hennings, Eanger Irving Couse, Oscar Berninghaus, Bert Greer
Phillips, and Ernest Blumenschein. Across the decades various other artists either
settled or spent some time in Taos. Most notable among them was the Russian
master artist Nicholai Fechin of Kazan.
Although he excelled in various media, Fechin was the undisputed portraitist of
his time. As the protegé of Ilya Repin, his talent was recognized by John Young-
Hunter who first brought him to Taos. Fechin quickly found out that this village
was a portraitist’s paradise. Among those who traveled to Taos and had their
portraits done were Lillian Gish and Willa Cather. It wasn’t until 2002 that a
second wave of artists organized themselves into another collaborative. It became
known as the Taos Society of Portrait Artists (T-SoPA).
The Society, inspired and lead primarily by Dublin-born Seamus Berkeley,
includes several representational portrait artists from Taos and the surrounding
area. It is dedicated to sharing an awareness of this art form that is both historical
and contemporary. Its members are selected for their outstanding portrait work in
oil, watercolor, acrylic and other traditional media. The Society’s objective is to
develop and increase awareness and appreciation of regionally-created portraiture
through various shows, both locally and around the country.
Among it current members are Wendy Beauford, Seamus Berkeley, Conrad
Cooper, Nancy Delpero, Salvatore “Sal” Giglio, Libby Hart, Lawrence J. Herrera,
Randall LaGro and Tom Rogers.
Since the painted portrait is still considered to be a record for posterity, many
visitors come to Taos hoping to unearth likenesses of historical figures such as Padre
Martínez, Mabel Dodge, D.H. Lawrence, Tules de Barceló, Kit Carson, Tony
Luhan, Lady Dorothy Brett, Patrocinio Barela or Carl Jung. And since the muses
are still alive and well and living in Taos, modern-day figures such as Jenny
Vincent, María Benítez, Agnes Martin, R.C. Gorman, Mark Miller, Lynn Anderson
and Max Evans need to be documented. Such is the task of T-SoPA that it has no
lack to portraits to paint and history to recapture.
In a place where tribal elders still talk to their grandchildren about the ancient
ways, where folk healers abound and where water rights can be traced back to
Moorish ancestors, where pioneers of the Hippie Movement mix freely with
expatriots, writers and actors, where remudding adobe walls is just as important as
herding sheep, every corner offers the sincere portraitist a niche to paint.
At one time, portraits were commissioned solely by the elite of society. In
modern times though, portraiture is accessible to everyone and portraits have been
commissioned by people from all walks of life. They are used to commemorate all
types of occasions including birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations, and
major achievements as well as to create lasting records of family history. The
painted portrait is still considered a more important record for posterity than
modern technical media due largely to its archival nature and the portrait artist’s
ability to capture the essence of the subject.
Among the tasks looming before the Taos Society of Portrait Artists is the
challenge of coordinating community support for the establishment of a Museum to
house the portraits of the famous and infamous in New Mexico history. There is no
lack aof records and descriptions of who is who and who was who. Now, only the
skilled hand and the discerning eye can may them come alive for posterity. The
Taos Society of Portait Artists certainly has its work cut out.
Who is San José In New Mexico?
There are only two saints whose colors dare to interrupt the scarlet hues of the
season of Lent. The first is Saint Patrick whose feast day is celebrated on the 17th of
March. The second is Saint Joseph whose feast falls two days after Patrick’s on the
19th of March. If the local archbishop happens to have an Irish last name like say
for example, Sheehan, sometimes he might give special dispensation for his flock to
wear green and eat corned beef and cabbage. St. Joseph however, needs to
dispensation. The priests will automatically lay aside their scarlet vestments and
don the dazzling white colors of a major saint.
San José, as he is known in Spanish, is among the most popular saints in all of
Christendom. He is the most commonly represented figure in New Mexico place
names. There are 33 places named San José throughout New Mexico. He was the
patron saint of the first Jémez Indian mission established in 1617. When the
Spanish returned to New Mexico in 1692, twelve years after the Pueblo Rebellion, he
was the patron saint of the new church at Laguna Pueblo. There is a San José
village south of Albuquerque, one near Carlsbad, one in Grant, Mora and Río
Arriba Counties, as well as in the counties of San Miguel, Sierra, Socorro and
San José watches over carpenters while leaning on a budding old staff. But what
do we know about him? Most of what we suspect about San José comes from pious
fiction or apocryphal stories as well as a couple of Biblical reference sources.
San José (Hosea in Hebrew), is held to be the son of Jacob according to Matthew
(1:16). St. Luke (3:23) however, calls him son of Heli. At any rate, it is generally
agreed upon that he is a descendant of the royal House of David in Bethlehem.
Untrustworthy tales say that Joseph settled in Nazareth where he earned his living
as a tekton (both mechanic and carpenter). Similar questionable sources report that
he had been married at the age of forty to a woman called Melcha or Escha or
Salomé. He was supposed to have lived with his wife for 49 years and had 6
children; two daughters and four sons. Says the story, that when the tribe of Judah
was seeking a respectable man to espouse Mary, who was only 12 or 14 years of age,
José was 90 years of age. The agèd Joseph was the natural choice since, says St.
Augustin, “…it was the intention of the spouses to be in virgin marriage…’
In New Mexico, a strict tradition links San José to the hollyhock in retablo
painting. The artistic tradition stems from an often told story that when it came
time for Mary to take a husband to herself, there was no lack of suitors for this
beautiful child that had been raised in the temple by the prophetess Anna. The holy
priest Simeon prayed in the temple for divine intervention in making his decision
from among the suitors. Just then, lowly, widowed San José approached to present
himself as a suitor. At the moment he approached, the staff of Simeon burst into
full bloom producing new life where none could possibly exist. He handed the
flowering staff to San José and he has been associated with this staff since then. The
hollyhock in New Mexico still bears the name of la vara de San José or The rod of St.
The rest of the story of San José can be gleaned from the writings of the
evangelists. They speak of Joseph’s flight into Egypt with the Holy Family and his
return to Nazareth only to lose his boy in the temple. But nothing is mentioned
about his death, even though in New Mexico he is considered the Patron Saint of the
Joyful Death. The apocryphal “Story of Joseph the Carpenter” asserts that he died
at the age of 111 years. St. Epiphanius gives him onlyh 90 years of age and The
Venerable (nowBlessed) Bede says that he was buried in the Valley of Josaphat but
all are stories based on tradition. The only proof that is offered that Joseph was
dead before Jesus was crucified is the comment that if he had been alive, Jesus
would not had to confide his mother to the care of St. John, addressing to him from
Be the case as it may be, in New Mexico, whenever a person is near death and
holding a candle to his breast, those gathered around him will invoked the name of
San José de la Muerte Dichosa to help him make the transition from one world to the
Strange is the result when Lent and Spring collide
There is a strange story coming out of Baja California that was prominently
featured in the March issue of National Geographic magazine. It seems that every
year at around this time, hundreds of sea turtles are butchered by the native
population and barbecued. The nearly 300 turtles killed thus far into the season
represent a mere fraction of the 35,000 killed each year in northwestern Mexico,
according to reporter John L. Eliot.
The reason that they are butchered is because of the local belief that these
creatures may be eaten without violating the “no meat on Friday” rule that is
traditional among many Catholics. The turtles are reptiles and therefore, their flesh
is not considered to be (as least technically) meat. Since they come from the sea, the
people along the coast consider them fish, not meat. In an effort to stem the killing
of these sea creatures, a local group has written to the Pope, hoping that he will
clarify the rule and thus save the turtles. So far, only a brief note of
acknowledgement has come from the Vatican.
The season of Lent in New Mexico is often a lengthy time marked by privation,
whether self-imposed or simply due to the paucity of food supplies. People who are
on limited diets tend to find ways to entertain themselves in order to make the time
go by faster. It have often been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Many
of us might even ammend that statement as “Boredom is the mother of invention.”
We have to turn our attention to other things.
Just as new little animals tend to be born in the springtime, even so, human
babies tend to be born in droves during this time of year. Fresh, cuddly babies
bring us hope and the promise of new life beyond our daily needs. It is fun to teach
the little tykes their first words and hear our own names repeated from their tiny
mouths. At a certain level this reassures us that the memories of who we were may
live on even beyond our own lifetimes. It is a kind of self-assured immortality
through our kids.
As babies learn to stand up and take their first steps we encourage them with
strange sounding words like; “¡Pínino, pínino!” This expression, which has no
literal translation, means to encourage a child to “stand himself without holding on
to anything.” In fact, a baby’s first non-supported stance is called a “Pínino de oro”
or a golden pinino. Such is the power of cute, little creatures that they can take a
perfectly normal adult and, without even trying, turn him into a complete babbling
The same person who can pray most elequently in church or speak in sessions of
city government, can come home and make ridiculous sounds like tutu, llalla, mimi,
papa, wawa, pelolo, andando, besitos, and ojitos when speaking to a child. In the
language of baby talk tutu always means “hot” or “don’t touch. Llalla is a hurt or
injury (llaga in adult Spanish). Papa always means “food” or “something to eat.”
Wawa (agua) is water and pelolo means “stinker”, “stink bug” or “dirty diaper.”
Andando (or ‘dando) is a term asking the baby to walk (verb: andar), and besitos
asks the baby for kissies. “Ojitos” when said to a child asks him to make “pretty
eyes” at the adult.
Curiously, when we study the grammar of baby talk the bi-syllabic words are
repeated in imitation of the adult. An English baby wants to sleep and so he wants
to go “nite-nite.” A Spanish baby wants to make “mimi.” A French child wants to
make “dodo.” Even though every baby wants to go to sleep using baby words in his
own language, the process by which each baby achieves those words is exactly the
same: The English child hears Goodnight? Goodnight? and repeats the last part as
“nite-nite.” The Spanish child hears ¿Dormir? ¿Dormir?, with the exphasis on the
last portion of the word and so he comes up with the word “mimi.” The French
child hears Dormir? Dormir?, wherein the first syllable is stressed and the second is
aspirated. He then repeats “dodo.” In each instance, regardless of the language, the
grammar of baby talk follows the same paradigm.
How can we eat Fish in This Miserable Kingdom?
One of the most delightful books ever written on the history of New Mexico is
titled “This Miserable Kingdom.” It was compiled by the late Fr. James Burke who
was the parish priest of Holy Trinity Parish during the 1980s. This enlightened
man was a very good analyst of local culture and tradition. His great gift was to
make people think of why they do what they do.
“The practice of eating fish on Fridays,” he used to say, “was not so much
because it was a sin to eat meat. It had precious little to do with Jesus being a
vegetarian or being born in the Age of Pisces. At a time when there was no
refrigeration, boats bringing in their catch at the end of the week, needed to get rid
of their fish fast, before they spoiled. It was rather a question of socio-economics.”
“What’s more,” he would add slyly, “do you realize that, of all the kingdoms in
Christendom, the kingdom of New Mexico, was the only one exempt from the the No
Meat on Fridays Rule?”
He would go on to explain that New Mexico was a land-locked kingdom with no
access to the sea or to seaports. It seems that everything south of the Arkansas
River near Pueblo, Colorado was exempt from eating fish on Friday. However, soon
the residents north of the river caught on and they’d cross the river on Fridays and
then, after dinner, go back north without (at least technically) having sinned. The
dispensation for New Mexicans has never been formally revoked but neither is it
publicized much. On the books the only two days in which no meat is permitted to
Catholics are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The creativity of staunch Catholics in northern New Mexico is reflected in the
Lenten cuisine. Chile, a culinary staple regardless of the season, was sometimes
laced with meat substitutes. In the more humble households, the dinner chile might
be laced with onions or potatoes. Middle-income households invented little fried egg
soufflés called torta or torejas de huevo to sop up their chile. Affluent households
would send for canned salmon to braise their chile. Any lentils or beans prepared
during the time of Lent had to be free of any kind of meat.
The avoidance of meat dishes has been historically interesting to say the least.
Take for example the role of posole containing pork. No Christian in his right mind
would turn down such holiday fare during Christmas tide…unless that person was a
Crypto-Jew. Anyone refusing such a dish might be suspect and reported to the
Inquisition in Mexico.
But getting back to the subject at hand, Lenten food was highly symbolic. The
first plants to break out of the nearly-frozen ground of spring were succulents
known as verdolagas (purslaine) and quelites (lambsquarters). These would be the
first native plants of the earth that were offered up during the spring. Verdolagas
were braised with fried onions. Quelites were stir-fried with chile seeds.
Reflecting the consumption of native succulents and seeds was the seasonal desert
called panocha. This food was prepared from sprouted-wheat flour. The seed
grains would be thoroughly soaked while yet packed within their gunny sacks. The
humid wheat would then be placed in a warm area such as behind the wood-
burning stove for a few days. This would cause the seed grains to sprout within a
few days. The wheat was taken then to be ground at any one of several local mills
that were erected by river banks.
The sprouted-wheat flour was mixed with coned brown sugar called piloncillo
and baked in an oven overnight. This was a favorite dessert to be eaten only during
the latter part of Lent.
Was there a Bunny at The First Easter?
As people of northen New Mexico approach the end of the Lenten season they are
often besieged by questions from their children: Why do I have to give up sweets?
Why do we go the church every day? Why can’t I watch television on Fridays? It
is good to remind children that for a people that follow ancient traditions, every
aspect of this holy season has its meaning.
After the start of Lent, when children were asked to give up certain things by
their parents or by their parish priests, many of them turned their attention to the
time when the Easter Bunny would come to bring them candy eggs. Many children
had not had a good, tasty pancake since just before Ash Wednesday. Anticipating
that they had to use up all of the eggs and lard so that they wouldn’t spoil
throughout the forty days of Lent, moms would coordinate major pancake feeds
that have become traditional.
Now, since chickens do not generally recognize Lent as a season of privation, they
continue to lay eggs that tend to accumulate for forty days. This makes them ideal
symbols of fertility and privation at the same time. As children begin to color them,
they are sometimes told stories that go with the season:
“Once upon a time there was a farmer named Simon. He used to raise chickens
and he would take their eggs to market every Friday. One particular week his
chickens had laid a goodly sum of eggs and so he walked to market carefully
carrying his eggs in a basket so as not to break them. He walked slowly since the
walk down to the marketplace used to take him three days. But no matter how
careful he was, as he got closer and closer to the center of town, the crowds grew
thicker. He was jostled back and forth and he would try to put himself between the
people who bumped into him and the basket of eggs that he was carrying. It was
Suddenly the crowd grew larger and angrier. Simon was forced into a corner.
Just then, a man in the center of the crowd fell right in front of where Simon was
standing. That’s how he noticed just what was happening. The man had been
struggling under the weight of a heavy cross upon which he was to be crucified.
Filled with compassion at the sight of the wretched, miserable man, Simon put down
his basket in the corner where two walls met and he stooped down to help the man.
Seeing as how this total stranger cared enough for their prisioner the soldiers
that had surrounded the poor man, jeered at Simon and said: This man may die
before we get to the place of crucifixion. You, help him carry the cross!”
That is how Simon of Cyrene was conscripted and pressed into service by the
Romans. The crowd continued following and jeering all the way to a hillock that
shaped like a skull. In the meantime the basket of eggs was forgotten in the corner
of the two buildings, unnoticed by anyone.
Having helped the man carry his cross to the end of his journey, Simon returned
to the marketplace, hoping against hope find at least a few eggs left in his basket.
When he neared the place where the basket stood Simon paused and gazed down in
wonder. There was his basket. But what had happened to the eggs? Instead of the
common white and brown eggs, the basket was filled with eggs of wonderful colors
and designs. There were eggs of different colors, blue as the sky, orange as sunset,
and green as the sea. Some had dots and nets. Others had symbols that looked like
running horses or lambs. A few even had crosses just like the one that the poor man
had carried. They were the first known Easter Eggs.
Simon carried the basket back home but, strange to say, his heavy basket grew
lighter and lighter with each step. After the first day, it seemed that he was carrying
only bread. The second day the eggs were so light that he seemed to be carrying
nothing more than leaves. On the third day Simon felt that he was carrying only a
basket of feathers. Filled with wonder Simon paused along the way home and held
an egg in his hand. He cracked it and looked down astonished to find that the egg
was completely hollow. In fact, all of the eggs were hollow.
It was then that Simon recognized what had happened: The Easter egg had
become a symbol of two things. First, it was a symbol of regeneration since in
contained new life within it. Second, it was a symbol of the empty tomb from which
Jesus had arisen on the third day. Suddenly, the Easter Bunny doesn’t seem quite
These are some Ritual Stories of Holy Week
So much of Lenten ritual and symbolism in northern New Mexico is tied
traditionally to the ritual and symbolism of the Christmas season. As the Palm
Sunday processions approached the church singing “hosannas” and praying, the
faithful found the door shut to them. Only a few voices from within the church
building itself echoed the songs of the crowds.
Such ritual dueling in song, hymn or poetry is called a “trovo.” Symbolically, it
stands for the idea that until Christ had died and had risen from the dead, Heaven
was empty of those early Christians and martyrs. Only the angels were alone
Some New Mexicans tend to look upon such ritual pageantry with a twinge of
familiarity. Wasn’t it just recently that they had participated in a similar ritual
wherein a crowd had gathered at a door and the singers from within had asked
them to go away and not to disturb their slumber? Then, in a flash of recognition, it
all becomes clear: This Lenten rite is an echo of Las Posadas at Christmas time.
That was the time when Joseph and Mary were sent away from the door at the inn.
Such cross-seasonal comparision helps us to understand why we do what we’ve
done since time immemorial. In order to help more make sense of this Holy Week
of Lent it might do well to backtrack a little to the time of Christmas.
There is an old tradition that says that shortly after the birth of Jesus, King
Herod heard about him from the lips of the Three Wise Men. Filled with rage and
envy at the idea that a mere baby might one day wrest his kingdom from him, he
ordered the slaughter of every male child under the age of two years. Here, it has
always been celebrated as The Feast of the Holy Innocents.
According to Biblical tradition, in order to keep Jesus from being slain in the
massacre, an angel ordered Joseph to take his wife and child off to the land of Egypt
until the danger was over. As The Holy Family made their way into Egypt they
underwent many hardships and they were often in great danger. One night they
approached a bonfire in the desert and unknowingly they came upon a family of
thieves. Somehow, recognizing the sanctity of the family, the thieves let them share
the warmth of their fire until morning and did them no harm. During the night the
Baby Jesus played with the baby that the thieves had in their own family.
Our story picks up today, years later at the scene of the crucifixion that is
remembered every year on Good Friday. Tradition holds that when Jesus was
crucified at Golgotha, he was placed in the middle position between two thieves.
The one on the left of him was named Gestas and the one on the right was named
The thief that was crucified on his left, or sinister side, rebuked Jesus and jeered
at him saying: “Are you not the Son of God? Then climb down from that cross and
save yourself!” The other thief on his right, or dextrous side, looked at Jesus filled
with compassion for him and said: “We are here because we deserve it.” And then
he said: “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus inclined his head to the right and recognized in that crucified man the little
thief who had played with him one night so long ago in the cold desert of his exile.
He looked at him gently and said quietly: “I solemnly assure you that this evening
one shall be with me in Paradise.”
On this Holy Thursday, the eve of Good Friday, this story will be repeated to
children in many households all over New Mexico. It shows us that only by grace
can we turn our lives around even at the eleventh hour. It is a way for many people
to remember their heritage and also to remember the idea that we are born to
goodness no matter what kind of a life we have lived.
What is “The Triumph of the Holy Cross?”
Greenery seems to be returning to the valleys of northern New Mexico, thanks to
the sporadic snows of Lent. It wasn’t so long ago though, that the snow was swirling
about outside as the faithful huddled inside churches and listened to the priest
intone: “Ecce lignum crucis in quo salus mundi pependit.” (Behold the wood of the
cross on which the Salvation of the world did hang.) The congregation would then
respond with the words: “Venite, adoremos.” (Come, let us adore.) After the
liturgy of the Eucharist on Good Friday, all mention of death and dying was put
aside in anticipation of Easter and Resurrection. Here in this part of the world
though, Easter Sunday merely marked a short pause just until the coming of the
third weekend of the Easter season.
May 3rd has traditionally been a special day in the rites of the Greek Church
celebrated as the Day of the Holy Cross. Locally it is marked with ritual dances at
Taos Pueblo and by processions of the faithful in these valleys. Since time
immemorial here the hymn on that day goes like this: “¡Oh qué grande dicha! ¡Oh,
qué gran fineza, que La Santa Cruz, sea mi defensa! (Oh, what great tidings! Oh
what great favor that The Holy Cross be my defense.) The hymn can be traced back
to the occupation of Spain by the Moors between 711-1492. Even our own local
hospital also bears the name of the Holy Cross in remembrance of the day.
Although the day was instituted as one of three days meant to exult and
commemorate the finding of The True Cross by St. Helena much controversy has
surrounded its discovery since its first documented veneration in Jerusalem in 380
A.D. Many of its detractors have tried to show that the feast was earlier than
Christianity by comparing it to the ankh symbols prevalent in Egypt in ancient
times. Others have tried to show how if all of the pieces of “The True Cross” were
added up, it would have been many times bigger than its historical depictions.
(Actually, the known pieces of The Cross currently tally up to just a little above
4,000,000 cubic centimeters. This still allows for more pieces from the calculated
178,000,000 cubic millimeters still unknown or overlooked.)
In any case there are at least three known places where the faithful or the curious
can come very close to the holy relics of the Cross. Most public of all is the tall
bronze cross towering over the center of St. Peter’s Basilica Plaza. Within the tall
metal cross is contained a fragment of the wooden Cross. For this reason many
visitors to Rome like to caress the base of the metal monument between the two
fountains in the court yard.
In an obscure church in the tiny village of Offida in Italy, guarded behind the
security of fifteen padlocks is another piece of The True Cross. If the faithful visit it
between the hours of 2 and 3 in the afternoon, they may be blessed with the holy
relic and are given a chance of venerate it.
Perhaps the most impressive display of pieces of The True Cross are kept within
the back room of the Church of La Santa Croce just a short distance from the great
church of St. John Lateran in Rome. Compared to the splendor of St. Peter’s
Basilica or the overpowering grandeur of St. John Lateran or of St. Mary Major,
Santa Croce is a modest building. As one goes up the nave and veers left, the visitor
will first come upon a piece of wood historically attributed to the cross of Dimas, the
Good Thief. Continuing up the stairs, at the first right is the original letterhead of
The Cross bearing the inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews in Latin,
Greek and Hebrew. Entering into a small room, no bigger than our own local
moradas, is a humble table enclosed with glass. On the extreme front left is a
reliquary displaying the finger of St. Thomas. Next in front are the nails extracted
from the Cross. Also on display is a reliquary enclosing two thorns extracted from
The Crown of Thorns which is now kept under the altar in the lower section of La
Sainte Chapelle in Paris, France. Lastly on the table, is a fistful-sized piece of The
Holy Cross within an elaborate crystal and silver reliquary.
One of the main reasons why the veneration of The Cross was not immediately
popular after the death of Jesus was because of the Hebraïc commandment that that
said: “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven thing…Thou shalt not adore
them nor serve them…In early Christianity when pagan converts were so many, the
Church found it advisable not to permit the development of this cult of images until
after the danger disappeared.
The Heart of a Mother knows no bounds
The old sheep herders from this area often spent months on end alone in the
summer pastures. Although rarely recognized, they became accomplished
storytellers and transmitters of culture throughout the generations. Many of the
favorite tales of northern New Mexico came from the lips of these humble men who
would often relate stories that were not only entertaining, but that would also tell
the unvarnished truth as they perceived it. In this manner, they were not unlike the
Brothers Grimm whose stories were eventually gentrified by the great cartoon
corporations of Hollywood and the puritanical publishing houses of the east.
Among the most interesting stories that come to mind on this eve of Mothers’
Day, is one that tells of the great love of a mother for her children. It goes
something like this: Once upon a time there lived a poor widow way up in the
mountains. She lived simply with only the aid of her young son to help her run the
Although they had always been close, as her son grew older, he seemed to become
more and more distracted. He would slop the pigs as if in a trance and he would
feed the cows without so much as an upward glance to see if they were fine. The
only real fury and passion that he ever showed was when he would chop the wood.
At those time he would swing the axe with the force of those dust devils that were so
common in the springtime.
At those times he would smash the logs as if to splinter them in one fell swoop.
The young man’s mother, who was a very wise woman, saw her son acting
strangely. She had seen the same unease among the farm animals at this same time
every year. It was the blood of springtime that was rising in her son’s veins. Her
son needed a mate.
The month of May rolled slowly by and with each passing day, the blood in her
son’s veins boiled with greater fervor. He would walk from one day to the next
without seeing anything. Fortunately, or so it seemed, her son’s troubles were at an
end; a beautiful lady chanced to come into the neighborhood.
As the far end of the valley there lived an old lady who had been quite a looker in
the days of her prime. Although she had been a stunning creature, she had not
particularly been known for her virtue. In fact, her house had only been talked
about modestly in whispered company. On this day, her niece had come to look
after the aging belle. That’s how the young man happened to notice her.
She would sway along the dirt road from one end of his property to the next,
fashionably waving her little lace hanky. From the first time he saw her, the young
man was smitten. He approached her and said, “For your love, I would dare
anything.” She smiled a wicked little smile and retorted, “Anything? Well then, I
want you to take this knife and plung it into your mother’s heart.”
His own heart sank at the very idea of commiting such an atrocity. Still, there
was that burning in his veins that wouldn’t let him sleep. In the dark of night, he
approached his mother’s room with knife in hand. He heard her quietly whisper to
him, “M’hijo, do what you must do.” With heart and mind troubled, he plunged the
knife deep into his mother’s heart.
He took the heart and wrapped it in the lace handkerchief that still bore the scent
of the wicked lady. As he was carrying it, still in his trance-like state, he failed to see
a rock sticking out in the middle of the road and he tripped on it. His mother’s
heart slipped out of his grasp and went tumbling out among the thorns, rocks and
As he was searching for it, in the dark of night he heard his mother’s voice
anxiously asking, “Ay, m’hijito, ¿no te lastimaste? [My son, did you hurt yourself?]
As he realized the barbarity of his crime, so too did he realize that a mother’s heart
loves her children no matter how they have treated her. The love of a mother has no
limits and rather than think of herself, her heart will always ask, “Ay, m’hijito, ¿no
The old sheepherders had interesting ways of revealing universal truths.
San Isidro marks a Special Day for all Farmers
Saturday, May 3 almost went by unnoticed in northern New Mexico. The ancient
holy day in honor of The Holy Cross was feted only by a few faithful Penitentes and
by a few dancers at Taos Pueblo. Meanwhile, back in Spain, there was excitement
in the air. The reason for such anticipation is due to the fact that Pope John Paul
had just landed in Spain for his fifth visit there. He was on hand to canonize five
new saints on the following day. The five chosen were 20th century Spaniards
named Fr. Pedro Poveda Castroverde, Fr. José María Rubio y Peralta, Sister
Genoveva Torres Morales, Ángela de la Cruz and María Maravillas de Jesús.
Many thought that such a mass canonization was unprecedented in the annals of
Spanish history. But, was it really? As it so happened, on March 12th, 1622 five
Spaniards had been made saints all together. Today we know them as Saint
Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Philip Neri and St.
Isidore the Farmer. This last one, St Isidore, is being honored today, as he is on
every May 15th in the villages surrounding Taos, New Mexico. The village of Los
Córdovas, just southwest of Taos, is his special working space.
According to ancient belief, Isidore had been born near Madrid, Spain almost a
thousand years ago. He had worked as a laborer for a man named Juan de Vargas
on his farm. Many of his fellow laborers had complained to Don Juan that Isidore
was constantly late to work in the mornings. Soon it was discovered that the reason
that he was late was because he was out hearing morning Mass.
This episode is recalled locally in the strophe that say: “Si tarde a la Misa llegas,
y tu corazón amante deplora en el mismo instante no adorar a su Señor, también los
cielos se rasgan, y el augusto sacrificio celebra ante ti propicio el divino Redentor.” [If
ye arrive late to Mass and your loving heart is in deplorable condition at the same
time for not being able to adore your Lord, so too are the heavens torn asunder and
the august sacrifice is celebrated by the divine Redeemer before thee.]
Don Juan went out, says the story, to scold him one morning because of his
tardiness and found that Isidore had already done the work of three men in an
equal amount of time. It was reported then to Don Juan that two angels were often
seen plowing behind the oxen on either side of Isidore. In other reports, an angel
would plow all by himself while Isidore prayed underneath the shade of a tree.
As devotion to the saintly farmer grew across the vagaries of time, his wife
Toribia was also included in the veneration. On days like today, not only is the
image of San Isidro Labrador carried through the fields in petition for a good crop,
the severed head of Toribia is also carried to assure a fertile yield of the harvest. At
those moments, she is called Santa María de La Cabeza. The local poem recalls it in
these words: “En vano Satanás agita las más pérfidas pasiones, pues en nobles
corazones nunca su fuego prendió: así pues tu santa esposa María de la Cabeza por su
virtud y pureza como estrella pareció.” [In vain does Satan try to move the most
treacherous passions, for in noble hearts he could never kindle his fire: thus your
holy wife María de la Cabeza, by her virtue and purity shone like a star].
In the village of Los Córdovas the faithful pray a novena on the nine days
preceding the feast of St. Isidore. Unlike Spain though, the image that is walked
behind San Isidro through the fields is that of Santa Inés del Campo, or Saint Agnes
of the Fields. There are two hymns sung on this day. The first goes like this: “San
Isidro Labrador; patrón de los labradores, líberta nuestro sembrado de langostas y
temblores.” [St. Isidore the Farmer; patron saint of day laborers, safeguard our
crops from hoards of locusts and earth tremors.] The second hymn to St. Agnes of
the Fields says: “Santa Inés del Campo, tus milagros bellos, a los que te aclaman
ruega a Dios por ellos.” [St. Agnes of the Fields, by virtue of your beautiful miracles,
pray for those who ask for your intercession.]
As patron saints of agriculture, both Isidore and Agnes hold special places in the
hearts of local farmers. Isidore is also the Patron Saint of Madrid, León, Saragossa
New Mexico is the Cradle of Bilingualism
During a recent trip of Washington DC I hurriedly rushed out to pick up my
rental car close to the airport. I had to speak within the hour. I handed the girl
behind the counter my New Mexico driver’s license. She looked at it intently and
said, ‘Why, you know, you speak our language very wel1.” I was irritated but,
keeping my cool, I merely returned with “Thank you. So do you.”
Less amusing is the fact that in a recent trip to Denver, Colorado to attend a
funeral, my parents and I stopped at a Denny’s restaurant in Colorado Springs to
have breakfast. Since we prefer to speak Spanish among ourselves, we were doing
so at the table, despite looks of disapproval from tables around us. Finally the
waitress came up and said, “Excuse me, but Colorado is an English-Only State.”
Since federal laws supercedes state laws I calmly explained to her that The First
Amendment of the Constitution of the United States guaranteed my freedom of
speech and that she should buzz off and leave us to our private conversation.
Last week New Mexico felt the sting of a great cultural loss. Dr. Henry Pascual, a
pioneer in bilingual education, died. As the first Director of Bilingual Education in
New Mexico, he set the standard for those subsequent leaders who would promote
bilingualism after him. The name Henry Pascual evokes as well the names of María
Spencer, Margarita López de Mestas, J. Paul Taylor, Mary Jean Haberman, Filmer
Torres, Oclides Tenorio, Roberto Mondragón and all of those others who fought so
strongly to make New Mexico a dual-language state.
Because of their efforts, New Mexico is still the only state in the union where
Spanish is a co-official language. Making its position even more unique in the
nation is the fact that New Mexico is surrounded by states that have passed English
Only laws. In the meantime, defying all attempts at homogenization, New Mexico
has promoted English Plus laws which means that people are encouraged to speak
English plus as many different other languages as possible.
Supporters of English Only laws tend to say: “We are in America. Everyone
should speak English. It is the Official National Language.” Look again! There is
no such law on the books making English the Only Official National Language.
Such matters are decided on a state by state basis. It is the language of most
common usage, nationally speaking, but it is certainly not the only national
Bilingual Laws are offshoots of the Lau versus Nichols Decision and came into
existence in January of 1967. It was designed to address “the special educational
needs of the large number of students in the United States whose mother tongue is
Spanish and to whom English is a foreign language.” The truth of the matter is that
if bilingual education had not come about as a result of Lau versus Nichols, it would
have originated in New Mexico with the La Serna versus the School Board Decision.
It was intended to continue to educate school children with Spanish as a primary
language and English as a secondary language. The result would have yielded a
culturally and linguistically enriched citizenry. Instead, many of the programs were
seen as a means of remediation until the students could be brought totally into the
English Only domain. This was seen in the Ronald Reagan versus Bilingual
Education attempt of 1979-80 which sought to abolish dual language status with
English Only literacy as its goal. The Secretary of Education then was T. H. Bell.
One of the most delightful aspects of having both English and Spanish as co-
official languages in New Mexico, has been the creation of a way of communication
that requires the knowledge of both just to understand that which is neither/nor.
Linguistically speaking, New Mexico Spanglish is a fascinating Creole that has
observable laws for code-switching (when a word of foreign use may be interjected
into a sentence). We snicker when we throw around such expressions as “Come
shop aquí en Taos” and “He’s such a lambe at school” or even “I hit her because she
was giving me genios.”
Again, linguistically speaking, using archaïc 17th century Spanish in combination
with 21st century English, we may well be creating the language of our future.
Instead of letting our multilingual and multicultural differences divide us, let us
revel in our instinct for creativity.
The Greatest Treasures of New Mexico lie in the Cemeteries
It felt rather odd to be celebrating Memorial Day so early, on May 26th this year.
But of course, given the new habit in American culture of celebrating a given federal
holiday on the closest full weekend, I guess it made a sort of sense. In any case, here
in northern New Mexico what used to be a holiday set up to honor war and military
dead has now become a time to honor civilian and ancient dead as well. What used
to be a custom reserved for Día de los Muertos in early November seems to carry
more weigh in late May when the weather is more temperate.
Since its inception, Memorial Day has been a popular holiday. It falls just before
the time of irrigation and comfortably before the time when the crops have grown.
Families and neighbors can still expect visitors from out of town and the cemetery is
the favorite place to visit old haunts (no pun intended) and relive the tales told about
the dead. The archbishop emeritus of Santa Fe, Robert Fortune Sánchez, was
always fond of saying: “The real treasures of New Mexico are lying in the
cemeteries still waiting to have their stories told.” And the tales are most certainly
Gazing around the cemetery of Arroyo Seco right along the Hondo-Seco Road,
one is certainly struck by the familial devotion to tradition that is reflected in the
chatter of neighbors sprucing up the graves. The area is decorated with sprays of
artificial flowers and occasionally by a stand of wild irises or trim lilac bushes. But
wait, what’s that one, single, solitary juniper tree doing in the cemetery? If one
listens carefully to the people under it, the story comes to life:
“About sixty years ago,” begins the youngish matron who is pulling up the weeds,
“the man who is lying here, was picking juniper berries one afternoon in May. He
was going to use the berries in the traditional remedies that he often concocted for
his neighbors. Sadly though, as he was picking the berries, he forgot to honor the
tree by asking its permission, taking for granted instead, his right to harvest its wild
fruit. As he was busy picking the juniper berries, he failed to notice a gathering
thunder storm that was coming toward his direction.
It wasn’t until he heard a thunderclap overhead that Mano Eusebio [not his real
name] took notice of the storm. He huddled under the juniper tree for protection
from the storm. He thought he’d wait it out under its thickly-set branches as he got
his pipe out for a smoke. Without warning, suddenly a lightning bolt struck nearby.
Old Mano Eusebio was startled but comfortable. A second thunderbolt struck now,
a little closer to where he was sitting. Mano Eusebio thought fleetingly that maybe
he should move away, but it was still raining quite hard.
Forgeting his traditional upbringing that during a thunder storm he should
invoke the aide of Saint Barbara to intercede against the thunder and lightning,
Mano Eusebio puffed harder on his old pipe. Suddenly a deafening clap was heard
as a lightning bolt split the juniper tree under which Mano Eusebio was sitting. The
storm came to a finish and the sun gradually came back out.
The following day some wandering sheep herders came upon the body of Mano
Eusebio and brought it back down from the mountain and buried him in the young
Seco cemetery. Odd to say though, a few years after he was buried, a lone juniper
tree began to grow out of Mano Eusebio’s grave. It grew straight out of his belly
and still stands, all of these decades later as the only tree in the entire cemetery.”
“I suppose,’ concluded the youngish matron, “that Mano Eusebio was buried in
the same closes that he was wearing when he got killed. The juniper berries he had
in his pockets must be taken root and spouted from his grave…”
In another portion of the cemetery, a lady who came from Denver had relocated
the long-abandonned grave of the old lady who had raised her as a child. “She was
very good to me,” she said. “She even let me have a pet lamb. Every morning I
would fry up a couple of eggs for breakfast. I’d eat one and give the other one to my
pet lamb…As he grew up, the lamb srouted two horns. One day he spotted his own
reflection in a neighbor’s window, and thinking that it was another ram come to
invade his turf, he lowered his head and rushed at the window. His shattered it and
we had to replace the neighbor’s glass…”
Yes, the cemeteries of northern New Mexico can still yield their treasures from
those who remember the old tales and from those who bother to record them fpr
Multilingualism and Understanding were here from the Beginning
The old sheepherder sat on a smooth, round stone high on a mountain top
watching the rising sun. As he did so, he rocked quietly back and forth and seemed
to be mumbling something under his breath. Over and over again he whispered the
same words into the morning breeze. They sounded something like this: “Daanzho,
Kuweasti hopa, Maruawe, Um waynuma, Guwaadzi sai hauba, Niltze, Yá’át’ééh,
Shengui tsamu, Ee-o-ho, Kesh’shi.”
He paused and smiled as he rocked back and forth, aware of the fact that the
sunlight was now shining fully upon his countenance. He begin his litany of obscure
words again, dimly aware that the youngest of the sheep herders had come up
quietly from behind him. He continued: “Daanzho, Kuweasti hopa, Maruawe, Um
waynuma, Guwaadzi sai hauba, Niltze, Yá’át’ééh, Shengui tsamu, Ee-o-ho, Kesh’shi.”
The sun beamed down even brighter upon him.
“Good morning, viejito,” said the young shepherd softly. “What are those
strange words that you’re mumbling?”
“M’hijo,” replied the old sheep herder, “I am greeting the sun in the ancient
languages of the people of this area. I have just said ‘hello’ to the sun in the
languages of the Apache, Cochití, Comanche, Hopi, Keres, Náhuatl, Navajo, and
Tewa, Tiwa, and Zuñi people. They represent some of the original languages that
were spoken in this area a thousand years ago.”
The young boy tried not to interupt the old sheep herder who had closed his eyes
and just let the falling rays of the sun sink their warmth into his skin. The young
boy listened intently but the sounds coming forth from the old man’s lips had
changed. Now he seemed to be saying: “Salaam aleikum, Kaixo, Bongiorno,
Bonjour, Geia sou, Guten Tag, Oi, Buenos días.”
The young boy’s face lit up in recognition of the words “buenos días.”
“You’re still saying ‘hello’ to the sun.” said he. “But these new sounds are just as
strange as the words you were saying before. What languages are you using?”
“I am using other languages. I am using languages that came with settlers from
across the sea. These were languages that arrived in these parts in 1540 when Don
Francisco de Coronado led an expedition into New Mexico. Salaam aleikum is
Arabic, Kaixo is Basque, Bongiorno is Italian, Bonjour is French, Geia sou is Greek,
Guten Tag is German, Oi is Portuguese, and if course you understand Buenos días.
These languages represent 2/3 of the people who visited New Mexico over 450 years
The young boy marvelled at the wisdom of the old sheep herder. The old man
beckoned to him and said, “Come here. I have one more word that I want you to
learn. It means both ‘hello’ and ‘peace.’ It is the Hebrew word Shalom.”
“If it is a Hebrew word,” continued the boy, “why do we use it here in New
“Because,” came the answer, “Later on, the whole Pecos valley by Santa Fe was
settled by some crypto-Jews seeking to escape persecution from the Office of the
Inquisition. Among the stories that these people passed on to us were the stories of
how prideful mankind tried to raise a tower that would reach into the heavens. God
then knocked the Tower of Babel down and confused the language of men so that
they might remember to honor Him in their own babble. Mankind separated and
gathered into separate nations, setting up borders to divide them selves.”
“If men only spoke different languages, how did they learn to understand one
“Understanding is the hardest part of any language,” said the old sheep herder.
“By tradition, understanding came to us through something called The Pentecost.
The spirit of God descended in the form of tongues of fire and enlightened the minds
of mankind so their languages would no longer divide them but enhance their sense
of brotherhood. After seven Sundays of Easter, the feast of the Pentecost has
returned to us and this coming Sunday marks its feast day.”
As the young shepherd gazed off into the distance, a white dove was seen coming
down from the direction of the rising sun. All was at peace with the world.
The Old Sheep Herder continues His Tale
The young boy looked rather dejected as he sat down on the stone near the old
sheep herder. He said quietly, “I don’t know why but I really don’t feel much like
celebrating. This year marks the sequicentenial anniversary of the founding of the
Archdiocese of Santa Fe. This year, in 2003, we are all 150 years older, liturgically
speaking. But when I think of the thoughtlessness with which we were founded, I
just want to weep.
“Why,” he continued, “The first archbishops of New Mexico wouldn’t even allow
the speaking of Spanish by those who served at the dinner table, insisting that
everyone in their emloyee must become either américanizés or Frenchified. They
wanted no allegiance to Mexico or Spain. They often discussed just how these
‘rustic, little New Mexicans’ were too thick-headed and dull to understand high
theology. What could we possibly understand about the Summa Theologica? ‘The
great Padre Martínez of Taos’ himself couldn’t understand it.”
The old sheep herder just continued to gaze into the valleys just below the
mountaintops and a smile seemed to play around the corners of his mouth. “I am
going to tell you a story,” he said. It isn’t a story from around here, but it means
much to you and to all of the others who feel that they have been crushed by those in
power. It takes place in old Russia in an area kind of like this is.
“It seems that a great and powerful archbishop had been sent over to this rural
area to help guide the flocks of peasants who dwelt therein. He got there under the
cover of darkness so that he really couldn’t even appreciate the rugged beauty of the
land. He drove up to the old rectory quietly and thinking that he should have been
sent to some mighty city with a huge cathedral and all of the comforts of home. Just
as he pulled up to his own driveway, he heard some people praying quietly. They
seemed to be saying: ‘Most sweet heart of Jesus be by love.’ The respose coming
from other voices would be ‘Most sweet heart of Mary be my salvation.’
The old archbishop scoffed quietly to himself. These people were not versed in
simple doctrine and yet, in their prayers, they pretended to understand what was in
the the hearts of Jesus and Mary. He made up his mind then and there that he
would teach all of these peasants high theology so that they might become civilized.
The following day he went out to explore a little. He came upon a beautiful
mountain lake, shimmering in the distance. Perhaps a ride out upon this lake might
refresh his spirit and alleviate his melancholy at having been sent to this land of
rustic, peasant-types. He was taken on board a row boat into the middle of the
waters by an oarsman. After he had pulled away from the banks be noticed that
there was an island out in the middle of the lake. “It is inhabited by three wise
sheepherders.” said the oarsman. “We can stop by and talk to them.”
The old archbishop disembarked at the island when they arrived. He went forth
to talk to the three wise sheep herders of the island. After talking to them for a
goodly sum of time, the old arachbishop decided that the three sheep herders were
not as wise as the people of that area thought. He began to try to teach them the
hidden meanings of mighty doctrines and he would have them repeat them just to
make sure they knew what they were taking about. He tried to teach them about
the hearts of Jesus and Mary and about the great mysteries of love and
understanding contained within them both. Finally, it grew late and the old
archbishop got back on the boat for his trip back to the shore and to his home.
The oarsman had rowed back a good length of time when suddenly, three lights
were seen to be coming toward the boat of the old archbishop. They came across
the water, nearer and nearer, brighter and brighter. Finally the three lights came
right up to the side of the boat.
That is when the old archbishop found out that the lights were really three
lanterns carried in the hands of the three sheep herders who had simply walked
across the water as if it were dry land.”
The young boy paused to look at the old sheep herder narrating the tale. You
mean,” he asked, “that the three men could walk on water like saints or angels?”
“Maybe they could.” said the old sheep herder. “But the whole point of the story
is this: Some people have to show their holiness with words. Other people merely
live their holiness without words, even to the point of walking to water. Which of
the two would you rather be?”
The young boy went away, feeling a little better about himself.
The Old Sheep Herder concludes His Tale
The young shepherd boy came up to the side of the pool where the old sheep
herder was drinking from his cupped hands. “I remember,” said the old man, “a
pool that used to exist at the base of these cliffs. We used to call it ‘el ojito de la
Virgen’ and it used to contain the sweetest, most still waters and the the purest in
the entire canyon. Both people and wild animals would come down to drink from
this clear source or sometimes, people would come from miles around just to fetch
some water back home with them.”
“What happened to ‘el ojito de la Virgen’,”asked the young boy? “Do the waters
of that holy natural spring still exist?”
“No,” replied the old man. “Once Twining Road had to be enlarged and placed
on the opposite side of the river bank, el ojito de la Virgen was buried underneath
the rubble of all of the construction. Its clear waters disappeared underneath all
that black tar and asphalt.” He walked a little farther down the lane and then he
stooped to pick a little wild flower from the ground.
“What is the name of this flower, viejito?” he asked.
The old sheep herder glanced over to where the boy was and said, “If you really
want to know the name of the flower, take it and cast it into the waters of this
The boy was puzzled at the strange request but he did what the old sheep herder
asked him to do anyway. As the petals of the flower got moist with the water, they
grew heavier and began to sink. The waters all around the flower began to emit a
reddish hue as if the flower were bleeding. The boy looked askance from the old
“That flower,” said the old man, “is called ‘la florecita de San Juan.’ It is whitish
or yellowish in color when it grows in Nature. When you drop it in water though, it
begins to turn red as blood, and for very good reason.”
The younger boy waited with baited breath as the old sheep herder paused to sit
“There is an old story,” said the old man, “about a king who was being
entertained by the charms of a beautiful dancing girl. He proclaimed in the
presence of all that he would grant her anything she might desire, even unto one
half of his kingdom, as a reward for her fine dancing.” The girl went to her own
mother and repeated the foolish promise made to her by the king.
“Go,” said her mother, “and tell the king that as a reward for your dancing, he
should send to you the head of John the Baptist.” “Now, John the Baptist was a
holy man who used to pour water over the heads of the people and make them holy
as well. He was so popular with many people and had roused the envy of several
“Since the king had made the foolish promise to the girl in the presence of many
people, he had no choice but to cut off the head of John the Baptist and send it to the
girl. Local lore says that as the drops of blood fell from the severed head of John
the Baptist, they fell on the ground and became these little whitish flowers that still
bleed in the presence of water. The feast of John the Baptist is still a time-honored
tradition in northern New Mexico. It was the name given to Ohkay Pueblo by the
first European comers. His feast day is celebrated on the 24th day of every June
with much ritual and pomp.
“On that day, all water is held to be sacred. People from all walks of life and
from all ages will bathe in the acequias, streams, rivers, canals, ponds, lakes and
even from fire hydrants on that day. Anything touched by the waters of St. John
are immunce to the dark powers of witchcraft, especially because the name ‘John’
itself means ‘belovèd of God.’ ”
The old sheep herder wandered away quietly while the young boy stood in the
twilight nursing a myriad of more questions that he had wanted to ask.
The Young Boy becomes The Sheepherder
Having learned the identity of the whitish flower from the old sheep herder, the
young boy’s interest was piqued about the nature of other plants that he saw
growing around him. He noticed that the old sheep herder was not the only wise
person in the valley. There were several others who were good sources of
information about local culture and tradition. He began to seek them out.
From the first lady he met he learned about the wild celery plant, an offshoot of
the parsley family. This plant had pungent roots called oshá. They were boiled
locally on top of the stove and their aroma soon filled the rest of the house. The
breathing of oshá odor was held to clear lungs and sinuses and keeps the local
residents from catching colds. The root of the oshá plant was sometimes carried in
pockets as a protection against venomous snakes. The boy was pleased with what he
At the next hillock he met an old man tilling his corn. The corn had kernels of
pink, blue and and yellow grains, making an elaborate array upon the cob. As he
tilled the corn, he told the young boy about a time when the people of the valley had
lost their faith in God. They fell away from grace and the water tables dried up.
In vain would they till the corn for the plants would only wither away and die.
One day when a farmer had gone to shuck the corn, something marvelous appeared
on the face of the cob. There, composed totally of pink, blue and yellow kernels of
corn, was the image of a lady. It was the Holy Virgin in the image of The Corn
Mother. She had come to remind the people of the valley that even if they didn’t
believe in her, she still believed in them. For that reason, he said, the multi-colored
corn was given to us as a reminder.
He told the young man that the people would often boil the oven-dried corn into
a smokey-favored treat called chicos. The corn silk they would boil into a tea that
was used to cleanse bladders, livers and kidneys. The young man memorized his
words as quickly as possible. He came to realize that knowledge must be framed
within a proper context in order to be effective.
Farther down the valley the young man paused to look at a mother picking the
best plants in her garden from the chamomile family. She was humming a lullaby
softly to herself and saying: “This manzanilla plant will be used as a wash to help
my baby. I will swath his bottom with this wash for four days and his diaper rash
will go away.
“If he were an old man what I would do is to take a different plant; el punche
mexicano, he cure his bottom. The crushed leaves of Mexican Tobacco would be
applied as an unguent to treat his hemorroids.” The young shepherd boy made
mental notes about the different plants to be used at different seasons of life.
As he paused along the stream, the young man saw a boy and a girl dangling
their feet into the water. They were kicking droplets into the air and chewing on
something that looked refreshing. He approached them and asked: “Why are you
kicking the water?”
“He has a llalla on his foot,” said the girl. “He got it by stepping on a nail. His
mom mixed some trementina with romería leaves and made them into an encerado.
Now he’s just kicking up water to clean the wound.”
The young shepherder made a mental note that resin from the piñón tree, mixed
with rosemary leaves and mashed into a salve, could be used to treat wounds and
“What are you chewing” he asked at length.
“It is yerba buena.” said the boy. “-Spearmint. It is not as strong as poleo
(Peppermint) but it is good and helps to cool us down in the middle of the day.”
By keeping his ears open, the young shepherd had acquired a whole bunch of
cultural knowledge. By slow degrees, he had become the very person whose
knowledge he used to admire. He was now the teacher.
The Young Sheepherder learns to apply His Knowledge
The young boy had learned how to make encerado, the homemade ointment so
named for the cera or waxy lanolin base that held it together. He remembered
something else that was very similar. It was the name of the Encebado Valley that
was high in the mountains. Locally people thought that it was called “Encebado”
and translated its name erroneously as “greased place.” The old sheep herders
knew better though. They knew that the Encebado Valley was so named because of
the cebadilla plants that grew there with such profusion.
Cebadilla was the Common Mullein plant from the Fig Wort family. Sometimes
called Green Gentian, it used to be native to Asia. The local livestock refused to eat
of its broad, light-green leaves because they were wooly or fuzzy and it stuck in their
throats. There were local stories though, that told of how it was tasteless and
odorless when boiled. It was brewed into coffee and given to unwelcome travelers in
the sheep camps. Before the the visitors had finished drinking the coffee, it’s potent
powers would induce extreme diarrhea and thus discourage further visits. In more
gentle use, the cebadilla leaves could be brewed in moderation to make an effective
The young sheep herder also thought of the añil or local sunflower plants. Their
dry flowers and leaves could be boiled and made into a bright indigo dye to be used
in woven blankets and throws. Tradition and rumor also held that whenever the
indigo dye was mixed with the urine of a pre-pubescent boy, it would become color-
The sunflower itself had been widely misundertood for generations. Sometimes it
was referred to as “girasol” from the old Spanish word “girar” meaning “to turn”
because of the flower’s habit of turning its face to the sun as it travelled across the
skies. Later on an edible tuber with a taste similar to the girasol was named
“Jerusalem Artichoke” though it had nothing to do with the city of Jerusalem itself.
The Spanish name for the Holy City, “Jerusalén” just happened to sound like the
name for the “girasol.” Rotating weathervanes were still called “giraldas” because
of their rotating motions.
He saw a stand of a yellowish-reddish Indian Paintbrush and thought of its local
name in Spanish. It was called Flor de Santa Rita. Santa Rita was a name much
honored among the intercessing saints of the valleys. She was the patron saint of
impossible cases. Whenever people were enbroiled in legal messes or they had
diseases deemed uncurable, they always fled to the intercession of Santa Rita of
Casia for help. They would sing “Salve Santa Rita. Salve Bella Aurora. De los
imposibles, eres vencedora.” [Hail Saint Rita. Hail Holy Dawn. Of impossible cases,
you are the vanquisher.]
Right next to it he found some chicoria commonly called dandelion in English. A
very pleasing wine could be extracted from its jagged leaves. In fact, few people
realized that the name “dandelion” was owed directed to the French who thought
that its leaves resembled the tooth of a lion, hence dent de lion in French.
The waxy roots of the yucca plant could be smashed into a sudsy paste that was
used locally in the making of detergents for washing blankets and rugs during
spring cleaning. The root would be mixed with hot water in the hollowed-out
cottonwood troughs and the soiled garments were beaten with paddles. Its local
name was amole.
He knew better than to go near the tolache plants. The trumpet-like flowers of
this Jimson Weed had to be handled only by those whose knew their power. They
were very toxic and dangerous and they were used only in witchcraft and in
ceremonies for conjuring up the living dead.
No, it was not easy to make the transferance from being a borreguero [sheep
herder] to knowing the craft of the curandero [medicine man]. The young man was
stressed. There was much to learn but he had the rest of his life to hone his craft.
What is the Radical Nature of Bread?
The young sheep herder was walking along in the cool of the morning air just
before sunrise. The sun had just risen and the birds were darting about. He came
upon a field just beyond the acequia that was gurgling within its shallow banks. The
field was ripe with golden wheat, swaying gently in the morning breeze. He paused
to gaze down upon the sea of bright stalks as they moved slowly back and forth.
Just then he noticed the older shepherd sitting quietly near one corner of the field.
He was munching quietly on a piece of shepherd’s bread that he had obviously
baked himself. Its subtle aroma was wafting in the morning breeze. Suddenly, he
too was seized by a powerful appetite. He approached the older man.
“Amigo,” he said, “will you share your pan with me? I’m very hungry.”
“Of course you can have a piece of bread.” retorted the older man. “But only if
you can tell me what is better than bread.”
The younger man thought for a few seconds but made no reply.
“Americans have an expression for things that are really nice.” continued the
older man. “They say that something is as ‘good as gold.’ But we sheep herders
have always known differently. We say that something is ‘tan bueno como el pan’
[as good as bread.] It is because is reminds us of who we are and what we are to
The younger man had a thousand questions but he held his breath and contented
himself merely be chomping on a piece of bread. He waited with forced patience.
“We begin like this sea of grain that you see in front of you.” the old shepherd
said. “We are like the hardened grain that forms in these little pods for security.
We are tossed back and forth by the whims of destiny. But whenever the grain
allows itself to be harvested, it can be separated from the chaff by winnowing it in
the breeze at dusk. Then that part of the grain that is not good for bread, is blown
away, leaving only what is necessary for the transformation.”
The younger man swallowed hard, waiting to be told of the ‘transforation.’ The
older man watched him swallow. He said, “Para un buen hambre no hay pan duro.”
The translation of that means, ‘for a good hunger, there is no hard bread.’ Its
interpretation is ‘Hunger is the best gravy.’” He winked at the younger man.
Whenever people are ready to begin the transformation process, they take the
flour and yeast, salt and oil and water, the put them into a clean mixing bowl. They
will blend all of the ingredients together. Once the dough is properly mixed and
ready to be keaded, they will punch it down by piercing it with their finger tips,
making the sign of a cross. Then it is ready to be worked.”
“Whenever, the local priest wants to transform the bread even farther, to be used
for communion, he says some strange words. Do you know what they are?” asked
the younger man.
“He will say, “Hoc est enim corpus meum.” said the older shepherd. “That Latin
expression means ‘This is my body.’ But many people could not understand the
ancient words and so they shortened the mystical expression from ‘hoc est enim
corpus meum’ to ‘hocus-pocus’ which they use whenever they want to encourage
primitive magic. But the real radical nature of bread is that it must allow itself to be
ground and kneaded and mixed in order to transform its nature into this bread that
we are eating here this morning.” He paused briefly and fixed an eye on the
younger man. “That too, is the radical nature of mankind.”
The younger shepherd pondered the observation of the older man in silence. He
shifted his eyes from the golden sea of grain waving in front of him and then back to
the bread that he held between his hands. They were of the same substance. But
from the start to the finish, the grain was no longer the same.
As he got up and dusted off his pants, the young sheep herder realized that he too
was no longer the same.
The Transformation of The Shepherd continues
Still walking along the dusty pathway toward the road, the young shepherd boy
was thinking of how the grain had allowed itself to be transformed into bread. He
thought of his own process of transformation and that of others. He looked across
the valley to the plains of San Cristóbal. He smiled warmly as he thought of the
wise woman who lived there. She sometimes wore a necklace of smallish human
bones. They reminded her, she said, of the fact that life as temporal and that it was
to be appreciated every day. She had also told him a most interesting story.
She had said, “San Cristóbal has the head of a dog.” She paused to gauge his
reaction. He didn’t know whether by “San Cristobal” she had meant the valley that
he could see or the old saint after which it was named. Finally she had said, “In the
ancient Menaion, or the Book of Calendar Feasts, there is perhaps the most vivid
example of how folk legend has penetrated church tradition in the story of St.
Christopher. Many saints in the older tradition were called ‘God-bearers’ because
of the belief that they carried divine qualities within themselves which had earned
them this title, pronounced as ‘Theotokos.’ In the West, this title has been taken
literally and for that reason, St. Christopher is said to have actually carried the
Christ Child across a swollen stream.’
She paused to catch her breath and to take a sip of water. She continued.
“Actually, San Cristóbal was the decendent of a legendary race of giants who had
human bodies and dogs’ heads. They were called ‘the Cynocephali.’ His body
looked just like that of any ordinary person except for the fact that his face was that
of a mutt. After he had carried the Christ Child across the stream he turned to him
and said, ‘I feel as if I have carried the weight of the world upon my shoulders.’
The Child is reported to have said, ‘Not only did you carry the weight of the world
upon your shoulders; you carried Him who made the world upon your shoulders.’
Having heard these words pronounced by the Child, he was suddenly transformed
from an ugly, old dog-headed giant, into a handsome brute of a man.”
The young shepherd boy pondered other examples of personal transformation.
He thought of the woman accused of adultry who was about to be stoned to death.
After a brush with the divine, she discovered her own sanctity and was transformed
into Mary of Magdala. The depictions of her in art show her to be abeautiful,
penitent, and modest lady.
He thought of the statue of Thérèse of Lisieux in the church. She is shown as a
radiant and humble servant clinging softly to a crucifix and roses. The truth of the
depiction though, if it were made according to actual photographs taken of her
while she was still alive, would have shown that she was not extremely pretty. She
tended to be on the pudgy side. In her sanctity though she became more radiant
and pure and bodily proportionate.
He brought to mind the images of the slender and elegant St. Antony of Padua.
He often held lilies and a child in his arms. According to relics in the cathedral of
Padua though, his decaying habit shows him to have been an extremely heavy man
whose very corpulence would have been the envy of San Pascual in the the kitchen.
Other bodily transformations have erased thee pock marks on Blessed Kateri
Tekawitha, the maiden of the Mohawks, and also have sponged away the leperosy
sores from Saint Damian of Molochai.
The young shepherd boy looked down at his own imperfect body. He came to the
idea that his own transformation had to be more spiritual in order to effect physical
changes within him. Physical transformation was the result of, not the goal of,
spiritual renewal. He walked away slowly, heading back up toward the mountains.
It seemed that every step he took brought him less in contact with the vile dust and
his feet hardly seemed to touch the ground. He was happy.
The Sheepherder visits the ‘Bennett’ Morada
On his way back to Arroyo Seco from San Cristóbal the young sheepherder
paused by the Crossroads to catch his breath. In the distance he watched another
man walking toward the village. He could distinguish that it was the old
sheepherder. He picked up his pace and quickly caught up with him sitting under a
tree. They were both facing toward the mountain and gazing at the sunlight playing
on the adobe walls of the old morada across the road. He joined him right at the
entrance to El Caminito de las Ánimas (The Road of the Blessed Souls).
“That little place,” started the older man, “was built in 1934. It was the
brainchild of the late Juan Bautista Durán and his wife Genoveva Romero. They
had conceived the idea of building a quiet spot and dedicate it to one of the famous
redheads of history.” He paused.
The younger boy waited for him to continue his story.
“Yes,” he said, “even though the local people commonly refer to it as ‘The
Bennett Morada’, it was really built in honor of Saint Ignatius of Loyola whose feast
day we celebrate today, on July 31st. He was a Basque dandy who had a miraculous
convertion during the time that he was recovering from a gun wound at the Battle of
Pamplona. He began to study the lives of the saints and was moved to found the
Company of Jesus, commonly called The Jesuits.”
“Why then, is it called ‘The Bennett Morada’ by the locals?” asked the younger
“It was short-lived devotion within the last century,” came the answer. “After it
was built, several community members were recruited to ‘baptize’ it. Among them
were Gabriel and Bersabé Márquez, Amarante and Adelina Vigil and Walfredo and
Marianita Pacheco among others. Many local men were called to become members
of the Morada de San Ignacio. They included Lucas Pacheco, Juan Alberto Durán,
Pedro Archuleta, Solomón Durán and Gabriel Márquez who held the first rites
there. The young girls called Verónicas came to their assistance in the procession.
They were Helen Durán, Medalia Fréquez, Antonia Córdova, and Teresina
The devotion to San Ignacio fell apart even as the original Spiritual Exercises and
early attempts of organizing the Jesuits were opposed by the Popes. Most of St.
Ignatius’ original work was almost undone but for the persistance of his early
followers. The saint’s original name was Iñigo in Basque, you know”
“That still doesn’t tell me,” continued the boy, “why it became the Bennett
“That’s because when the enrollment of the brotherhood went down, many of the
remnant transferred to another place. The old building was sold then to Mr.
Clinton Bennett out of Chicago in 1949. He used to spend summers down here until
he moved his family to Georgia.”
“Does the morada still belong to the Bennetts?” asked the boy.
“Not any more.” came the answer. “It is owned now by a famous actress who
uses it as a place to hide out in whenever the news reporters and other curious
people are waiting for her at her regular home.”
“You have an answer for everything, just like a Jesuit.” commented the young
“Some people think that all New Mexicans are Franciscans,” said the older man.
“But I think that there are a few Jesuits scattered among them.”
That made the young boy smile. He understood.
(Many thanks to Merleen Archuleta, Cordie Córdova, Lillian García and Irene
Torres who provided the historical footnotes for this article.)
The Sheepherder is told to be prepared
As he returned to his native village, the young sheepherder paused to rest at the
cemetery just outside of his belovèd town. He sat quietly amid the tombstones and
graves and took in the silence of the area, gazing down at the places where his
ancestors were lying. He felt certain tightness in his chest which he assumed was
caused by the fact that he had walked too fast. He caught his breath. Hearing a
slight noise to his right, he noticed that the old sheepherder was already sitting in
the shade of a headstone. He was somewhat mystified for he had left the old man
back at the morada.
“Compañero,” he called out hoarsely, “how does it come about that you have
beaten me here? I thought I left you back at the old Bennett place.”
“Wherever you see me is where I am,” replied the old man.
The younger man then noticed that the old sheepherder was feeding some blades
of grass to a lamb that had wandered into the campo santo. He was also giving a
little white bird a few grains from the palm of his hand. The bird perched softly on
the top of a tombstone taking the morsels contentedly.
“How can you attract the animals so easily?” he asked him at length.
“Animals and children can always tell instinctively who has a good heart.” he
said. “A good heart treats everyone with the same love and respect.”
The younger man paused. “Do I have a good heart?” he heard himself ask.
“You do,” came the answer, “but it it weak.”
“Perhaps I can take some herbs and roots to strengthen it.” he said almost
desperately. “Or maybe I can pray to the saints.”
“Cuando Dios no quiere, santos no pueden.” said the old man. “Whenever God
wills it, saints can do nothing.”
The younger sheepherder felt a sudden chill working its way along his spine, even
though it was a warm day. The thought crossed his mind that the old man always
seemed to know just what to say, just what to do and the moment that it needed to
be said. He had an uncanny way of being present wherever he himself was, and to
know a great deal about times and events that had already taken place. He felt
compelled to ask him, “Nunca me ha dicho, -you never did tell me—where are you
“I am from all places and from all times.” said the old sheepherder. All of these
people buried here, I knew well. I knew them at least as well as I know you.”
The younger man felt his chest tighten again and his heart was pounding
furiously. He asked again, “¿Quién es usted? ¿Cómo sabe cuándo venir? You know
when to come, when you are needed. Who are you?
“Whenever a bird bumps his head on your window, it is a sign that I am coming.
Whenever a figure dressed in white passes in front of your window at night I am
close behind. Whenever a picture falls off a wall, I know that I am needed.
Whenever a dog howls for no reason that means that I am passing through.
Whenever a rooster crows with its tail to the door, I am coming. Whenever you feel
your feet being pulled at night, I will be lying next to you very soon.’
Such an answer would have baffled an ordinary person, but the young
sheepherder was trained in all of the signs. He knew that he was speaking to Death
himself. “And that means,” he said slowly, that you are Sebastián.
The old sheepherder merely nodded his assent. “It’s almost time to go.” he said.
The younger man knew then that his hour was coming. He was not
uncomfortable however. He could do worse than have the old sheepherder at his
side on his last crossing. He sank down peacefully in the grass as he gathered his
The Young Sheepherder dies at last
Nothing seemed to change really. The younger sheepherder was still sitting on
the grass next to the tombstones. There had been a brief flash of light, but except
for that fact, all was still the same. He heard some people passing by along the road
next to the cemetery. “Death won’t dare to take me,” he thought, “as long as there
are other people present.” He stood up quickly and yelled loudly to them and
waved his arms. Nothing. The people seemed not to know that he was yelling for
them. They merely continued going by slowly.
“Amigo,” said old Sebastián to him softly, “they will not hear you. For, you see,
you are already dead. You are no longer keeping step with their time. Death has its
The younger man just looked at him calmly. Somehow he had always thought
that he would have a harder time accepting death but he understood it easily now
that his time had come. He tried to take a step forward but he tripped on something
that was in his way. He looked downward and saw that he had tripped on his own
body that was lying on the ground. His essence –his soul— was doing all of his
thinking for him.
“Who is to find my body?” he asked Death.
“That next person who comes here,” came the answer from old Sebastián. “Does
it really matter where your bones lie?”
“I had always thought that I should like to have them rest in a corner of the old
churchyard in the village. I have always been very fond of it.”
“Why?” asked Death.
“Ever since I was a little boy,” he said, “I used to wake up in the middle of the
night and spy three beings of light standing right next to my bed. They weren’t
scary or anything, I would go right back to sleep because I knew somehow that they
were always there taking care of me.”
“Did they ever say anything to you?” asked Sebastián.
“They did not whisper anything to me in voices,” said the younger man, but in
my dreams they would show me visions. One night long ago, I dreamed that I had
died and that I was already buried in the corner of the old churchyard. I had sat up
in my grave among my own bones and walked through the ground until I reached
the front of the old church. I heard some music coming from underneath the
ground and then I saw was I was standing within a great cathedral. There was a
mighty cathedral where the humble church had once stood. I saw The Pope himself
blessing the people of the village inside the hallways. I wept for joy that I had been
allowed to see that vision.”
“Then your body must be taken to the old churchyard,” said Death. Your vision
will be fulfilled but only long after you have been dead. For you are made of the
same mud from which that church building is made. The essence of the church is
essentially that same one that composes that body that you see lying at your own
feet. Didn’t you ever wonder about the name that you were given at birth? You
were named after that very church.
“But, what is my name?” asked the younger man, suddenly perplexed.
“Your dead godfather showed great wisdom in choosing what you would be
called and by hiding it in the middle of your name, Trinidad.”
“So there was a reason then, why I was named after the three faces on God?”
asked the younger sheepherder.
“Nothing in this life is ever left to chance,” came the answer. “it was pre-
ordained from the very beginning. Come now, it is time that we finish the journey
that you have been on since the time you were born. Vámonos.”
The younger sheepherder took his first step into eternity…
The Sheepherder goes on The Road to Eternity
The young sheepherder watched as his body was discovered in the early morning
by a drunkard who just happened to be coming up the road from a night of
carousing. He had paused by the cemetery when he noticed the sheepherder’s body
lying there covered in dew. He had the presence of mind to go to the nearest
neighboring house to ask for help.
Soon enough the young sheepherder saw his own body picked up by some men on
a horse cart. It was taken to a waiting place called el oratorio and lain on top of the
table. This was the place to which the dead were traditionally brought before the
grave had been dug or whenever the ground was too frozen. His body was washed
with peppermint water and dressed in a mortaje. The mortaje was a simple white
tunic was in common use as a burial cloth. They had been out of fashion for
decades but mercifully, the young sheepherder had preserved one as a shroud
against his own time of need.
He was eventually laid out in a simple pine box that had been lined with black
cloth in the old style. A narrow piece of white cloth in the form of a cross marked
the side of the coffin that was where his head rested. The few villagers that came to
see him off sang the customary alabado hymns that put the dead to rest. They held
an all night vigil full of prayers over the body and with the coming of the first light
of day, the velorio was terminated and the body carried away.
“En peso” they called it, whenever a body was hand-carried by six strong
bearers. The place where the coffin was put down while they shifted shoulders was
called a descanso.
He was given a High Mass attended by several priests and by an unknown holy
man; a hermit who happened to wander through the village at that time. The
village priest intoned the “Dies illae, dies irae” as he was lowered into the ground.
At soon as his face had been covered with the earth he no longer had reason to stay.
He turned to Death and said quietly, “Bueno, vamos.”
Death, still wearing the mask of the older sheepherder, brought him to a place
where four paths parted ways. Each was clearly marked. The first said “Limbo.”
“That one,” said his guide “is reserved for babies and adults who were never
baptized. They spend eternity thirsting for the waters that would have washed
away the stain of their original sin.”
Next old Sebastián showed the young sheepherder a second pathway. It was
clearly marked as “Purgatorio.”
“That pathway,” he said, “is reserved for souls waiting to attain a state of
perfection. It is a waiting place that is supported by the charity of people who are
“The third pathway,” he continued, “is the high road to El Paraíso. Notice how it
is wanting for more footsteps to wear it down.
“And this last path,” he finished, “is the road to that city of pain; La Citta Dolente
as a friend of mine named Dante once said in Italian.”
The young sheepherder knew which pathway he had to take. Having blessed the
names of the others who were enroute into eternity along with him, he took his own
destiny. No longer was he bound to the land that had nourished him or to the
people that had forged his personality or to the customs and traditions that had
regulated his life. He was going home just as he heard the village priest say the final
words in Latin: “In pace requiescat, Amén.”
Cruising the Camino Real becomes The Tales of the Hermit
All good things must come to an end. Much as we have enjoyed Cruising the
Camino Real, in article #99 the sheepherder, who was telling the tale, had to die. It
is wonderful to find that many people wrote in, and said they could identify with the
personna of the sheepherder as he wandered around northern New Mexico. They
said that they could visualize the very spots where the stories were taking place.
There is still much to tell about our belovèd New Mexico. After having written
tales and histories for The Taos News for close to fifteen years, we have found that
this medium, that was written strictly for local interest, has been picked up by the
internet and is now being read all of over the world.
Since I get bored very easily, I am always searching for different ways of
expressing the seasonal life cycles that regulate our life. There is still much to tell
about the unique lives that we lead as we explore our past and try to have them
make sense in an ever-changing world. With this in mind, we will continue to cruise
the Camino Real but from a different perspective.
The next series of articles will be told from the unique perspective of an historical
character that actually lived in New Mexico after having wandered around the
world. Even though we will be framing the wanderings of the Hermit within an
historical context, we will continue to fold regional wisdom and practice into the
Having said this now, let us give some factual background into the character that
will become the basis of our new writings:
Giovanni María Agostini-Justiniani was a known bilocator. That means that
mystically he could be in two places at the same time. This makes it very convenient
for a folk biographer to tell his story from an omniscient perspective. He could
know certain things that were hidden from other people.
He was the son of a prominent nobleman and was born circa 1801 in Novara, or
some say, in Sizzario, Lombardy, Italy. He is said to have had a vision of The Holy
Virgin when we was but twenty years of age. Armed with this vision, he was to
wander most of Western Europe, parts of South and Central America, Cuba,
Canada, New Mexico and Texas. Since he was much sought-after because of his
great store of folk-knowledge, he often moved from place to place using various
names that included Mateo Baccalini and Juan María Agostiniani.
This Cartesian monk was not only a powerful healer; he could also read the
intentions of men. When he chose to come to New Mexico in the summer of 1863 he
was staying in Council Grove, Kansas. He petitioned Eugenio Romero, who was
leading a wagon train along the old Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico to let him walk
alongside his caravan, as he considered himself too unworthy to ride on horseback.
When he arrived for the first time in New Mexico he made his home in a cave high
on a cliff of El Cerro del Tecolote. In due time, his home on Owl Mountain near Las
Vegas, New Mexico acquired the name of “Hermit’s Peak.”
He became very well-known to the people of Las Vegas who called him “El
Ermitaño” or “El Solitario.” The Penitente brothers of the Las Vegas area still
revere the holy man by making rosaries out of native plants at Easter tide and call
themselves “La Sociedad del Ermitaño.”
The stories left behind on the life on this mysterious man, make perfect fodder
for a columnist wishing to tell the tales of New Mexico while hiding behind the mask
of a wander hermit.
In 1867 he left the Las Vegas area to pray in silence. Before he left though, he
dug a grave and said to the people “If you ever come up to my cave and this hole is
filled, you will know that I am dead.” He accompanied the wagon train of Don
Ramón Gonzales to La Mesilla, New Mexico to discuss some legal matters with
Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain.
He retreated to a cave in the Organ Mountains next to what is now called
“Dripping Springs.” He told the people that he would kindle a fire in front of his
cave every night so that they would know that he was well. One Friday night he told
Fr. Baca of Las Cruces that the fire would fail to be lit. The people of La Mesilla
and Doña Ana rushed to the cave only to find that the Hermit had been stabbed
multiple times. He was wearing “a metal girdle full of spikes.” He was buried in the
cemetery of La Mesilla with the following inscription in Spanish: “John Mary
Justiniani, Hermit of the Old and New Worlds.” His breviary, rosary and habit are
displayed in The Gadsden Museum in La Mesilla.
The new wandering of the hermit column will be written in the newer dialogue or
internal monologue styles that the readership seems to like better than straight
reporting. Many thanks to the readers and editors who made Cruising the Camino
Real such a success. Next week we begin The Tales of the Hermit. –Larry Torres