Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Navajo Way


When we moved to New Mexico in 2017 we decided to leave behind most of our New England furnishings and decorations and instead give our new home a seriously Santa Fe look.  We brought with us all of the southwestern art and craft works had already accumulated during our 25 years of vacationing out here.  But left behind our oh-so-New-England Hitchcock dining room and replaced it with an equally regional table-and-chair set made of salvaged antique doors and other “[Spanish] colonial pieces,” handcrafted in “Old” Mexico. 

The majority of our acquisitions however have been smaller and less functional – paintings, basketry, pottery – most of them Native American or Hispanic folk art found at estate sales throughout the town. With Covid precautions these company-run events have moved from the owner’s homes to a large store space in a shopping mall about 10 minutes from our address.  The items are still just as varied and interesting, but no longer do we get to wander through stranger’s residences to see how they personalized their own space.  

Our latest purchase came from that venue.  The estate sale staff are not always totally knowledgeable about the items.  This one, which now hangs on our living room wall, was said to be a contemporary Navajo Medallion.  Could be.  Or not. 

We do have two pre-pandemic purchases that we know for sure are both Navajo.  Back then the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture had monthly “Meet the Curators” events to which the public could bring their items and have them authenticated – without the monetary valuation.  They both are modern weavings – one of which we are hoping to bring to the Antiques Roadshow, which is slated to visit Santa Fe next summer.  Pictures of them, and words about them will come in a separate email.  We did enjoy seeing CT represented on the roadshow recently, taped in summer 2021 at the Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown.

But, speaking of Navajos…

Many people had never heard the term “Navajo Nation” before it appeared in the national news during the early days of the Covid pandemic. In parts of Connecticut, Red Sox Nation maybe. Since the Super Bowl, LA Ram Nation perhaps. But not Navajo, which unlike these sports team sovereign states is actually a real Nation – with real citizens (300,000, 36% in New Mexico) living on 27,000 sq. mi. of real estate located in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. In late 2020 it was one of the areas in the country hit hardest by the Corona virus. Now it is one of the safest, reports thenation.com. “While the rest of the country were saying no to masks, no to staying home, and saying you’re taking away my freedoms, here on Navajo, it wasn’t about us individually...It was about protecting our families, our communities and our nation.”

And it all began with Four Sacred Mountains.

In Christianity there is Adam and Eve. For the Navajo (or Diné as they prefer) it is the Emergence Story.  In this account the Diné, passed through several underground worlds before emerging onto earth amid the quartet of mountains that demarcate their traditional homeland – Blanca Peak, Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peak, and Hesperus Mountain.

Or not. (Tribal oral accounts and modern social scientists often differ.)

Anthropologists would say the Navajo migrated into the Southwest between 200 and 1300 A.D after splitting off from the Athabaskans – an Indigenous language family originating in western Canada and Alaska. New Mexico also has four Apache offshoots – Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla and Lipan.

Either way, between 900 A.D. and 1525 A.D. New Mexico Navajos were trading regularly with the Pueblo peoples – while introducing new goods and technologies, such as moccasins and flint to the area. In the 17th and 18th centuries the tribe spread into southeastern Utah and northeastern Arizona.

The Navajo first came into contact with Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The Natives quickly incorporated some of the Spanish agricultural techniques and animals (goats, churra sheep) into their subsistence system. They also adopted horses, which facilitated their slave and food raids on neighboring tribes. Both Navajo and Apache aided Pueblo Natives in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, which temporarily drove the Spaniards out of New Mexico. In 1693 the Spanish reconquered the Rio Grande Valley, causing some Puebloans to take refuge among the Navajos, resulting in an intermixing of the two cultures.

“Diné philosophy, spirituality, and sheep are intertwined like wool in the strongest weaving. Sheep symbolize the Good Life, living in harmony and balance on the land. Before they acquired domesticated sheep on this continent, Diné held the Idea of Sheep in their collective memory for thousands of years. While wild mountain sheep provided meat and the Diné gathered wool from the shedding places, the species of sheep in North America do not have a herd behavior that permits domestication. As a result, the Diné asked their Holy People to send them a sheep that would live with them and with care they would provide a sustainable living. In the early 1600s, Navajo acquisition of ‘la raza churra’ [churra breed] sheep from the Spanish colonists inspired a radical lifestyle change to an agro-pastoralist way of life and expanded mobility.” (Navajolifeway.com) The Navajo acquired their sheep through trading and raiding – ovine being much easier to rustle than equines or bovines, which would scatter. While the former would follow them like…

In 1847 the United States took control of New Mexico – and messed up things biologically, economically, and semantically (corrupting the wool-givers honorific to “churro”).
The Spanish and Natives controlled the breeding of their stock to ensure purity. But in the 1850's thousands of Churro were sent west to supply the California Gold Rush. And most of the remaining Spanish-owned Churro were cross-bred with “fine wool” rams to help fill the demand for garment wool generated by the increasing U.S. population, and the Civil War. Then in 1863 the U.S. Army declared war on the Navajo – as part of which they decimated the Navajo flocks. (More on this below.)

According to their oral tradition, the Diné were taught to weave by two holy ones: Spider Man and Spider Woman – he created the loom of sunshine, lightning and rain, while she taught the Navajo how to weave.

Some anthropologists however say the Navajo learned the craft in the 17th century from the neighboring Pueblo tribes – perhaps during the Pueblo Revolt when many Puebloans sought refuge in Navajo homes. Others suggest that Navajo had picked it up earlier. There is however agreement that (1) BCE (Before Churro Era) both Navajo and Puebloans wove with cotton, which they grew, and found wool left behind by feral ovine. (2) Puebloans introduced the Navajo to vertical looms replacing their much smaller back-strap looms that could not produce a textile more than 18” wide. And (3) Diné were the most skillful Native American weavers, “prized for their vivid patterns, durability and all-around practicality.

“Navajo people believed that no one was perfect but God, and thus what they created needed to have some degree of imperfection, a sort of humility. The Navajo also believed that they wove their soul into the pieces they created, so they’d implement a loose thread somewhere into their blankets. Invisible to the naked eye, the loose thread would allow their soul to escape.” (Heddels.com)

By the early 1860s Americans of European descent began to settle on and around Navajo lands creating conflict. U.S. Agents in the field negotiated multiple compromise agreements with the Indigenous People, which Congress declined to ratify. Then in April 1860, one thousand Navajo attacked Fort Defiance, located on Diné land. Only superior weaponry prevented the loss of the fort. In response the Army created a plan to remove all Navajo from their homeland. Once the threat of a Confederate invasion of New Mexico had been eliminated at the Battle of Glorietta Pass General James H. Carleton – now commander of the NM district – pivoted to fighting the Navajo. Viewing them as “the main obstacle to stability,” Carleton poured all of his energy into eliminating the “Indian problem.”

The General fixated on an area known as Bosque Redondo along the Pecos River near Fort Sumner as the site for the reservation onto which the Navajo and Mescalero Apaches would be relocated – in spite of the fact the panel of Army officers had decided it could not support such a large population. He appointed Kit Carson to lead the relocation effort against the two tribes. The Apache fell first. In the summer of 1863, Carson initiated a scorched-earth policy to break the Navajo’s will and force their surrender by destroying their crops and killing their livestock. He then returned to Fort Wingate to await their surrender.

Between August 1863 and late 1866 more than 8,500 men, women, and children were forced to leave their homes in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico and make a series of forced marches (the “Long Walk”) to Bosque Redondo Reservation. Along the way, approximately 200 Navajos died of starvation and exposure to the elements. “Some old handicapped people, and children who couldn’t make the journey, were shot on the spot, and their bodies were left behind for the crows and coyotes to eat...families jump right down [tall cliffs] because they don’t want to be shot by the enemy,” recounted descendants of some survivors.

(Long Walk Home, mural by Richard K. Yazzie, 2005)

Carleton had anticipated 3,000 to 4,000 occupants, but nearly 8,000 were interred in the 160-acre camp. Tensions ran high between Navajo and Mescalero – traditional enemies. Army rations were not sufficient, bacon was often rancid and the Pecos River water was too alkaline to be drinkable. Dysentery and other ailments spread among the population. Meanwhile, not all Navajo had surrendered with about 1,000 remaining in Monument Valley, AZ. Today they are remembered with pride by many Diné people as having “conquered the United States.”

General William T. Sherman came to investigate conditions there in 1868 and quickly realized that the “experiment” at Bosque Redondo had to be abandoned. Barboncito, one of the Diné leaders, implored Sherman to send him and his people “to no other country other than my own.” An agreement was negotiated allowing the Navajo to return to a portion of their traditional homeland in Arizona and New Mexico – and providing each family with one male and one female Churro sheep, to start breeding their own herds again.  Being good shepherds the Navajo dramatically increased their number of livestock over the next 60 years. The sheep thrived under Diné pastoralists and assumed a central role in their creativity and culture as traditional Navajo weaving evolved to utilize the special qualities of the glossy Navajo-Churro wool.

The Federal Government increased the size of their reservation and provided protection from raiding and looting of the Navajo by outsiders. The Natives sold their wool both as a raw material and woven into rugs and blankets, while increasing the number of sheep from 15,000 in the 1870s to 500,000 in the 1920s. But during the 1930s “dust-bowl drought” the government recommended the number of reservation livestock be dramatically reduced. When the Natives refused, the Feds cut the size of the herds in half by buying or taking them to send to market – or slaughtering them. First to go were the Churro, which the agents thought were “scruffy and unfit.” Those who objected were arrested, and many Navajo lost their only source of income. Diné refer to this as the “Second Long Walk.” In the late 1930s, the government established a quota system for livestock on the reservation, which the Navajo Tribal Government later took over. By 1950 pure-bred Churro survivors were to be found only in isolated Northern New Mexico Hispanic villages and remote canyons on the Navajo Native Reservation, where the Natives had hidden them from the government’s sheep slaughterers.

By 1977, the "old type" Navajo sheep had dwindled to less than 500 head, so Utah State University’s Dr. Lyle McNeal formed the Navajo Sheep Project to revitalize this breed and keep it from further depletion. Currently there are over 4,500 registered churro, 1,500 on the Navajo Reservation. El Rancho de los Golondrinas living history museum where we volunteer has about 30 “true” churros.

The Treaty of 1868 placed the Diné in a position to rebuild a sense of tribal identity. They resumed raising goats and sheep, and began exchanging weaving and silver-work with white traders. While somewhat economically independent, like most other tribes, the Navajo were still being forced to assimilate into white society. The first Bureau of Indian Affairs school opened at Fort Defiance in 1870, followed by eight others – all English only. (Many Navajos hid their children to keep them from being taken.)  Education reforms under FDR closed these institutions, replacing them with two others less militaristic.  However, one still continued to adhere to the old practices while the other had a family-like atmosphere, humane treatment, and a Navajo-based curriculum. The end result nevertheless was much language loss among the Navajo. Oil and gas discoveries in the 1950s and 1960s on the Utah portion of the reservation enriched the Nation, while at the same time contaminating water and damaging rangelands. Uranium mining, begun in the 1940s, brought additional funds to the tribal treasury, but radioactive contamination has left death and disease in mining communities.

Although not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924, many Navajo served in the First World War. In WW II 400 Navajo “Code Talkers” played a major part in winning the war in the Pacific by developing a communication system based on their Native language that was impossible for the Japanese to break. Over 3,000 Navajo also served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Women’s Army Corps. While several thousand more left the reservation to work in war-related industries. The arm patch of the Navajo Code Talkers Association says, “the language they were forbidden to speak is the same language that saved this nation.”

Despite operating three casinos (2 NM, 1 AZ) the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise has only turned over about $6 million in profits to the tribe. Many Elders on the reservation face food insecurity. Adopt-A-Native-Elder delivers food, medical supplies, firewood and other forms of support as well as marketing Navajo weaving and jewelry through its website – and is one of the local charitable organizations we now support.

After having been inculcated with the prudent wisdom of our Puritan forefathers for 70+ years we are now trying to expand our horizons with the wise sayings of the Elders of our new southwest homeland. Many are similar, “Be patient and you will attain success.” Some are clearly more applicable to this part of the world, “A rattlesnake’s tail is the most eloquent thing on earth.” Others need to be modified to fit our New England sensibilities. “One ought to give his wealth to the worthy who are going to make the best use of it” The Diné are worthy for sure. And extremely generous.  But our genetic makeup tells us, “all things in moderation.” Except, of course, moderation.

Thursday, January 06, 2022



Possible upside to climate change. Two days after Thanksgiving we put up our metal Victorian Christmas tree in the morning, then hit golf balls in our shirt sleeves after lunch with snow capped mountains in the background. (A few inches on top of a manmade base allowed Santa Fe Ski Basin to open for the season.) Other decorations, including our electric farolitos (aka “luminarias” in CT and southern NM) went up over the next few days.
Actual downside to climate change. Unusually dry conditions and warm days are causing us to water the perennial planters, in-ground flowers and trees that would normally rely on Mother Nature for off-season maintenance moisture. This may go on throughout the winter. Fortunately the small amount of rain that accompanied the higher elevation snow temporarily replenished our barrels – the ski area is at 12,000 feet, we are 7,200 feet. Now the trick is to purposefully empty them out before the inevitable Dec-Feb freeze hits, and the hoped-for snow starts falling.

We don’t know about you, but in our family sweets in the form of cookies, cakes, candy and the occasional pie are a big part of the winter holidays. And especially anything chocolate. Which also, it turns out, was the confection of choice for earlier New Mexican residents and incomers such as the first Indian settlers, the Spanish Conquistadors and Re-Conquistadors, Converso Jews, Native mercenaries in the Apache Wars, Anglo travelers on the Santa Fe Trail and early passengers of the Santa Fe Railroad.

And even before them, for the ancient residents of southern Ecuador where 5,500-year-old ceramic pots and a piece of a mortar were found containing traces of cacao (from which chocolate is made.) Shamans among the Shuar Indians are believed to have used a heavy cylindrical stone called a “mano” to crush the beans on a grinding stone known as a “metate.” (The same device used in New Mexico into the 1900s to grind corn and wheat.) A fire softened the cacao into a paste that, after being left to dry, was grated and/or diluted in water to make hot chocolate.

The beans also grew in the equatorial part of Mexico – and served as currency there until around 1740. “A turkey was 100 cacao beans,” according to archaeologist Cameron L. McNeil. But not just for Thanksgiving dinner. “Turkeys were probably used in...the creation of blankets, paints, tools, musical instruments, food, and art,” according to UNM anthropologist Patricia Crown.

(bowl fragment with two opposing turkeys & excavated turkey pens)

Guatemala and Venezuela ultimately became the primary growers of cocoa beans, which the natives ground, roasted and fermented into a drink. And chocolate became an important part of royal and religious events in both Mayan and Aztec cultures. But not for the common people. “It was used to commune with the gods,” something only a select few were entitled to do, according to Nicolasa Chávez, of Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art. In the 1500s, only merchants, warriors, nobles, and the royals could obtain cocoa drinks, which they imbibed from golden cups and engraved or painted goblets.

The Spanish love affair with the caffeine confection began with Christopher Columbus – or Hernando Cortés – or the Franciscan missionary monks. Chocolate historians disagree.

Columbus was greeted by the indigenous Nicaraguans with a bitter, spicy chocolate drink on his Fourth Voyage in 1502. Gourmet chocolatier Jacques Torres however believes that Hernando Cortés, conquerer of the Aztec kingdom, first brought it back to the European continent. In a 1520 letter to Carlos V, Cortés mentioned that the natives imbibed hot chocolate as a stimulant.

“But cacao is not in the inventory of goods that he took to show [the king],” counters archaeologist Cameron L. McNeil. She attributes cacao’s introduction to the friars who escorted the Kekchi (Maya people of Guatemala and Beliz) to meet Prince Phillip in 1544. The friars had regular access to chocolate because many Meso-Americans continued their pre-conquest tradition of bringing it as a religious offering to places of worship. “The friars would turn around and sell the offerings and make a lot of money doing this. They could also consume a certain amount of the offerings themselves. Let’s be honest, the friars were often as greedy as the conquistadors.”

In any event, by the late 1500s chocolate was a much-loved indulgence in the Spanish court. Soon, other European nations such as Italy and France visited parts of Central America, learned about cacao and brought it back to their respective countries.

“Contrary to popular and scholarly opinion, the reason for chocolate’s success with Europeans was not that they could [disguise] indigenous flavors with sugar. [They] did not alter chocolate to fit the predilections of their palate. Instead, Europeans...developed a taste for Indian chocolate, and sought to re-create the indigenous chocolate experience in America and in Europe,” according to Archaeological Scientist Heather Trigg.

But one place they did not need to introduce their sweet new discovery was New Mexico. Traces of it have been found on a 1,000-year-old pottery shard unearthed at Chaco Canyon  Discovered with the pots were scarlet macaw feathers – confirming trade with Central America, likely using the same commercial trail that was to become El Camino Real under the Spanish. Most Chacoans however did not get to enjoy the chocolate, which still was “an expensive delicacy enjoyed by few during elaborate rituals,” per Smithsonian Magazine.
The pre-contact Pueblo Indians (descendants of the ancient Anasazi) probably continued trading with the successors of those Meso-American Natives. But reconnaissance into New Mexico before the first colonization indicated that if the incoming Spanish felt that they really needed something, they ought to bring it themselves.

Although the inventory of goods taken on Juan de Oñate’s 1598 first settlement expedition contains only one reference to chocolate, the repeated mention of sugar, and the discovery of shards of small handle-less Chinese porcelain cups, suggest that the confection was consumed by at least some members of his party. Two years after his arrival Oñate reported having “eighty small boxes of chocolate” – so precious that he stored it in intricate spice jars with locking metal lids to protect it from thieves. The early settlers also brought their own cocoa beans, which would not grow in the New Mexico climate – leading to a need to import their beloved sweet, and 420 years later prompting this reaction from a young museum guest to Marsha’s story that the confection was only consumed on very special occasions. “No chocolate! That’s the worst thing ever!”

Meanwhile back in Mexico – NM’s faraway supplier – it was apparently more available to the masses. Just not during them. According to Englishman Thomas Gage, in 1637 the women of Chiapas, Mexico “made a habit of sipping chocolate during long church services [which] so inflamed the bishop that he forbade it as an interruption of Mass. When the parishioners retaliated by celebrating Mass in convents, he threatened both the congregants and the nuns with excommunication. Soon afterword, the bishop grew ill. He died from a poisoned cup of chocolate.” (Nicolasa Chávez.) Revenge is sweet.

In 1661, Nuevo México Territorial Governor, Lopez de Mendizabal, wrote of enjoying time spent sipping chocolate with his wife Dona Teresa. Next year they both were imprisoned and tried by the Spanish Inquisition for the crime of judaizante, the hidden practice of Jewish rituals. One of their offenses – an excessive consumption of chocolate. After being imprisoned in a cell for six months Teresa rebutted each of the 47 charges against her. Her case was suspended and she was ultimately released after 28 months in prison. But her life was essentially ruined. Her husband died while in jail, and she spent the rest of her days fighting to get all of her possessions back from the courts. (Hear Dona Teresa “in her own words” @) https://video.wttw.com/video/moments-time-dona-teresa-her-own-words/)
The Spanish were chased from New Mexico by the Natives in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. And returned in the Reconquista of 1692. “When Diego DeVargas marched north for the reconquest... each of his soldiers carried a wedge of chocolate all the way up the Camino Real. And as he negotiated with the people who had toppled Spanish rule...he enticed them with a bit of chocolate diplomacy.” National Geographic reports that subsequent Spanish “settlers traveling to Santa Fe [in 1695] record having chocolate among their food supplies.”
But confections alone did not lead to cordial coexistence. The year 1787 saw “extraordinary expenditures of the Peace and War of this Province of New Mexico...3 arrobas [75 pounds] of ordinary chocolate.” Next year Governor Juan Bautista de Anza, authorized payment of chocolate to the Comanche Indians for their assistance in the Spanish-Apache wars “Merchandise that has been delivered to the Lieutenant Jose Maldonado, Pay Master of the Presidio of Santa Fe, New Mexico for the reward of the Comanches: un cajon de buen chocolate [a large box of good chocolate.]” (Wiley Online Library, Chocolate Timeline)

In the first half of the 1800s chocolate was a special treat for those who successfully completed the trek along the Santa Fe Trail. “There’s accounts of people coming up the Santa Fe Trail being greeted with a steaming, frothy cup of chocolate,” according to Nicolasa Chávez.

And from 1880 to 1889 The Santa Fe Railroad offered an entrée of “sweetbreads, sautéed with mushrooms Spanish puffs and chocolate glaze to tempt reluctant travelers aboard. (Wiley Online Library)

But what about today’s travelers to the Land of Enchantment? Should we, like Juan de Oñate, BYOC? Not to worry. For us there is the Santa Fe Chocolate Trail – “a cocoa-dusted route that connects...esteemed purveyors of this fine food of the gods...using an array of sweet treats and organic ingredients native to New Mexico, including chile, pinon nuts and lavender.” Among the stops is Kakawa Chocolate House whose hot chocolate “elixirs” regularly relax, refresh and revive us on our runs into town.
For us, chocolate will continue to appear on the scene throughout the holidays in such treats as croissants, as well as chocolate-chili and black-and-white cookies. More will be gifted to us. And from us. Some of it will come from stops on “the trail.” In fact, as this was being written, the scent of Pumpkin Chocolate Chip cookies from Wethersfield Historical Society’s Heritage Family Cookbook filled the air – and the caffeine jolt from the excess Trader Joe’s semi-sweet pieces fueled Jim’s fingers.

But we know that not everyone is a chocaholic. Or even a chocolate liker. So we hope that all of you enjoy the aromas and tastes – whether sweet or savory – as well as the sights, sounds and other sensations that make YOUR winter festivities special to YOU.

Oh, if you happen to end up with some extra chocolate that can’t really find a use for...remember it is always welcome to stay, however briefly, at our house.

BTW – at least part of the “old normal” may be back. During the final editing of this piece Santa Fe’s temps dropped into the 40s (mid 20s overnight) – and TV meteorologists were excietedly predicting the “first official winter storm of the season” featuring “west winds 35 to 45 mph with gusts up to 65 mph” plus snow in the heights, rain at our elevation and something in between, in between.

They were spot-on with the wind speed and temperatures – not so much with the precipitation. From our neighborhood view there looked to be barely a dusting in the mountains. While the water level hardly moved in our rain barrels. (Even though we likely could use them this winter, we will drain and store them in the garage to prevent cracking during the freezin’ season.  And hope that it won’t be a dry cold.)  Two days later we walked in sunny downtown Santa Fe and revived ourselves with chocolate elixirs at Kakawa while sitting outside in borderline 60 degree weather.  More of the same is expected – at least for the short term.

Felices Vacaciones (Happy Holidays) 
(A portion of Christmas brunch)

Friday, November 26, 2021

What's not to love?


Well, this season of “volunteer interpreting” at El Rancho de las Golondrinas has come to a close.  The last event of the year was October 23’s “Spirits of New Mexico” – “meet the ghosts of history who lived and died in the Land of Enchantment!...a diverse assortment of characters from New Mexico’s illustrious and often little-known past...a family-friendly, but spooky Halloween atmosphere.”

This was our fourth time at Spirits – 2017 as visitors and 2018 & 19 as volunteer specters. The event did not happen in 2020. But Golondrinas did open late September through early October for limited numbers of masked guests to walk the property with the buildings closed and a few of us equally masked Volunteer Interpreters (VIs) on site. So we still got the opportunity to put on our costumes and share our ever growing knowledge of our new home state’s history with a much smaller than usual number of visitors. Most of them seemed intently interested in what we had to say – perhaps indicating how really starved for entertainment and human contact they were. All of them appeared as thrilled to be out and about as we were.

The museum covers 200 acres of a former 700 acre ranch and paraje (rest stop) on El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (the Royal Road of the Interior) – THE trade route with Mexico. It was owned by one family from the early 1700s to 1932. The property was refashioned into a living museum in the 1960s with what can be thought of as three major sections: Golondrinas Plaza (Placita), Baca Plaza, and the “Far Side.” The first is a partially reconstructed example of an 18th century Spanish colonial hacienda on El Camino Real. The second shows New Mexico in the first half of the 1800s after the arrival of goods from the United States along the Santa Fe Trail. The third segment portrays the territory/state from mid-19th to early 20th centuries – when the railroad came to New Mexico. Marsha is usually assigned somewhere in Golondrinas Plaza. Jim on the Far Side.

Normally the season begins with full-day training sessions on the four Saturdays of March. As was becoming normal, this year all the meetings were conducted on Zoom. Not held was the annual April series of “Spanish Heritage Days” wherein school kids from all over New Mexico – 1,000/day – are bused in for a crash course in the history of their state. The museum is defended by 20 unarmed docents. These sessions teach us to condense our stories of the past into bite-sized pieces and deliver them at warp speed to a perpetually moving audience. And to ferret out the “runaway teachers” who try to hide in the nooks and crannies of the property.

El Rancho reopened in June 2021 under the same ground rules as fall 2020. And we, now double vaxxed, were eager to get back on the job. Buildings were opened for guests in mid-summer when NM relaxed some of its Covid restrictions. Still, many of the VIs understandably did not return.

Golondrinas Placita is the entry point to the museum – and a necessary first stop in order to understand the story of New Mexico. With a smaller number of docents Marsha was frequently on her own or with one other guide.

The closed rectangular adobe architecture is designed fortress-style around an inner plaza for protection with two zaguanes (covered entries.) Comanche and Apache raids for food, sheep and human captives to be used or sold as slaves were not uncommon. Also other colonists who had e.g. a bad ranching/farming year might decide to replenish their larders by larcenous means. The rooms surrounding the placita make up the defensive exterior walls, with doors between the rooms and out into the plaza. Windows facing in are barred or shuttered, and large to allow air and light in. Exterior-facing ones are small, inset with selenite or mica to permit light in, and covered with animal skins and wood rejas (bars.) But, while there is a great deal of history to talk about on the outside, the story of the 1700s in New Mexico is best told by its interiors.

There are ten rooms: la cocina (kitchen,) capilla (chapel,) el cuarto de recibo (reception room,) el cuarto de familia (family room,) torreon (lookout tower/safe room,) la dispensa (pantry,) three talleres de hilar y tejer (weaving & spinning rooms) – and el cuarto de los cautivos y los criados (the captives & servants room.) Oh yeah, the Spanish also did that. There is no baño (bathroom.) It probably wasn’t even a word at the time. Each space covers different aspects of Colonial life in New Mexico – and depending on the size of that day’s volunteer turnout Marsha will interpret one, several, or all of them. Visitors are immediately confused by the small doorways and the lack of familiar looking furniture – and she likes to make sure our they learn at least that story before they leave Golondrinas Placita.

Door heights at that time were a little over five feet. (The phrases most frequently heard at las Golondrinas are, “watch your head” and “where is the ice pack?”) This was not because the people of that time were that much shorter, They actually were pretty much the same height as we are today. Away from the mountains there was a shortage of wood with which to construct them. Plus the smaller entryways helped maintain heat in a room – and to slow down unwanted intruders by forcing them to stoop over and slow down when entering. This is a fortress after all.

The interior design style came directly from medieval Spain and could also be seen in other Spanish colonies. North African Moors ruled the motherland all or in part from 711 AD until 1492, and the colonists brought the resulting customs and practices with them to the New World – most prominently “the low plain of existence”. Even in well-to-do homes everyday life occurred much closer to the ground than 21st century Americans (or New Englanders of the 1600s and 1700s) are used to. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries New Mexicans typically sat, ate and slept on floor cushions, short stools and low bancos (benches attached to the walls.) Some of these seating areas (estrados) were exceptionally lush with soft mattresses, pillows and textiles. This custom ultimately died out in the 1900s due to increasing American influence and affordable mass-produced furniture.

The best place to explain this is the familia – a true family room where parents, children, grandparents, et al ate, slept and prayed at their home religious altars. And where Marsha also likes to talk about one of everybody’s favorite subjects, chocolate – and how, having to be brought up El Camino Real, it was such a precious commodity that it was only consumed on special occasions such as Christmas. “Oh no!” wailed one young boy. “No chocolate! That’s the worst thing ever!”

Another part of Golondrinas Placita that seems to attract the interest of the youthful set, and many adults, is the demonstration loom in one of the weaving rooms. A small two-peddle device that allows our guests, most of whom are totally unfamiliar with the fiber craft, to get a first hand (and foot) primer on the subject. Some people get really hooked on it. One pre-teen girl told her parents to go tour the rest of the ranch since she was ‘just going to stay here and work.” It was a slow day and no other novice weavers were in sight, so Marsha let the girl remain while mom & dad wandered the grounds. A story that the couple later shared with Jim who was on duty at Sierra Homestead, which along with the “Big Mill” is one of his usual assignments on the Far Side.

This group of homes and outbuildings depicts a family farm in the mountains occupied by a young couple with children and their elderly parents in the mid-to-late 1800s. The insides of the three dwellings – Mora House, Grandmother’s house and Grandfather’s house – show life in a mountain village after the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s. (Her mother, his father.) The homes also can be interpreted to show the progression of architecture/construction beginning with the Casita Primitiva (Grandfather) when the family first came to the high sierras (dirt floor, flat roof) – to Grandmother’s abode (wood floor, pitched roof) – to the Mora House (high ceilings & doors, wood floor, pitched roof, three and ½ rooms) as the family became larger and more established. Each living space shows a mix of both purchased and handmade items that would have been typical of the times.

The compound seems to have two particular fan favs – each appealing to a different audience. Several women come to see the pig pen, in which actor Emilio Estavez hid during the 1988 movie “Young Guns  – or “Young Buns,” as many of these devoted fans refer to the film. But the big favorite is Grandmother’s House. The log-and-adobe cabin from Truchas NM was built in the 1880s and occupied into the 1920s. It was donated to the ranch when the museum was being created in the 1960s.

Young girls particularly are fascinated by the second bed in the residence. The grandchildren would spend extended periods of time with their “abuela” while she taught them traditional skills such as weaving, knitting and the folkways of the past including how to use the medicinal plants of the mountain areas. Grandmother would often be a curandera or traditional healer.

For older guests the home sparks memories of their own grandparents or parents who lived in nearly identical houses in various parts of New Mexico or Mexico. One thirty-something woman from Guatemala fought back tears as she told Jim of growing up with her own grandmother in her home country. “She even had the same stencils on the wall,” she sobbed.

At Spirits of New Mexico only the “upper part” of the ranch was open. Marsha was assigned to the weaving area in Golondrinas Placita. Although the looms are inside, in order to better engage with our guests, she was not. Jim was placed indoors at the main house in the Baca Placita. It was his first time there, but good information in the museum’s training manuals and general knowledge about NM history got him through the night.

Tickets were capped at 1,200 for the evening, which ran from 5 pm til 9 pm. In addition to the history there was hard cider, beer and food-truck food; entertainment by the “Lightning Boy” Native hoop dancers  and La Llorona  a folkloric ghost who roams waterfront areas mourning her children whom she drowned. The buildings had indoor fireplaces lit; hornos [outdoor baking ovens] in both placitas were burning; and barrel bonfires, candles, lanterns, farolitos and luminarias lighted the grounds and pathways. (“Farolitos are the candles inside of a bag,” says Damian Wilson, Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of New Mexico. “But a luminaria is a stack of wood where you stack it, two by two to create sort of a tower.”) 

Masks were mandatory for visitors going indoors. Volunteers were provided with pizza and hot and cold drinks – and we were encouraged to “paint a ghostly face” on ourselves. Something that we enthusiastically embraced. (Guilty pleasure confession – we have been streaming Netflix’s “Glow Up”  cosmetics competition series. This was our first opportunity to put into practice what we have learned from watching the program’s MUAs (Make Up Artists) in action.)

Enthusiastic guests who engage with us, embrace what they are hearing, and share their own personal histories. Plus free pepperoni ‘za to satisfy our hunger, face painting to nourish our artistic appetite, and low 50° temps. What’s not to love?

No wonder we’ll be back next year for more.