Saturday, November 17, 2018

Cuidado con tu cabeza

With one season of volunteering at El Rancho de las Golondrinas under our sashes (no belts allowed) we are starting to get used to being asked the same questions again and again.

Golondrinas is a 200-acre living museum with “unimproved” (i.e. dirt and stone) walking trails and two stairways without railings made up of steps of unequal height to take visitors up and down the uneven terrain.  Many, perhaps most, guests do not realize this as evidenced by, e.g., their choices of footwear such as flip-flop sandals and, in a few instances, high heeled shoes.  Jim normally docents at either El Molino Grande (the “Large Grist Mill”) or Sierra Village (New Mexico in the late 1800s) – both of which are up hill on the “far side” of the property.  Most tourists make there way to these locations after several hours of seeing other sights.  So for him the most common inquiries are: “Are they any ‘real bathrooms’ out here?” and “What is the easiest way back?”  Marsha rarely gets those queries since she is located in the weaving area within Golondrinas Placita – about the length of two skeins of yarn from the “real baños” and the parking area just beyond them.

However the single most asked historical question that we both get is “were the people back then really that small?”  We get that query both directly – and indirectly as in: “why are the doorways so low? or “why is the furniture so short?”

Here is what our Golondrinas training guide tells us about the doorways: “While on average, 18th century Europeans and the New World counterparts were slightly shorter [5’ 6” for men] than we are today, door height [around 5’] was not dictated by this fact.  Rather, the doors are small for a number of other practical reasons.”

Probably foremost is safety.  The Spanish Colonists of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were pretty much constantly under attack – mainly from the Comanche and Apaches who lived at least partially what could be called on a “raiding economy.”

As a result the early New Mexican architecture, which is of Spanish origin, is specifically designed for defense.  The Golondrinas Placita exemplifies this fortress style with a series of thick adobe-walled rooms built around a patio.  The rooms are connected in a row but not all of them have direct passage into the next one.  Some have a large window onto the patio for light.  Others have a tiny (10” x 10”) opening inset with mica up high on the exterior wall.

Access to the courtyard is either through a large wooden gate (portón) made up of two hinged doors – or through a single five feet tall puerta de zambullo (small door) built within one of the larger ones.  The double doors were opened to allow entry to animals, wagons, and groups of people – but otherwise closed and locked with a large metal bar. The Puerto de zambullo, which was only opened for "safe” visitors, allowed entry by one person at a time, at a slow pace, and bent over – preventing someone from storming in in full-on attack mode.

Nowadays las Golondrinas – and all Santa Feans both old and new – are more welcoming, with both gates opened wide to receive our visitors.

Most of the individual rooms have similarly sized five-foot-high, exterior, hinged wooden entryways from the patio – each with a high threshold that forces slow, careful foot movements as well as keeping the windblown rain, snow and dust from entering.

A second reason for the undersized doorways is retention of heat.  A smaller portal helps to maintain the warmth in the room when the door is open.  The early settlers hung animal skins across the doors and window openings to help keep the heat in and rain, snow, and wind-blown dust out.  Additionally smaller doors require less material and labor to construct.  The wooden planks of the doors (hand hewn with an adze) were fastened together with wooden pegs and goat hide glue.  Wooden hinges attached the doors to the frames.  The resulting doors could be quite heavy – so smaller size meant easier opening and closing.

As for the low-slung furniture. – let’s quote again from our Golondrinas training manual, “It is important to remember that the plane of existence in colonial and Territorial New Mexico was much lower than it is today in that everyday life in even well-to-do homes occurred much lower to the ground.”

From the eighth to the fifteenth century the Middle-Eastern Moors had a great influence on, and sometimes control of portions of, the Iberian Peninsula of which Spain is a part.  Arabic, for a while, was the official language and many Spanish words are derived from that tongue, such as: alcada (mayor), tambor (drum), entrada (entrance), Churro (the type of sheep brought to the New World by the Spanish), and adobe (the building block of New Mexico).

The Spanish colonials who settled here carried with them this vocabulary as well as other medieval and Mozarabic customs.  This way of life carried well in the 19th century – partially due to preference and also to the cultural isolation of the territory.   “New Mexicans typically sat, ate and slept on cushions and low stools throughout the 18th and 19th century.  [Some were quite lush with soft mattresses, pillows and textiles.]  This Spanish custom waned in the late 19th and early 20th century because of increasing American influence and affordable mass-produced furniture.”

Among these mass-produced items were doors from the east, which were what most of us would consider “normal” height.  The Mora House in Sierra Village, which emulates a circa 1890 home set in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, contains a front door with a mail delivery slot – a nicety definitely not needed before the days of USPS home delivery to such an outpost.

One of the main takeaways from all this – and what we tell our visitors to las Golondrinas even more than the history of the doors – is “Watch out for your head.”  Which is probably the same thing, “cuidado con tu cabeza,” that the early New Mexican hosts also reminded their own guests to do.

No comments: