Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Easter in New Mexico


The main event at Marsha’s family’s Easter gathering was the egg fight.

The sparring match involved knocking a hard-boiled, colored egg against that of your opponent until one of them cracked. The player with the intact egg then took on another opponent and so forth. The final winner was the one person whose egg didn’t crack – in this case the red one.

Although Irish/Italian Jim had never seen or heard of this Polish tradition – it is not unique to just the Kosinski family or their former homeland. The practice is said to have started during medieval times in Europe and is variously known as “egg tapping,” “egg knocking,” “egg picking,” “eiertikken” (the Netherlands), “Koni-juj” (India), “epper” (Central Europe) and “tsougrisma” (Greece.)

New Mexican families also practice a similar, but less violent, Easter tradition. They paint and decorate empty eggshells, refill them with small pieces of colored paper and seal them up with tape or tissue paper. The confetti-filled eggs are known as “cascarones." On Easter Sunday or soon thereafter those eggs get cracked over the heads of unsuspecting (or maybe not so unsuspecting) family members and friends. The word cascarone comes from the Spanish word “cascara,” which means eggshell.

“People will start saving cascarones early before the Lenten season,” says retired professor Juan López. “Then the family will gather a week or two before Easter with the kids to decorate them.”

The idea started in Asia, where the eggs were filled with perfumed powder. Explorer Marco Polo brought the custom to Italy from where it spread to Spain and finally Mexico in the mid-1800s.

Like so many other Old World traditions the practice came to New Mexico with travelers along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of the Interior Land) according to former TV reporter Carla Aragón. Aragón celebrated the custom with her family as a child but with an added component – dance. She wrote a children’s book on the subject in 2010 called “Dance of the Eggshells (Baile de los Cascarones).”

“In the old days, people would not eat meat for all of the Lenten season,” Aragon said. “What they did to get protein was make a lot of egg dishes. They also couldn’t dance (during Lent.”  A week after Easter northern New Mexicans would get together to celebrate and take joy in being allowed to once again dance. “If you want to ask someone to dance, you break an egg on their head,” Aragón said. “It’s said the people with the most confetti in their hair are the most popular dancers.” The La Sociedad Folklórica group in Santa Fe has tried to preserve this tradition by hosting an annual Baile de los Cascarones. For the event, the group makes cascarones that are sold during the dance.

But here in deeply Catholic New Mexico Easter obviously has more serious and spiritual traditions.

Holy Week is the most important part of the year for many Los Hermanos Penitentes (a Catholic order of lay men who provide community service, mutual aid and community charity – as well as sometimes practicing physical acts of penance and atonement.)  During the week before Easter members are praying the rosary with the community, participating in Mass at the local Catholic church, and serving dinner for their neighbors. But at certain times during the next few days, the doors of their meetinghouses close and the brothers retreat inside by themselves to take part in their secret, sacred rituals.

According to Huffington post, “Unlike the very public penances conducted in other parts of the world, such as the crucifixions that occur every year in the Philippines, the brotherhood in New Mexico gathers inside small, windowless buildings, called moradas...sacred spaces where the men of the community meet to conduct religious rituals.

In 2014 NPR reported, “They typically sing alabados [ancient Spanish hymns about life, death and piety that they've helped preserve] at wakes...and during Holy Week services like this one. Alabado comes from the Spanish verb alabar — to praise. "We say alabado, but it's really a longer phrase — it is Alabado sea Dios o Alabado sea el Señor," says A. Gabriel Melendez, a professor of American studies at the UNM in Albuquerque and a Penitente brother himself. "It would be translated 'Praised be the Lord, praised be God.’ "

“As the Tenebrae service [a ceremony observed during the final part of Holy Week] nears midnight, all of the candles have been extinguished. In the darkness, the oratorio smells of wood smoke, and there's a feeling of suspense. Then, just after midnight, the brothers create – in sound – the moment when Jesus died, with a cacophony of yelling, noisemakers and drums. Despite the late hour when the alabados have lulled everyone into spiritual serenity, the cacophony startles the congregation.

"’When I sing an alabado it's a moment in which I am at the doorway, at the boundary line between the present and the eternal,’ Melendez says. There is a funeral-hymn alabado that is sung in the voice of the deceased. ‘This life is a riddle,’ it goes. ‘And it keeps us in a dream. And we invent amusements, in order to support the pain.’”

And there is one other New Mexican Easter tradition, which while it is conducted largely in public is nonetheless intensely private – the pilgrimage to Chimayó Chapel.

“The Santuario de Chimayó is an adobe church nestled in the dusty hills of New Mexico north of Santa Fe. Each year during the week before Easter, the secondary roads winding through these hills toward Chimayó are filled with pilgrims. Some may walk only the seven miles from Española, others thirty miles from Santa Fe. A few will have walked more than seventy miles, all the way from Albuquerque. It is estimated that more than 60,000 pilgrims come to Chimayó during Easter week, making this the largest ritual pilgrimage in the United States.” (pluralism.org)

The sanctuary is a place of healing, sometimes referred to as the “Lourdes of the Southwest.” The Pueblo Indians of this region long believed the mud springs at Chimayó to be a sacred, therapeutic place. Then, according to local legend, on Good Friday early in the 1800s a Spanish villager found a cross buried in the earth in this space. He brought the cross to his local priest, but the cross disappeared. Again the villager found it in the earth at Chimayó. The villagers took this as a sign to build a church, which was completed around 1815. Hispanics and Native Americans have come here on pilgrimage for over a century.

Elementary school teacher Anne Probst trekked the final eight miles of the journey carrying on her back a hand-carved statue of the crucifixion that was made by her ailing father. “There are healing powers here, and there is meditation and prayer on the walk,” she said.

At the shrine, the faithful duck their heads and file through a low doorway into a room adjacent to the chapel with a small open pit of dirt that some say has curative powers (tierra bendita.) Pilgrims and other visitors kneel to scoop the earth into plastic bags, ambling by the hundreds through a narrow passageway lined with cast-off crutches that bear testimony to healing.

2020’s and this year’s pilgrimages were cancelled due to Covid.

Other public events with private meanings occur at some of the nineteen Pueblos of New Mexico. Many of the Native’s traditional religious rituals and feasts were co-opted by the Spanish Franciscan missionaries into Catholic practices and beliefs during the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, as we have mentioned before, many Pueblo Indians profess to practicing both Catholicism and their tribal faith. At Easter several Pueblos decorate their churches and hold their Basket and Corn Dances, which are generally open to the public to observe, with no explanations as to what is happening or being symbolized.

We ourselves have not yet been to any of the aforementioned events. Some we would not consider watching – feeling it would be intrusive on our part.

However, if someday you should choose to take part then remember one important thing. Never let someone break an Easter egg on your head if their last name ends in “ski.”

So “Wesołych Świąt Wielkanocnych,” “Felices Pascuas,” or just plain “Happy Easter” – depending of course on how you like your eggs prepared.

They lived off those sheep


During most of the twentieth century Rancho Viejo (where we live) and its surrounding real estate was a succession of ranches the sizes and shapes of which ebbed and flowed as a series of buyers and sellers purchased or sold entire properties and parts thereof. One thing was constant however – sheep.

In the early 1900s the land was a part of the 115,000 acre Mocho Family Ranch – owned and run by turn-of-the-century Basque Country immigrants Jean Baptiste (“James”) and John Mocho, and home to as many as 800 head of cattle and 10,000 ewes. Although the bovines ($80/head) were worth more than the ovine ($14) – sheep raising was by far the bigger business in New Mexico since the late 18th and early 19th centuries. ($2,480 and $434 today respectively.)

It began in 1598 when Juan de Onate and his party of 400-plus Spanish settlers arrived with 2,517 Churro sheep – the first domesticated breed in the New World. The gentle ovine turned out to be ideally suited for New Mexico’s climate and topography. Descended from the Churra, an ancient Iberian breed (corrupted to "Churro" by American frontiersmen) they were prized by the Spanish for their remarkable hardiness, adaptability and fertility. “The settlers and explorers, they lived off those sheep,” explained Spanish Market and El Rancho de las Golondrinas colcha artist and weaver Julia Gomez.

And it turned out that the sheep were better received than the people. When the Pueblo Indians revolted in 1680, they ejected the Spanish and their religion but kept their wooly-coated ruminants. At the end of the 1700s, a century after the Spanish reconquered the colony, sheep raising had developed into a major regional industry.

There were three major reasons: ease of maintenance, difficulty of theft, and “partido."

(1) By the 1700s most New Mexicans lived on small subsistence farms with unfenced fields. It was easy to keep sheep away from the crops, since shepherds were with them all the time. Cattle however had a long history of getting into the farmer’s plots and eating up the winter supply of grain.

(2) The Navajo definitely wanted the Churro – for which they traded and sometimes raided. But their thefts put only a small dent in the total held by New Mexicans. The history of the tribe’s sheep raising and weaving in New Mexico is complicated and often contradictory. Suffice it to say that the Dine ("Di Nay" as they now choose to be called) adapted to using the churro wool to the extent that the ovine became known as Navajo-Churro sheep.

Most hostile Indians however preferred to steal cattle, which were less difficult to round up and much easier to drive long distances.

At the first sign of Indian attack, the Spanish shepherds had instructions to scatter the flock. The plunderers, always in a hurry, would gather what they could and ride on. When the owner came, he might find his shepherds dead – but he could send the dogs out to seek and round up what was left of his sheep. Had they been cattle, he would have suffered a total loss.

(3) But perhaps the major reason for the dominance of sheep over cattle was the development of the “partido” business model in the mid 1800s.

Under this system the owner of a flock (most of the time a “chico rico” (rich guy) lent a specific quantity of sheep to an individual – and expected in return an equal number in three to five years. The renter paid around 20% of the flock to the owner each year. If the sheep reproduced in sufficient numbers, the system worked well for both parties. The owners received annual payments – while someone else cared for their livestock. The renter could build his own flock and eventually lend out some sheep of his own. (Think of a pyramid scheme whose participants have thick, wooly coats.)

But if the flock did not reproduce as hoped, the renter remained in debt to the owner. (Now think of “payday loans” ­– a business whose max interest rate today in NM is 135%.) Or even worse for the sheep-sitter he could become the collateral damage of an Indian attack. Although the partido system resulted in economic opportunity for some – in general it worked to the advantage of the rich.

One of the buildings at las Golondrinas is the Shepherd’s Cabin – an example of the housing in which a herdsman would live while tending his borrowed flock. His family would have remained at their farm, although he might occasionally bring along one of his sons for on-the-job training.

The hut came to us from southern Colorado. It has all of the comforts of a mid-1800s part-time residence including a small dining area, home entertainment center (guitar), and self-defense/hunting implements. The scissors-like objects over the fireplace are blade sheep shears. At Golondrinas professional shearers use such implements to cut the wool off our flock of thirty or so Churros during our Spring Fiber Festival. The resulting fleece i washed and carded at a mill in Mora, NM then comes back to the ranch to be spun, dyed and woven. This “New Mexico True” video about the living museum contains a brief clip of the shearing (pun intended.) 

Patents for shearing machines started to be granted in the 1860s and in 1882, Australian Jack Gray became the first man to completely shear a sheep using mechanical cutters. Machines allowed the wool to be clipped up to three times closer to the skin. However hand-shearers contend that the remaining wool cover left by their method protects the sheep – while their process causes less stress, risk of injury and fewer second cuts – plus increased wool growth and superior fleece for hand-spinners.

Over time the Spanish and the Americans introduced other varieties of sheep to New Mexico and Churro became a minority breed – except with the Navajo. By the early 1800s ovine were the most important asset of nearly all well-off New Mexicans. More stable than bitcoins – and so much cuter. In the 1880s more than 5 million sheep and lambs of various breeds roamed New Mexico. But in 2012 the USDA reported that only about 90,000 sheep and lambs were being raised in the state. One hundred years earlier the Mocho Family Ranch in our part of Santa Fe by itself had 10,000.

The Churro themselves were brought to the edge of extinction during the 1860s when, in order to drive the Navajo out of their homeland their villages were burned and their livestock and people killed by U.S. soldiers. During the "Long Walk" of 1864, about 8,000 Navajo were forced to march from their traditional lands to forced confinement at Fort Sumner, N.M. Before the march, some Navajo were able to release Churro into the hidden canyons near their homes. Then during a drought in 1930, the federal government said the Navajo were overgrazing their lands and killed more than 250,000 Navajo sheep, goats and horses.

“Since the early 1980s, the Churro have been making a comeback, largely through the efforts of the Navajo Sheep Project at the Utah State University and the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association in Ojo Caliente, N.M. [In 2006 there were] about 2,000 registered Churro sheep, and another 2,000 unregistered sheep in the country,” according to the Arizona Daily Sun.

The Churro at las Golondrinas are carefully bred and monitored to ensure their absolute Churro-ness. (Because of the natural variety of colors and patterns in the breed, it would otherwise impossible to pick out the black sheep in the family.) They live out their natural lives grazing on pelleted food, cat-napping and politely greeting their guests.

It is our way of celebrating these fluffy Spanish ovine for all they have contributed to the making of New Mexico. The admittedly biased Navajo-Churro Sheep Association puts it this way, “the fact that these sheep still exist today is a testimony to their endurance and endearment. No other sheep population in the history of the world has survived so much selective pressure with such dignity and spirit.”

And they just make you smile too – don’t they?


BTW Like Churro sheep, the New Mexican sheep dog traces its bloodline back to Spain and was also introduced to the Americas at the time of the Conquest. They were larger and tougher than the Scotch and English breeds. “I very much doubt if there are shepherd dogs in any other part of the world...equal to those of New Mexico in value. The famed Scotch and English dogs sink into insignificance by the side of them.” (The Practical Shepherd: A Complete Treatise on the Breeding, Management and By Henry Stephens Randall) “Two or three of them will follow a flock of sheep for a distance of several miles as orderly as a shepherd, and drive them back to the pen again at night without any other guidance than their own extraordinary instincts.” (Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies, or, The Journal of a Santa Fé Trader, 1831-1839)

Monday, February 08, 2021

Yankeedom and El Norte


Within days of setting foot in Santa Fe for the first time in 1992 we knew this was where we were meant to be. And not just for that particular day.

However, had we first read Colin Woodard’s "American Nations" we might have cancelled our New Mexico plans and just driven straight to Cape Cod instead. We obviously are glad that we didn’t. But why?

The book identifies eleven distinct cultures within the U.S. and Canada – and “makes the provocative claim that our culture wars are inevitable. North America was settled by groups with distinct political and religious values – and we haven’t had a moment’s peace since."

Two in particular who should not get along are Yankeedom and El Norte – the “nations” that apply to us. We both grew up in the former and lived there for seventy-four years. Then, after vacationing in the second of the two for twenty-five years, we relocated there. Shouldn’t we have experienced at least a culture skirmish, if not a full blown conflict?

Our former homeland was begun by the Puritans in New England and spread across upper New York, the northern parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, into the eastern Dakotas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Canadian Maritime.

As a whole the people of the region value education, intellectual achievement, communal empowerment, and citizen participation in government – are comfortable with government regulation – and have a "Utopian streak" believing in the ultimate perfectibility of man, guided by the right types of reforms of course. The area was settled by radical Calvinists – Puritans who believed it was their mission from God to “propagate His will on a corrupt and sinful world [and that] personal wealth was expected to be reinvested in one’s good works. Yankeedom has, since the outset, put great emphasis on perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders.”

Except for that evangelical zealotry part – we say amen! We definitely could comfortably live there. In fact…

El Norte is home to the oldest European subculture in the United States. Started by Catholic Spanish settlers in the 16th century, and later augmented by Anglo-Americans from the Deep South and Greater Appalacia, it includes south and west Texas, southern California and its Imperial Valley, southern Arizona, New Mexico, parts of Colorado, and several Mexican states.
Spain’s colonization of the land was driven by a desire for gold and the compulsion to convert every living soul to Catholicism. The latter idea really irritated the Protestant countries – and lead to “the lasting hatred of the English, Scots, and Dutch who regarded [the Spanish] as the decadent, unthinking tools of the Vatican’s conspiracy to enslave the world. This virulent anti-Hispanic feeling became deeply engrained in the cultures of Yankeedom, Appalachia, Tidewater, and the Deep South.” And was one of the reasons New Mexico was denied statehood for so many years.

Spain sent lots of men, but not nearly enough women, leading to intermarriage with the local Natives and an ethnically mixed “mestizo” populace. Partially because of their widespread proselytization efforts the Spanish spread themselves too thin and were not able to watch over their charges very closely. Thus the people here became exceptionally independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and focused on work. Hispanic culture dominates in El Norte – making it "a place apart" from the rest of North America, as well as "a hotbed of democratic reform and revolutionary sentiment.”

We like to think of ourselves as relatively independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and focused on work (or now on our avocations.)  But revolutionaries?  One of us prefers not to wear gold – but likes turquoise and silver. The other was raised Catholic.  We both are drawn to New Mexican architecture and folk art – with a special affinity for depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whether on persons, places or things. And we seem to be missing that deeply engrained “virulent anti-Hispanic” Yankeedom gene.

Were we unknowing El Norteños for three quarters of a century?  Real ones in some prior incarnation?

Or is it that Santa Fe is enough of a “City Different,” to allow us to retain our thoroughly instilled Yankee sensibilities – while at the same time letting us immerse ourselves in our new culture’s way of life. After all we were not the first ones from our homeland to come here and stay – among them the “Ladies of the Canyons,” as documented by Leslie Poling-Kempes.

“Educated, restless, and inquisitive, Natalie Curtis, Carol Stanley, Alice Klauber, and Mary Cabot Wheelwright were plucky, intrepid women whose lives were transformed in the first decades of the twentieth century by the people and country of the American Southwest. Within the wild, raw beauty of the high desert and mountain landscape these ladies imagined and created a new home territory, a new society, and a new identity for themselves and for the [men and] women who would follow them.”

Curtis was an ethnomusicologist who transcribed the songs of hundreds of Native American tribes – and published them in 1905 as ‘The Indians’ Book: Songs and Legends of the American Indians.” She also brought her friend President Theodore Roosevelt to see his first (perhaps only) Hopi Snake Dance. Stanley was a brilliant pianist and educator who founded Ghost Ranch – without which Georgia O’Keeffe might not have discovered the abstract landscapes of New Mexico. (Wanting to see the source of Ms O’K’s nonrepresentational visions was one of our primary reasons for first coming out here. On that trip we realized that they were actually pretty realistic.) Klauber was a painter from San Diego who helped start up the NM Museum of Art in 1917. And Wheelwright founded the Museum of the American Indian in 1937 to preserve and showcase Navajo culture and religion.

Along with other “immigrants” the Ladies of the Canyon used their newfound independence to construct a unique refuge of cultural diversity. A “City Different” in this “place apart” – all set in a gorgeous landscape where the air is clean and the weather usually bright, sunny and dry, but not too warm. (Although a little rain now and then would be nice.)

El Norte culture in its native form is however still alive and well throughout New Mexico. There are religious aspects – and other parts of the Norteño lifestyle that are almost as sacrosanct out here.

After winning its independence from Spain in the early 19th century Mexico ousted all of the Spanish missionaries from its provinces, but failed to replace them with enough of their own clergy. As a result many secluded Nuevo Méxican villages could expect only a once-yearly visit from a parish priest. Hardly enough for people falling in love, having babies, raising children, dying, etc. The men in those communities came together as “Los Penitentes” and dedicated themselves to providing mutual aid, community charity – and to memorializing the spirit of the penance and the Passion of Christ (including their own self-flagellation practices.)  Almost expelled from, then reconciled with the Catholic Church, the brotherhood continues to perform a modified form of its religious rituals, and to pursue its commitment to acts of community charity.

In what most New Mexicans consider their sacred right – the state has some of the least restrictive firearms laws in the country, with around one-half of the state population owning guns. It allows the open carrying of loaded weapons without a specific permit. A special license is required to secretly pack a shooting iron however.

Sheriffs are locally elected, and regularly decline to enforce (or sometimes even obey) state laws. In February Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a red-flag gun bill that allows state district courts to order the temporary surrender of firearms if a gun owner displays dangerous or threatening behavior. And she urged (not commanded or compelled) sheriffs to resign if they refused to enforce it. Likewise masks. (And we naively thought that a stylish bandanna was an integral part of southwestern cowboy fashion. I guess when somebody tells you that you HAVE TO do something…)

Some of that Yankee "sacrifice for the common good" ideal seems to be catching on however.   As our country’s thirty-fifth president might have put it – “mask not what your country can do for you – mask what you can do for your country.”  Face-coverings are becoming a more common sight, and NM’s Covid numbers have returned to yellow or green on most maps. 

Less contentiously the land of Enchantment’s independence and self-sufficiency can also be seen on a day-to-day basis in many of its 200 unincorporated communities (aka Census Designated Places or CDPs.)

Twenty minutes to our south is the dirt-street, mud-house town of Los Cerrillos – a CDP with 110 adobe homes and a population of 230. Settled in 1879 – within a few years over 3,000 full-time prospectors were extracting gold, silver, lead, zinc, and turquoise from the surrounding mountains, and in their leisure time supporting twenty-one saloons, five brothels, four hotels, several newspapers and an opera house in the city.  For a time Los Cerrillos was seriously considered as a new site for the capital of New Mexico. Today it is officially a “ghost town.”

A little further down the road is Madrid (MAD-rid, not Ma-DRID) – similarly categorized, even though this small village of about 400 residents is bustling during the (normal) summer months with shops, restaurants, and galleries catering to its many visitors. Madrid was a booming coal mining community in the early 20th century – the Cerrillos Coal & Iron Co. developed all the housing, mines, and facilities – until natural gas came on the scene in the late 1940s. By 1954 most residents had moved away, and an ad in the Wall Street Journal listed the entire town for sale at a price of $250,000 (2.4 million 2020 dollars.) There were no takers. Today artists, craftsmen, and other individuals wanting to make their homes in the mountains live in what once was company provided housing.

Closer to us is the village of Agua Fría – in their own words “an obscure community five miles southwest of the Santa Fe Plaza [founded by] humble and poor farmers, who spoke only Spanish, watching the world go by on the El Camino Real de Adentro [Royal Road of the Interior Land.]” Realtors describe the town as a “Traditional Historic Community” with a “sparse suburban feel.” But the 2,000 people in their 720 adobe houses quietly demur – and insist that Agua Fría is simply a state of mind.

At a younger point in our lives we might have considered settling in one of these three places. But what we really wish is that we had had the opportunity to hang out with those early 20th century Utopian-minded newcomers who socially engineered Santa Fe into the City Different. As our radical Calvinist forerunners would tell us, it is after all the type of thing that expatriates from Yankeedom, are predestined to do.

A Little Old-time Religion


Northern New Mexico is overwhelmingly Catholic. But we don’t mean religiously. The Spanish, who came to the New World in the 16th century for “glory, gold and God,” are no longer attempting to forcibly convert everyone to the Catholic religion. But their “primitive” attempts to recreate the religious iconography of their home country have established themselves as THE art of the region.

“Santos” – 2-D “retablos” and 3-D “bultos” portray the Church’s saints. “Ex Voto” paintings tell the stories of their interventions in the lives of everyday people. Crosses made of straw (in lieu of gold), tin (not silver) or hand-carved from wood decorate the walls of both believers and non. A visitor might be hard-pressed to know whether they were in the home of a devoted Catholic, a museum, a chapel or an art collector’s casita.

Catholic churches are the focal points of most northern New Mexico villages. Some are simple buildings maintained for centuries by parishioners, townspeople and historic preservationists – organic-looking structures sculpted from adobe with old-world charm. Religious folk art adorns the walls and altars.

Roadside crosses (descansos) mark the spot on earth where loved ones took their last breath. Calvario crosses of the Penitentes appear randomly on hills – and by design in the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Hispanics in northern New Mexico still maintain strong family and Catholic ties, and continue to honor traditions associated with both. On holidays there may be religious processions – most notably the pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo, an hour's drive north of Santa Fe. Constructed in 1816, the sanctuary has long been a worshiping site for Catholics who attribute miraculous healing powers to the earth found in the chapel's anteroom. Several days before Easter, fervent believers begin walking the highway headed to Chimayo, some carrying large crosses – others nothing but small bottles of water – most praying for a miracle.

But our recent talk with new Santa Fe friends L & J reminded us that Catholicism is not the only system of faith and worship in our new home state. In fact religion has always been a central, defining element in New Mexico’s history ­beginning with the Pueblo people.

In his novel “Alburquerque,” Rudolfo Anaya has one of his main characters explain the spiritual roots of Santuario de Chimayo. “Before there was the raza [hispanics] here, the Indians used to come to this place. Chimayo is an Indian word; you see, they had named their universe and the sacred places. They used the earth for healing. The Mexicano who built the first chapel saw a saint standing over this spot. The earth is sacred.”

Within the Puebloan cosmos all living creatures are mutually dependent and every relationship, whether with a person, an animal, or a plant, has spiritual significance. A hunter prays before killing a deer, asking the creature to sacrifice itself to the tribe. The harvesting of plants requires prayer, thanks, and ritual.

The Puebloans believe that their ancestors originally lived under the ground – the source of all life. The first people, encouraged by burrowing animals, entered the world of humans – the "fourth" world – through a hole, a sipapu. Rituals and deities vary from tribe to tribe, but most believe this world is enclosed by four sacred mountains, where the sacred colors – coral, black, turquoise, and yellow or white ­– predominate. 

Not surprisingly given the co-mingling of Native religion and Catholicism exemplified by Santuario de Chimayo, many Pueblo Natives will tell you that they practice BOTH their tribal religion AND Catholicism. 

Our research has turned up some (we think) interesting history on three of the other denominations here in New Mexico: United Methodist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Presbyterian – the subject of our discussion with L and J.

An Area of Degradation and Ignorance

In her historical novel “Not Ordered by Men, the first 100 years of History of First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe,” T.D. Allen tells the church’s beginning from viewpoint of Jennie St. John Mitchell, wife of the General Robert B. Mitchell, New Mexico’s Territorial Governor from 1866 to 1869. In the novel Mrs. Mitchell writes to the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Domestic Missions imploring them to send a minister to Santa Fe.

“I want above all else to see my church come into this area of degradation and ignorance. It is well known that Presbyterians have ever gone into this country’s frontiers, fostering hand-in-hand both faith and truth, carrying the Bible in one hand and readers and spellers in the other, building...both churches and schools.” 

An actual 1866 letter written by Mrs. Isabella Graham in 1866 paints a more detailed picture. “Children and dogs run the streets all day long, splashing in the odorous puddles where swill collects. There are no schools as you know them, and none but Catholic churches. The Catholics are building a great church...but the saloon keepers have out built everybody. The poor men of Protestant persuasion who are stationed here in the Army are left with no worthwhile diversion...The town is a living example of the filth and degradation to which human beings can sink when they are not enlightened and are left without the uplifting influences of the Church.”

While Mrs. Mitchell’s letter may be fictional, Church records show that she was one of the original members of First Presbyterian Church, and invited the congregation to have its first worship service in the Council Chamber of the governor’s residence. 

Sent by the Board of Domestic Missions, the Rev. David F. McFarland stepped off the stage in Santa Fe on November 22, 1866. He called on Mrs. Mitchell the next day. The first worship service was held two days later with forty persons present, many of them Army wives in their late twenties. Sabbath School was held that afternoon. With a petition signed by twelve persons, McFarland officially organized the church in the Palace of the Governors on January 6, 1867 – at the time the only Protestant church in New Mexico.  In March of that year, the ruins of an unsuccessful Baptist Church were purchased for $5,100. The church remains in that same location, 208 Grant Avenue, today. 

The new parish struggled in its early years. All original trustees were gone – three had moved and two had been murdered. The only person on the rolls in 1874 was the postmaster. By 1881, however the old adobe structure was replaced with a new red brick building and a Victorian style manse was built nearby.  The following photo shows the sanctuary in 1955.

In 1908, Rev. Hugh A. Cooper, a Presbyterian pastor in Albuquerque, founded the Southwest Presbyterian Sanatorium, a facility for the hundreds of indigent tuberculosis victims he often visited since he himself moved from Iowa to ABQ in 1903 as a TB patient. In 1950, with tuberculosis under control, the “San” evolved into The Presbyterian Hospital Center. Today Presbyterian Healthcare Services owns and operates eight hospitals in seven New Mexico communities (one in our part of Santa Fe) as well as the Presbyterian Health Plan. 

The church also operates Ghost Ranch, a 21,000-acre retreat and education center located near the village of Abiquiú in north central New Mexico – former site of the home and studio of Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as the subject of many of her paintings. Originally won in a poker game in 1928 by Roy Pfaffle, it was so-named by his wife Carol Stanley (the legal owner of the property) who constructed guest quarters and created an exclusive dude ranch that was visited by many of the wealthy and creative people of the time – the “Mother of American Modernism” among them. Many of Stanley’s friends moved to New Mexico for its peaceful atmosphere. In 1935 she sold the ranch to one of them, Arthur Newton Pack, writer and editor of Nature Magazine. Pack and his wife Phoebe gave the ranch to the Presbyterian Church in 1955 where it is now open to the public for “the spiritual health and well being of all mankind.”

Hello. My name is Elder Hamblin...”

Along I-25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque stands The Mormon Battalion Monument – an historic obelisk built in honor of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who served in the United States Army's Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War of 1846 -1848, and traversed New Mexico from its northeast to its southwest corner in 1846.

Significant LDS contact in the territory did not occur however until 1876 when Jacob Hamblin and James S. Brown, two members of a group of missionaries assigned to Mexico, found some success proselytizing among the Zuni and Navajo in the western of the territory. That year Mormon missionaries founded the settlement of Savoia, about twenty miles east of the Zuni village, and were joined by LDS converts from the southern states. In 1882 they relocated a few miles south to a village they named Ramah, which continues today as a predominantly LDS community – and was a major focus in a landmark 1941 interdisciplinary Harvard study of the village’s five cultures: 500 Navajo, 40 Spanish-Americans, 300 Mormons, 130 Texans (aka “El Morro People”) and 30 “Southwestern Anglos.” (Today there are 470 residents.) 

“Unlike their brethren in other parts of the Southwest whose ideology and colonization techniques brought relatively good relations with the Navajos, the Ramah Mormons never succeeded to any degree in overcoming the [passive Navajo hostility]… and only a few of the Indians would work for or learn from the Mormon settlers.” An influx of Texas cattle ranchers followed by Anglo farmers eventually took over much of the land. The Indian Service Administration moved the Natives to the south and decreed the sending of their children to Indian Boarding Schools leading to more resentment. Spanish-Americans, mainly sheep herders, moved in and became the dominant group. They were followed and displaced both in numbers and power by more Texans who also overruled the Mormons. By the time of the study, “virtually no Ramah Mormons had nay but bitter word for the “Administration...and any small success against ‘Washington’ was greeted happily.”

Latter-day Saints also settled in northwestern New Mexico along the San Juan River at Fruitland, Kirtland, Waterflow and Bluewater. (For a time Brigham Young, Jr. maintained one of his residences at Fruitland.) Additional LDS congregations were established in western New Mexico at Pleasanton, Socorro County (1882) – and at Virden, Hidalgo County (1915), which was settled by Mormon refugees from south of the border dislodged by the Mexican Revolution. In the first third of the 20th century, congregations were organized at Albuquerque, Gallup, Taos, Silver City, Clovis, Tres Piedras, Pagosa Springs, and Thoreau. In 2000 the first temple in New Mexico was dedicated in Albuquerque. By 2010 there were 67,637 New Mexican Mormons.

The Snowshoe Itinerant

Following the example set by its founder John Wesley in England a century earlier to take the message to where the people were instead of waiting for the people to come to them, hundreds of dedicated circuit riders like “Father” John L Dyer (aka “The Snowshoe Itinerant”) spread Methodism throughout the frontier areas of the United States. (The title was not conferred by the Methodist Church but was bestowed the people as a sign of respect and endearment. The “snowshoes” were actually nine to eleven foot Norwegian skis made of pine or spruce.) Dyer’s itinerant ministry included much of present-day Colorado and New Mexico and lasted almost four decades. It was a difficult life with minimal financial compensation. And preaching often took place in very informal, frequently quite seedy, settings.

Dyer was present when Colonel and Pastor John Chivington, the presiding elder, said of Native Americans, “I am fully satisfied, gentlemen, that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace and quiet.” Chivington later led a regiment of Colorado Volunteers to the Sand Creek reservation where, true to his word, he slaughtered 200 Cheyenne including women and children – the “Sand Creek Massacre.”

As Dyer began to travel into New Mexico, he noted of the Apache, “If sighted by them it was necessary to outrun them, kill them, or get scalped.” Later he declared it, was “impossible to tame and educate an Indian until he is subdued...We can but desire the Navajo tribe to become enlightened and as perfect in religion as their squaws were in weaving blankets.”

In 1882 W. W. Welsh, the presiding elder of the MEC,S (Methodist Episcopal Church, South) in Colorado, said of the 10,000 Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, saying, “They are feeble in intellect, unable to originate, but can imitate like monkeys.” (An 1844 dispute over the ownership of two slaves by an MEC Bishop led Methodists in the South to break off and form a separate denomination.)

The Women’s Home Missionary Society of the church established schools among the Jicarilla Apache in Dulce and on the Navajo Reservation in the 1880s. In 1891 they helped create the Navajo Mission School, which like other Indian boarding schools operated on the principle of “kill the Indian, save the man.” “Not provided were the love and care you would get from a parent,” recalled one former student. Another was told by his father, “What have you done. You are a Navajo. And your Navajo religion is over here.’”

Methodism came to in Santa Fe in 1850 with the arrival of Reverend E.G. Nicholson. Nineteen years later “Father” Dyer visited to convey his support for a permanent parish. Shortly thereafter an adobe structure with a short steeple was built on San Francisco Street to house the St John’s Methodist-Episcopal Church. Now known as St. John’s United Methodist Church the parish is located on Old Pecos Trail near Museum Hill. 

And we must mention...

In recent years, New Mexico has become known (and ridiculed) for its New Age pilgrims and practitioners – and their alternative churches, healing centers, and healing schools.  "A spiritual mini-mecca for a semi-godless age,” per the New York Times.  The roots of the movement are hard to trace. But many alternative believers seem to have been drawn by the spirituality, beliefs and deeply-felt connection to the land of the Pueblo people.

While others may laugh, we think that the Natives might be grateful to finally have someone who likes them just the way they are.