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)