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.


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