Personal history and culture has a “flavor” all its own. In rural New Mexico, that flavor is tied deeply to the land and to the customs and traditions of those who live close to it. Nasario Garcia is an oral historian, folklorist and native New Mexican. He attended school in a one-room schoolhouse of 25 students, grades 1-8 in Río Puerco Valley, New Mexico and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1972. In 2012 Nasario was awarded the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award by the Historical Society of New Mexico for his teachings, activism, and publications. He is the author or co-author of over 23 publications, including a memoir, Hoe, Heaven, and Hell: My Boyhood in Rural New Mexico (University of New Mexico Press, 2015). He recently shared some of his personal recollections with BorderLore.
B: Your work focuses on Hispanic folklore and the oral history of northern New Mexico. Why was this subject your chosen passion? How did you arrive on this career path?
NG: In retrospect, I embarked on oral history and Hispanic folklore, two genres that I’ve come to feel an innate affection for, by pure serendipity. I earned a BA in Spanish and an MA degree in Portuguese from the University of New Mexico, and then taught Portuguese at the Latin American Peace Corps Training Center with my wife, who has an MA in Portuguese from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. After that, we headed for Granada, Spain.
There I attended the University of Granada (1964-65) took doctoral courses (cursos monográficos). By a stroke of luck one of my professors turned out to be the eminent linguistic, Dr. Manuel Alvar. During the academic year we became good friends, a rare relationship between professor-student back in those days. The fact that I came from northern New Mexico, coupled with his interest in colonial Spanish of my state, helped strengthen our friendship. He lamented that many archaic words in southern Spain (Andalucía) were rapidly disappearing but was keenly aware that they still existed in New Mexico and therefore yearned to come here to verify their existence. His dream, I learned years later, came true circa 1991.
In his linguistic courses he also connected the cultural dots (i.e., customs and traditions) between small villages throughout Andalucía. This enabled me to connect my own cultural dots between New Mexican and Spanish villages where I witnessed local fiestas, both religious and secular. In 1968 I interviewed my paternal grandparents and dozens of their contemporaries my own Río Puerco Valley and throughout New Mexico and the American Southwest. It was a fortunate undertaking that shaped my career as a scholar, oral historian, and creative writer.
B: You grew up in Ojo del Padre, a village northwest of Albuquerque. Can you describe this small town and how it reflected the rural ways of New Mexico? How is rural life important to our country’s overall cultural well being, or quality of life?
NG: I spent the formative years of my life with my family on my paternal grandparents’ ranch a scant two miles from Ojo del Padre, named in honor of a priest who purportedly happened upon a water spring. It’s about fifty miles southeast of the renowned Chaco Canyon. As I was growing up during the early 1940s the village comprised several families, with around 50 to 60-plus inhabitants of varying ages. The layout of Ojo del Padre was quite traditional and typical of Hispanic villages in northern New Mexico. The church where I made my First Holy Communion was at the center of the village, with its adjoining homes, oratory, dance hall, school, post office, and general store acting as a supporting cast. The village was later named Guadalupe in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe.
Ranching and farming families like my paternal grandparents and my own parents lived off the land, planting and harvesting crops such as corn, pinto beans, pumpkins, cantaloupes, and watermelons. Small plots within the cornfield were reserved for peas and radishes, but corn and pinto beans were the two main staples, popular in bartering for chile and fruit with the Indians from Jémez Pueblo to the northeast, where chile, apples, apricots and grapes were plentiful.
Of course, ranchers also raised cattle, goats, chickens, rabbits, and hogs that provided meat year-round for families. My grandma, according to my father, at one time had dozens of pigs. One of the highlights for me as a kid was hog butchering. I describe that in my children’s story, Grandpa Lolo’s Matanza: A New Mexico Tradition. There was nothing more exciting than eating freshly fried chicharrones in Grandpa’s copper cauldron. Wrapped in a warm flour tortilla, they were heavenly — the forerunner of today’s ubiquitous burrito!
During fiestas people gravitated from the outlying environs within the Río Puerco Valley to Ojo del Padre to participate in all kinds of religious and secular festivities. My village was the hub for an assortment of activities: baptism, First Holy Communion, and Midnight Mass (Misa del Gallo), commemorating the birth of Christ. Saint John’s Day (el Día de San Juan) on June 24. was the most popular summer holiday with rooster racing, horse races (both male and female participants), and tejas, a horseshoe-type game played by old men using round flat stones. July 26, Día de Santa Ana, was reserved strictly for women and young ladies who rode horseback and showed off their beautiful steeds while the men and the rest of villagers looked on.
The day’s festivities culminated with an evening dance at the local dance hall. Called a bolote (a rowdy dance) or fandango (shindig), it sometimes lasted till the wee hours of the morning. Two local musicians played the guitar and violin while older couples danced the old-fashioned El baile de la escoba (Broom Dance), El rechumbé, or El chiquiao. Unmarried couples playfully exchanged chiquiaos (love quatrains) on the dance floor while the bastonero (a kind of dance-floor manager) collected money from the men to pay the musicians.
Here is a flirtatious chiquiao I learned from my maternal grandmother when I was a small boy that young men might have invoked to impress a girl in hopes of striking a courtship:
De la pera no comí
del vino bebí una gota
del besito que te di
dulce me quedó la boca”
From the pear I did not eat
from the wine I took a few sips
from the small kiss I gave you
my mouth turned sweet like your lips.
Grownups, mostly men, sometimes recited love quatrains that were a tad risqué to evoke a laugh or two from their dancing partners (not their wives). For example:
En una mesa te puse
un plato con elotes
No lo hago porque me quieras
si no porque te alborotes.”
I place on a table for you
a plate full of ears of sweet corn
I don’t do it so you’ll like me
but rather to get you all excited.
The more popular dances were El chotis/chote (schottische), waltzes (e.g., Tú solo tú), and, of course, dust-raising dances like polkas, corridos (ballads) and Mexican rancheras, all carried on a dirt dance floor.
The cultural customs and traditions as described above were of paramount importance 70 years ago to the overall quality of life because of what I would categorize as the primorazgo phenomenon, whereby everyone treated each other as primos (cousins) even if they weren’t blood-relations. Today those remembrances are lodged only in memory and oral history and folkloric accounts such as those found in my publications.
B: What are some memorable anecdotes or stories about your family home or family way of life? How did these ways reinforce cultural traditions and your passion for communicating local folklife? More specifically, do you have any recollections of the following:
Home: What are your memories of your family’s adobe home and of your parents building it?
NG: My parents’ two-room adobe home was built by my father, his father, and a family friend after Mom and Dad were married in June 1935. I was the first of eight children born in Bernalillo north of Albuquerque and was six months old when my parents and I initiated their new home in the fall of 1936. The three of us plus four future siblings lived in the modest dwelling until 1945 when we moved to Albuquerque where three more siblings were born.
I recall a host of memories, both joyful and sad, of what it was like to be raised by parents who were highly intelligent, hard-working, honest, and proud but uneducated. Their unambiguous love contributed to family unity; this enabled us to enjoy the good as well as the sad times. Mom’s venerable kitchen, though, is where many family experiences occurred — they can be found in my memoir mentioned above.
Culinary: What traditional foods grew in your family garden? Did you tend any animals? Do you have any favorite recipes or memories of food and/or meals or mealtime?
NG: Because of the scarcity of water we did not have a home garden per se. The precious liquid for home consumption was hauled by horse wagon from the village’s artesian well. Some families in the village proper enjoyed a tiny plot where they planted yerbabuena, mint for medicinal purposes (e.g., stomachache) and/or manzanilla, chamomile used for indigestion or other ailments.
Regarding foods, I can recite the traditional meals that we consumed daily for lunch or dinner, to wit, beans, red chile, potatoes, meat (beef or pork), either fried or oven roasted or prepared in stews (e.g., green chile stew), and flour tortillas. From time to time Mom fixed biscuits (galletas), brel (called sheepherder’s bread), or sopaipillas, fritters made from regular flour dough rolled out like a tortilla and deep fried in oil or lard. For breakfast we customarily ate eggs, oatmeal, fresh tortillas, and honey (miel virgen). There were times when Mom fixed chaquegüe (flat bread made from blue cornmeal) or atole, blue corn gruel. My parents drank coffee with every meal. I mostly drank water, although sometimes café con leche, coffee and milk.
I cannot talk about foods without mentioning Easter and Christmas. These were special seasons, indeed, and so were some of the foods we ate or abstained from eating because of religious reasons. For example, during Lent my family — like other families — did not eat meat on Fridays and sometimes even throughout the Lenten season. The daily meals were otherwise the same as those mentioned above except during Holy Week.
From Wednesday, especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Mom prepared torrejas, also called tortas de huevo (egg yolks whipped into a batter), dipped in red chile sauce and deep fried in hot oil or lard; or, they could also be deep fried and thereafter dipped in caramelo (carmelized sugar water) and served as a dessert. Mom also fixed the traditional natillas, so called custard pudding, and rice pudding. The most selective dessert that she rarely made, and perhaps my all-time favorite, was called panocha made from sprouted ground wheat grain and cooked in the oven. It was labor intensive but the most scrumptious dessert I ever ate and no longer prepared by Hispanic families. In fact, I would venture to say that few if any families actually know anything about panocha.
I had two horses, El Prieto and Bayito, and had to make sure they were fed and watered properly. I also lent Grandpa Lolo a hand in caring for his milk cow that provided milk for my oatmeal and coffee at breakfast time. I likewise helped Mom care for her chickens; they provided us with eggs as well as a chicken now and then for arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), one of her specialties that Dad enjoyed immensely.
But the highlight was my rabbits. Some were in hutches (conejeras) but most of them ran loose. At one time I had about thirty or more rabbits. The fun part was naming each one after my cousins: Juan, Julia, Roberto, and Teodoro. Thereafter, I gave them names of people I knew in my village such as Nicanor, Alberto, Adelita, and so on. Sadness overcame me whenever I had to fetch a rabbit for Mom to fix for Dad. He loved fried rabbit. After catching a rabbit and presenting it to Mom in the kitchen, she would often say to me to alleviate the sting before we sealed the rabbit’s fate, “Okay, hijito, which one of your cousins do you have for me today?”
Storytelling: Were there any repeated stories that taught you lessons? Any community storytellers who may have inspired you?
NG: Countless stories had a moral underpinning of sorts, but uppermost in my mind to this day is the story about “The Disobedient Son.” The slant depended on the narrator. However, the potential consequences for a son were frightening enough to scare the wits out of anybody. One tale I heard from my maternal grandmother that left an indelible impression on me concerned a young man who in a moment of rage raised his right arm and struck his mother. The earth swallowed him up to his waist and thereafter he had to roam the four corners of the earth for his transgression. The day he died plumes of black smoke purportedly spewed from his wood stove chimney. When you heard stories like this, you wouldn’t dare disobey your parents. Mexican ballads exist recounting the sad and tragic story of the disobedient son. Daughters were not immune. The Mexican ballad of “Rosita Alvírez” who went to a dance against her mother’s wishes is a case in point. At the dance Rosita declined to dance with a young lad and he shot her to death.
My maternal grandmother was the consummate folklorist who taught me riddles (adivinanzas), folk sayings (dichos), love quatrains and stories (historias). But I must also mention my paternal grandmother. Her stories were exciting. They ranged from the mysterious and rare white donkey to the talking doll or baby with teeth to the milk-sucking snake (la mamona) that ostensibly drained cows’ udders. I heard many of her tales in Grandpa’s corral when we grandchildren gathered in the fall to shuck corn. This was storytelling time at its best. On occasion, Grandpa, Dad, or some other grownup in the group would chime in with his or her own story.
I, too, have my own stories based on what I heard in my village. The local barber don José is a prime example. He would entertain my cousin Juan and me by singing a song or two after he gave one of us a haircut. He chewed tobacco and, as he paused between songs, he used the sound hole of his guitar as a spittoon. He claimed that the tobacco juice gave the guitar a better sound. We were gullible enough to accept what he said.
Occupational Folklore: What do you remember about the practice of hauling water?
NG: Most of the water for domestic consumption (cooking and bathing) came from the village artesian well. Additional water came from roof gutters (canales) that was boiled for home cooking. It was not unheard of for a housewife to walk down to the river following a rainstorm to fetch water from pools of water (charcos) to wash the family’s clothes. Or water would settle on depressed sandstones called aguajes. I knew at least one lady who walked up a small hill near her house to wash her clothing in the aguaje.
B: How do traditional ways & practices add “spice” to a neighborhood or community?
NG: Customs and traditions played a pivotal role in my village thereby attracting people locally and from other neighboring communities. At one time people came from as far away as Albuquerque, 76 miles away. Families and friends congregated either to celebrate the birth of a newborn child, the marriage of a son or daughter, or to mourn the loss of a beloved family member or friend. Regardless of the occasion, each event brought to life the vitality of the community.
B: What props or elements of material culture do you use in your storytelling?
NG: I have a potpourri of show-and-tell items that I use in sharing stories with kids as well as adults. They include, but are not limited to, the owl, a hideous witch (there are no pretty witches!), a doll, an apple, an egg, a horsewhip, a pumpkin, and garlic. The owl figures prominently in my repartee of tales. He is a mysterious creature with far-reaching supernatural powers. Stories of witches abound so I not only show the audience how to protect oneself against witches from inflicting harm on a hapless person, but also I demonstrate how to catch a witch. The latter is a story that has been on my father’s side of the family for at least five generations.
B: What challenges do you face in your work ensure that traditional practices are upheld and continued?
NG: For 30-plus years I have worked diligently to preserve the Hispanic culture of northern New Mexico that has existed since the 16th century. I have done so through lecturing, sharing adult and children’s stories based on my childhood experiences, and publishing books on oral history and folklore.
My publications stem from tape-recorded interviews that I conducted with former old-timers not only from the Río Puerco Valley where I grew up but also from throughout the American Southwest (i.e., Arizona, Colorado, California, and Texas). Through my tireless efforts I have tried to the best of my ability to educate children as well as adults — above all, Hispanics — of the richness of the Spanish language and our culture. This language and culture is currently on the brink of disappearing from our midst because of apathy and the intrusion of technological gadgets, which now consume our daily lives. Kids are among the primary victims of this intrusion, with precious little time left to read or listen to a good story.
Trying to preserve one’s culture and language — they are mutually inclusive — is an uphill battle, but I am doggedly determined to do my part to keep the Hispanic culture of northern New Mexico alive. I trust my books will enlighten future generations of the richness of this long-standing culture.
B: What aspect(s) of your work or life are you most proud of?
NG: A profound sense of gratification is having had the instinct if not foresight to interview my grandparents in 1968. A neophyte in oral history, I showed up with a reel-to-reel tape recorder to ask them simple questions regarding their long marriage in the Río Puerco Valley since they were on the verge of celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary.
Because of this interview, unbeknownst to me, I was able to launch a “new career” in academia, far-removed from my Ph.D. degree in 19th century Spanish literature from the University of Pittsburgh. More importantly, the generous information my paternal grandparents shared with me regarding the trials and tribulations of eking out an existence and raising a family in rural life piqued my curiosity enough to entice me subsequently to interview most old-timers from my Valley who were alive but living in the Albuquerque environs. At least a half dozen oral history books followed on my native Río Puerco Valley in addition to my collections of short stories for adults and children as well as poetry that I published.
- Nasario’s web site lists and links to many of his publications as well as to books on oral history and folklore: NasarioGarciaphd.com