Thursday, 22 September 2016 20:29

Peña Blanca Summers - by Jim Baca

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Peña Blanca, the home of my father and his ancestors, is a small village that lies between the Pueblos of Cochiti and Santo Domingo on New Mexico highway 22, about an equidistant drive north from Albuquerque or south from Santa Fe. In my childhood it was a place of summer daydreams, aromatic kitchens, ringing church bells, nightly visits to neighbors, homesickness, and the loving care of my Grandparents, Delfin and Lenore Baca.

In the summers, and sometimes at Christmas, my parents, Fermin and Dixie Baca would pack us kids off for ten days to this small and humble village to stay with “Grandma and Grandpa”. My identical twin brother Tom, and my big sister Carlota and I would travel the old highway 85 in one of Grandpa’s trusty but dilapidated trucks or cars. He worked as the supervisor for the Cochiti district of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, an agency I would serve as General Manager for a short time some 25 years later.

The ride to Peña Blanca was always an adventure to be anticipated. In the 1950's the old two lane Highway, which was to spawn I-25 some years later, was as good a ride as anything one could hope for at Disneyland. There was a particular section between Bernalillo and San Felipe that provided a stomach churning topography for any vehicle. We came to call that section “the dips”. We looked forward to it and Grandpa never let us down. He worked the accelerator just precisely enough that we were weightless at the top of the mound and then picked up g-forces at the bottom.

Once we left Highway 85 at the old Domingo trading post we were onto the washboard dirt road into the village. This is where Grandpa taught us his method of singing. He would let out a single tone hum and every bump in the road would cause the car to buck and hence force a new note from Grandpa. The effect was especially impressive as he traveled on the ditch roads as he made his daily rounds of the main irrigation system from Cochiti to Agnostura. There was a strange and haunting melody that formed when he did this, much like chanting of the pueblo dancers.

The next obstacle to arriving at Peña Blanca was the old Galisteo arroyo crossing. If it was dry, there was no problem. If it had been raining hard anywhere north of the crossing it was downright dangerous. I recall a three foot wall of water hurtling down the arroyo after one violent thunderstorm near La Bajada. The water ran for a day before the crossing was passable and the antiquated bridge was declared safe for a few more months. Years later a modern structure was built there and that adventure was forever removed.

A few miles further through the Santo Domingo reservation, we passed over a clattering cattle guard and were in Peña Blanca. I always remember the dogs of the village running beside us snapping at the wheels. We children were petrified the car would run over these always emaciated canines, but Grandpa never gave it a thought and the dogs gave up the chase after a hundred yards to wait for the next pursuit.

The next landmark was Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. We would often stop for a visit and while grandma prayed we would look at the beautiful stations of the cross painted by Fray Angelico Chavez. My grandfather and many of his family were said to have been models for these magnificent frescos.
We visiting three children from the big city of Albuquerque were viewed by some residents of the village as “those twins and their sister who don’t speak Spanish”. Ours was not a bilingual household and so when we arrived in Peña Blanca for a visit we were always assured of constant ribbing in Spanish about our lack of language skills. My sister Carlota got the message, she went on to a Ph.D, in French and skills in three or four other languages.
My Grandparents at that time lived in a large and seemingly ancient adobe home with a tin roof. The house was connected to the store yards of the Conservancy district office. The warehouse, tool sheds and vehicle barns were full of trinkets and adventures for us kids and we hung around them much of the time. I particularly remember the tool sharpener in a dark corner of that building. When it was spinning, it provided a shower of sparks that could outdo any July 4th sparkler.

The house was gray colored with thick dappled stucco over adobe. The walls were so thick that you could sit inside the window recesses. Grandma used one of those deep windows on the cool side of the house as an icebox. Even interior walls averaged two feet thick with smooth white plaster. The house had wood floors and old furniture sprinkled with white lace doilies starched hard with a sugar solution cooked up by Grandma.
The first few years we visited the house there was only an outhouse to use. For us city kids that was a hard thing to endure, especially on cool mornings and dark nights. I always feared snakes might be lingering down below those holes in the boards and my visits were swift. Later on indoor plumbing was added and none of us complained.

There can be no doubt that the center of all activities was the kitchen with its wood and coal burning stove. Grandma was a master at using that stove for the incredible meals she would create almost everyday. I specifically remember the wonderful breakfasts. We would go out and feed the chickens the skins from the fried potatoes and onions that were always on the menu, collect eggs from the adobe chicken coop, and return for this meal that grandma insisted was so important to get us through the first part of the day. At least, just until lunch when she laid on another immense feast that might occasionally include her home made tamales. We eagerly awaited that most special of treats, sweet tamales with raisins inside. Dinner was usually leftovers from lunch. Essentially, another feast.

Nothing however could ever compare with grandma’s holiday banquets when relatives close and distant showed up. There were always three or four meat dishes, Grandpa’s spaghetti (a favorite of ours), lots of green and red chile dishes, squash, mountains of mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, beans, empanadas, bread pudding, flan and candy for the kids. It was something to see. Everyone pitched in at these occasions.

I remember another kitchen activity that grandma periodically performed. The making of soap. Lye soap. I don’t remember the recipe but I know there was a lot of mixing and boiling. I recall that the abrasive soap would clean anything. You sort of tingled after using it. I remember she would shave a bar of it and use it in a tub with a washboard for clothes washing. We kids would then wring the clothes out in an old fashion wringer.

We needed all that good food. The days were long and full of work and play. Mostly play. We awoke everyday to the sounds of the church bells from Our Lady of Guadalupe calling the faithful for 6:30am Mass. Grandma went often and we attended regularly too. Sometimes the Franciscans would let my brother and me ring the bells on Sundays.

The mornings were spent with Grandpa in the truck touring the miles of irrigation canals and checking on the progress of the work crews. There were frequent stops at the small general stores for Seven-Ups and ice cream. Often, Grandpa would buy a tin of sardines and eat them for a snack. Nothing grossed us out more.

After lunch Grandpa did office work and we kids took to the pasture next to the house that held the untamable horse Grandpa had bought for us. This was the “Arabian Horse from Hell” and we spent all of our time just trying to get close to him. Carlota was the only one who could deal with this horse. We named him “Wildy”. He lived for many years and we always loved him.

Also, in that pasture were a dozen head of sheep. We would get very excited when lambs were dropped and would try to adopt them as pets. I remember that terrible night when a pack of dogs killed many of the sheep. My grandfather went outside to end the maimed animals lives with a shotgun. It was the loudest and saddest sound I had ever heard. The ensuing hours were spent butchering the sheep. We stayed out of sight that day. Grandma could make a great mutton stew out of the slaughter, however.

We spent a lot of time at Grandpa’s apple orchard. This was my favorite place in Peña Blanca. There were eight hundred apple trees, a dozen cherry trees, and scatterings of peach, plum, nectarine and apricot trees. We learned how to irrigate, spray insecticide, clear underbrush and, in the spring, try to stay away from the beehives he kept for pollination. We also learned how to drive a tractor sitting on Grandpa’s lap.
Very often, the blossoms would freeze in late frosts, and I can remember the adults frantically burning old tires under the trees to save them. I remember my father injuring his back lifting heavy loads of apples onto the semi-trucks that came to buy these wonderfully flavored New Mexico apples. Sometimes there were bumper crops and then Grandpa would hand out ridiculous amounts of money to us kids. (Whenever Grandma and Grandpa visited there was always money handed out. My sister always got more because she was older.)

This beautiful orchard succumbed to the record hard freeze of 1972 and the trees were uprooted and burned a couple of years later. Believe it or not, we were unable to give away the apple wood for firewood. Fireplaces in Albuquerque were not yet in style.

After a full day of activities, which included the massacre of ants and water bugs by my brother’s and my BB guns, we would usually visit relatives in the village. There was no TV, of course, so people had to socialize or die of boredom. We often visited my Grandmother’s sister Ignacita and her husband Godofredo. The men smoked pipes and cigars while we children stayed with the women.

Godofredo’s garden was an extraordinary attraction. It was magnificent. It covered about a half acre and provided vegetables for the whole year. We snacked and munched through row after row of healthy produce.

I remember one particular visit to Peña Blanca at Christmas time. The village’s La Posada celebration will live in my memory forever. The small bonfires that lighted the way cast a surrealistic glow on the procession from home to home as the Joseph and Mary sought shelter. On Christmas night, we all traveled to Santo Domingo Pueblo to watch the dances. I will never forget the dancers covered with deer hides and antlers. I stood in fear as the men of the pueblo discharged their rifles into the air. During Mass all I could think about was the day’s activities and the nonstop banquet.

Grandma and Grandpa moved away from Peña Blanca in the early 1960's after his retirement. They had kept a home for years on South Broadway in Albuquerque and moved there. Our visits to Peña Blanca became less frequent through high school and college. My wonderful Grandparents passed away, Grandma in 1962 and Grandpa in 1979. I wish I had known them better and had spent the necessary time talking to them about their lives and the history of Peña Blanca. Small children don’t do historical research however, and we were no exception. More often than not we were homesick after a while in the village and became impatient and cranky.

I find myself returning often to Peña Blanca now. The family land is still mostly there and more beautiful than ever. In 1972 I had plans drawn for a home I would like to build on the orchard property someday, and I still have those plans in my closet.

 

--Jim Baca, 2016

Friday, 16 September 2016 01:33

Mision y Convento, Plaza de Espanola

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Panels 4 and 5 are two examples of Richard Guzman's twelve part series of murals on the visual History of New Mexico located at the Mision y Convento, Plaza de Espanola.  Guzman's painting style has been described as  "robust, expressionistic, energetic with sweeping use of color and skillfull harmonies. These attributes are born of close observation of subject matter, countless hours of painting, and boundless love of the craft of painting." Richard Guzman is from Truchas, New Mexico.    

Monday, 12 September 2016 00:46

Mision y Convento, Plaza de Espanola

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In 2003-2005 I had the opportunity to work on the permanent exhibition for the Mision y Convento at the Plaza de Espanola. The curator for the exhibition was Clare Villa an artist from Los Luceros, New Mexico. Richard Guzman of Truchas, New Mexico painted the murals depicting  the history of New Mexico.. Richard Federici from Santa Fe, New Mexico was the photographer. I provided historical research, archival preservation, photo documentation, and the historical text for the exhibition. Mayor Richard Lucero was the Director for the project.   

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