On the last Sunday in July, the altar at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi resembles an upscale folk art gallery. “You bring your talents to the people. You praise God with your wonderful gifts,” Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan tells the artists who have created the wood carvings of saints and angels, dark crosses inlaid with golden straw, shiny tin boxes punctured with decorative patterns, jeweled images of the Sacred Heart, and painted wooden panels of Bible stories.
Noting that the world comes to Santa Fe to see their work, he assures the artists, “We will bless it — but not with so much holy water that you can’t sell it.”
When Mass concludes, the crowded church empties quickly. A mariachi band leads the way as the artists carry their freshly blessed works to Santa Fe’s main plaza, where Spanish Market is entering its second day. Each year the people of Santa Fe and surrounding communities of the upper Rio Grande celebrate their Spanish colonial heritage on the last full weekend of July.
New Mexico’s Spanish roots go back to 1598, when colonists marched up the river. Santa Fe’s first adobe church was built in 1610, about the time the settlement became the territorial capital. The region remained a Spanish colony until 1821, when it joined newly independent Mexico. In 1850, the United States annexed the territory, and in 1912, New Mexico became a state. But neither the influx of English-speaking colonists after 1850 nor the French archbishop who replaced an adobe church with the European-style brick basilica in the late 19th century could dampen the Spanish identity of many families in and around Santa Fe.
The 200 or so artists in Spanish Market are living proof. The market is sponsored by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, founded in 1925 to nurture arts practiced in New Mexico during the colonial period. The artists, selected through a jurying process, must be at least one-quarter Hispanic heritage with New Mexico ties. Technical restrictions have eased in recent years to permit such innovations as power tools and commercial pigments, but the soul of the work doesn’t change.
“Their art comes out of devotion, faith, and love of heritage,” says Robin Farwell Gavin, senior curator of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society. “Many artists support their families from Spanish Market,” she says, noting that one generation teaches the next. Certain surnames recur over the years and some artists start showing in the youth market as young as age 6.
Some galleries represent Spanish colonial art alongside Santa Fe’s heady mix of Native American art and contemporary international painting and sculpture. But Spanish Market serves up the traditional work in undiluted form. More than 70,000 people are expected at the 62d annual Spanish Market on July 27-28. On the first morning, collectors often line up six to eight deep at some booths, awaiting the opening bell. While weaving and pottery share a great deal with Native American traditions in the Southwest, much of the other work — such as straw appliqué — is particular to the Spanish colonial heritage.
Master silversmith Ralph Sena, for example, is one of the artists who have revived the silver filigree work for which Santa Fe was famous in the early 19th century. The Spanish Market Mass has particular significance for him. “I graduated from high school and got married in that church,” he says.
In 2011, Christine Montaño Carey won a ribbon for fashioning a depiction of La Conquistadora in tin. (The image of the Virgin Mary was first brought to Santa Fe in 1626 and occupies a place of honor in the cathedral.) Montaño Carey began as a painter of retablos (wooden plaques painted with religious stories), but discovered she had a real affinity for decorative tin work. In the colonial era tin stood in for more expensive silver as a way to decorate otherwise plain objects.
“Tin came happily and joyfully,” she says. “It must have been in my genes.”
The santeros — literally carvers of saints — command some of the greatest prestige at Spanish Market. Felix López has been showing his work since the 1970s and began teaching his son when he was about 6 years old. Now in his early 40s, Joseph López says, “The most important thing I learned from my father is to be humble.”
Joseph Manuel Chavez practices the nearly lost art of painting on cured animal hides. He uses traditional pigments to depict religious stories as well as narrative historical scenes. His inspiration for the latter sits only a few yards away in the Palace of the Governors, built sometime before 1619 and the oldest public building in continuous use in the country.
The long, low building with 4-foot-thick adobe walls contains prized early-18th-century hide paintings depicting encounters on the western plains between rival tribes and between Spanish troops and Pawnee warriors. There are people in Santa Fe who claim that specific soldiers in the paintings are their ancestors — the New Mexico equivalent of being a Mayflower descendant.
The Palace is part of the larger New Mexico History Museum, which tells the human story of this high desert from the Anasazi who first populated it to the station wagon tourists who made silver belt buckles a sartorial cliché. The collections’ sweet spot, however, lies in the colonial period, and includes a number of bultos (saints carved in the round) and retablos.
Not surprisingly, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art has the most comprehensive collection. It’s set in a 1930 Pueblo Revival former private home, complete with hand-hewn timbers and hammered ironwork. More than 3,700 objects range from centuries-old furniture and tools to fine art pieces purchased from the artists of Spanish Market. Both museums have good gift shops where it’s possible to buy well-chosen pieces from local artists year-round. The cultural continuity is striking.
During Spanish Market it’s easy to see why the old culture still has legs. Bands play traditional New Mexican music, and all along the side streets around the main plaza, vendors sell plates of enchiladas with New Mexican green chili, bowls of posole (a stew made with hulled corn), and puffy sopapillas (a kind of fried bread) drizzled with honey.
The food, of course, is available all over Santa Fe, and, like everything else in New Mexican Spanish culture, it continues to evolve. Chicken enchiladas with “Christmas” — both red and green chili sauces — are a staple at Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen, the colorful cantina that’s championed local cooking (and great margaritas) since 1950. At the same time, it’s possible to enjoy a quinoa-lentil tamale filled with local goat cheese at a white-linen-clad table at La Casa Sena, one of the oldest surviving houses in Santa Fe. Head out Canyon Road amid the upscale art galleries for haute dining Santa Fe-style — say elk tenderloin with apple-smoked bacon — at Geronimo. It’s a long way from messy enchiladas, but the flavors are direct descendants.
The music also continues to evolve. Visitors hoping to hear mariachi or ranchero music in the bars of Santa Fe will be sorely disappointed — Latin jazz is the soundtrack of the desert night. Even Spanish Market recognizes the evolution by giving over the main performance stage to local singer-songwriter Nacha Mendez once the mariachis finish their set and the country dancers sit down and pull off their boots. Mendez is a fixture on the Santa Fe scene, playing at the local club Taberna La Boca and at restaurant El Farol. Both spots serve Santa Fe versions of Spanish tapas, just as Mendez sings in New Mexican Spanish. But the feelings are universal. “Love,” she sings, “is like a street that runs two ways. . . . The heart has many roots.”
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon @verizon.net.