“Well, she lived a long life — nearly 100 years!” they said, one after another, as they filed through the bereavement line at my mother’s memorial last July. I barely registered the words, my mind reeling at the loss of this remarkable woman. I was stricken by the realization that with her death, Stella Chávez Usner was taking a universe of knowledge and stories from a disappearing world. And I was contemplating the trove of artifacts that she’d left behind from our family’s four-century tenure in New Mexico, sobered by the realization that I was now executor of this cultural estate.
I had long been fascinated by my mother’s stories about growing up in Chimayó. She conveyed a potent sense of this place, redolent with magic and mystery, where neighbors were family and there were no strangers, where all the kids wore patched clothes and she and her siblings enjoyed a bath once a week in a tin tub by the woodstove. The luxury of running water was unknown, but they had the acequia for drinking, bathing and irrigating the garden. There was homegrown chile, the weavings made on her parents’ and grandparents’ looms and the games played in the dirt driveway or in the hay piles stashed in barns. Everyone spoke a variant of Mexican Spanish peppered with localisms and occasional American slang.
Chimayó was the quintessential northern New Mexico village. And lucky for me — and anyone else captivated by the history of this region — my mother came from a family that for generations had sought to preserve its identity by retaining records of all kinds. Among the most remarkable is a collection of about 300 family papers from Chimayó, dating from 1706 to the early 20th century. Mom inherited these papers from her great-aunt Juanita Ortega and safeguarded them throughout her life, miraculously saving them from the fire that in 2000 burned down her home (along with many others) in Los Alamos.
Over the past 10 years, Mom and I spent hours poring over them, translating and transcribing the Spanish into English. Now, after hundreds of years of careful stewardship in the hands of 12 generations of caretakers, these papers are my responsibility. I’ve spent the past few years scanning them for future generations, and I plan to donate the originals to the State Records Center and Archives or the New Mexico History Museum, where they can be accessible to the public.
It’s been a daunting job, especially since these papers represent just a shard of the materials that my mother preserved. She held onto a whole host of papers, from the comically trivial (a bill for $1 for failing to return a gym towel at the University of New Mexico) to the personal (her and her brother’s report cards from high school and college) and the deeply touching (letters exchanged between Mom and Dad during their courtship). They include my grandmother’s handwritten journals and versions of old folk tales, or cuentos; genealogical notes and family trees; personal ruminations, letters and postcards; and newspaper clippings, birth and death certificates, sales and transactions.
Then there are the photographs in the boxes I hauled out of Mom’s closet — over 2,000 at last count. These include framed portraits, photo albums inherited from her mother and albums she created over her own lifetime. The black-and-white pictures add a potent visual element to the stories she told about her family during the Chimayó years. They also document the years she spent in Durango, Colorado; Nogales, Arizona; and San Francisco. Captions scrawled across many of the photos clarify the identities of people and places, but with Mom gone, identifying many will be all but impossible.
An additional thousand or so color slides taken by my father, Arthur Usner, an avid photographer, capture the family’s three decades in Los Alamos. Dad’s background differed wildly from Mom’s. He grew up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of New Orleans, one of six kids raised by a widowed mother in the middle of the Great Depression. While Mom reported that her family in Chimayó hardly felt the Depression — they didn’t have much before and might have had just a little less during it — Dad told of just scraping by, with a lot of help from extended family and neighbors. He fled New Orleans as soon as he could, enlisting in the Navy in World War II and ending up in San Francisco. It’s where he and Mom met. And one visit back home with her to New Mexico was all it took for Dad to leave the big city behind for Chimayó. It was a remarkable change from a burgeoning postwar urban center to the isolated, rural enclave where no one spoke English. But he was smitten by the place and soon found work as an engineer at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, as it was known in those days.
Through all the years of tumult, Mom carefully oversaw her collections of family memorabilia. Besides the papers and photographs, these included a trove of fine blankets handwoven by her ancestors, and before she died, she parsed these out among her five children. I inherited a stack of priceless textiles, including a handspun, hand-dyed wool blanket that my great-great grandfather, José Ramón Ortega, wove and gave to his son and daughter-in-law, José de los Reyes Ortega and Genoveva Archuleta, upon their marriage in 1893. Another is a classic Chimayó blanket— a distinctive style of bright colors and intricate design — that was developed by my great-grandfather and others. It was woven by my grandfather Abedón Chávez in the 1940s.
Not all of the rich inheritance that Mom passed along is material. Perhaps most challenging to preserve are the cultural riches she transmitted through the spoken word. Much of this came through to me in her later years, when she and I made regular roadtrips to Chimayó, winding through the plazas of the valley, stopping here and there to visit family and neighbors. As we immersed ourselves in our patria chica, our homeland — each trip different, each a new revelation — Mom shared her stories of growing up in Chimayó. Long narratives recounting events in our family history blended with quips and quotes, character sketches, ribald tales, somber recollections and favorite anecdotes. The running commentary took in current events, too, seamlessly spinning a portrait of a complex, very human community where people have lived and died as they do everywhere — with a special, Northern New Mexican twist.
On these sojourns, we often went over our family roots and connections. This was a covertly didactic exercise, intended to transmit a welter of names and relationships. I repeatedly lost myself in tangled relations but eventually was able to recall the paternal names in eight generations of Ortegas in Chimayó and thirteen in the Chávez family line. Even Mom faced conundrums in keeping track of the centuries-old maze, and we often ended up laughing at the conclusion that, in the end, just about everyone in Chimayó is a cousin, distant or near.
Much of this banter took place in the variant of Spanish that Mom grew up with, a nearly extinct dialect that carries a rich sediment of local character and historic merit. While the myth has been dispelled that New Mexican Spanish is a relic of old-world Spanish from the time of Don Quixote, there were many archaisms in her vocabulary. And the way she and her relatives conversed certainly represented a departure from the Spanish I heard in my high school Spanish class. (I was not allowed to speak Spanish at home while growing up; my parents thought it would inhibit my ability to learn English.) But I learned words and expressions, peculiar accents and a quirky vocabulary from Mom that seemed to have sprung from the small plazas and individual families of New Mexico. I’ve made some recordings of these marvelous conversations and have added them to the growing archive of materials that I’m endeavoring to shepherd into the future.In her lifetime, my mother gracefully navigated dramatic and often difficult transitions, hewing close to her heritage while moving into the modern world. She passed on vibrant reminders of a place and culture rich in character and identity. Sitting among the boxes of papers and stacks of photographs, I’m amazed by the number of items and I know that, for me, preserving this cultural heritage is more than an academic pastime or a warm and fuzzy recounting of family myths about the “good old days.” Passing it on means keeping intact a story that reflects the experience familiar to so many Norteños, who seek to keep their traditions alive in these turbulent and raucous times.