Alejandro López

 

Many exquisite soils abound throughout northern New Mexico, from which, as recently as 70 years ago, the majority of people constructed their homes, ovens and religious buildings. In the village of Las Trampas near Peñasco, the exposed adobe homes and the church of San José de Gracia radiate a certain pleasing light-salmon pinkish tone not to be found anywhere else. In Las Truchas, just a few miles to the south, an occasional building or ruin still reveals the use of a clayish earth full of pebbles of a dark sienna cast. In Ribera along the Pecos River, old evocative buildings turn a persimmon color with the fading light of sunset. If the color and texture of standing adobe structures bring us great visual delight, one must imagine then, how deeply satisfying are the processes by which soil is gathered, mixed with water and straw, made into adobes and ultimately fashioned into a structure, even if the work is at times daunting.

In the last 70 years, though, the pressures of modern life greatly reduced the size of the family and redirected the labor, so essential to building in adobe, outward into the national arena of commerce and industry. Simultaneously, the state adopted stiff building codes that severely restrict and regulate what had heretofore been an organic vernacular architecture that sprang intuitively from the soil and from traditional sources of building, going back thousands of years on several continents.

The final blow to this sustainable approach to building, however, was the appearance in northern New Mexico of the “instant house” in the form of mobile homes. Its lure of low monthly payments for “ready-made” basic plumbing, electricity, four walls and a roof proved too great for anyone to resist, particularly those with the fewest economic opportunities and those caught between two competing cultural worldviews. Even though today nearly half of the world’s population, particularly in developing nations, still resides in earthen homes of many types, in New Mexico, adobe, ironically, has by-and-large, become the province of the ultra-wealthy who can afford the intensive labor required.

In spite of its shrunken domain, adobe remains the building material for pueblo earth ovens (hornos), an occasional home, earthships, small domed buildings, walls or pieces of sculpture, without which northern New Mexico would drift unmoored from its spiritual and cultural past of great integrity. As long as New Mexicans practice the adobe tradition to any degree and decide to collectively build together as they did in the past, they will succeed in keeping alive a measure of self-sufficiency, deep cooperation, and a knowledge of sustainable practices, not to mention a sensitivity to and knowledge of our precious earth itself.

It is precisely this knowledge and these values that our youth, frequently adrift in a thoroughly cacophonous and bewildering technological maze, are most in need of. When offered the possibility of working directly with adobe to fashion a given structure, youth overwhelmingly say “yes” and throw themselves wholeheartedly into any of the tasks demanded by the material. They are as willing to formulate an architectural plan for a structure as they are to make adobe brick, dig a foundation, mix mud mortar, lay adobe or plaster finished walls.

As a relatively soft and benign substance, adobe is one of the few building materials that enable youth to contribute to the process of building a home or other structure without getting hurt. In fact, the opposite is true. In contributing to the creation of an adobe structure, youth thrive on the opportunity to socially interact with others on a project whose value is real and uncontested, to channel their physical energy in constructive ways and to reconnect with the cultural and technological traditions of the past and of other cultures. To not involve them in such projects is to deprive them of their cultural patrimony and the knowledge of how human beings throughout the centuries have availed themselves of the resources at hand in specific natural environments to address the challenges of survival and provide for the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter.

Because the American school system has been so successful in insulating youth from real-life experiences and has instead inundated them with endless paperwork and now, with a stream of virtual reality, youth whose instincts are still intact tend to welcome the experience of adobe as a means for solving problems that require an entirely different set of skills from those promoted in traditional schooling. Among the skills youth can hone in a creative adobe-building project are design, measurement and estimation, the reading of weather conditions, and the development of a feel for mass and space, for aesthetics and for the strength and solidity of a building. It is interesting to ponder that arithmetic, one of the three pillars of modern education, itself arose from the adobe-brick-building revolution of the ancient Middle East approximately 6,000 years ago.

A few of the local entities that have made use of adobe construction in the service of positive youth development are Tewa Women United in the Española Valley, the National Indian Youth Leadership Project of Gallup NM, and individuals such as Dexter Trujillo of Abiquiú and José and Claire Villa of Alcalde.

Alejandro López is a professional photographer, writer, Spanish language instructor, translator and interpreter, as well as a builder in adobe and keeper of traditional ways.