At a recent family gathering, I was once again struck by the grand scale of the typical northern Nuevo Mexicano familia, whose homeland this semiarid upland has been for over 400 years. Within its endlessly unfolding and expanding pleats, it is not uncommon for 10 or 12 siblings to gather in occasional celebrations with an equal number of cousins on both their mother’s and father’s sides. If they are adults, add to this the spouses of each, their combined children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and you are looking at some pretty hefty numbers to greet and feed. Fortunately for this culture, which greatly values get-togethers, a pot of beans and posole, together with numerous platters of enchiladas—red and green—and a huge salad, usually suffice to quell the hunger of any number of guests.
At such a gathering, much time can be spent just familiarizing oneself with obscure relatives, learning their names and the relation one has to them. One might even learn a bit about their interests or professional lives before yet another relative happens to enter the lively mix, and the conversation invariably takes a different course. In this neck of the piñón-scented woods, even one’s fourth and fifth cousins are acknowledged because bloodlines go back to readily traceable common ancestors, who lived not all that long ago and whose biographical footsteps can still be appreciated. With the acknowledgment of such ancestors comes all sorts of interesting revelations; two examples include the common great-great-grandmother, a Montoya from El Valle, who was a prolific weaver of the brilliant and bedazzling vallero blankets, and the common great-grandfather, a “leathery” (correoso) and long-lived López from Las Truchas, who was both the village doctor and veterinarian and used to perform surgeries on human and animal subjects alike with a special piece of sharpened glass followed by applications of healing herbs.
Because the Nuevo Mexicano people used to marry within their own village or with people from neighboring villages, it is possible that you could be related to someone on both sides of your family, and that that person could be both a close and distant relative. That person might also be your aunt—or uncle—through marriage on one side of your family and a bloodline cousin on the other side. However, given the existence of a limited number of old Spanish family names in New Mexico, as well as the longevity of this cultural and linguistic community, it is likely that, if one were to go back six or seven generations, one would discover that nearly everyone in the region is related in a multitude of directions to everyone else in a kind of unacknowledged tribe of mixed blood, mainly genízaro and mestizo people (native and Spanish-Mexican), the Hispanophiles notwithstanding. Too many historical records of the absorption by marriage or captivity of both native and Spanish people into each other’s vaguely defined societies over centuries in México and in the Southwest make it almost impossible for the Nuevo Mexicano to be of the same unaltered bloodline as that of the Iberian Spanish people, themselves a highly heterogeneous population. The clear advantage of this reality and realization is that the Nuevo Mexicano definitely belongs here and is the product of our region’s and hemisphere’s unique if tumultuous history.
Curiously, in our large Nuevo Mexicano families everyone is valued for who they inherently are, even if they are the last child—el chocoyote—in a long line of 12 or 13 children. Each person is valued for his or her special qualities as an individual and as a member of the community, as well as for the special kinship ties that one has with them. Rarely is one’s relationship with them predicated on the external considerations of beauty, wealth, status, power or fame as might more often occur in mainstream society.
Family photos taken at the dawn of the 20th century up to the present reveal much about our family structure and composition. Among the most memorable photos in our collection is a black-and-white print with crimped edges that poignantly captures one of our aunt and uncle’s wedding day in the 1940s. The bride sits demurely in her long flowing gown, while the taciturn groom stands stiffly behind her, looking dapper in his suit. They are framed by the massive walls of an adobe residence in Las Truchas in which the straw used for binding is clearly evident. Such a photo could hardly be taken these days—nearly 75 years later—because, first, no one builds in that fashion or with those materials any longer and, second, few weddings these days are as elaborate as the one captured on film.
In another photograph, a large family gathers beside a bulky, two-toned Buick from the 1950s. Near the center are the grandparents and, radiating out like multiple branches from a tree trunk, are two or three generations of people. What is notable is the presence of individuals at nearly every stage of life, from newborns to the elderly. The profusion of young people is also a significant detail that reflects particular realities.
In recent photos of the same family, the reverse is true; that is, nearly everyone is elderly, and there is a conspicuous lack of young people. The reason for this abrupt and radical change is that the young people who were born after the Second World War, during the largest population boom the country has ever experienced, have, by now, all grown fairly old. The families they, in turn, produced never numbered as many as the preceding generations.
The reduction in family size was due not just to the passing of the population boom but also to the shift in livelihood from the ubiquitous ranchito, which required as many hands as could be had, to wage-earning jobs in mainstream institutions such as the laboratories at Los Alamos, state government offices in Santa Fe or the lunch counter at the now-defunct Woolworth’s on what was a much more welcoming and egalitarian Santa Fe Plaza.
Another force that has been shaping the character and structure of the Nuevo Mexicano family throughout the last several decades has been the process of schooling. Formal education has steered each successive generation of Nuevo Mexicano young people to colleges and universities and then onto the national job market, owing to New Mexico’s sputtering economy. Many graduates never returned home from their newly adopted states or, when they did, they returned only for brief periods or for special occasions.
Employment-motivated relocations combined with the enlistment of many young Nuevo Mexicanos in the armed forces, and their subsequent dispersal throughout the world, have resulted in the dramatic rise of human diversity that now punctuates this once almost exclusively regionally defined population. Those who migrated to the Pacific Rim have introduced into northern Nuevo Mexicano society the cultures and bloodlines of Chinese, Hawaiian and Samoan peoples, as well as descendants of Irish, English, French, Italians, Jews and Puerto Ricans, at least in my family. Those who headed north have forever bound our fate with the Mormons of Utah and the tribes of the Great Plains. Meanwhile, those who headed south and east brought with them—in body, mind, heart and soul—the melodious South American Spanish language and tropical qualities of immigrant Colombians, as well as the southern accent and no-nonsense manner of Floridians. Relatives who remained here have also added to the growing diversity of the family’s bloodline through the procreation of part-Nuevo Mexicano and part-Pueblo Indian children, as well as offspring with strains of landlocked Scandinavians running through their veins. Gay people, fully integrated into the familia, have added yet another level of diversity to this complex and endlessly unfolding human web.
Undeniable as these radical changes have been, some of the old customs and guiding principles of the Mexicano-speaking Nuevo Mexicano people from the villages high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which shaped my family, still hold sway in these now-diverse households: véanse como hermanos (treat one another as brothers and sisters); respeten a la gente (respect others); háblense (greet one another); sépan perdonarse (practice forgiveness); ayúdense unos a los otros (help one another); no sean cuzcos (don’t be stingy); no anden ahí parándose el cuello (don’t boast); y aprendan a trabajar (and learn how to work). With luck, these human and humane principles, together with ongoing interactions among familia, if limited these days only to occasional family reunions, graduations and funerals, ought to serve as enduring binding elements as strong as the glistening narrow strands of straw embedded in our old adobe homes that have withstood the test of time.
Alejandro López, a native northern Nuevo Mexicano writer and photographer, is the chocoyote, or last born, in a family of 11 siblings.