The Artistic Odyssey of Higinio V. Gonzales, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, is an account of a 19th-century New Mexican hojalatero, poet and songwriter, written by Maurice Dixon Jr. of Santa Fe. It is an intriguing work of scholarly research as well as a work of art in and of itself. Based on seven years of investigation, rendered in beautiful prose and profusely illustrated, the book restores a forgotten – artist to his rightful place in New Mexico history.
In her foreword, Santa Fe writer Carmella Padilla states, “The historical record brims with accounts of larger-than-life accounts of Anglo-Americans whose explorations and achievements shaped territorial New Mexico and the greater Southwest, often with derogatory portrayals of New Mexican Hispanos. While Gonzales is not a total stranger to scholars of Southwest Hispano arts, particularly the few who have noted certain aspects of his creative contributions in scholarly publications since the 1950s, he nonetheless remains fairly obscure. Were it not for Dixon, the artist’s full story, and particularly his vast creative oeuvre, would likely never be known.”
After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the country began allowing trade with the United States. Among the first items that found their way to Nuevo México, then México’s northernmost province, were foodstuffs sealed in large tin containers. Inhabitants of a vast territory with few luxuries, it did not take long for Nuevo Mexicano Mexicanos to see the value of these containers left behind by the Americanos. In the deft hands of certain individuals, they became attractive frames, niches, crosses and boxes.
Cut open, refashioned, soldered and hinged, these items, many of which housed religious images, were also embossed with a variety of mostly homemade tools. Collectively, the die-punch marks created unique designs and, unintentionally, also served as a kind of artist’s signature, which, more than a century later, scholars such as Dixon would be able to scrutinize in order to ascribe these cultural items to their makers.
Prior to the 1970s, as Dixon writes in his book, “Tinwork held little interest for the general public, curators and scholars—other than as a curiosity, or at most, a decorative bauble. It was inexpensive and seemingly inexhaustible. Even those collectors who appreciated the inherent beauty of the work apparently had little or no interest in the artisans who created it.” In a previous book which Dixon, also an accomplished tinsmith, coauthored with gallery owner Lane Coulter in 1991, the pair ventured a theory that Dixon spends much time reassessing in his latest book, with a solid narrative based on his recent research.
At the time that the book, New Mexican Tin Work, 1840-1940, went to press, except for a recently uncovered work that suggested otherwise, the authors were mainly convinced that the bulk of historic tin pieces to be found in family homes, parish churches and museum collections were the work of numerous workshops and individuals scattered across New Mexico. But, by comparing the unique die-punch marks and other hallmark traits of a tin nicho uncovered by Santa Fe santera Marie Romero Cash, and clearly attributable to Higinio V. Gonzales, Dixon was able to trace the origin of hundreds of tin pieces to this one prolific, highly skilled and highly imaginative individual who had resided in several widely scattered New Mexican communities.
For the last seven years, Dixon has been hot on the trail of this man, combing through museums, private art collections and churches, as well as the state archives and the archives of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. In the process, Dixon came to the realization that, in addition to being an accomplished metal smith, Gonzales was also a published poet, a songwriter and schoolteacher. All the evidence that he uncovered on the life of this renaissance man points to the fact that he was undoubtedly a powerful community voice during the tumultuous territorial period in which he lived.
In his book, Dixon speaks of the national political policies put into effect during the lifetime of Higinio V. Gonzales, whose goals were assimilation and uniformity. He states, “The bustle of the new century, accompanied by a concerted national effort to Americanize the nation’s non-English-speaking population step-by-step, contributed to the rapid deterioration of traditional customs throughout the United States, and its effect in New Mexico was profound.” Gonzales chronicled of much of this process.
All told, Dixon came across more than 50 of his Spanish language poems published in local newspapers throughout the region, especially in the Nuevo Mexicano of Santa Fe and the La Voz del Pueblo of Las Vegas, where Gonzales served as assistant editor. His poetry runs the gamut of impassioned themes, ranging from the unrestrained adulation of women to rousing cries for support of the American troops fighting to liberate Cuba from Spain in 1898. Somewhere in between are other poems that critique the new wave of consumerism that overtook northern New Mexican communities with the advent of the Singer sewing machine, as well as a corrido or ballad, that recounts the tragic death of the young Bianes Serna, the result of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound while Serna was alone in the forested high country around Mt. Taylor.
In addition to producing a handsome and informative book on the totality of Gonzales’ work, including his poetry and song, Dixon has also helped to co-curate an exhibit on the artist at the Albuquerque Museum. The exhibit, bearing the same name as the book, opens to the public on Dec. 19 and runs through April 3, 2016.
Alejandro López is a student of all things New Mexican, a writer in both English and Spanish, as well as an interpreter and translator of books.