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Denes Antonio Luján (1937–2004): A Legacy of Love and Healing
Montserrat Valles Albesa
Denes Antonio Luján, a.k.a. “Cheesy,” was born and grew up in Española, New Mexico, as the seventh in a family of nine siblings. After high school, he attended Highlands University in Las Vegas. However, he had such a great passion for horses that, in 1961, he decided to go to Ratón, and start a career as a horse trainer and jockey at La Mesa Park Racetrack. This job allowed him to travel to various cities with racetracks, in New Mexico, Florida, Nebraska and California. His was a long and difficult path of personal growth and self-discovery, but he had a very successful career. Denes became an excellent jockey because of his knowledge of horses and his ability to train and massage them.
In the early 1970s, he returned to his hometown, where he initially took a job as a meter reader for Jémez Mountains Electric Cooperative, until he decided to go to Dr. Jay Victor Scherer’s Academy of Natural Healing, in Santa Fe, in 1984 (now the Santa Fe School of Massage). He graduated in 1985 but did not pursue his massage license because he decided to work as a sobador—a traditional, northern New Mexico massage therapist. He built an adobe studio, with a cozy wood stove, next to his house in Española. There, he started working, and his practice grew rapidly. He became popular throughout northern New Mexico for his wisdom and gift of being able to help people with all sorts of pain. People called him a healer, even though he never called himself that. His life was completely devoted to helping people. He not only touched his clients’ physical bodies but also their hearts and souls. He considered his work sacred, and he was accessible at all times. A normal day could start as early as 8 a.m. and end at 8 or 9 at night. As a sobador, he never charged anyone but accepted donations that sometimes came in the forms of food or favors. His specialties were la Sobada, which consisted of trigger-point therapy, compassion, advice, humor, generosity, love, and his famous liniment, a healing tonic he made with different herbs.
Denes was always reading and learning about different therapies and medical advances. He was knowledgeable of anatomy and diseases. He used funny nicknames for different muscles; for instance, he called the soleus muscle “Miguel Sole.” Among the people he helped heal, he was something of a miracle worker. For instance, there was a man from Taos, who had been in a car accident. Doctors told him he would never walk again. Denes patiently massaged him over time until he was walking again. There also was a woman from Española, who had been in a car accident when she was 24 and had lost feeling on her entire right side. Denes massaged her for a short time, and her ability to feel returned. He worked with a variety of conditions such as asthma, headaches, sciatica, incontinency and more. He trained many massage therapists and never charged them a fee. His only condition for doing this was that his apprentices use his teachings to help people, even if they did not have money to pay for their services. He built another massage studio next to his, where he allowed his apprentices to work with clients for free. Next to the studios, he had a garden with sweet grapes that he shared with his clients.
One of his apprentices, Roso Parera, came from Spain three years in a row, for two or three months at a time. She learned his trigger-point therapy method and is now a physical therapist in Spain. She recently published a book about all the different muscle sequences she learned from Denes.
Denes organized workshops to teach families to massage their babies. He went to China to study Tuina massage, practiced at several Chinese hospitals, and was surprised to find that Chinese massage, acupuncture and herbal-medicine facilities there were much larger than the conventional health facilities. He volunteered at HOY, an addiction-recovery program in Española, and was a teacher’s assistant for Beth Paris, who taught trigger-point therapy courses at Northern New Mexico College and the Scherer Academy.
He had close friends from Santa Clara Pueblo and was a supporter of their art. His house was full of their black pottery, which he would give as gifts to clients.
Denes was the funniest person I have ever met. He would come up with spontaneous, hilarious jokes and antics. Sometimes, in the middle of a massage, the client would laugh and finally relax. Humor was part of his daily life; he used it even in the most difficult moments of his life. Aside from being a horse trainer, he also trained cats and dogs. One of his clients came to see Denes because he was very sad. To make him happy, Denes commanded his dog Shiva to sing. The dog started singing and howling.
He was also a natural actor and performed in plays in his junior and senior high school years. Because of his Indian appearance and acting ability, he appeared in featured roles in movies such as “Running on Indian Time,” “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Missing” and others, until his death in 2004.
At his funeral, one of his best friends talked about his life and called him “a ladies’ man.” Women loved him because they felt his deep love for everything and everyone. One time he told me that he didn’t have a girlfriend until he was 21, and he joked, “Yo no sé si fue porque era un poco feo o no me lavaba mucho.” (“I don’t know if this was because I was a little ugly or I didn’t shower a lot.”) Denes was fluent in English and Spanish.
I was blessed and lucky to meet Denes at the end of his life and to be one of his apprentices. I have written this article to show my gratitude for his teachings and for his generous contributions to make this world a better place.
Montserrat Valles Albesa is a sobadora, a licensed massage therapist specializing in trigger-point therapy, and a registered massage therapy instructor. firstname.lastname@example.org
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