November 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Working Life of an Hispano Patriarch

A Rare and Unusual Account by Apolonio Martínez y Ortiz, 1890–1976


Alejandro López


The book, The Working Life of an Hispano Patriarch, 1890–1976, by Apolonio Martínez y Ortiz, is a rare glimpse into the life of a courageous human being who, in his long life, confronted every manner of calamity and personal challenge without flinching. Quite the opposite, this native rural New Mexican from Chimayó transcended his difficulties with grace and aplomb. Not only did he manage to create a beautiful life for himself and for his family; he eventually became a revered community member and celebrated artist, as well as a successful cultivator of Chimayo’s most famous crop—chile.


About 10 years before he passed away, Martínez y Ortiz, a humble, predominantlly Spanish-speaking man, sat down to write his life story in a journal. The story was written entirely in longhand with boldness, simple honesty and sincerity. His life spanned the end of New Mexico’s Territorial period and the first several decades of statehood, a time of immense change in northern New Mexico.


At age seven, he began to journey out from his farming community of Chimayó into the illimitable spaces of the American Southwest in an effort to earn a living in a society progressively driven by the cash economy of the United States. In one of his earliest trips he copes with the loss of his father, who is brought back to Chimayó from a distant and arduous fruit-selling trek on the back of a horse-drawn wagon, only to die a few days later on the family farm.


While still a teenager, he and a few friends walk more than a hundred miles across a mountain range to the great plains of New Mexico, where they sell their labor to a company laying railroad tracks across the West. Working 10-hour days hauling timbers that weighed as much or more than he did, he grows physically stronger, mentally sharper and morally more uncompromising.


When he ventures into Colorado to work at a mill loading lumber onto boxcars, he brilliantly defends himself in an attack by thugs intent on proving their superiority over “the Mexicano.” He similarly emerges triumphant from another episode in which he is falsely accused of stealing a watch and thrown into jail. His strength and endurance are further tested when, working for a powerful and notorious builder of public works in the San Luís Valley of Colorado, the team of horses he is driving is struck by lightning and some killed. 


A survivor at heart, Martínez y Ortiz successfully weathers a period of being lost on foot in a vast forested area in southern Arizona where, predictably, he is looking for work, as the size of his family back home increases. As luck would have it, he is picked up by a group of men in a car who are just as lost, but who lack the map that he is carrying in his back pocket. They save him and he saves them.


Over the years, Martínez y Ortiz travels less, due to his ability to do many things—farm, build houses and sculpt. He becomes economically more secure as his farm prospers and demand for his chile crop grows. Together with his wife, Celestina, he is able to devote more of his time to his family, farm and community. In his latter working years, he supplements his livelihood with employment at the nearby New Mexico State Capitol and at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories.


He rounds out a life that could only be described as “blessed” when, during his final years, he is able to devote himself exclusively to carving Catholic religious icons called “santos,” play the harmonica and write out the inspiring story of his life.


This memoir of endurance, ingenuity and profound humanity is a fitting tribute to this country’s oldest ethnic group after the Native Americans. Recognizing its importance, Ascensión Martínez, Apolonio’s son, now in his 90s, had been haunted for several years by the difficult challenge of rendering the fragile facsimile of his father’s memoir into the more enduring form of an actual book, which his descendants can hold in their hands, read and learn from.


Ascensión Martínez first translated the manuscript into English and then made his dream known to his four adult children, Alex, Byron, Elizabeth and Victoria. Together, one day in the spring of 2016, they set off on a journey of careful editing that would take them to the fulfillment of their father’s dream. They were joined by first cousins, Benita, Richard, Robert and Berlina, as well as by Tío Arsenio, another of Apolonio’s sons, in writing forewords and introductions, devising chapters and chapter headings, choosing photographs to accompany the text and in deciding on venues for publication. It was an exciting process and it brought the family together every month for a four-hour marathon that included a homemade meal, reading out loud, dialogue, decision making and step-by-step planning. Sixteen months later, the book, replete with an English text, more than 60 handwritten facsimile pages and numerous photographs, is being prepared for publication by Outskirts Press. It will be available close to Christmas at the Trujillo Weaving Shop in Chimayó. For more information, email Alex Martínez: 


Alejandro López is a native New Mexican writer, educator and photographer.







In 1920, I didn’t go out until June, and that was with an extra gang in La Veta. They had written to me to go work there and I went even though I wasn’t feeling very good. The boss got to take a liking to me, so later on I would work a little while and then he would ask me to go places with him. We would get in the car and go to wherever he had to go, then return just before quitting time. I was still sick and getting worse all the time. It got to the point where I couldn’t work anymore, so I came home. All this time I had been going to different doctors and none of them could cure me. I wanted to die because all I was doing was giving money to the doctor. I had a garden but my wife had to take care of it when she had time.


Around September or October, Celestina and my mother decided to take me to a médica in Tesuque. Her name was Doña Feliciana and she was famous for her healing powers. I didn’t want to go because the doctors had already told me that there was no cure for me. I told them that I would die on the road, but they insisted and they took me. My brother Atanacio hitched the horses to the wagon and we took off for Tesuque. It took us a whole day to get there. When we got there, my wife told Doña Feliciana why we were there and then I in turn, told her my story. I told her about the doctors that I had gone to and what they had told me. She told me, you finally got tired of giving your money to the doctors, so you came to me. I told her that hopes or wishes are the last to go and besides all I wanted to do was die, but I was brought here.  So now you can examine me and tell me if you can cure me and if not, I won’t be surprised.


She told me to lie down and then she put her hands on my stomach. She kept her hands there for a long time, while she talked to the rest of the people that were there. At last she told me to get up and I was all anxious to hear what she had to say. You are not as ill as you think you are, and you don’t have anything that your doctors said that you had, she said. What you have is an inflammation in your stomach. I asked her if she could cure me and she said yes, if you stay here for two weeks. My wife, Vences, and I stayed; Atanacio took the wagon back home. Our other two boys had stayed with my mother.


Doña Feliciana would put me in a hot tub of water every day and she would cover me with blankets. My head was the only part of my body that would be uncovered. She would fix tea from herbs for me to drink and she would massage my stomach. She did this for nine days and then she said I could go home.




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