By Alejandro López
Felipe Ortega, of La Madera, N.M., was a one-of-a-kind kind of person whose shoes will be hard, if not impossible, to fill. He passed away on Feb. 24, after a long struggle with a debilitating illness.
Felipe had many loyalties. Among his strongest was his love for micaceous clay and the large, bulbous bean pots he made, which often graced his kitchen stove with beans cooking in them.
He was intimate with the local sources of the particular clay he used for those pots. He would often visit the deposits where he painstakingly dug the versatile, durable substance.
Felipe would haul the clay home, and in a patio behind his house, grind, sift, soak and mix it until it became pliable. The clay’s preparation was an enormous labor of love, but then, love was what Felipe was all about.
Not only did he make innumerable pots over the years; he also helped make many a potter. He was always generous in sharing his knowledge of the elements of pottery-making. Many local potters who currently work with micaceous clay got their start at Felipe’s side. He had the opportunity to share his art form with students from as far away as Belgium and Switzerland.
Felipe was also a competent masseur and had a practice at his home. He took courses, trained with acknowledged masters and pored over countless volumes about the workings of the body’s structures and systems.
Much to his credit, Felipe never left for very long his beloved village of La Madera, a mountainous redoubt several miles north of Ojo Caliente. He took an old family adobe home there, and through hard work, lots of imagination and very little money, transformed it into a bed–and–breakfast and mini-conference center.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see Felipe stoking the fire in the chamber of an enormous cast-iron stove in his kitchen while making enormous quantities of scrambled eggs, chile and potatoes to serve a group of over 20 people. He also masterfully operated two huge adobe horno ovens that he himself had built. He used them to prepare anything that came to his mind, from ripe halved pumpkins to pizza and an assortment of breads, cookies and pies.
In the spring of 2013, Doren Doherty of Australia visited Felipe’s place to speak about regenerative agriculture and the use of his now–famous keyline plow. The halls of Felipe’s center were often abuzz with discussions of humans’ need to return to gentler forms of agricultural processes that conserve the Earth’s resources, including the soil’s fertility. Felipe and his special energy were catalytic to those gatherings.
Felipe had plenty of friends from all over the world. He was associated with a school of massage based in Boston and the community that had formed around it. It was those people, during his last years and months, who, in many ways provided Felipe the support he needed, in the hope that he would recover. They ended up helping him with a gentle crossing over.
Nearly all Nuevo Mexicano people with a 400-year history in this region share indigenous bloodlines (usually about 30 to 38 percent, based on current genealogical and DNA studies). Felipe will also be remembered for the way he embraced and expressed his indigenous patrimony while staying true to his Indo-Hispano roots. While many Nuevo Mexicano people are quick to affirm Spanish ancestry, relatively few have risked giving expression to the indigenous part of their souls by learning an indigenous language, practicing indigenous crafts, donning indigenous clothing and forming enduring friendships and alliances with other indigenous peoples. Risking ridicule, Felipe—after having studied in Franciscan seminaries and obtaining a master’s degree with an intention to become a diocesan priest—did all of this.
Posthumously, Felipe was rewarded for his efforts in the form of a burial attended and presided over by indigenous leaders from several tribes as well as by his Hermanos de la Cofradía de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, the Penitente brotherhood.
Alejandro López is a native Nuevo Mexicano writer, photographer and educator who lives in rural northern New Mexico.