Wednesday, March 13, 2013

At the Plaza, Santa Fé

Governor's Palace and Plaza, undated, photographer unknown,
from the collection of The Governor's Palace Museum, Santa Fe, NM
Whenever I tell people I grew up in Santa Fe, their eyes light up. They’ve either been captivated by the Land of Enchantment or they want to be. Tourism has always been a big source of revenue for the town, and its commercial, political and historical heart is the plaza downtown. Santa Fe was the first foreign capital conquered by the U.S. Army. Thousands of soldiers entered the plaza and took possession. “Some of your priests have told you that we would ill-treat your women and brand them on the cheek. It is all false,” General Kearny said to the crowd of New Mexicans and foreigners filling the plaza. No branding, but they did put a cannon on a hill aimed at the plaza.

A marker for the End of the Santa Fe trail was home base for playing tag in the plaza when I was a kid. Back then, I figured it had something to do with cowboys, but my research revealed the trail was all about trade and sales. Spain kept foreigners out for over 200 years, but Mexico welcomed trade.  Wagon trains arrived regularly from the East. ‘¡Los carros!’ shouted women, men and boys, all anxious to get first pick of the goods as they were unloaded.  Filthy teamsters yelled, ‘Aiiiie, aiiiie,’ and waved their sombreros at the horses, cows, mules and oxen, herding them into nearby corrals. The uneven wooden wheels of carretas, pulled by tiny burros, clackety-clacked on the street.  Wandering pigs, goats and stray dogs added to the uproar, and the smell, of Santa Fé.

The Palace of Governors, built in 1610, faces the plaza, and is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the U.S. It’s now a museum. As a child, I stopped in frequently to stare at the mummified baby still in its leather papoose. When I began my research for my historical novel, The Sandoval Sisters, I found a wealth of historical information there, including furnishings in use by the ricos (rich people) of the time. Alas, the baby was no longer on display.

Today, Native American vendors sit outside the doors to the museum selling jewelry, but in the 19th century,
Cottonwood trees planted in front of the Governor’s Palace provided shade for butchers to hang mutton, and under the covered porches of the Palace, bakers and fruit vendors displayed their produce, and Indians brought in venison and wild turkey. I’d once seen the carcass of a grizzly for sale, and bought the fatty parts. Bear grease was useful in herbal remedies; it made hair glossy black, and it lubricated everything from a baby’s rump to carriage wheels. (The Sandoval Sisters' Secret of Old Blood)
Although I live in Southern California now, there’s a tether from my heart to Santa Fe, so much so that I wrote my heart into the novel through Pilar, one of the Sandoval Sisters:
I long for the comforting ring of mountains encircling Santa Fé like a vow. I want the play of light and shadow, and the subtleties of color, which only a mountain desert can produce. I need the drama of black starry night, and the passion play of electrical storms, charging even the air we breath with its energy.
As the daughter of a New Mexican Catholic and a Texan Baptist, Sandra Ramos O'Briant was introduced to both the self-flagellating Penitentes of New Mexico and the tent show holy-rollers of East Texas. Her hometown of Santa Fe, the city of Holy Faith, is host to state politics and the attendant corruption, artists and their hangers-on, and a thriving tourist economy. All of these themes weave through her first book, The Sandoval Sisters' Secret of Old Blood.


Unknown said...

Santa Fe is a beautiful place to be from and can see why your heartstrings are still tied there. I can imagine the plaza both past and present through your vivid descriptions.

bloodmother said...

Nancy, I loved doing the research on old Santa Fe. My history teacher in high school would be shocked at my nerdy interest in the past. Truth be told, they didn't teach much New Mexican history, and there was no focus whatsoever on the U.S. Mexican war. The plaza of my youth was a gathering place for locals, a hangout for teens (the high school was downtown then), and a tourist destination. When were you there?