December 2017

The Santaurio de Chimayo Church in Chimayo, New Mexico © Doug Berry

A Pilgrimage Through New Mexico

“I met him when I was twelve, and the minute I saw him, I knew.”

Joan Medina wipes a spare wisp of brown hair away from her face and smiles in the direction of her husband Arthur, or LowLow as he’s better known. His back is turned to us as he reaches into their lowrider for the paintings he’s lining up along the fence, and I can’t be sure whether he’s listening or not. Joan and LowLow have been married for more than twenty years, and she’s telling me now how long before that, she knew he was the one for her. As LowLow turns and catches her eye, he gives her a quiet, private smile, which conveys the easy grace of their relationship. Turning her attention back to me, Joan’s warm brown eyes light up with emotion as she describes her love for her family, her art, and her faith.

Together with their twelve year old daughter and their extended family, the Medinas create religious-themed paintings, murals, jewellery, and barbed wire objets d’art which they sell outside the Santaurio de Chimayo church in the tiny town of Chimayo, New Mexico. As well as spreading the word of Catholicism through art, the Medina family is part of the lowriders, a movement originally formed by disillusioned Mexican-American youths in 1950s post-war America. Rebelling against the cultural prejudices they experienced as immigrants to the U.S., Chicano youths began to express their defiance via the ultimate American icon: the automobile. In New Mexico and California, they took cast-off cars (mostly Chevy Impalas) and modified their chassis so they sat just above the ground. To the cars’ exteriors, they added bright colours and unique designs. Suddenly the “lowrider”, as it was known, became more than just a car: it became a distinctive cultural marker; a symbol of defiance to society around them.

The lowrider movement has since evolved into a distinct subculture that is less about rebellion and more about asserting an identity. This is how the Medinas see it, but their lowrider has an added dimension in that it is for them a mobile shrine to Catholicism though which they spread their faith. It’s strange that the Medinas carry out such a traditional mission through the ultimate symbol of American modernity, but this is not the first contradiction I encounter while in New Mexico. As I stand on the dirt road outside of the church chatting to Jean, I feel as though I could be in rural Peru or Bolivia, rather than in one of the fifty United States. Instead of strip malls and fast food outlets, roads here are dotted with traditional Adobe-style houses. Between towns, churches built in the same style perch proudly, as if keeping watch of the people who inhabit the towns nearby. In these parts, Spanish is the dominant language, and food takes strong influences from old Spain and Mexico. The cumulative effect is that it is incredibly easy to forget what country one is in.

The fact that New Mexico has changed hands many times may explain why it clings intensely to a past identity of which it seems unwilling to let go. For thousands of years, Northern New Mexico was home to native American tribes who lived in settlements around the Santa Fe River. All this changed with the arrival of Spanish colonialists in the late 1500s. In 1598, Don Juan de Onate led a group of Spanish settlers into Northern New Mexico, driving the natives into pueblo settlements, many of which still stand today. The Spanish took over the surrounding land, and by 1610, Santa Fe had been established as the capital of New Spain. Spanish rule continued until 1821, at which point Mexico gained their independence and renamed the area New Mexico. The Spanish influence, however, remained – even throughout a protracted civil war between Mexico and the U.S.. Mexico eventually lost, and in 1912, Mexico became the 47th state in the Union.

Aside from its political history, New Mexico is today more famed for its art scene than anything else. The starkly beautiful high desert surroundings lend a certain kind of mysticism to the area, which could be the reason why artists of all types are drawn here, and have been for over a hundred years. Even if you’re here for just a couple of days, you can be sure that LowLow and Jean are far from the only artists you’ll encounter. Chimayo itself is situated along what is known as the “High Road” between the cities of Santa Fe and Taos. For 54 miles, the road twists and turns north through the high peaks of Sangre de Cristo Mountains, passing through tiny artist downs that dot the road’s mountainous folds. Although the more recently-built highway is a much faster route between the two destinations, the High Road is like the artists who inhabit the towns along its course: aesthetically pleasing, unpredictable, and definitely more interesting.

At the High Road’s starting point is Santa Fe, undoubtedly the centerpiece of New Mexico’s art scene. The city teems with painters, sculptors and performers, and considering its relatively small size of just under 70,000 people, the town’s nearly 250 galleries are astounding. Many of these galleries stretch up the main “artists artery” of Canyon Road that winds up from the center of town into the higher hills. Along this road, you’ll find artists creating everything from oil paintings and watercolors to wire sculptures and clay masks that they sell to passing tourists and serious art collectors alike.

Perhaps Santa Fe’s most famous resident artist is Georgia O’Keefe, who fell in love with it in 1929 and decided to make it her home. When one considers the dramatic desert surroundings in which she lived, O’Keefe’s characteristic abstract landscape paintings make perfect sense.

Besides art, religion forms a large part of Santa Fe’s character, as it does in the other nearby towns. With churches filling the open spaces, traveling the High Road feels a bit like a pilgrimage, like one would embark on the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain. Within Santa Fe itself, the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assissi, the city’s patron saint, and the Loretto Chapel, known for its amazing spiral staircase, are grand examples of religious structures. In Chimayo, the Santaurio de Chimayo church although smaller and less austere, is perhaps more famous, serving as a modern pilgrimage site for over 300 000 visitors a year. Built from the traditional sand and clay material of adobe, two bell towers flank white crosses that stand starkly on the metal pitched roof. Inside the church, a small adjoining room contains a well of dirt that is said to have healing powers for visitors. Like the pilgrims before me, I packed some of this dirt into a tiny tin container to take away with me. As I talk to Joan now, I pull the tin out of my pocket and ask her whether she believes in the earth’s healing powers. Of course, she says. Don’t I?

The sun has reached its peak, and it’s time for me to leave the Medinas behind. I say my goodbyes and walk back to my car. It’s the same car, and in the same place I left it, but something’s different. Up until now, I’ve been impatient to get back to the road to reach Taos. My encounter with Joan and LowLow has changed my perspective, however. As I witnessed the meaning and purpose they see in each small moment of their life, I think they may have inadvertently taught me the true purpose of a pilgrimage – of my pilgrimage. The Medinas point to a truth that makes me think a pilgrimage is less about reaching somewhere, and more about a chance to reflect on and appreciate life in its present moment, right here and right now.

As I head north, Chimayo grows smaller in my rearview mirror and I turn my attention back to the road in front of me. It stretches out ahead, stark and brown and never-ending. Instead of focusing on where the road will lead, I put all my attention on the part of the road I’m on right now, and doing so gives me an odd feeling of relief.. Suddenly, I feel rejuvenated.

I take a deep breath of contentment, and exhale into the nothingness.

Catherine Parker

February 9, 2010 by admin · 223 Comments 

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