New Mexico’s Modern Saint-Makers
April 2, 2021
Written by ROSEMARY DIAZ
The carving and painting of santos, or devotional art, is one of the oldest living folk art traditions in the U.S., dating back some 400 years. As Semana Santa (Holy Week) marks the holiest of days for millions of Christians around the globe, we talked with several of New Mexico’s modern santeros — and santeras — who have found that innovation and preservation of their tradition go hand-in-hand.
For Nicholas Herrera, adolescent life was rough in his rural hometown of El Rito, where New Mexico’s high desert meets the Colorado border. As a young man, he battled substance abuse and had run-ins with the law. And although an artistic vein runs through his family — “my great uncle was a santero and my parents were creative, so I guess it’s in my DNA”, he says — he had no plans to become an artist himself.
Then, after a near-fatal car accident left him in a coma at age 26, seeing visions of death figures, he knew he had to turn his life around. “That’s when I got into art. When you find a passion, something that comes from the heart, it really changes you.”
The craft of New Mexico’s santeros, or “saint-makers”, can be traced back more than four centuries, to when the first Roman Catholic Missionaries from Spain arrived in the territory. That makes it one of the oldest living folk art traditions, and one of the longest surviving religious occupations, in the United States. These distinctions hold the craft to rigid standards, and change is slow to come. But like any living tradition, preserving it means making room for innovation.
Tackling Modern Issues in a Traditional Craft
In addition to working with more traditional subjects and themes, Herrera became known for his edgier work, inspired by the modern world around him. He says people “tripped out” when he started showing his “Los Alamos death trucks” — carvings depicting trucks loaded with barrels of toxic waste and bound for WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Project: the nation’s only deep, geological, long-lived radioactive waste repository, located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, NM). Pieces that spotlight the alcoholism and drug abuse blighting many rural communities in the region have also turned some heads — “especially those that want everything done by the book” — as has a recent work portraying Jesus Christ being arrested while crossing the Mexican border.
In the early 1980s, Herrera’s work, along with that of other “modern santeros,” was considered too outrageous for Santa Fe’s Traditional Spanish Market and its standards committee. That led to the creation, in 1986, of Contemporary Hispanic Market, where Herrera established himself among the most important santeros of his generation.
“I mix the old ways with the new,” says Herrera. “That’s what keeps the art moving forward for the next generation.”
Fellow santero Vicente Telles, 37, agrees. “I don’t think it’s really possible to keep any art tradition alive without letting it breathe,” he says. Telles wasn’t exposed to santero art while growing up in Albuquerque’s South Valley; he first learned of it from a professor at University of New Mexico (UNM). That inspired him to do some research.Telles left UNM for a job in Los Angeles, where, “I fabricated and welded, and there was color theory involved, but there wasn’t much room for creative freedom.” Now back in New Mexico and carving full-time, “I can marry my creative ideas with the skills I’ve learned… to help keep the tradition of santero art relevant. It’s not just a religious thing, it’s about culture, too. It connects one generation to the next.”
Like Herrera, Telles has also challenged the rules at Traditional Spanish Market (where his work is juried in the Innovation category), and combines traditional techniques and materials with contemporary social and political commentary.
Santeras: The Female Perspective
Those generational connections have historically happened among males. While there have always been women in the supporting roles of santos-making — typically gathering wood, sanding, and painting the finished forms — it wasn’t until 50 or 60 years ago that female carvers like Anita Romero Jones, Sabinita Lopez Ortiz, Gloria Lopez Cordova, and Marie Romero Cash, among others, began to approach the craft in full character.
“Santeras in New Mexico represent the versatility of the art form,” says Nicolasa Chavez, Curator of Latino/Hispano/Spanish Colonial Collections at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. “Women have played an important role in bringing a contemporary voice to the santero tradition.”
At 91, Monica Sosaya Halford is New Mexico’s oldest living santera and considered the grand dame of Traditional Spanish Market, where she has exhibited her embroidered panels of devotional art for four decades.
Sadly, Halford doesn’t envision her art form surviving much longer by anything short of “a miracle.” “You have to have a lot of patience to do colcha,” she says. “I don’t think the younger generation has the patience for it.”
Adriana and Liberty Gonzales of Albuquerque, two sister santeras in their 20s, are among the younger generation who do have the patience to learn and expand the art form. They have participated in Traditional Spanish Market since they were young children, thanks their father, artist Roberto Gonzales, who began teaching them to paint when they were 3 years old. (See the video below for an interview with all three family members, produced by the National Hispanic Cultural Center.)
For Santa Fe-based santera Luisa Ortega, 58, who has exhibited her carved driftwood angels, Good Shepherds, and likenesses of Saint Francis and San Pasqual at Traditional Spanish Market, family is both the root and the future of her craft.
“I started carving when I was about eight or nine,” she says. “My dad was a santero, so he taught me how to carve in the old, traditional style. There were ten of us kids growing up and at one point, he had all of us carving.”
In turn, Ortega taught her own children to carve, and now she’s teaching her grandkids. While her role as a female santera is still somewhat uncommon, “I see myself as a traditional carver because that’s the way I learned, and that’s the way I’ve always done it. My whole family has always worked in the traditional style, so that’s how I’m teaching them. It’s a record of our history; it’s important that we encourage them to keep it going.”
“Whether working outside or inside of the Traditional Spanish Market, the innovations of the modern santero are appropriate to the tradition,” says David Rasch. “Their work is a continuation of the art form. New materials and subject matter always bring differing reactions, but traditions evolve, and we must allow for that evolution to keep them alive.”