“Pride goeth before a fall…”
It is 5:30 on a beautiful evening in New Mexico, and I am going to the pre-opera dinner at The Santa Fe Opera Theatre, where I will be fed a meal in keeping with the evening’s opera (tonight it is Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, so Italian wines and pasta will be served). The dinner speaker will tell us about the music, the performers and the stagecraft of this particular production. Opera goers in Santa Fe dress in anything, from tattered jeans and battered hiking boots to fabulously expensive designer creations that border on the bizarre. I happily take advantage of every opportunity to dress up, and so I am dressed in my favorite opera outfit – a rather posh cream, lace dress and sparkly shoes with high heels.
I am feeling rather elegant as I walk down the hill to the pre-dinner venue until I notice that my left foot is flapping out of my shoe, and I suddenly seem to have one leg shorter than the other. The entire right side of my left shoe has completely separated from its sole. There is no time to return to my hotel to change my outfit, and it just isn’t done to attend the dinner or the opera in one’s bare feet. The only solution is to hobble back to the Opera Box Office and appeal for help. The Opera is noted for attracting some unusually dressed patrons, but I feel very conspicuous bobbing up and down on my one shoe. I decide to remove both sandals and pretend that I am deliberately walking uphill unshod on very hot asphalt.
The woman at the Box Office is very concerned about my footwear situation. She examines the broken shoe with great gravity and telephones the Opera Costume Department. Within minutes, a serious-faced young intern appears and runs with my shoe into the bowels of the opera buildings. After a quarter of an hour, the now beaming intern reappears holding my shoe, with the side securely glued and stapled in place. I am both amazed and grateful. I can think of no other venue where, just before a performance, theatre employees would show such concern for an ordinary, unknown opera goer like myself. Yet I should not really be astonished by this kind act, because Santa Fe is a city that, in terms of its history, arts, attractions and people, is full of surprises.
A multicultural past
Santa Fe is North America’s oldest capital city and signs of its long history are everywhere. A little knowledge of the city’s historical evolution helps one to understand the current blend and clash of cultures in modern Santa Fe.
Santa Fe has streets whose names seem to have come from a classic Western film (the Old Pecos Trail, the Old Santa Fe Trail, the Old Taos Trail and the Camino Real). These street names are all reminders of Santa Fe’s long and often violent past. The Plaza, the center of what is now the historic district (and the end of the famed Santa Fe Trail), was originally populated in 900 A.D. by the indigenous Tewa people. From 1100 until approximately 1300 the Pueblo Indian Culture thrived in the mountainous areas around Santa Fe. For reasons which are still unclear, the Indians left their high clifftop dwellings and relocated to the banks of the Rio Grande, forming the basis for the Pueblos which still exist today.
In 1598, Don Juan De Oñate, the first of the Spanish Conquistadores to enter Northern New Mexico, founded La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis, and brought with him chiles (now a beloved and essential feature of Santa Fe culinary tradition) and domestic animals. His New Mexico expedition was a failure, and he returned to Spain in disgrace in 1609. In 1610 Don Pedro de Peralta founded the new capital of Santa Fe, and so began the era of Spanish colonialism which lasted until 1821.
Relations between the Pueblo Indians and the Conquistadores were often tense. Violence erupted in 1690. After years of enduring forced labor imposed by their Spanish masters and fearing the possible eradication of their religion, the Pueblos consolidated their forces and drove the Spanish to the town of El Paso. Twelve years later the Spanish again took Santa Fe. A mutual need for defense against the hostile Comanche, Ute and Apache raiders resulted in a truce between the Spanish and Pueblo tribes, and thereafter trade goods such as weavings, leather and piñon nuts were carried along the Camino Real to Mexico and thence to Spain.
In 1821, the demise of the Spanish Empire allowed Mexico to achieve independence, and Santa Fe became a Mexican city whose businesses were no longer the monopoly of Spain. Seizing the chance for wealth and new business opportunities, Americans and Europeans began the trek to the town, journeying along the Santa Fe Trail. The city was transformed from a Spanish enclave into a riotous place with a reputation for gambling, hard-drinking men, and a plethora of brothels.
In 1846, during the war between Mexico and the United States, Santa Fe again changed hands and became an American possession which provoked an unsuccessful rebellion from those citizens who wished to remain Mexican citizens. With the advent of the railway in the 1880s, tourists began to visit Santa Fe in part because of its appeal as a town with a unique mixture of cultures, and also because of its location in such a starkly beautiful landscape. The influx of visitors introduced the Spanish and Native American crafts to the outside world and helped to develop the city’s reputation as an artistic haven.
Although the very difference of Santa Fe appealed to tourists and art collectors, New Mexico’s multicultural background proved to be an impediment to the state receiving statehood. Suspicions concerning the state’s connections to Mexico created opposition to New Mexico’s application to become a state, and it was not until 1912, after 60 years and 50 failed bills, that statehood was granted.
Exploring Sante Fe’s art scene
When I’m not swanning around at the opera, I wear comfortable shoes for exploring Santa Fe’s historic district. Not only is it difficult to park in downtown Santa Fe, but also it is an area meant to be discovered on foot. The heart of old Santa Fe is the Plaza built in 1610. The Plaza, with its grassy center and bandstand, is framed by shops where you can buy a $6,000 pair of cowboy boots from a Western boutique or a $5.95 Frito Pie and a $3 fridge magnet from the nearby Five and Dime store.
One side of the Plaza is bounded by the 400-year-old Governor’s Palace. Native American Pueblo artists, as they have done for many generations, sell jewelry, pottery, and weavings.
The streets which radiate from the Plaza feature art galleries, restaurants, boutiques and museums. Over 200 galleries, many situated on Canyon Road, represent art from all over the world.
The Plaza is also the site for The Spanish Market, the oldest and largest of its kind in America and famous for its traditional Spanish art. Much of the art is religious in nature, and there are carvings, weavings and even images of the many saints made of wheat. The booths of artisans fill the Plaza and spill out into the adjoining streets. At this market I met two members of the Delgado family, Jason Younis Delgado and his sister Sean Wells. They trace their family roots back to Manuel Delgado, second in command to the Conquistador, Don Diego De Vargas, who reconquered Santa Fe in 1693.
Both Jason and Sean are artists in the Spanish Colonial Style. Jason is an award-winning tinsmith and is the last of five generations of Delgado to carry on the family’s work. His sister Sean, who claimed that she had no ability in tinsmithing, was encouraged by her grandmother to take up the traditional work of retablo painting. Retablos are images of the saints painted on wooden boards and gifted to family and friends who might need or benefit from the particular abilities or skills of a specific saint. Her artwork also incorporates themes from El Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Those images have been featured on New Mexico’s Lottery tickets and on local beer and wine labels.
At another booth I met Adam Romero, also a retablo painter, and his wife Ruth, who helps him with his work. Adam has painted retablos for many years. I was drawn to the simplicity of his work and his modesty as a craftsman. I bought a retablo of a very cheerful San Pasqual, the patron saint of the kitchen and wine. Since he has been hanging on my wall, both the quality of my cooking and my wine have improved.
The Spanish market also encourages non-colonial artwork, and there are artists who have embraced more modern approaches to art and whose work often depicts secular and more personal subjects. Wandering through the lines of art displays, I was drawn to the striking and unusual work of Kelly Cedeño, a custom gourd artist of Spanish and Apache descent, who owns Cielito Lindo designs. Her husband Ruben, who is from Puerto Rico, grows the hard-shell organic gourds that she uses in her work.
Working with gourds is not for the faint-hearted. Prior to the designing stage of Kelly’s work, each gourd must be cleaned and disinfected, an arduous task which takes many hours. Kelly studies the prepared gourd by examining its shape and color. She allows every gourd’s distinctive features to lead her to the final design, a process which incorporates multiple techniques and materials, and makes each gourd a unique piece. It is clear from her work that she values and celebrates her Spanish/Apache background.
The Spanish Market is followed in August by the Indian Market now in its 98th year. This year it pays tribute to Native American Women with the title, “Rise and Remember: Honoring the resilience of Native Women.” Over 1,000 Native American artists from more than 200 tribes and Pueblos bring their traditional and contemporary art pieces to the Plaza and its surrounding streets. Collectors and buyers from all over the world and gallery owners in Santa Fe come to the market to buy pottery, jewelry, basket work, paintings and weavings.
A contemporary art form which has its origins in the tradition of buffalo hide paintings is ledger art. Traditional hide paintings were used to depict the passage of years, record clan events and memorialize feats of heroism. The near extinction of the buffalo, the removal of tribes onto reservations, and the scarcity of hides caused tribal artists to substitute old ledgers from trading posts to depict personal stories and conflicts with the white invaders. By 1900 few artists were creating ledger art, but there is a current revival of the art. Contemporary artists use not only old ledgers, but also checks, old and new maps, and newspapers.
Stephen Fox resembles a supporting character from a John Wayne film and is a specialist in and seller of ledger art. Stephen talked to me at length not only about ledger art, but also his crusades against the use of Aspartame and other noxious food additives.
Spanish and Native American art work is a major feature of the Santa Fe art culture. However, represented in the more than 200 art galleries (many of which are situated on Canyon Road), you will find brilliant photojournalistic work, cowboy art, Russian contemporary art, African Tribal artifacts, Asian art and many other art genres.
Santa Fe and its environs are home to over a dozen museums, ranging from the Georgia O’ Keefe Art Museum to the Museum of International Folk Art. The Harrell House Bug Museum features Oliver Greer’s Crawlywood Collection: this establishment is a great favorite with children, but it is probably a place to avoid if you suffer from arachnophobia.
Art in Santa Fe is not restricted to galleries and museums. There are sculptures on street corners and paintings in restaurants, municipal buildings and church grounds. Wandering the streets becomes itself an art feast.
The Performing (and Eating) Arts of Sante Fe
The Santa Fe Opera, housed in a striking modern building which overlooks the Tesuque Pueblo lands, is probably the most well-known venue of the performing arts. Now in its 63rd year, the season runs from June until August. It attracts not only stellar performers and musicians, but also many interesting opera goers, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The pre-opera dinners are casual, friendly and a place to meet a wonderful mix of people of all ages and backgrounds who share a fascination for and love of opera.
If opera is not your favorite way to spend a few hours, you can choose Chamber music, ballet, Flamenco dancing, symphony and choral music or concerts of all types performed in the Plaza.
If you prefer hearing the sounds of a knife and fork and the clink of glasses, and you wish to enjoy an interactive experience involving food, there are an incredible number and variety of restaurants in and around the city. Santa Fe is known for its passion for chiles; a frequent question asked by servers when ordering any dish which involves chile is “Red or green?” The best response to that inquiry is “Christmas,” which means that you get a dollop of both.
Green chile burgers and green chile stew are staples of New Mexican food, but Santa Fe and its environs offer every kind of cuisine you can imagine. The restaurants and cafes range from the extremely expensive and elegant (with more silverware than you could see in an episode of Downton Abbey) to the easy-going family style of dining where food and fingers go together.
As I sat in the beautiful green courtyard of La Casa Sena, a restaurant which occupies an hacienda-style adobe built on land granted to the original owner in the 1600s, I saw a woman pushing a very expensive stroller towards a reserved table. “A grandma,” I thought, “looking after her grandchild for the day,” and I carried on with my meal. She pulled back the hood of the stroller, and as I glanced over to see the baby, a small black curly head belonging to a flower- bedecked dog popped out. The bright-eyed dog put its paws on the table, just as if it were a small human, an act it continued to repeat throughout the meal. Its owner and her friend chatted to each other unconcernedly, and the server appeared not to notice anything unusual.
The City Different
Santa Fe’s nickname is “The City Different,” yet it shares many of the problems of other cities. Affordable housing for the average and low-income worker is scarce and rental properties are expensive and difficult to find. There are homeless people on the edges of the historical area, and the disparity between the affluent and the very poor is there if you care to see it. Because of its location in the arid New Mexico countryside, water conservation and fire risks are also constant concerns.
One evening as I walk (in sensible shoes) to another chile-infused dinner, I notice a colorfully wrapped Smart Car parked by a municipal building, and so I cross the street to take a photograph. I realize that the owner of the car is standing next to it and beside her is a dog who, unlike the dog in the restaurant, seems very capable of walking on its own four legs. I compliment her on her unusual car, and as she responds we realize that we are both English and know exactly where we each grew up in England.
She introduces me to Miles, the dog, and tells me that the wrap on her car is designed by Peter Max, the German-American artist who was originally known for his work in the 60’s and 70’s in the counterculture and psychedelic movements. She is living in Santa Fe and is trying with some difficulty to rent a place in which to start her own glass-working studio. She sighs and tells me that rents are high and spaces are few, but like so many Santa Fe artists past and present, she is clearly determined to fulfill her artistic calling.
As we say goodbye and agree to keep in touch, I wish her good luck and say that I hope to see her and Miles in her own studio next year. As I go on my way to the restaurant and reflect on what seems to be an extraordinary brief encounter, I realize that this is The City Different. An English artist, a psychedelic car, and a dog on four legs are just another surprise on an ordinary day in Santa Fe.
[You can build your own memories of Santa Fe by signing up for OLLI’s “Santa Fe Holiday” tour, December 4 – 8. You can get details on page 34 of the Fall Course Catalog or here on the website. (Click on “Santa Fe Holiday” to grab a PDF with more details) Payment deadline is September 20.–Editor]
Joyce Carpenter studied drama at college in England and holds degrees in special education and social work. Before retiring she was a psychiatric social worker at Tampa General Hospital and taught at Hillsborough Community College and USF. She joined OLLI-USF in 2010, has taken OLLI courses in literature poetry, history, improv., reader’s theatre and has co-taught drama courses for OLLI. She is a member of the great books and the poetry groups. This semester she is teaching (with Brenda Tipps) Three Dramas: Families in Conflict. Click here to learn more and to register.