News for Monday, August 15, 2011

A Chimayó Pilgrimage: Photographs by Don J. Usner

Esequiel’s Horse, Los OjuelosEsequiel’s Horse, Los OjuelosArchival Pigment Print, photograph by Don J. Usner.
Esequiel’s Horse, Los Ojuelos
Window, Los OjuelosWindow, Los OjuelosArchival Pigment Print, photograph by Don J. Usner.
Window, Los Ojuelos
Window Reflection, Capilla de San Antonio, PotreroWindow Reflection, Capilla de San Antonio, PotreroArchival Pigment Print, photograph by Don J. Usner.
Window Reflection, Capilla de San Antonio, Potrero

Photography Exhibit, SAR Boardroom Hallway

August 15–December 2, 2011, 10:00 am–4:00 pm weekdays

Every trip I take to Chimayó is a pilgrimage, and I go there often. I’m not alone in making the journey. Thousands visit there every year, most of them intent on touching hallowed ground at the Santuario, a nineteenth-century adobe church built by my ancestors in the plaza of Potrero.

I don’t go to Chimayó just for the holy earth at the church, although I stop there frequently en route to visiting other Chimayó places and people. Many other aspects compel me to return to Chimayó again and again. These journeys began in childhood, when I went there to visit my grandmother, who lived only a hundred feet from the house where she was born in 1898. Since those formative years I’ve made countless forays to Chimayó and lived there for over 15 years, next door to Grandma, who passed on in 2001 at the age of 103.

Since my childhood, everything about Chimayó has changed immensely. Although many people converse in a wonderful patois of English and Spanish, only a handful of monolingual Spanish speakers from the old families remain. The built environment has transformed, too, with many old adobe buildings gone, trailer houses sprawled across farmland, and the old barns reduced to piles of rotting vigas. As I’ve watched these changes sweep through Chimayó, I think of what Grandma used to say wistfully about cherished things that she saw passing away, “Ya no, mi hijito —No longer, my child.”

Some of us with roots in Chimayó have endeavored to preserve its historic heritage. I have been particularly focused on recording people’s stories, and some years ago I published two books that relied on interviews with Chimayosos to tell the story of the Plaza del Cerro. More recently, my mother gave me a list of more than three hundred dichos, or folk sayings, that Grandma uttered in everyday parlance. She also passed along a box of documents that had been passed down to her through three hundred years of our family’s residency in Chimayó.

To preserve and share this linguistic patrimony, my mother and I began translating and organizing the dichos and laboring over the historic papers, painstakingly deciphering the cryptic script and archaic Spanish. We also began taking trips to Chimayó, as a break from our arduous, self-assigned task and also as an excuse to spend time together and visit old friends and family. Thus began a richly rewarding experience parallel to the work with the written words, a time to touch in with Chimayó and the spoken tongue.

I took photographs during these journeys to Chimayó, not only to chronicle our trips there, but also to give visual expression to the sense of places we experienced. We’ve traveled to many neighborhoods in Chimayó apart from the familiar Plaza del Cerro, where our ancestors lived. Many of these places are new to us. The photographs presented here represent a small sampling of images I’ve taken as we find ourselves winding deep into Chimayó, a community we thought we knew but with each journey, find we are discovering anew. I’ve included in the captions the place names that the old people use for the neighborhoods we’ve visited—names that will be unfamiliar to many people, even those from Chimayó

—Don Usner

About Don J. Usner

Born in 1957 in Embudo, New Mexico, Don J. Usner earned his undergraduate degree in Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz and went on to manage an ecological reserve in Big Sur, California, where he co-authored and took landscape photographs for his first book, The Natural History of Big Sur, published by the University of California Press.

Don returned to New Mexico in 1988 to complete an M.A. in Geography at the University of New Mexico, then produced his second book, Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, based on his thesis and published in 1995 by the Museum of New Mexico Press. He has since written and photographed for several more books, including Benigna’s Chimayó: Cuentos from the Old Plaza, and Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve. Don continues to cultivate his lifelong interest in cultural and natural history as he works as a writer and photographer in Santa Fe.

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