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CÓRDOVA – It took three northern New Mexico santeros eight weeks of meticulous, painstaking work to refurbish and clean three large altar screens at the historic St. Antonio de Padua Catholic Church in this small village of 400 people east of Española.
On Saturday, the threesome, bonded in the camaraderie of their efforts, took pride in displaying and explaining their work at a public reception.
The church dates from 1832, although Córdova was settled by 1750. The screens, with their colorful retablos and bultos, are the work of José Rafael Aragón, “one of the most prolific and popular santeros in nineteenth-century New Mexico,” according to a New Mexico State Records Center & Archives article by William Wroth.”Santeros are makers of images of saints, known in New Mexico as santos,” the website notes.
The Córdova project is the work of Nuevo Mexico Profundo, developed by Frank Graziano, Rebecca Montoya and Pete Warzel, which aims to raise funds for historic church maintenance and restoration while enhancing economic development in rural areas. It was funded by the Thaw Charitable Trust, Susan Foote and other private donors.
Graziano, a retired professor of Latin American studies who now lives down the road in Chamisal, has spent his whole career researching religious cultures of Latin America.
“So when I came here it was natural to do a project on the historic churches here,” Graziano said in an interview Saturday, as he greeted visitors.
The santeros process
While Graziano welcomed visitors to the church, just off NM 76 – the High Road to Taos – santeros Victor Goler, Felix Lopez and Jerry Sandoval were inside explaining how they preserved the religious jewels of history whose fragility needed to be stabilized after perhaps too many well-intentioned cleanings over the years.
Goler, 58, from Taos, was gratified to have participated in the work but at the same time made wistful by its ending.
“It’s been a long journey, a very rewarding journey and it’s great to be part of the conservation of a historical church of New Mexico,” said Goler.
For two days a week, for many weeks, Goler was joined by Lopez, 79, from La Mesilla in Rio Arriba County and Sandoval, 66, of Córdova, in the winter cold of the old adobe church as they cleaned and wiped bultos and retablos from the screens with distilled water and detergent.
“It’s a little sad because the guys I have been working with, Felix and Jerry, we developed a camaraderie,” said Goler. “You get used to coming to the church and being around the saints and all of a sudden that’s not going to be there – kind of a sweet and sour finish to it all.”
Much of the work on the altars was done one small part of each object at a time, something that was not lost on Graziano.
“I think it’s incredible. One of the things that fascinates me about it is the detail involved in doing this work,” he said. “When it’s all done the overall effect is so impactful … so visual, I’m delighted,” said Graziano.
A personal connection
For santero Lopez, the altar work was more than a labor of love preserving the villages’ heritage. His relatives are from Córdova and his great grandparents are buried in the church courtyard and lived in the village at the same time José Rafael Aragón was performing his altar screen artistry and probably attended his funeral, said Lopez.
Now, the screens and the heritage they exemplify have been preserved for coming generations, Lopez believes.
“They were in a very fragile state, deteriorating rapidly and they needed to be rescued just for the future of this community and really for New Mexico also,” he said. “It’s the treasures that we have had for centuries.”
All those cold mornings working on the screens culminated in Saturday’s celebration enjoyed by locals and visitors.
“It’s a big accomplishment, it was a challenge but a very cherished experience to be able to bring back the life of these beautiful José Rafael Aragón images,” said Lopez.
PD Morris, of Santa Fe, was one those at Saturday’s reception who had never been to the church. She and the other guests munched on biscochitos and other treats made by the locals while taking in and learning about the refurbished screens.
“The passion of the people who worked on the restoration of these very old panels for many months is evident, but in a quiet respectful way, as if they are merely protectors of the history and faith and the sense of purpose,” Morris said.
Even expert santeros like Goler learn more from each project they undertake. Goler not only gained a greater knowledge of José Rafael Aragón and his work and family “but also the way he constructed a lot of his pieces.”
Rafael Aragón used a gesso (a primer – often made with animal hide glue) layer not just for a base for the paint but also to build up details on the religious figures like a putty, especially on the tops of heads.
Goler hopes the Córdova project might spur more interest in historic church preservation.
“They are really wonderful treasures, historical treasures and so I think it will bring more people forward to want to follow through with these types of projects,” said Goler.
For Graziano, the expert on Latin America religious cultures, a lot of research has been done on the history, art history and architecture of the historic northern New Mexico churches but not so much currently.
“There was nothing done on what’s happening at the churches now and that’s what I researched,” said Graziano. “I went into the villages like here for example in Córdova, talked to the people, what’s going on at the church, how do they maintain the church.”
There is one church in particular that Graziano and his organization are looking at for possible restoration, but he declined to identify it until details are finalized.