“We were considered country bumpkins,” he said of how he was looked at. Not being fluent in either English or Spanish didn’t help.
Born in 1936 in Bernalillo, in a home still standing, and raised in the Rio Puerco Valley, he remembers attending school in a one-room schoolhouse in first and second grade.
Recently, he was honored by the Historical Society of New Mexico, which named him the winner of its first Lifetime Achievement Award.
A notification sent by Nancy Owen Lewis, chair of the awards committee, cited Garcia for his “…stellar contributions — as an educator, community activist, and author — to New Mexico history.”
Garcia has written children’s books — three more bilingual books are on the way, he said during a recent lunch at The Range — and adult books, all aimed at furthering the readers’ understanding of traditional New Mexico culture. Thanks to computers, he said, he’s been able to publish a book a year.
“Your work in the advancement and preservation of Hispanic language, culture and folklore in New Mexico has been unparalleled,” Lewis wrote. “Your academic career, which includes numerous university appointments, has been outstanding.”
In fact, on April 14 he’ll receive a prestigious Wrangler Award for “Outstanding Juvenile Book” from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City for “Grandma’s Santo on Its Head” (UNM Press).
Garcia’s latest book, “Bernalillo: Yesterday’s Sunshine/Today’s Shadows” (Rio Grande Books, 2014), is chock full of information about the Sandoval County town known by many as “Coronado’s Town.”
But it’s more than a glimpse of the town’s history and historic sites: It’s also, according to his publisher, “a bittersweet anthology of vivid and varied recollections of life and tradition in Bernalillo between the 1930s and the beginning of the 21st century.”
Some of the people he interviewed — the interviews were conducted in the early years of this century, with publishing delayed because Garcia lost his hearing — have since passed on. It’s an oral history; Garcia says that over the past 30 years, he has “devoted thousands of hours and traveled many miles to interview the old folks (ancianos).” His first such interview was conducted with his paternal grandparents back in 1968. “The people featured in this book are the last of a special breed,” Garcia said.
Most of the people interviewed by Garcia, with their recollections in Spanish and English, lament the absence of respect by teenagers toward their elders; loss of religion; fewer people speaking Spanish; a man not asking his beloved’s parents for her hand in marriage; and people adopting different religions.
Garcia says in his foreword that his “fervent hope is for (the book) to be an inspiration to anyone who is interested either in Hispanic folk ways and language or in the preservation of their family’s culture and history.”
Yes, he’s come a long way from Bernalillo, the Rio Puerco Valley and Martineztown — Garcia received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Spanish and Portuguese from UNM, spent time as a doctoral student at the University of Granada in Spain, and later — his proudest moments — studied under the eminent linguist Manuel Alvar before being awarded his Ph.D. in 19th century Spanish literature from the University of Pittsburgh.
His own memoir will be published by UNM Press next year, he said, which “is probably one of the works I’m really going to be proud of: 440 pages and it covers every conceivable facet of rural living.”
In “Albuquerque: Three Centuries to Remember” (La Herencia, 2005), Garcia took on another daunting task: capturing three centuries of the Duke City’s history in a tribute to Albuquerque’s tricentennial in 2006. “This book is given as a birthday present,” he noted in the foreword.