Woman ‘on fire’

A series of black spiral notebooks brims with lists, thought bubbles and doodles, the daily petroglyphs of a mind in motion.

The journals belong to Monique Fragua, (Jemez Pueblo), the director of Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and a lightning bolt of passion and energy.

“My mom liked to tell people I was born in the hallway of the hospital,” she said. “I was always on the way out.

“At Jemez, people say, ‘You’re like you’re on fire.’ I’m a for-profit girl in a nonprofit world.”

Part of the permanent exhibition "We are of this Place: The Pueblo Story" explains the purpose of dances. (Jim Thompson/Journal)
Part of the permanent exhibition “We are of this Place: The Pueblo Story” explains the purpose of dances. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

Once a depository for rubber tomahawks and corn necklaces, today the Shumakalowa Native Arts gift shop sells works by internationally renowned artists. Although the museum itself once snaked strictly chronologically through a length of basement, today it tells pueblo stories on the main floor through interactive pueblo voices, including its five languages: Towa, Tewa, Tiwa, Zuni and Keres. Tragedies such as the Spanish Conquest and the boarding school legacy are touched on, but the museum emphasizes the people’s resilience. The input of Fragua, a distant cousin to famed sculptor Cliff Fragua, has been critical to the museum’s development, said Michael Canfield (Laguna Pueblo), president and CEO of the cultural center.

“Her dedication and commitment to pueblo culture is a top priority,” he said. “It’s usually represented from an outsider’s opinion or point of view. She made it clear and upfront to everyone that this had to be our own perspective from our own point of view.”

Fragua’s entrepreneurial skills began when she was a child when she sold card tricks and her unwanted Halloween candy to her brothers and sisters. Her mother, Marlene Gapuchin, moved the family from Bernalillo to Jemez Pueblo when she was 13 to be closer to family. She worked five jobs to support the family before finding steady employment in security and surveillance at Santa Ana Star Casino. But her daughter felt isolated.

“For me, it was a problem, because I was a teenager,” Fragua said. “I wanted to be at the beach. I wanted to be a cool teenager.”

Fragua has straddled life within both the dominant and pueblo culture ever since.

“When you see another Jemez person, you take the time to stop and say hello and see how they are,” she said. “In Albuquerque, everything’s so fast you don’t take the time to hold the door open. I’m one of those people who was in a dual world.”

Her mother’s parenting style fell solidly under the “tough love” category. Although it sometimes seemed harsh, it forged the woman she would become. Gapuchin died about a year ago.

“She would say, ‘No daughter of mine is going to be average,’ ” Fragua said. “When my sister and I would bring home a C or a D, she would say, ‘Anybody can do that.’ ”

Just when her daughter was getting comfortable at the pueblo, Gapuchin sent her to St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe for a better education. Fragua honed her business skills again, canvassing the galleries for fundraising donations.

“I always tried to be a leader,” she said. “My mom said I had to be. One of my favorite things she said was, ‘Don’t talk about it – do it.’ ”

She spent seven years working at Jemez and studying at New Mexico Highlands’ Rio Rancho campus earning her bachelor’s degree. She made a New Year’s Eve resolution to pursue a master’s degree.

“When I told my mom, she was like, ‘What’s stopping you?’ ”

At Jemez, she ran five businesses: the Walatowa timber initiative, the visitor center/museum, convenience store and the environmental consulting company. She slept two to three hours a night. In 2011, she earned her master’s in business administration in one year.

By 2012, IPCC board members had heard about her.

“She had a reputation of being a solid person up at Jemez,” Canfield said. “We knew of all the good things she was doing there. It was a natural.”

Fragua catapulted from being the operations director to museum director a year ago.

The permanent exhibit "We are of this Place: The Pueblo Story," is one of the many changes at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. (Jim Thompson/Journal)
The permanent exhibit “We are of this Place: The Pueblo Story,” is one of the many changes at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

“Monique is an example of a contemporary pueblo woman,” said Dwayne Virgint, IPCC executive vice president and chief operating officer of the cultural center. “She’s made a commitment to personal and professional growth while holding her traditional values.”

Fragua considers the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center the gateway to all 19 New Mexico pueblos.

“It’s about cultural tourism,” she said. “We don’t want to create distance. We don’t want to create an ‘us versus them’ mentality.

“I’m not going to take it with me, so I want to share it and pass it on.

“It’s not even work,” she added. “I get to come here and do what I like every day.”

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