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Venerable N.M. Clan Bonds at Family Chapel

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
          Carmen Santillanes makes her way slowly behind the Santa Cruz, which is being carried gently on the shoulders of a half-dozen Santillanes men.
        "Our Father, who art in heaven," she says.
        A few hundred other Santillanes relatives join in, saying the rosary in a chorus that can barely be heard over the matachines' fiddle.
        "Hail Mary, full of grace."
        A deacon has come from St. Therese to lead the hymns and rosary and the large family has gathered to mark the May 3 feast day of Santa Cruz and to celebrate the little Santa Cruz Capilla de Los Tomases.
        Matachines from Carnuel have agreed to lead a procession that follows the cross, decorated today in finery, down Las Tomases and back again to the chapel.
        Simple and plain, the family chapel was built by members of the Santillanes family 87 years ago and has become the glue that bonds the members together.
        Decades ago, you could stand at the door of the capilla and look out over fields of alfalfa and corn and see nothing but Santillanes family homes in this corner of the North Valley.
        Today, Elias Santillanes lives within sight of the capilla in the old adobe that belonged to his great-grandparents. But the capilla is nearly surrounded now by crisp, newer townhomes that have taken over the neighborhood. The people who live in them are generally not named Santillanes, and the chapel is no longer the center of the neighborhood's activities.
        That changes during the first weekend every May, when the chapel swarms with activity.
        "The families get so fractured over time," says Eddie Santillanes. "So this is a way of bringing people back together."
        They have come from all over Albuquerque and New Mexico — some from as far away as Seattle — to celebrate Santa Cruz, to fill the chapel to overflowing, to eat grilled corn and carne and to get together with relatives they see sometimes only once a year.
        Devotion to Santa Cruz began in Los Tomases, a neighborhood just northwest of Fourth and Menaul, back in the late 1800s.
        The patron saint was kept in Victoriana Santillanes' little adobe house — the one Elias Santillanes lives in now — and every May she pulled a table under a big cottonwood tree, put out the cross and put on a fiesta. People came in wagons and stayed for days, and the procession that now spans a block went all over the neighborhood.
        In the early 1920s, the family began to make adobes and began to build a permanent home for the Santa Cruz.
        It was completed in 1922 and has been the site of Santillanes family weddings, baptisms, funerals and fiestas ever since.
        "Every year since then, the family has honored the Santa Cruz," Eddie Santillanes says. "It's a family gathering to pray for health and welfare."
        Debbie Gutierrez got married in the chapel on an April day in 1977 — she was only 13 and her groom Sylvester was only 17 — and she has felt the binds of the church ever since.
        "You feel the spirit of your family when you're in there," she says. "The people who have gone and the ones not here yet. It's a blessing having the church and knowing that we're all here together."
        It's a modest place, about the size of a master bedroom in one of the big new houses that now dot the North Valley.
        Fourteen pews flank a narrow aisle that leads to the chapel's original altar. The chapel's caretakers replaced the galvanized metal roof about 20 years ago, and more recently they applied a neat new coat of stucco.
        Maurice Santillanes, 70, and his cousin, Elias, 64, sit in a pew and notice some cracks that need repairing. They have each been responsible for the church before, holding the job of mayordomo for a year.
        How, I wonder, do you interest anyone from an iPod generation in an 87-year-old church and traditions that reach back even further?
        This year's mayordomos are in their 40s, a generation younger than many of the capilla's caretakers, which Maurice and Elias think is a good start.
        "I tell this younger generation, they've got to keep it up," Maurice says. "Now it's our turn, but pretty soon it will be their turn."
        UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com.

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