Las Trampas

Restoring a church, rebuilding a community

Just a stones throw away from the historic San Jose De Gracia church in Las Trampas, New Mexico, I sit in my home at my computer looking through folders of photos I have recently taken. Its imagery encapsulates the cultural, historical, and anthropological essence of generations. Images of dirt, straw, and water transformed through an alchemic method of turning these base elements into something magical, priceless to some of those who come in contact with its simple yet powerful allure.

I live in an old Adobe house. A house that itself has its own history. Perhaps not the renowned history that the San Jose De Gracia church, built between 1760 and 1776, has but a history none the less. It’s a home where in the early 1940’s a photographer by the name of John Collier Jr. came to encounter my family - the Lopez Family. The photos Mr. Collier took of my great grandfather Juan Lopez and his household have become part of the fabric of what it was to be a Northern New Mexican during that era. Images that eventually became to be part of the Library of Congress influenced me greatly. Photos that proved even the most isolated and modest of lives could carry with them powerful and empowering messages. That encounter more than 70 years ago set a path that led to where I am today. The influence of those photographs was the reason I chose to become a visual artist. To leave remnants of my experience to influence perhaps or inform--even if only in the smallest way.

Part of my familial experience of being a resident of Las Trampas, a huge part, in fact, is being drawn in and taking part in becoming a keeper of the old adobe church. The structure, which has stood for more than 230 years, is a stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture. It is an attractions to those who traverse on what is known as the “High Road to Taos.” 

My family ties to the church go back generations. My uncles, aunts, grandmother, and cousins have all at one point been the “Mayordomo” of the structure. My grandmother was buried on the church grounds. The first person to be laid to rest there in decades.

The Mayordomo's job is never ending: opening up and setting up for services as well as tourists, and keeping everything on site in order. While there is no payment for this service, the rewards can be just as gratifying.  Knowing that so many from all corners of the world have come to admire the site is invaluable.

Hands down the most immense project the Mayordomo can undertake is the process of re-mudding of the church. The latest re-plastering began in April of 2015. The church’s exterior had gone through many years of deterioration and was in dire need of repair. The last time the community had gotten together to re-mud had been at least a decade and the last major restoration took place in 1986. 

In between these periods of time patchwork repairs were periodically done but nothing on scale as to what was needed. The adobe plaster encrusting the church was in very poor shape with cracks, weathering, and places where the plaster was non-existent. What was unique about this restoration was the fact that the current caretakers of the church choose to do something unique. Rather than patch where needed and then re-mud on top of the existing coat they strip down the church to bare adobe and start fresh. This was a new concept. Even the elder worker on site, my uncle Mayordomo Jose lopez who is in his early 1980s and a lifelong Las Trampas resident had never seen it done. It was entering new territory and none of us knew what to expect.

The adobe plaster was 8 to 10 inches thick and as it was removed one could see the numerous layers of plaster that had been applied throughout the generations. One layer equalled one summer out of any given year the community had gotten together to restore their church. As an onion shell of mud and straw was removed, piece by piece and layer by layer the adobe brick that is the bones of the church was exposed. One could only look at the bare stack of adobe bricks that make up the church and think that that last time they had seen the light of day the United States itself was yet to come to form. It is amazing to think of all the people whose hands had applied those bricks and layers of protection for those bricks were now sitting on the ground.

The history of a community is passed along during the re-mudding. You hear each individual working there talk about how their mom or aunt once showed them how to blend the mixture and apply the mix to have it properly hold. How certain herbs or roots that will help with the aches and pains from the hard work that comes along with working with heavy buckets of mud hour after hour, day after day. Throughout history, the men were tasked with the heavy labor. The woman of the village were the “enjaradoras” or plasterers, but also the nurturers of the workers who cooked and served lunch to all who showed up for the day’s work.

The plaster mixture had to be just right for the women to apply it. Off by just a bit, they would request a bit more dirt, thicker or finer straw, less or more water. The thicker cut straw is used for the rougher application and you use a finer cut as you go out towards the final coat. The women's hands became the quality control of the process and you hear the current workers reminisce with great joy those days gone by. Most of those old enjaradoras are now gone and all that is left is a few of the elder town ladies plastering along with a handful of men.  

The concoction of dirt from local mountainside is sifted to remove rocks, along with cut straw, and ditch water is as simple as it gets. Sometimes the simplest of processes are the hardest to master, and the mixing and application of adobe plaster is one of those things. The tools used are again simple, the grounds are littered with buckets used to hold mud, water and straw. Shovels, hoes, wheelbarrows, scaffolding, and in modern times a cement mixer are the tools of the trade.

Watching the old adobe bricks getting covered up was bittersweet. Never again would I, or any of the others present during this process, ever see it again. Perhaps in another 200 years another generation far removed from us will shine the light upon it once again at least that is the hope. The exterior is the hard shell protection that helps keeps the church’s interior in remarkably good condition. Woodwork and several hundred year old paintings hold up well in the cool, dry air of the church’s interior. If the exterior is allowed to succumb to the elements, it's only a matter of time until the artifacts inside fall to the same fate.

The restoration of the church, which began in April, will be a process that will take several years. The east-facing facade of the building was completed this fall. Gone are the days when 20-30 people from around the community are out there working. Now a handful of the elderly is out there preserving our customs as well as theirs. With no youth around to listen, observe and learn from these seniors where these traditions go when they are no longer around is yet to be seen. 

All that can be said is that these workers--these men and women chose to give one final push in their lifetimes to do something great. Deep down there was hope that maybe if they did a job so wonderful people would take notice and want to come by and take an interest. The more interest, the more chance they have to share and teach of the traditional ways. I will do my part by sharing my photos in hopes of sparking an interest in the restoration and preservation of a beautiful building.

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