Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mabel and Fabiola Cabeza de Baca: Home Making in New Mexico

The history of women in the American West is like the history of air. You could certainly write history without it. You just can't have history without it.*

Rereading these introductory sentences to Home Lands : How Women Made the West, I thought about a conversation I had with Mabel’s biographer Lois Rudnick where the question arose: “What would Taos have been like without Mabel?” Part of the “Home Lands” exhibition (currently at the New Mexico History Museum) is dedicated to Mabel and her Santa Fe counterparts, poet Alice Corbin and writer Mary Austin, who represented the modern “New Women.” Through both her salons and her written essays Mabel openly flaunted convention about women in matters of love, family, and career. In the period between World Wars I and II, ideas of feminist emancipation also reached into the lives of New Mexico’s Pueblo and Hispanic populations.

One of these women, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca (referred to in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as a beloved and nearly legendary cultural heroine), served as a premier example of a native Spanish-speaking New Mexican whose life was indeed remarkable.

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca in front of a New Mexico schoolhouse, photographer and date unknown. Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert Photograph Collection, no. 000-603-0002, Center for the Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

Born in 1894 in La Liendre, New Mexico Territory, she grew up on the family ranch. Just after high school Fabiola joined a number of young Hispanics recruited to teach in New Mexico’s rural areas. She began her career in the one-room schools of Guadalupe County, and would soon number among a handful of the earliest of New Mexico’s Hispanic pioneers in education. While teaching, she intermittently attended New Mexico Normal University (now known as Highlands University) in Las Vegas, NM. She took a year off to study at Centro de Estudios Historicos in Madrid, Spain, then received her B.A. in Pedagogy from her alma mater in 1921. Fabiola spent some additional years in the classroom, then continued her education at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University), graduating with an M. A. in Home Economics in 1929. That year Fabiola began working for the U.S. government, at a time when the communal land cultivated for centuries by the Hispanic farmers of northern New Mexico came under federal legal assault, when they lost traditional grazing lands to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. 

In her job as extension agent Fabiola brought new scientific ideas and the latest household technology to rural households in the remote, wide-spread villages of northern New Mexico. While teaching women the newest gardening and poultry-raising techniques and introducing modern canning kettles and pressure cookers using the latest government bulletins on food preparation, Fabiola also saw the value in and worked to preserve the people’s traditional ways. As an extension agent Fabiola spent nearly thirty years of her life on the road. A paragraph from Homelands: How Women Made the West provides an overview of the work she did during that time.

She helped hard-pressed families get access to canning equipment and sewing machines, and made information available to families not comfortable with English by speaking Spanish (and later Tewa and Towa), translating government bulletins from English into Spanish, and writing her own bilingual materials. Cabeza de Baca in turn heard stories she would treasure; collected folklore about herbal medicine, planting practices, and religious rituals; and learned much of what she would later recount about New Mexican cooking in her 1939 book Historic Cookery. She kept voluminous notes about remedies, rituals, and recipes and took palpable pleasure in cataloging local knowledge, techniques, and skills, observing the mingling of faith and science.**

“Pueblo Girls Learning to Use Pressure Cooker, 1930s,” by Frances E. and Henry Prior Clark. Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center; OP.160

Fabiola’s budding career as an extension agent could have ended after a train hit her car in 1932. Injuries to her leg eventually resulted in its amputation. Fabiola may have lost her leg, but not her courage or her desire to work. During her two-year convalescence, she wrote extension brochures on canning and food preparation. Back on the road, she visited thousands of homes and made notes on the cultural practices of the villages she served and collected recipes from the Anglo, Indian, and Hispanic families from her extension circuit. Fabiola’s outreach broadened when The Santa Fe Scene published a series of vignettes she had written that included recipes, and KVSF broadcast her weekly bilingual radio program on homemaking.

In the midst of her work as extension agent, in 1935 Fabiola joined together with such notable Hispanic New Mexicans as politician and suffragist Nina Otero Warren and writer Cleofas Jaramillo to found the Sociedad Folklorico de Santa Fe (Folklore Society of Santa Fe), an organization dedicated to preserving the Spanish language and Hispanic folkways in New Mexico. Observing the toll Americanization was taking on the centuries-old traditions she had grown up with, Fabiola decided to preserve this cultural history in writing. The articles she penned for The Santa Fe Scene expanded into The Good Life (1949), a book published as a tribute to the Hispanic traditions of New Mexico. Six years later her next book, We Fed Them Cactus (1954), recounted the history of four generations of her family and their transition from wealthy Spanish land grant holders to struggling ranchers under a new governmental legal system that violated their previous title to the land.

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca (far left) with the Sociedad Folklorica in 1945. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives.

Another teaching opportunity arose when Fabiola went to Mexico as a representative of the United Nations. From 1950 to 1959 she developed home economics programs in Mexico, and set up demonstration centers among the Tarascan Indians. Later she also trained extension agents in Central and South America. Following her retirement in 1959 Fabiola continued her community work, delivered lectures, and worked as a trainer and consultant for the Peace Corps. She died in Albuquerque in 1991 at age 97.

While working on the book, Stones into Bread: The Lives and Letters of Peggy Pond Church and Corina Aurora Santistevan, Two Women of New Mexico, I discovered that in the 1940s Corina worked with Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, who procured a pressure cooker for communal utilization and demonstrated its use in Taos. It led me to wonder if Fabiola provided training for some of Mabel’s cooks.

One thing is for certain: if you are in the area, you still have time to see the “Home Lands” exhibition in Santa Fe at the New Mexico History Museum. I’m planning to see it one more time before the show closes on September 11th. It’s a seminal, thought-provoking exhibition. If you don’t have an opportunity to see it, I heartily recommend the book. You’ll see Mabel in a different context and come to appreciate the contributions of remarkable women like Fabiola, women who made the American West home.

Adios for now,

* Home Lands : How Women Made the West by Virginia Scharff and Carolyn Brucken Los Angeles : Autry National Center of the American West, University of California Press, 2010 : 1
** Home Lands, Chapter 1 "Home on Earth: Women and Land in the Rio Arriba": 34

For more information on Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, see Tey Diana Rebolledo’s introduction to Fabiola’s book We Fed Them Cactus. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998. (Diana gave a lecture on Fabiola this past July as part of the “Home Land” exhibition programming.) Also, Fabriola’s preface to The Good Life: New Mexico Traditions and Food (included over 80 recipes and an introduction by writer Ina Sizer Cassidy). Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1986.