THIS MONTH, NEW MEXICO’S FAITHFUL will observe the Christmas season with cherished traditions. That’s especially true in Bernalillo, a small town north of Albuquerque that has resisted the urban advancement charging up to its edges. A twinkle-light parade and nine days of the traditional Las Posadas events mark holiday observances here. Catholic residents will recite prayers in the 1857 Santuario de San Lorenzo, which dates back to the era of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy. This isn’t a December-only kind of thing, though. In Bernalillo, the devoted who make la promesa have honored their faith, history, and sense of community every day for nearly 330 years.
Motorists zooming past on I-25 or pouring down US 550 from Rio Rancho may not suspect, much less experience, the depth of that devotion. But if you veer off those thoroughfares, Bernalillo unveils its laid-back identity—one that celebrates the past while laying out a post-pandemic welcome mat. A new museum recently joined the town’s list of reasons to visit. There’s also an Ancestral Pueblo historic site, old adobe buildings, and a classic dive bar with Prohibition roots. And, yes, the flagship outpost of the Range Café continues to pack in crowds with some of the best diner food (and art!) in the state.
“I encourage people to venture outside their normal routines,” says Mike Kloeppel, Bernalillo’s economic and community development director. “Especially for the holiday season, you should try to experience something different. Bernalillo is still a small town, where people know your first name and shake your hand. We do Christmas the old-fashioned way.”
No matter the season, an estampa (a stamped metal plate encased in wood and glass) that depicts San Lorenzo, the town’s patron saint, is cared for in the home of that year’s mayordomo (a community and fiesta leader). The estampa is so venerated that a member of the mayordomo’s household must be present 24/7 to keep it company and welcome parish members who might come to the house for prayer. The family displays the saint—along with two other depictions, called the Santo Viejo and the Santo Bulto—outside their home prior to each Fiesta de San Lorenzo so the faithful may pray. At the completion of the August 9–11 event, Los Matachines ceremonial dancers lead a procession carrying the estampa to the santuario and its newer parish church, Our Lady of Sorrows. Ultimately, the group takes it to the home of the next mayordomo, where it will spend the following year.
The gratitude to San Lorenzo goes back to the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Historians believe that residents in Santa Ana and Sandia pueblos—sovereign nations whose lands still border the town—tipped off their Spanish neighbors that the revolt would begin on San Lorenzo’s feast day (August 10). Thanks to this warning, the settlers escaped safely to El Paso. When they returned 13 years later to the stretch of mesa east of the Río Grande and in the shadow of the Sandía Mountains, the settlers vowed to celebrate San Lorenzo each year with the dance of Los Matachines. A dance that occurs in Hispanic and Pueblo communities throughout the state at different times of the year, the rite is a blend of folk religious customs.
“We’re proud of it,” says Joseph Moreno, a New Mexico Highlands University leader who studies the dance and has participated in Bernalillo’s for 22 years. “It’s part of our identity as a community. It’s who I am. We comport ourselves in a way that recognizes that commitment throughout the year. When people need help, Los Matachines assist one another. We maintain a sense of kinship through the dance and family ties.”
MANY SPANISH FAMILIES’ ROOTS GO BACK TO Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. His name graces welcome signs, which read “City of Coronado,” and is echoed in the monikers of a nearby historic site and a campground. During a 1540 expedition, Coronado and his army spent a winter among the region’s pueblos. It took until 2018 for archaeologists to find evidence that he ever set foot on the land that now bears his name, Coronado Historic Site, which includes land that was once Kuaua Pueblo. Today, the site explores Indigenous life; highlights include a clamber into the heart of a kiva with intriguingly painted walls.
Other history can be explored at the Bernalillo Community Museum, which opened in 2019 and broke the traditional museum mold by inviting local people to tell their own stories. Visitors can view the black-fringed cupiles (headdresses that honor religious figures such as saints) of Los Matachines in glass cases and build one of their own to venerate whatever they wish, whether that’s Elton John or a puppy eating birthday cake. “It’s not unidirectional information,” says museum director Emily Stovel. “It’s meant to spark conversation.”
The pandemic shutdown inspired a spate of creative outreach for the museum. It connected with visitors via films by local high school students on its YouTube channel, crowd-sourced photo displays, and prepared activity books, along with other hands-on lessons, like building their own versions of museums with cast-off cardboard boxes. “These are stories that the community wanted to tell,” Stovel says. “There’s an unfortunate tradition of other people telling stories and getting it wrong.”
This spring, the museum will launch a slate of tours it developed with backing from the Turner Foundation, including trips to the historic Elena Gallegos House, Amfabsteel, and Bernalillo’s two breweries: Bosque Brewing Co. and Kaktus Brewing Co.
In 2013, Kaktus opened with a similarly hyperlocal goal. “Our inspiration was to bring our community together,” says co-owner Dana Koller, who partnered with head brewer Mark Matheson. “Every bar wants to say they’re a family bar. Kaktus Brewery is truly the home away from home for many people.”
Patrons even banded together to build a stage, where there’s now live music every day. “We bought the hardware and the materials, and they came together because they wanted to see something happen,” she says. “They wanted this in the community.”
The brewery, which emphasizes organic ingredients, gives back in other ways, too. Solar energy from panels out front powers two-thirds of the brewery’s activities. Kaktus also recycles spent grain into livestock feed, and it’s implementing a composting system, using a biomass tank to break down over-poured and waste beer as well as food. “We’re big proponents of social enterprise,” Koller says. “We’re community-driven, not just profit-driven.”
The best spot to see local life in action day after day is the sprawling Range Café. Matt DiGregory founded the beloved comfort-food restaurant in 1992. While working at the Prairie Star restaurant, just up US 550 at Santa Ana Pueblo, he nurtured an idea of opening his own place. “Placitas was really growing,” he says. “Rio Rancho was starting to come about. I thought Bernalillo was ripe for another restaurant.”
His daydream became reality one day when he stopped to get gas, saw a sign for a vacant space, and rented it with a handshake. “I had no idea how I would finance it, but I knew that in a month’s time I was going to have a restaurant,” he says. Although he aimed to serve anything but New Mexican food—Bernalillo was already smothered in it—the huevos rancheros are the restaurant’s top seller, followed by meat loaf and chicken-fried steak.
“When we started, people thought we were a couple of gringo outsiders,” DiGregory says of himself and his business partner, Tom Fenton. “It took a few years before we were accepted. People were surprised to find I’d been visiting here since the 1970s. I hung out at a soda fountain that was where the Range is now. I love the town. It’s always been a little bit of a Mayberry. It’s always had its characters.”
HISTORY SITS COMFORTABLY next to the Range at Rose’s Pottery House (ask for a tour of the back room, a quasi-museum of Native pottery) and at Silva’s Saloon, a local landmark since Felix Silva Sr. opened it in 1933. The purveyor was pouring even before he had a brick-and-mortar bar. During Prohibition, he distilled apricot brandy and other spirits, then bootlegged them all the way to Oklahoma. He escaped the feds with a fast car, a lead foot, and a hidden liquor compartment beneath the car’s floorboards. His rusted still from that era stands in one corner of the bar today.
Fans of so-called dive bars adore it, but Silva’s is also a museum of sorts. Over the decades, patrons have added their pictures to the walls and hung cowboy hats and Budweiser ball caps above the bar. Some make family pilgrimages to point out their grandfathers in the pictures. Felix Silva Jr., who is six months older than the bar and grew up in it, took over from his dad in the 1960s. His daughter Denise retired from teaching and joined her father in 2004. She didn’t know anything about the bar business but held faith she could learn.
“I’m the only Silva woman that’s ever worked the bar,” she says. “When I’m in there alone, I ask my grandpa to come tell me if I’m doing it okay or if I’m doing it wrong. He’d probably be rolling in his grave because a Silva woman is in charge. I’m proud of it. If the walls could talk, the stories that would come out of it would be fantastic.”
HIT THE STREETS
Find history. Try the hands-on activities at the Bernalillo Community Museum and ask for its local landmark tour schedule. The Sandoval County Historical Society holds impressive photo archives and hosts talks on local history. Grab a copy of Martha Liebert’s Bernalillo: Between the River and a Hard Place while you’re there. See the partially rebuilt dwellings of Kuaua Pueblo, including a square kiva with restored murals and, in the museum, 13 panels of original murals thought to be fine examples of pre-Columbian art at Coronado Historic Site, which often hosts a fun holiday-themed art fair. Built in 1874, El Zócalo was formerly a convent, but today serves as an event center for weddings and other parties. Staff will open it for tours by appointment. Plan ahead for Las Fiestas de San Lorenzo, August 9–11.
Get festive. Watch the tree lighting in front of Town Hall on December 2 and the Christmas Light Parade on Camino del Pueblo on December 3. You can even enter the parade, which starts at 6:30 p.m. and culminates at Rotary Park with free hot cider, biscochitos, and a bonfire. Join a traditional Las Posadas (a retelling of the Christmas story) from December 15 to 23, around 6:30 p.m. nightly. Families within the parish host the performances, which tend to include a donkey, a homily, songs, prayers, and a reception with posole, tamales, and biscochitos. It’s usually conducted in Spanish. Contact Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church for information on each night’s location.
Eat and drink. Visit the original Range Café and view its autographed plate collection, with signatures from the likes of Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. Come hungry for Abuelita’s New Mexican Kitchen’s “tacopilla,” a plate-size sopaipilla that’s folded like a taco, with all the toppings. Does Ruby’s Tortilleria have the best flautas you’ll ever eat? You’ll have to come here to find out. Kaktus Brewing Co. serves great beer, but also whips up house-made nachos and a pizza with topping that include elk and duck. Bosque Brewing Co.’s mother-ship taproom offers superior suds plus Río Grande and Sandía Mountain views. Plan extra time to view Silva’s Saloon’s time-capsule walls while you sip. The bar is open Wednesday to Friday, 3–7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1–7 p.m.
Shop. For more than 26 years, Camino Real Antiques has been a go-to for Western and Native American items, from boots to pottery, as well as vintage furniture. While you wait for a table at the Range Café, peruse its gift shop with local art, textiles, wine, and salsa, all perfect for holiday gift-giving. The gift shop opens onto Rose’s Pottery House, which specializes in authentic Native jewelry and pottery.
Stay. Conveniently next to Kaktus Brewery, the Albuquerque North/Bernalillo KOA Journey Campground has travelers from around the globe coming for the pull-through spots, cabins, and tent sites. Catch epic mountain views from Coronado Campground, adjacent to Coronado Historic Site. Ready for a splurge? The Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa is just a few minutes away, on Santa Ana Pueblo. Bring your golf clubs.