AMID THE STARK MESAS and hidden valleys of Chimayó, a few shops serve as beacons of traditional Río Grande–style weaving. Generations of New Mexicans have handed down the art, just as award-winning weaver Irvin Trujillo did for his daughter, Emily. An eighth-generation weaver with a sparkling wit, 29-year-old Emily often chooses K-pop as her soundtrack while working at the family’s gallery, Centinela Traditional Arts. She’s effusive when talking about their chosen art form. But Emily’s zeal isn’t enough to hide that, until recently, no one younger than her was learning to weave at Centinela.
That changed thanks to Los Maestros del Norte, a nonprofit organization under the umbrella of the Chimayó Cultural Preservation Association. Emily now has two apprentices she met through the organization, which began in 1994 when a group of artists grew concerned that cultural art forms such as weaving, retablo and bulto making, tinwork, and straw appliqué were being lost.
Some artists who volunteer for the program take on apprentices to deepen the students’ mastery. Students have gone on to sell art as a side job or simply do it for their own fulfillment. Regardless of whether the program turns students into master makers, organizers and artists feel assured they’re instilling arts appreciation in a new generation.
“We don’t want to forget where we came from and why we’re here,” says Victor Archuleta, president of the Chimayó Cultural Preservation Association. “Without us consciously doing something to record, share, and educate, these rituals and cultural events will become a story that people tell about what happened here. Not what is.”
LOS MAESTROS DEL NORTE RUNS MONTHLY programs at the Chimayó Museum. The museum itself is a nod to northern New Mexico’s abundant cultural heritage. It makes up the northeast corner of the 18th-century Plaza del Cerro, the epitome of a fortified Spanish colonial plaza.
As a former home to the Ortega family of weavers, the museum has no doubt seen its share of teaching over the centuries. Los Maestros gathers here one Saturday a month for four-to-five-hour sessions. Up to 15 students, ages nine to 17, participate in the program. The classes are intentionally small so that each student can get one-on-one attention.
Depending on the month, the group might learn punched tinwork from Cleo Romero, straw appliqué from Jean Anaya Moya, wood carving from Patricio Chavez, or retablo making from Joseph López. With knowledge inherited from their Spanish ancestors, these artists carry on—and further—the distinct art forms that grew in the relative isolation of New Mexico and southern Colorado beginning in the 1600s. Their works are showcased at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art and each July during Santa Fe’s Traditional Spanish Market.
The artists see how being standard-bearers of these traditions has enriched their lives. For their mentees, an understanding of these art forms provides “a sense of identity and pride to know where they came from,” says Los Maestros Director Jolene Vigil.
The curriculum also offers cultural tutelage in remedios (the herbal prescriptions of traditional healers), acequia irrigation systems, and celebrating San Ysidro, the patron saint of farmers and laborers. In this northern New Mexico village, cultural observances and traditions can’t be untangled from artistic ones. Planting and irrigating require honoring San Ysidro, which may be done by retelling his story—wherein an angel plowed his fields while he attended Mass—in a retablo. Healing may call for a prayer, which can be performed before a punched-tin cross or a wooden one gilded with straw.
“Everything is interwoven,” Cleo Romero says. “People would treasure their gardens and animals, and they would need lantern lights to tend to them. And what would they use for lights? Tin. It’s all tied together.”
These traditions are passing away with elders. Why they’re lost depends on who you ask. Some point to drug and alcohol abuse that steals lives. Others point to fractured families and the rituals that fall between the cracks. Some cite younger folks moving away and losing touch with their roots. Others say the draw of technology makes kids more likely to pick up an Xbox controller than to punch tin. The reasons rush through the valley like water through an arroyo after a storm, washing away its customs.
LOS MAESTROS PARTICIPANT FELIX TRUJILLO, age 10, hails from a family of weavers—though he didn’t know it. His family recently discovered that there was a reason his great-aunt kept a century-old loom on her portal for years, even though she never used it. “She wove as a little girl, but she didn’t pursue it for some reason,” says Felix’s father, Adán. “I guess it skipped a couple generations.”
Felix expressed interest in weaving when he was five years old, but a local shop said he was too young to apprentice. “I wanted to do it so bad,” he says. “I thought it was so cool.” He waited until the shop’s requisite age of nine—but by then the pandemic had already hit. This year, he finally joined Los Maestros to begin weaving and explore other art forms.
He was, of course, thrilled on the long-awaited day the program covered weaving. “The second I started weaving, it was really hard, but fun,” he remembers. “It was soothing. There was a rhythm to it.” After the class, he approached his teacher, Emily, about an apprenticeship. He has been eagerly joining her at Centinela Traditional Arts every Tuesday afternoon since.
As he shows off a Chimayó-style weaving with red and black stripes, he’s quick to point out tiny flaws, or something he’d envisioned turning out differently in his placemat-size creation. He aspires to show his work at Traditional Spanish Market someday, but for now aims to make a blanket-size weaving and learn other styles beyond Chimayó and Río Grande. “To see him spreading his wings, that’s something amazing for a parent to see,” says his mother, Ashley.
“It’s created a change in him,” Adán adds. “Just how much, it’s hard to measure. I’ve noticed it’s created a sense of being grounded. With creative, meditative work, some part of you is being recharged, and it’s created that effect on him.”
Felix’s mentor, Emily, came to weaving circuitously. Although she learned the basics at age five, she sloughed off the trappings of tradition as she pursued other ambitions. But when she studied ethnology in college and saw how cultural lifeways across the world are dying out, the coursework hit close to home. “Weaving is dying because young people aren’t learning how,” she says. “There aren’t many weavers that do it professionally. I got into weaving by choice, out of respect for my family and the tradition.”
At first, she lived in the shadow of her father and mother, Lisa, who is also an accomplished weaver. Eventually, she established her own style. Her Spanish-style walking loom takes up most of her Albuquerque home. Animé-inspired stuffed animals and band pictures hang from the loom, inspiring her during her six-to-seven-hour weaving sessions. “It’s a beautiful art form,” she says. “You have these few basic moves, and you can make anything you want. You can’t compare it to anything else.”
She’s also become an avid teacher, including for Los Maestros. “I have the power to pass this on,” she says. “I would like to sit back and weave for myself, but I don’t want it to die. This is my life’s work.”
Soon her father, Irvin Trujillo, will help Felix’s family restore their old loom and put it back into service—this time, in the hands of a new generation.
Teach Your Children Well
Youth arts organizations fuel the state’s creativity.
Los Maestros del Norte focuses on the arts of Chimayó.
Northern Youth Project, an Abiquiú-based nonprofit, offers school-year and summer workshops in disciplines from photography to graffiti.
In Albuquerque, Working Classroom provides young people with professional-level new media, theater, and visual arts training. Social justice is woven into the program.
For more than 25 years, the Santa Fe–based Warehouse 21 has provided youth arts programming as well as performance space.
The Doña Ana Arts Council offers Career Art Paths, a two-week summer camp for fifth-to-eighth-graders where working artists teach students about their careers and mediums through hands-on activities.
Since 2002, the Youth Mural Program, a Grant County arts initiative, has instructed students on local history while teaching them to create public murals throughout the area.