THE REVEREND LARRY BRITO sprinkles holy water on the fields at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, the echoes of traditional hymns sung earlier by the Caballeros de Vargas still reverberating in the air on this early June morning. Fluff from cottonwood trees drifts overhead.
Soon, the group with him will continue the processional and carry a bulto of San Ysidro, the patron saint of Catholic farmers and of Las Golondrinas, to the Oratorio de San Ysidro, or Saint Isidore Chapel, where the carved figure will stay until the fall harvest.
“He basically spends the season up there, sort of at the high point of the ranch, overlooking everything,” Director of Education and Volunteer Services Laura Gonzales says. “The idea is that he’s blessing the land and our guests and our volunteers. And then during harvest festival, we do the opposite. We’ll take him from his spot at the chapel on the hill. And we’ll process him back into the main chapel, where he’ll then spend the winter.”
The ceremony, part of the Spring & Fiber Festival held in early June, embodies the essence of the living history museum’s mission to “preserve the legacy of the land and Hispano traditions.” The organization makes New Mexico’s past present and vivid for its visitors, an undertaking that resonates in 2022 as the ranch celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The ceremony and relationship with the Caballeros, Gonzales notes, traces back to Leonora Curtin and Yrjö Alfred (Y.A.) Paloheimo, who opened the museum in the spring of 1972. Curtin—also known for founding Santa Fe’s Native Market, featuring local crafts—purchased the ranch with her mother in 1932.
The Paloheimos, Gonzales says, established the San Ysidro procession because they “wanted something very traditional that spoke to the culture and the strong Catholic influences of New Mexico culture and history.”
The ceremony is “something we’re quite proud of,” she adds. “We always tell our guests, ‘You don’t have to be Catholic to participate. But we certainly welcome you to participate just for the experience—it’s a living history museum—to put yourself in the ceremony to see how this would have been done for generations.’ ”
IMMERSING VISITORS to El Rancho de las Golondrinas (the Ranch of the Swallows) in New Mexico’s past occurs in every corner of its 200 rolling acres. It’s a history inextricably linked to the ranch itself and the surrounding La Ciénega community, named for its marshlands (ciénegas) and inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo people for thousands of years. When Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas returned in the early 1690s, following the Pueblo Revolt, he re-established a Spanish settlement in the Ciénega Valley, which became an official rest stop, or paraje, for travelers, due to its key location on the Camino Real.
The labor transpiring on the ranch back then was immense: growing and harvesting crops; forging tools; obtaining wool from sheep and weaving that wool into clothes; making adobe bricks and using them, along with wood acquired from the forests, to build homes.
Today, visitors can step into rooms curated to illustrate how families lived, along with indoor and outdoor workspaces where weaving, threshing, blacksmithing, and other types of labor are demonstrated.
As Las Golondrinas’s curator of collections, part of Amanda Mather’s job is to “go to each room and make sure that everything in it is appropriate: historically appropriate, temporally appropriate, culturally appropriate,” she says on a tour of a recently finished toolshed that showcases some of the ranch’s Spanish colonial ironworks. A trained archaeologist, Mather also oversees the exhibit hall, which includes displays from the nearby LA 20,000 excavation. Director Daniel Goodman describes it as “the most complete Spanish ranch site ever discovered in New Mexico,” dating to the 1630s.
That excavation yielded more than 10,000 pottery fragments and other artifacts further revealing the various land uses by Pueblo, Spanish, and Anglo-Americans in the area.
Volunteers at the ranch bring that history to life. During the ranch’s opening festival for its 50th anniversary season, some dressed as soldiers and described in detail their weaponry. At the dye shed, weavers explained how they use native plants to color their wool in vivid yellows, reds, and oranges. Children petted the ranch’s goats, Philippa and Lilith, one of whom made an escape before rope maker Doug Lonngren, 2012 Volunteer of the Year, supplied an impromptu tether to apprehended it.
The ranch also played an important role on the Santa Fe trade route, circa 1821, but the property fell into disuse over time, until its resurrection as a living history museum. Several Hispanic family names also have strong connections to the ranch and the valley, including Baca, Terrus, Sandovál, Delgado, and Pino.
Walking the property, Goodman points out the Pino house, the last property built on the ranch, around 1916. The house has been listed by the Historic Santa Fe Foundation as providing “great material insight to the confluence of Hispano and Anglo building practices.”
After joining the museum a decade ago as its curator, Goodman became its director in 2017, embarking on a path of strategic planning that has helped the organization innovate and expand while maintaining its core mission. For instance, the ranch recently began growing hops and collaborated on a craft brew with Beer Creek Brewing Co. It also resumed management of the Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve, part of the Las Golondrinas property, after several decades of leasing it to the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. Museum management is currently creating educational materials and conducting repairs on the nature preserve while offering private tours.
Goodman and staff also set a goal to raise the museum’s profile. “This museum has a history of being very humble,” he says, “very quiet. They don’t toot their own horn. I was like, ‘We have to change that a little bit. But not in a brash way.’ ” The colonial era, after all, calls for a courtly demeanor.
EVERYTHING CHANGED during the pandemic. “We knew people couldn’t come out here,” Goodman says. So the staff devised a plan to “bring the museum to them.” They added more online educational content and began hosting web events. Behind the scenes, Las Golondrinas increased its contributions to the Food Depot and worked with the YouthWorks culinary team to set up a food pickup in the parking lot. Gonzales made hands-on history kits to give to any children in the cars that came for food. Las Golondrinas even began to clean up Los Pinos Road and has continued since.
“We just knew that we’re nonprofit, we have an obligation to serve our community in some way,” Goodman says. “Let’s find a way to do it. Let’s leverage the talent and the resources we have and just kind of flip what we’ve been doing.”
This summer, Las Golondrinas rebounded. Five days a week, visitors—50,000 in a good year, Goodman says, and 20,000 of those school-age children—spend hours exploring the site and learning about the people who once lived here, and the land they made home. The labor by staff and volunteers to make the experience meaningful is apparent. And it’s a labor of love, Goodman says.
“We’re all here to have fun,” he says. “But we’re also here to do something that’s important.” The mandate to preserve history and culture helps New Mexicans see their place in the state and in the larger story of America. Las Golondrinas, he says, elevates “this history, because it’s underrepresented on a national scale. We really feel like we’re fighting the good fight.”
Step Into History
El Rancho de las Golondrinas, on the southwestern edge of Santa Fe, is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., from June 1 through October 28. Up to 25 people can embark on the first-come, first-served guided tour at 10:30 a.m., free with admission. (New Mexicans get free admission on Wednesdays through October 3, except during special events.) Other tours can be arranged by request. 334 Los Pinos Road; 505-471-2261.
To commemorate its 50th anniversary this year, Las Golondrinas is hosting numerous events, including 20 themed weekends that spotlight weaving, blacksmithing, milling, baking, historic foodways, and more. Among the upcoming events:
Santa Fe Beer & Food Festival, August 6–7
Santa Fe Fiesta de los Niños, September 3–4
Santa Fe Renaissance Faire, September 17–18
Santa Fe Harvest Festival, October 1–2
50th Anniversary Fiesta Matanza, October 8
Spirits of New Mexico, October 22