Española Rides Low And Slow Toward Santa Fe

Christopher Columbus probably wouldn’t approve

I have driven about 3,000 U.S. 285 miles between Santa Fe and my new place in the upper San Luis Valley in 18 months, during which I have often meditated upon . . . Española.

Artistic community. Multicultural center. Literary scene. Intended burial place of Christopher Columbus.

The new $45 million illustrated six-lane opera-and-casino-access super highway up and down Tesuque Hill, almost done, will bring this northern New Mexico urban strip closer to Santa Fe – in driving time if not in elitist spirit. And Española’s new fast (a first for the low-rider capital) Paseo Oñate, which is U.S. 285, brings closer the artful pleasures of Abiquiu and Ojo Caliente.

It occurred to me on one of my drives that Española is an arts center because it’s the closest place Santa Fe artists can afford to live. It’s home to the Naranjo-Folwell family, favorites at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market. It’s home to many of the vendors under the portal of Santa Fe’s famous Palace of the Governors, all of whom are from elsewhere. See, Santa Fe doesn’t have any Pueblos. Espanola is bordered by two, San Juan on the north and Santa Clara on the south. Kids grow up hearing drums and bells on feast days.

The Española Valley, it occurred to me further, is still multicultural. Hispanic. Native American. Anglo. Even a little East Indian, if you consider the Sikh ashram. The milieu was beautifully chronicled in the works of a contemporary writer, the late Jim Sagel. (Has Santa Fe had its own writer since the passing of Oliver LaFarge?)

Sagel. I knew him. Quick. Brilliant. Observant. Humorous. Dark. . . The title essay in his “Dancing to Pay the Light Bill” was a profile (originally published in Journal North) of Liberato Montoya of Española, who at about 90 was still hitchhiking almost daily to Santa Fe with a dusty suitcase to hustle tourists on the plaza. In the suitcase was a made-up Indian costume. For a fee he would dance, doing a native-sounding song that Sagel discovered was “The Ol’ Grey Mare She Ain’t What She Used To Be” sung in double time. Montoya was Hispanic but he was raised as an orphan at San Juan Pueblo.

Sagel won the Premio Casa de las Americas, a Latin American equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for a book written in northern New Mexico Spanish. He loved los bilingos of the North, and many of his other works, such as Tunomás Honey, recorded their rich, hilarious conversations. He was totally Española, even if he was an Anglo from Colorado.

Santa Feans take Spanish too seriously. The clue for me when I came down from Denver in 1966 was whenever I tried my college Spanish in conversation with norteños, they immediately switched to English. Last November, while in the Dominican Republic for a wedding, I decided to continue my long English-Spanish struggle.

I practiced “Pina Colada” with great success. I practiced “café negro, por favor,” equally. I practiced, “How much is that en dolares?” My traveling partner just laughed. Spanish is no problema for her. She makes it up. Like, the road sign “No Tire Basara” means “Don’t let the bastards tire you out.”
We took a minibus to Santo Domingo, the capital city, and that’s where I discovered that Christopher Columbus wanted to be buried in Española. Trust me. It’s carved in stone! I saw it on a wall in the transept of the enormous monument called the El Faro á Colon. It says he wanted to be buried on his beloved “Isla Española.”

The word popped out as I struggled through the Spanish on the wall. Columbus wanted to be buried in Española. It must have been the tropical heat, but suddenly I imagined the great voyager and discoverer being rowed ashore from the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria and a low rider rumbling up, dropping the hydraulic shocks, rolling down the double tinted window and saying, “Yo! Welcome to the New World, bro.”

I knew the word Española is an adjective meaning Spanish, as in “the Spanish government.” But Spanish is no name for a town. It just doesn’t sound right. Shouldn’t there be a noun in there somewhere? Like, Ciudad Española? I mean, Santa Fe is not called Santa.

One aspiring etymologist speculated that the name is one of those adjectives that becomes a noun in certain uses and that this one probably means “Spanish woman.” Which didn’t sound right either. The huge island that Columbus fondly named Española, in the Caribbean between Puerto Rico and Cuba, is now called Hispaniola, probably an Anglicization of the latter-day colonialist kind.

Now, the monument with Española on the wall is called “The Columbus Light House” in English, which shows another side of the Spanish-English struggle. When the tour guide announced we were going to stop there, I expected to see something like the Scripps Howard logo bringing light to the world.

I quickly learned that the giant monument, dedicated in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of discovery of the New World, embraces the remains of Columbus and that it is called “The Columbus Lighthouse” because it has laserlike lights that project a cross into the night sky. Near the entry stairs is a pavilion sheltering a Holy Toyota, the “Popemobile” that transported Pope John Paul II to the 1992 dedication. No church-state conflict in the Dominican Republic. No government-baseball conflict either, come to think of it.

We went on to visit the house of Columbus’ son, Diego, who became governor of the island. The little stone palace built in about 1510 was restored by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1950’s. It had a familiar Spanish colonial feeling. Some of the furnishings, especially the paintings, reminded me of rooms in the Palace of the Governors. Which figures. Santa Fe was settled only 100 years later.

That was the second Spanish settlement of New Mexico, by Don Pedro de Peralta. The first, which also was the first Spanish settlement in the Southwest, was by Juan de Oñate at San Juan Pueblo. Which is near . . . Española, of course.