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New Mexico's Saint-makers

By Marion Amberg

The Spanish tradition of saint-making dates back centuries. But the craft is still alive and thriving in New Mexico, thanks to these modern-day santeros, or saint-makers.


Roberto Gonzales: A Promesa Fulfilled
In God's Hands
The Great Commission
A Sacred Tribute
Guadalupita Ortiz: Our Lady and ‘Pita'
A Life-size Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe
The Novena
Roses for a Queen
The Next Generation of Santeros
For Goodness Saints!

New Mexico's Saint-makers

Photo by
Norman Johnson

If there's a heaven on earth, it must be in New Mexico. Not a day passes here that a new saint isn't made. Oh, these saints aren't being canonized (they've already earned their halos). Rather, they're being sanded, painted, chiseled, punched and polished to perfection. But then, spiritual beauty is in the eye of the santeros—the saint-makers.

A Spanish tradition, saint-making dates to the 1700s. Lacking statues and crucifixes in the outback missions, as one legend has it, Franciscan friars taught peasants to carve santos and Cristos. The holy art soon adorned homes as well. In isolated villages where a padre's visit was rare, the santos inspired the people's faith.

Three centuries later, saint-making remains a revered craft, perpetuated by descendants of the original santeros and "santeros-come-lately." The religious folk art, sought by collectors and the ordinary, hangs everywhere from the Vatican to rustic adobes to convents and friaries. Here you will discover how five santeros, or saint-makers, came to develop their craft.

Roberto Gonzales: A Promesa Fulfilled

Becoming a saint-maker isn't necessarily a fast track to sainthood. Like the great saints they paint and carve, many santeros endure trials beyond belief, their faith tried and tested.

For Roberto Gonzales of Albuquerque, a trial means one thing: "Reach out and touch the Great Someone." When blood clots threatened his life nearly 30 years ago, Roberto and his wife, Dora, made a promesa. They vowed to do something for God's glory if Roberto lived. God heard their prayer, and years later the couple's vow came to pass: They built a reredo.

A reredo, or altar screen, is a hand-carved frame inset with retablos, images of saints painted on flat wood. A reredo often serves as a backdrop against which Mass is celebrated in Spanish churches.

Born with a creative bent, Roberto, 51, was about nine years old when he painted his first retablo. Ironically, while the artist is esteemed today for his large, expressive retablos, young Roberto knew little of his ancestral or spiritual heritage.

"I didn't even know what a retablo was," laughs Roberto, who traces his family roots 14 generations to Spain, including a ship's captain who sailed to the New World. Young Roberto also created little santo necklaces, made from two-inch blocks of wood.

Roberto would whittle a saint, drill a hole in the top and string it with leather. It was a lucrative business for the lad, who charged $4 for his creations.

"The [school] principal finally told me to stop because the kids weren't eating lunch," he reminisces. "They were saving their money to buy my little sculptures."

Years passed, and Roberto began studying geology at the local university. While he loved his major, Roberto felt uneasy. "You're there but feel you shouldn't be," he explains of the inner turmoil. One night the veil was lifted in a prophetic dream. "Become an artist," a voice said.

In God's Hands

Early one morning in November 1973 while driving to the university in his Volkswagen Bug, Roberto met destiny. A driver speeding 60 miles per hour hit Roberto nearly head-on. The last thing Roberto remembered seeing was a statue of Our Lady of Grace on his dashboard.

And perhaps it was grace that spared his life. Roberto went through the windshield, broke his right leg in multiple places and suffered deep gashes that required over 200 stitches. While in the hospital, his heart stopped three times.

"They said I'd never walk again," says the Albuquerque native. However, there was an even bigger problem: blood clots in his kidneys and lungs. In fact, the situation was so grave that Roberto's life insurance company cut him a check.

"What's this for?" the 22-year-old asked incredulously.

"We thought we'd pay you early because we know your circumstances."

"We didn't know our circumtances!" exclaims Roberto. "The doctors told them I had just a short time to live."

With heaven as their only answer, Roberto and Dora, who was pregnant with their first child, prayed their solemn promesa. Dora also made a pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó, the historic chapel known for its miraculous answers to prayer, and prayed for her husband's life. Before she left, she placed her wedding ring on the altar as a symbol of her trust in God.

"Whether Roberto lived or died, I placed him in God's hands," says Dora, who manages de Colores, the family's gift shop in Old Town Albuquerque.

Roberto survived the blood clots and after much physical therapy relearned to walk. Life began to settle down in a familiar pattern; two more sons joined the family.

The Great Commission

Then in 1999, almost three decades after the accident, God unexpectedly answered the promesa. Roberto, now a full-time santero and furniture-maker, received his "great commission": Go into West Texas and erect an altar screen for St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church at Kress.

At the same time, like St. Francis, Roberto began experiencing a stigmata-like sensation—small red marks appeared where wounds pierced Christ's hands. "It felt like nails were poking out of my hands for months," he says somberly, rubbing his palms together.

The tiny Hispanic mission was building a new church. Plain on the outside, the church was intended to have  a New Mexico-styled, folk art interior. As a divine bonus perhaps, Roberto was awarded the contract for the church doors, bancos (pews), altar, sanctuary chairs, retablos and bultos (hand-carved statues).

Crafted of ponderosa pine, the 12-1/2'x15' altar screen radiates faith, the bright yellow-gold background beckoning souls to come up hither. Like miniature sermons, the seven painted panels tell of the mission's spiritual heritage.

Summing up the gospel, the Holy Trinity is aptly positioned in the center. Reminiscent of the Texas Panhandle, a blue jay alights on the painting of St. Francis. Most intriguing of all is the retablo of Joseph teaching Jesus carpentry. The altar they're building is identical to the altar in the church, a message not lost on the tiny mission.

"It's like glorious streams of heaven from above," reflects one pilgrim. Tourists from around Texas and New Mexico come to see the award-winning altar screen, which took nearly a year to complete. Many comment how their heavy burdens suddenly become light as angel feathers.

However, only astute eyes and hearts will grasp Roberto's trademark: a bright red flower that adorns much of his sacred art. The four heart-shaped petals signify the four Gospels; the yellow center is symbolic of the Eucharist. The vine is Christ and the branches, his people.

A Sacred Tribute

Another of Roberto's vibrant works of art pays homage to the victims of September 11, 2001.

A collaborative effort of Roberto and Ralph Sena, a metal artist from Bosque, the crimson-red altar screen is a balm to wounded hearts. Shod in tiny combat boots, a bulto of San Miguel the Archangel wields a silver sword. The retablo of San Antonio, patron of the lost, is inscribed, "For all those who were lost in the tower."

While the altar screen stopped on-lookers during Spanish Market in Santa Fe (see page 34) last summer, one woman genuflected before Ralph's ciborium and monstrance. The monstrance stands in front of Roberto's painting of St. Francis, the saint's eye peering through the opening for the host.

Giving thanks to the Great Artist, Roberto views his talents as a ministry. "I'm not very good at talking to people about God, but I think I can show him in my art," says the santero, who mentors younger artists in the craft. "The more art created, the more faith that gets spread."

Guadalupita Ortiz: Our Lady and ‘Pita'

There are thousands of saints, but only a few dozen reign in New Mexico. Many indigenous saints are Franciscans, but there is one "convert." One early santero painted St. Peregrine, patron of cancer, in blue robes (the color worn by early friars in New Mexico) and not in the black habit of his order, the Servites.

As popularity goes, no modern-day santero errs in creating a San Francisco de Asís or a San Antonio de Padua. San Pasqual, patron of the kitchen, is the darling of women. And Santa Rita, patron of marriage, and Santa Barbara, patron against lightning (New Mexico ranks high in lightning strikes), top the female saints.

But for Guadalupita Ortiz of Albuquerque, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is most venerated of all. But then, Guadalupita, or Pita for short, has a unique relationship with the Virgin. Pita was born at St. Vincent's Hospital in Santa Fe on December 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

"My full name is Guadalupita María Francisca—María after my paternal grandmother and Francisca after my maternal grandmother," she says.  Whether providential or serendipitous, all three names are frequent themes of her devotional art which, unlike that of many santeros, has a more European, genteel feeling.

"I suppose there are some parallels between my name and my art," acknowledges Pita, whose Spanish ancestors include Santiago Roybal, the first native New Mexican to be ordained as a priest. "But I would never want people to think I'm a saint!"

A Life-size Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Surely the saints were smiling when, in late December 2000, Pita received her largest commission ever. St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, an Anglo-Hispanic congregation, asked Pita to paint a life-size portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego, a poor Mexican Indian.

The Virgin's miraculous, photo-like image in Juan Diego's tilma, or cape, has converted thousands to Catholicism and inspired a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe that remains immensely popular today.

Painted on Belgian linen, the framed masterpiece is seven feet tall and five feet wide. Even more impressive than its size is Our Lady's continuing effect on the congregation. "The painting evokes a great sense of calm in people," says parishioner Susan Dunn. "It resonates peace."

The Novena

A cradle Catholic, Pita begins each day by writing a prayer to God. "Sometimes it's one page and sometimes it's three pages on both sides," says Pita, a mother and grandmother. "It can take up to an hour, but it helps me to stay focused."

While Pita had painted dozens of retablos of Our Lady over her 23-year career, the Chapel Hill commission was special. The soft-spoken artist asked the parish to join her in a novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe, praying for their own intentions but also that God would guide her hands in the creation of this artwork.

"I found out later 350 people were praying the novena," says Pita, still awed at the outpouring of prayer.

A self-taught artist, Pita didn't aspire to become a saint-maker. She was a young mother when she discovered the craft while working at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. She is known as the "gentle santera" because her retablos emanate holiness and piety.

"I am so thankful to God for the talents he has given me," the award-winning saint-maker says, "and for the opportunities to use those talents."

Now Pita was about to begin her most important commission yet. Into her oil paints she mixed holy oil from Bethlehem, and while she worked, she listened to a CD of the Holy Rosary by Irish singer Dana and her brother, Father Kevin Scallon.

Slowly, Our Lady began to appear. "The entire painting has three coats of paint," says Pita, "but when I did the first coat of paint on her face, I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit." Late at night Pita often felt drawn to her studio, not to analyze or critique her work, but to contemplate Our Lady.

Based on Pita's meticulous research of the original tilma, the Virgin is portrayed with olive skin and downcast eyes. She is dressed in the traditional blue mantle with 46 stars, the mantle's edging adorned in 23-karat gold leaf. The dress, with a fleur de lis pattern, was especially time-consuming.

"It had to look as though someone had bought fabric at the store and gathered it at the waist," says Pita.

Roses for a Queen

Inspired by her own devotion to the rosary, Pita painted three groups of five red roses around Our Lady to represent the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries. But these life-size roses had to be good enough for a queen. For weeks Pita prayed for guidance.

Finally, the "day of the roses" came. Pita mixed her oils and painted the first three flowers. When she stood back, chills covered her body. Pita called her husband, Tony, at work. "Remember how I prayed the roses would look fresh and real?" she asked. "They look pretty, fresh and real!"

When the painting was unveiled in Chapel Hill on the feast day of Juan Diego, a sacred hush enveloped the crowd. "People fell to their knees and began praying," says parishioner Susan Dunn. "It was a spiritually intense moment."

Guadalupita watched, her heart welling with joy. As in the days of Juan Diego, Our Lady—her Lady—was pointing the way to eternal hope and salvation.

The Next Generation of Santeros

Pass the paints and chisel. Saint-making isn't about to die anytime soon with young artists like Felicia Rodriguez, 16, of Santa Fe exploding on the scene. Felicia's retablos, particularly those of Our Lady of Light, exude serenity and innocence.

But getting into the "saint's skin" isn't always pleasant, as Felicia discovered while painting St. Librada, a Portuguese heroine who was crucified when she refused to marry according to her father's wishes. "I was thinking how I would feel marrying someone I didn't want," says Felicia, her expressive brown eyes revealing her tender nature.

Further north in Taos, Jacob and Jason Salazar are chiseling out their religious heritage. Like their grandfather Leo, the identical twins, age 20, are becoming known for their carvings of Moses. However, it was the Río Grande River Gorge—not the Red Sea—that inspired this family heirloom saint.

"Our grandfather would sit on the bridge and meditate," says Jason. "Somehow the gorge reminded him of the Red Sea and he began carving Moses."

The twins, who began whittling at age 10, work in cedar and often collaborate, each lending his distinctive style. Admired for his facial detail and beards (count the whiskers!), Jason is the "scrapper." He takes a scrap piece of wood and turns it into something beautiful.

Jacob opens up the wood, letting the knots and knobs help tell the story. "I'm the holey woodcarver," he laughs. "I go with the flow."

And so it goes, generation after generation. The saints' lives rub off on the santeros; the santeros carve and paint their saints to perfection. There's nothing like it anywhere—this bit of heaven on earth.        



For Goodness Saints!

When the saints go marching in, the public comes out. New Mexico has dozens of art shows but none rival the famed Spanish Market, held the last weekend in July on Santa Fe's historic Plaza. (A Winter Market is held the first weekend in December.) Over 300 artists display their saints—Agnes to Ysidro. For the hopelessly undecided, there's always St. Jude.

On Sunday morning, a mariachi Mass at the nearby Cathedral of St. Francis lifts spirits even higher. If only for a weekend, it seems the saints really are among us.

For more information on Spanish Market, contact the Spanish Colonial Arts Society at (505) 982-2226 or visit the Web site at www.


Marion Amberg is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. She's planning a return visit to the "Land of the Saints," if only to adjust her halo!

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