Wednesday, January 9, 2013

VISITING THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST, by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard (
published by The Freeman and, December 30, 2012 

            IN THE FALL, the weather turns and even in California, the summer-sizzle ends and cooler temperature sets in. My husband and I like to take a driving vacation during this time. Driving gives one the opportunity to see the subtle changes of the land as one goes north or east, or up the mountains or across wide plains of deserts. One is able to see and feel the land better.
              At this time of the year, places are not as crowded because children are back in school, and the changing of the season is lovely to see in forests and fields away from the city.
            This year we visited Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona, states that are part of the American Southwest, an area famous for its diversity and stunning scenery.  

In Utah, we saw the famous National parks with thousands of acres of land, kept pristine and safe from the crowds and pollution of cities. Zion, Bryce, and Arches -- each of these National Parks boasts natural rock formations that had been created over time by glaciers and rivers and earth movement, showing fantastic shapes and coloration. In Zion Canyon, you generally look up at cliffs and peaks and mountains, with names such as The Three Patriarchs, Checkerboard Mesa, and The Great White Throne. In Bryce you look down at what look like sand castles, except that the formations are made of rocks the size of mountains.  And Arches got its name from the numerous of sandstone formations shaped like arches. Despite the chill, it was a wonderful opportunity to take walks along rivers and in meadows and to see wild animals in their natural habitat. 
         In Colorado, we spent a few days in Durango, a small city with a population of only around 17,000 people. The city has a lovely historic district and an old-fashioned steam engine train (Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge train) that we took to the silver mining town of Silverton. Durango is the kind of place I like, small but with “attitude.” It has Fort Lewis College and many buildings from the 1800s during the time of the Westward expansion. The movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed just north of Durango at Baker’s Bridge. The city has built a most charming walkway along both sides of the Animas River that cuts through the city. The leaves were turning when we were there, and the cottonwood trees were blazing gold along the riverbanks. They say that cottonwood grows where there is water and cottonwood sightings were therefore welcome in the olden days of settlers traveling far.

            In Colorado we visited the Mesa Verde National Park which has hundreds of ancient Indian cliff dwellings. Ancestral Pueblo Indians who had lived for 600 years moved their pueblos to the caves and alcoves beneath the overhanging cliffs.  They thrived in this area from the late 1190s to the 1300s. A twenty-three year drought forced the ancestral people to move to other places with water, leaving behind their cliff dwellings, some of them surprisingly intact.

            From Colorado, we moved on to New Mexico which I enjoyed. New Mexico still retains a lot of the Spanish Colonial influence, and is therefore familiar to me.  I’m referring to the Catholicism that is strong in this place, and to the folkloric Spanish-Mexican artifacts around. There are, for instance, quite a number of retablos around, some of them looking very much like the antique retablos of the Philippines.
            I didn’t know this until I was there but there is a connection between New Mexico and the Philippines. From the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century, New Mexico was part of the Spanish empire as the Philippines was, accounting for the familiar Spanish Colonial culture lingering in both places.
Further, because of the Spanish influence in New Mexico and because many New Mexicans spoke Spanish, New Mexicans were sent to the Philippines during World War II. One thousand eight hundred New Mexicans went to the Philippines as members of the New Mexico National Guard 200th coastal artillery. Many of them died during the Bataan Death March. Less than half survived to return to New Mexico.
            I had another reason to want to visit Santa Fe, a personal one. In 2008, a curator of a museum in New Mexico had contacted me and he acquired an antique silver rosary, part of my Spanish Colonial collection of Rosaries. My husband and I made it a point to visit the New Mexico History Museum, which displays the rosary near the entrance of the main exhibition. It was good to see this particular silver rosary once again; it was a prized one, dating to the 1700s, and made of fine silver filigree.

            The churches in the Santa Fe and Taos areas enthralled me with their use of adobe and folkloric elements. Adobe uses sun-dried clay bricks mixed with grass and mud as mortar. Adobe architecture was evident in the Chapel of San Miguel in Santa Fe; this was built approximately 1610-1626 and is reportedly the oldest church in the United States. The church is decorated with colorful, folkloric elements giving the church an intimate and charming feeling. 
Around thirty minutes drive from Santa Fe is a small town called Chimayo, famous for its Santuario de Chimayo that is known as the “Lourdes of America.” It is said that a miraculous Crucifix was found in the area in 1810. The Crucifix was placed in the nearby church of Santa Cruz, but the next day, the Crucifix would disappear and be found in Chimayo. This went on for several times until the priest understood that the Crucifix wanted to be housed in its own church in Chimayo. The Crucifix still stands in a small church. What is unique about this church is the small room off the altar with a pit filled with “holy dirt” that is said to be miraculous. The nearby hallway is filled with crutches, wheelchairs and other evidence of divine healings. The Santuario has other prayer areas in its complex, including a chapel to the Santo NiƱo. Thousands of pilgrims crowd Chimayo during Lent. 

In Taos, we saw the San Geronimo Chapel in the centuries-old pueblo, another lovely, small adobe church. And also in Taos is the San Francisco de Asis Mision Church, called by the artist Georgia O’Keefe as “one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards.” Built between 1813 and 1815, it is made of adobe with twin bell towers and an enclosed courtyard, and was also much admired by famous photographers Ansel Adams and Paul Strand.
I found the Santuario de Chimayo and San Francisco de Asis Mission to be very spiritual places, very relaxing and conducive to prayer.

The church which was not made of adobe was the large Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, which has Romanesque features. This cathedral was built in the early 1800s on the site where an original adobe church had stood. Outside the Cathedral was a statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha who was canonized at the same time as our own Cebuano saint, Pedro Calungsod. We had fun standing in front of the statue of this Native American saint and listening to a guide talking about the canonization going on at that moment in Rome; it made me feel connected to the religious events in Rome. 
We also visited the Loretto Church in Santa Fe, although this church has been deconsecrated and it operates more as a tourist site for commercial reasons. Still, the spiral staircase inside this church is a beauty; this was reportedly built by a mysterious carpenter.
We made other stops during our driving vacation: Sedona in Arizona, which I found very commercialized now compared to what it had been a number of years ago; Las Vegas, where we did a bit of gambling and saw the Beatles Love performance by the Cirque du Soleil. But the highlight of my trip was Santa Fe and Taos in New Mexico, the sights and feelings of which will linger with me for the rest of my life.
Pictures: From top to bottom: Bryce, Arches, Narrow Gauge Train, Animas River, Mesa Verde (2 pics), antique silver rosary, Cecilia in Taos Pueblo, Chimayo, Lauren in front of San Miguel, San Geronimo, San Francisco, Cathedral of St.Francis Assisi, Loretto.
 tags: travel, Southwest, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Churches, Chimayo

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