The Early Santo Revival in Albuquerque: Santero Luis Aragón
by Thomas J. Steele, S.J.
In his 1964 book Santos, the great scholar George Kubler suggested that traditional New Mexican santos were the world's last example of "the accumulated traditions of Christian imagery" that we know as Medieval art, and that the death of the last traditional santero therefore marked "the end of a world of religious expression that opened with the Middle Ages more than a thousand years ago."1
In my 1974 book Santos and Saints, I stated that I thought that Luis Aragón of Albuquerque, a friend of mine in his lifetime, was the last surviving traditional santero in New Mexico and therefore the whole world's last Medieval artist. I have later discovered a few merely technical reasons for awarding that particular spot in history to Juan Ysillo Maéz of San Luis, Costilla County, Colorado.2 But I continue to feel strongly that I owe a tribute of appreciation to Luis Aragón, and on the verge of the twentieth anniversary of his death, I wish to share my memories of this fine man.
Luis Aragón was born at Cherry Valley Lake, New Mexico, just below the confluence of the Mora and Sapelló rivers, on 19 August 1899, in the same birth as a twin sister, María Juana de la Cruz, who died in 1979. His parents, Juan de la Cruz Aragón and María Melitona Gonzáles de Aragón, chose as his padrinos Serapio Baca and Emma Hern de Baca, and on 10 September the parents and the two sets of padrinos took María Juana and Luis for baptism to Father Maurice Olier at Sacred Heart Church, Watrous.
By the time of the 1920 census, "Louis" had become a tipple coal worker in the mining town of Dawson in Colfax County; he and his elder brother Modesto lived with Serapio and Emma Baca, Luis's padrinos - and by a "small world" coincidence, they lived right next door to the Croatian family Starkovich, forebears of a Regis University student I taught during the fall of 1994.
In 1927, Luis married and moved to Ilfeld, a few miles west of San José del Vado in the Pecos Valley, but when his wife Felipita Chávez and their infant both died in childbed the next year, he seemed to lose his sense of direction. He got to drinking at times, became something of a loner, and never remarried; but he was a kind and humble man, and people who met him always liked him very much. During the Depression he joined the C.C.C., but for the most part he farmed and did odd jobs and seasonal work in and around the town of Pecos until he moved to Albuquerque several years after World War II. In the mid-1960s, as he got older, he moved in with his niece Louise Gonzáles, his twin sister's daughter, in Albuquerque's North Valley near Osuna Road.
Don Luis had whittled and worked with wood throughout his life, and at this time he began to spend a lot of his time carving small figures in white pine and red cedar, using the natural colors of the unstained bare wood to enhance the carved shapes. It was a plain and candid style of his own. Only occasionally would he add small stones, bits of wire, and pieces of leatherette or stiffened and tinted cloth to achieve certain effects.
Many of his figures involved animals - Saint George's, Saint Martin's, and Santiago's war-horses, the donkey that Mary rode during the Flight into Egypt, the oxen that pulled Saint Isidore's plow, the lamb in Santa Inéz del Campo's arms, the ox and ass of the Nativity scene. At times he made not santos but wonderful covered wagons and simple animal figures, and having been a farmer he knew the shapes of animals well and reproduced them very convincingly.3
He also carved such standard santero subjects as Nuestra Señora del Rosario, San Miguel Arcángel, San Francisco with birds, and San Antonio de Padua, and he pioneered such rare ones as San Francisco de Asís standing under the cross from which Christ reaches down his right arm to embrace him. Only a few of Aragón's figures are polychromed - painted in various colors. During the Depression era, the W.P.A. Artists' Project encouraged polychromed santos, but santos in the tradition of the Santa Fe revival led by Frank Applegate the artist, Mary Austin the writer, and the Spanish Colonial Arts Society were rarely gessoed or painted. Though Applegate made polychromed bultos himself, he was afraid that his amateur protegés would lack the appropriate restraint in applying their colors.4
In Luis Aragón's earlier years of carving his works were usually eight to ten inches in height, but during the period before his death, as his eyesight got worse, they grew to twelve or fourteen inches. The Jesuit Community at Regis University commissioned perhaps the largest pair of pieces he did, a crucified Christ and a Dolorosa, each figure twenty inches tall, for the Sangre de Cristo Chapel.
Don Luis sold his pieces at first through the Wood and Iron Shop in the Ambrosio Armijo complex on Old Town Plaza and later through Ray and Billy Griego's shops at Lomas and San Pasquale and on North Fourth. His prices were unusually modest for such good work, and so his figures found their way into various private collections. In addition to the several pieces at Regis, there are four pieces in the Julián García Collection at the Albuquerque Museum and five in the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe.
Luis Aragón died 18 March 1977. After a Requiem Mass on Tuesday, 21 March 1977 in Our Lady of the Nativity Church in Alameda, he was buried in Calvary Cemetery; the pallbearers were family members Margarito Córdova, Lorenzo Córdova, Benny Chávez, Modesto Borrego, Demetrio Gonzáles, and Henry García. Dr. Clyde Tomlin, M.D., a very special friend, was an honorary pallbearer.
Don Luis found peace in the santos he carved, and through them he communicated that peace to many others; may he forever rest in the peace of the Lord.
1 George Kubler, Santos (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1964), p. 8. John Kessell, in a lecture of 2 September 1982, remarked that the 1598 founding of the Spanish colony in New Mexico with an encomienda system was the last action of medieval Europe.
2 Thomas J. Steele, S.J., Santos and Saints (Albuquerque: Calvin Horn Publishers, 1974; Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1982), p. 213; in Santos and Saints (Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1994), pp. 125-28, I give some reasons for changing my mind. Pages 164 of the earlier edition and 54 of the totally rewritten edition carry illustrations of the Luis Aragón San Jorge in the Regis University Collection of New Mexican Santos, one of many San Jorges he made, which was modeled directly upon the San Jorge in Willard Hougland, Santos: A Primitive American Art (New York: Merle Armitage, 1946), p. 17. Fred Birner of Denver is my source for updated information about Maéz.
3 William Wroth, Hispanic Crafts of the Southwest (Colorado Springs: Taylor Museum, 1977), p. 97. The photo reproduced on that page shows Luis Aragón holding a copy of the 1974 edition of Santos and Saints which Dr. Clyde Tomlin, M.D., had given him; it is opened to one of the pages that illustrated his work.
4 Charles L. Briggs, The Wood Carvers of Córdova (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980), pp. 53, 203.
Jesuit Father Tom Steele is the author of Santos and Saints (now in its 3rd edition from Ancient City Press). Father Steele is the author of numerous other articles and books on the art and culture of New Mexico.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 1, No. 2, Summer 1996.
Copyright 2002. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.