The Matriarch

The Matriarch
By Sam Córdova

Trinidad Dolores Gallegos was born in Corrales, New Mexico.  She married Antonio Maria Griego, thirty years her senior, in 1891.  They settled in the Rio Puerco Valley in Casa Salazar, one of the four villages that had been occupied earlier by Spanish settlers and subsequently abandoned due to persistent Indian raids and mostly Navajo incursions.  Sometime after 1888, once the Navajos had been pacified and settled in their own reservation, the four villages, San Luis, the northernmost of the four, Cabezon,  Guadalupe (also known as Ojo Del Padre), and Casa Salazar, were occupied again by mostly descendants of the original Spanish settlers from Corrales, Bernalillo, Algodones, and Albuquerque.

Life was indeed harsh in the Rio Puerco, but the settlers lingered and endured many hardships.  They persevered, they stood their ground, and for a while they prospered with minor flourishes here and there.  They built adobe homes, dug ditches (acequias), planted crops, and raised livestock.  World War I accelerated the inevitable decline that had begun with drought, and the drying up of the Rio Puerco itself.  The reservoir that provided drinking and irrigation water ruptured, and the area’s fate was sealed.  The words of the World War I song:  How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? (After They’ve Seen Paree) came into play.  The young men left and the elders followed.  Of the four settlements, only San Luis exists today, with a population of 59.  To paraphrase a Biblical passage, of the other three settlements hardly an adobe brick is left upon another.

My grandmother, the matriarch of the Griego family was able to maintain the family’s 200-acre ranch along the Rio Puerco for only a few years after her husband’s accidental death.  She was forced to abandon the ranch, which was subsequently sold, and moved her family to Albuquerque, where we take up her legend.

My earliest clear memories of Grandma Trinidad Griego proceed from about the time that I was about nine years old and she was slightly on the short side of seventy.  She lived right down the street from my parents’ home on the western fringe of Albuquerque’s San Jose barrio. Her home occupied the second lot from the west end of the street.  It was a short street that extended some two hundred yards from Williams Street on the west to a small irrigation ditch that paralleled John Street on the east.  There were two homes, the larger adobe to the front of the property and a smaller home at the back.  The smaller home was also constructed of adobe brick and had a one-car attached garage.  Immediately behind the larger house was a roughly ten-foot-square grape arbor that sheltered the water pump--the kind that you sometimes had to prime with a small amount of water and pump ten or twelve times before water gushed out.  The grapes grew profusely, and they were a purplish color, big, juicy and very sweet. The property was quite large, or so it seemed to me.  I think it was actually two adjoining lots.  To the west of the garage that attached to the smaller house was a small corral, the residence of two goats that provided the milk for making the cheese for which grandma was quite famous.  A large open area to the west of the larger house contained a massive and very generous apricot tree.  To the front of it, right up against the unpainted low picket fence that fronted the property, there stood a very large fig tree.  It produced the fattest, juiciest, sweetest fruit on the planet.  The trees were there for the neighborhood kids to raid, and they did so with impunity because that’s the way grandma wanted it.  Particularly tempting to the raiders was the fig tree, and once the figs ripened they disappeared in a flash.

Grandma Trinidad had very long, flaming red hair with a hint of gray here and there.  She wore it swept back, tight around the temples and held together at the nape of the neck with a peineta (ornamental shell comb) or a small black ribbon.  Her hair extended down slightly below her waist.  She had a very fair complexion and only one functional eye.  The blindness in the other eye--the left one I think--was the result of a childhood mishap.  She made no attempt to hide or disguise her deformity.  The shriveled, white, lifeless eye was there for all to see, and it was never a distraction.  Indeed, it added character, and it was her mark of distinction.  I believe she must have been very proud of it.

Grandma, who was affectionately known to all as Naná was always attired in the old Spanish colonial pioneer woman tradition.  She always wore a floor-length black skirt and a white blouse tied at the waist with a very narrow leather belt.  And she almost always wore a white apron as was the custom with many older ladies of her generation.  I never saw grandma carry a purse.  But once, when I was about twelve, she reached under her skirt to retrieve a flat, white-cloth pouch that rested between her black outer skirt and a white linen under skirt.  I believe the pouch was pinned to the under garment.  Inside that pouch was a small black coin purse where she kept her money.  She carefully extracted a few coins and sent me to the neighborhood store to buy roll-your-own cigarette tobacco.  She preferred the roll-your-own cigarettes to the readily available packaged ones.  I loved to watch her roll those cigarettes, and I loved the smell of that smoke.  I couldn’t wait to be old enough to smoke.

Long before New Mexico green chile became the wide-spread commercial and gastronomic success that it is today, it was sold door-to-door by small local growers. The going rate was seventy-five cents for as much chile as could be stuffed into one of those ten-pound cans of Morrell 100% pure lard.  An old Indian gentleman came to grandma’s door one day selling chile.  When grandma asked him cuanto (how much?), the Indian said, “Setenta y cinco centavos.”  (Seventy-five cents.)  Grandma mulled that over for a bit and said, “Te doy seis reales si quieres o si no dejalo.”   (I’ll give you six bits, take it or leave it.)  The old Indian, whose arithmetic and bargaining skills were at least equal to grandma’s, considered the offer and finally, almost reluctantly, agreed to the proffered compromise.  Grandma removed three quarters from her coin purse, handed them over to the Indian and proudly took possession of her bargain purchase.

It was well known that when grandma entertained, her visitors would invariably stay for hours.  The conversation was such that guests could not easily tear themselves away.  And they were not allowed to leave until they ate.  But it wasn’t until the guests declared their intention to leave that grandma would say, “No se vayan.  Se tienen que quedar a senar.  Ya no falta mas que amasar y hacer tortillas.” (“Don’t leave.  You must stay for dinner.  All that’s required is to knead the dough and make tortillas.”)  As you ladies who know about making tortillas are keenly aware, the process is not “presto” and you’re done.  It takes a good while to mix the ingredients, knead the dough, roll out and cook the tortillas on a grill.  Therefore, if the company elected to stay for dinner, the visit would be extended for a good two hours or more.  Short visits to grandma’s house were simply not an option.

Grandma was a night person.  Her nocturnal visits to neighbors up and down the street was the stuff of legend.  She would go out after dark and pop in for coffee and a chat wherever she saw a light in a window. Her knock at a neighbor’s door could come at any time of night, and it often did.  No one was spared.  One hapless neighbor blabbed about the time he had gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, when he heard the knock at his front door.  It was grandma. On the rare occasions when she ventured out in the daytime, all street activity ceased, and everyone would greet her:  "Buenos dias Naná, como esta?"   Kids playing out in the street would shout a warning: “Don’t throw that ball, hay viene Naná! "   And she would respond with, "Gracias mis hijitos, gracias."   She walked with the aid of a cane, bent forward a few degrees, but with her head held high.  The forward stoop was a condition that worsened over the years after she fell and injured her back.  The head held high was a necessity in order to see where she was going, given that she only had one eye, not to mention that she was also a proud lady.

Old age finally caught up with grandma.  She was worn out, ill and showing signs of dementia.  Bedridden, she lived much of her remaining days in my parents’ home, where my mother, Juanita, cared for her.  My mother became ill, and the family decided to place grandma in a nursing home, where she survived for about a month. Catalina, the granddaughter Naná had raised from infancy, was at her bedside when she quietly, peacefully drew her last breath on September 29, 1955. She was eighty-five years old.

Grandma had lived a rich, fulfilling life in the things that count most in this world.  She was not an intellectual genius, she had not acquired great wealth, and she had not achieved worldwide fame.  She was just a humble, kind, unselfish lady who was loved, admired and respected for those very same basic human qualities by all who had crossed her path in this life.  She had borne thirteen children, eight of whom had survived to adulthood.  And all eight of them were there to bless and bid a final farewell to their revered mother, friend and guiding light.  She was a grand lady whose kind only comes around once in a generation.

Sam Córdova is a native of Albuquerque who was raised in the South Broadway area. Catholic-educated throughout, he attended St. Francis Xavier and St. Mary’s parochial schools. He served four years in the U.S. Air Force and graduated from the College of St Joseph on the Rio Grande in 1961.  Sam retired from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1990 and took up carving santos and painting retablos.  He displayed his work at Spanish Market from 1993 through 2003. He now makes cross and pendant necklaces, which he donates at the VA Medical center where he volunteers part of his time.