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  • Fray Angélico Chávez and the Colonial Southwest:Historiography and Rematerialization
  • Ellen McCracken

In the summer of 1924, townspeople recount, 14-year-old Manuel Chávez built models of colonial New Mexico mission churches in the dirt outside Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the village of Peña Blanca.1 He was staying with the Franciscan friars after expressing his desire to enter the seminary, where he would become the first native New Mexico Hispano to be ordained a Franciscan priest in the centuries since the Spanish colonization. Still a boy, but one who was about to embark on a life-changing path, the small missions he playfully constructed in the dirt and staunchly protected foretold the strategy of rematerialization that would characterize his future: he would become a pioneering Franciscan historian who organized and interpreted the vast collection of Catholic Church documents from the colonial period in New Mexico through the twentieth century. The author of two dozen books and over 600 shorter works, Fray Angélico Chávez (1910–1996) was a visual artist, literary figure, historian, genealogist, translator, and church restorer—one of New Mexico’s foremost twentieth-century intellectuals.2

While written texts are key to the reconstruction of history and the chief mode of dissemination and preservation of historical findings, Fray Angélico’s historiography crucially involved strategies for rematerializing New Mexico [End Page 529] history. As he created a robust written record of that narrative, he also embodied it materially, as a strategy of reenactment. As a twentieth-century scholar, he could not physically return to the colonial period, but he could and did engage in practices of reconstruction that increased understanding of the past and helped to preserve it for the future—he gave it a visual material presence beyond the historical narrative.

This crucial component of Fray Angélico’s historical scholarship is rooted in early childhood experiences that introduced him to Franciscanism and the history of the colonial Southwest. From May 1911 to December 1914 he lived in San Diego, where his father worked as a foreman and carpenter on the Panama California Exposition that opened there in 1915. He visited Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the California missions, built in 1769, and learned about Fray Junípero Serra. His family recounted that the precocious four-year-old would wander the streets reading the street signs. He may also have seen several of the artistic reconstructions of New Mexico history being built for the exposition: the reproductions of the 1629 Franciscan mission at Ácoma and the Taos Pueblo building, Carlos Vierra painting his large murals in the Mayan Cities cycle, scenes of Santa Fe by Vierra and Chapman, the 14 oil paintings of the missions of New Mexico by Vierra, and Gerald Cassidy’s murals in the California Building, later awarded an exposition gold medal. These material representations of New Mexico history and its key Franciscan component helped to shape Chávez’s scholarly interest in the subject and his historiographic strategy of rematerialization.

Back in New Mexico, he excelled in school, in part because of having learned English in San Diego. Now he saw other rematerializations of the colonial period that greatly affected him. Unlike the prolific contemporary historian Marc Simmons, who for decades has lived in an adobe house near Cerrillos, New Mexico, without electricity or modern heat as one mode of experiencing some of what the colonial inhabitants underwent, Chávez’s family did not have to recreate such living conditions. In later life, he remembered the extremely cold winters in Mora, New Mexico, the scarcity of food, and the difficulties of drawing water from the well and using the outhouse in winter. “Growing up like that taught me a lot about the Spanish people who had settled the land originally. They were truly a penitente people. They lived in a penitente land, and hardships were a way of life.”3

During summers spent in Santa Fe with an aunt and uncle, the young Chávez witnessed the public’s excitement at the opening of the new Museum of Fine [End Page 530] Arts in 1917, modeled in part on the church and...


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