by Keith Cunningham

The following article first appeared in the magazine Journal of the Southwest, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring 1996. It is being republished here with permission.

This article is a preliminary report of a research project conducted with the membership of the San Rafael Catholic Mission of Concho, Arizona, and funded by the Arizona Humanities Council as part of its 1993 special initiative “The Role of Religion in the History of Our State.” How the project came about is a story in itself. It all began when my wife and I received a message asking us to contact Mrs. Donald (Andera) Borg, a St. Johns High School English teacher. We arranged to meet with her, she told us an intriguing story, and she asked us a question. She explained that she lived in the new Concho Village area but attended church at the nearby San Rafael Mission in old Concho. She told us that she had found the people fascinating and that she had thoroughly enjoyed getting to know a group of people who were so different from her in culture and upbringing. She told us many stories she had heard about the people. She also told us that the people and their way of life were dying out and both would soon be gone. She glowed as she told us about one woman in particular who had obviously captured her imagination and heart – Sophia Garcia, for many years the oldest living member of the Concho Mission. Mrs. Borg said that she had been stunned and saddened when Mrs. Garcia died recently because it had made her realize how many memories and stories, how much of the sense of what it meant to be a part of the people of Concho, what an irreplaceable record of a part of the history of her church – and humankind – had been lost and buried and doomed to be forgotten. She had discussed her sense of loss with her priest, the Reverend Timothy W. Farrell. Father Tim, the name by which his parishioners address him, understood and shared her concern. They agreed that it was a tragedy that Mrs. Garcia’s treasure trove of information had not been preserved. They also agreed that they wanted to find a way by which the memories of the remaining people of Concho could be recorded and preserved.

That is where my wife and I came in. I am a folklorist at Northern Arizona University. My wife and I have been doing various kinds of folklore fieldwork in the Arizona White Mountains for 25 years and have worked on four extensive research projects in St. Johns, Arizona, through the years. Mrs. Borg explained that she was aware of the work we had done and therefore thought of us. She asked us to help plan and conduct a project to record a disappearing way of life and people.

I was touched by the fact that the people Mrs. Borg described appeared to be a regional folk culture on the verge of extinction. The opportunity to make a record of lore, lives, a sense of place, a culture that otherwise would be unknown was a challenge – and perhaps even a responsibility. Our recent research centered upon recording and analyzing regional cultures’ combinations of cultural traits, patterns, and configurations evinced through folklore, including beliefs, values, behaviors, and sense of place. (As demonstrated by Barbara Allen and Thomas J . Schlereth’s 1990 book Sense of Place: American Regional Cultures, a major direction of recent folklore research has been regionalism interpreted through people’s shared sense of place.) I knew of the people of Concho. During one of our research projects in St. Johns, we had met a woman from Concho. She had told my wife and me a little about her family and her general impressions of the people she had grown up with. She said that her ancestors had been raised speaking Spanish and were direct descendants of the Spanish who settled New Mexico rather than Mexican Americans, had moved to the Concho area about the time of the American Civil War, and for almost 130 years had constantly interacted with and been surrounded by Mormons, Native Americans, and Anglo ranchers. The information she had given us immediately suggested a series of questions that could be explored by the kind of project Mrs. Borg and Father Tim were suggesting while fulfilling their purposes. Who were these Spanish-speaking people of Concho? Were they New Mexican Hispanics who just happened to live in Arizona? How had their 130 years of being surrounded by other cultures affected them? Did they have a shared history and sense of place? How did their folklore compare and contrast with other Spanish-speaking groups of Arizona and New Mexico? Could their culture be found in their lore?

Mrs. Borg’s question was, Would we help seek funding for, and then conduct, a project to interview the people of Concho and ask them to tell us their lives?

Our answer was yes.

The project was planned, submitted, funded, and executed. We sought to discover, record, preserve, and experience the memories and narratives of men and women who, like Mrs. Garcia, had been a part of the San Rafael Catholic Mission in Concho, Arizona, for many years. Our aim was to learn whether they were a regional culture and, if so, why and how.

As the first step in the project , my wife conducted a literature survey and located and analyzed published information concerning Concho and related folk cultures. My wife discovered that the bulk of the research and books that have been conducted and written about the traditional elements of the lives of Spanish-speaking Southwesterners described Hispanics living in New Mexico or Mexican A mericans living in states other than Arizona. Professor Robb’s collection of Hispanic folk songs was almost all recorded in New Mexico, and Marta Weigle’s work concentrated upon Spanish Americans living in the isolated, rural villages of northern New Mexico.

Mark Glazer’s collections have all dealt with Mexican Americans living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Shirley Arora’s long and fruitful research centered upon Mexican Americans residing in California’s urban areas. James Griffith is one of the few researchers who has dealt with Arizonan Spanish speakers, but he concentrated upon northern Mexico and Mexican Americans living in southern Arizona. The people of Concho, the literature survey revealed, had fallen through the cracks of cultural research and were unknown to scholars and writers – possibly because they have always been a relatively small group and possibly because no previous researchers had been fortunate enough to have a priest and parish council ask them to record the group. We used our literature survey and knowledge gained from fieldwork with other Spanish-speaking groups in the Southwest to devise a folk cultural survey that asked direct questions about oral, material, and customary folklore within a reflexive, open-ended interview format designed to allow and encourage the interviewees to share their memories of times in the life of the mission. Besides gathering general demographic information about each informant, we asked him or her about memories and stories concerning baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals; other special days and events; how Concho got its name; the Santo Niño of Zuni, Don Peanut/Don Piñon; La Llorona– and any other stories they wished to tell.

We interviewed thirty-one people who were either long-term members of the Concho Mission or otherwise had close relations with it, and asked them our questions and invited them to tell us their lives, folklore, and culture. The interviewees’ stories spanned many years and many memories. We listened to the tapes and prepared a recording log to them. Using the log, we identified and transcribed relevant and representative narratives and descriptions of material culture and customary folklore. We reported on this basic research to the San Rafael congregation at Sacred Vespers the week of the Concho Fiesta and published it in this article so that these stories, memories, lives might not go unspoken, unrecorded, unexamined. Family histories and the data we gathered by our interviews agree with and support each other. The great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of Manuel Antonio Candelaria and the other Hispanos from New Mexico who settled Concho, Arizona, their relatives, and those who follow their ways – the Concho people of the Santo Niño – are a folk culture. Their shared history, their sense of identity, and their folklore distinguish them and their stories – and they narrate their lives and their sense of place. This is their story in outline.

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