First of Their Kind – The year-long celebration of the Remarkable Women of Taos and Northern New Mexico honors the area’s outstanding historic and contemporary women and focuses in part on their passions and accomplishments. Out of hundreds of remarkable women, this representative selection profiles Mabel Dodge Luhan, Millicent Rogers, Cleofas Jaramillo and Virginia T. Romero, four first-of-their-kind trendsetters who made lasting contributions to the community. (Visit www.taos.org for more remarkable women.)
Determined to put Taos on the map, Mabel Dodge (1879-1962) arrived in December 1917 on a two-week vacation that lasted the rest of her life. By that time she had presided over one of the most famous salons in American history at 23 Fifth Avenue. From 1913 to 1916 she hosted pre-World War I “movers and shakers” who supported avant-garde ideas in the arts, politics and society. Revolutionary at the time, salon topics ranged from the ideas of Freud to the virtues of free love to anarchistic and socialist views of working-class struggles. Through Alfred Stieglitz, Mabel met American modernist painters and photographers he represented, including John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe. Mabel helped fund and support the then shocking 1913 Armory Show that introduced the new modern art to American audiences.
In New Mexico Mabel’s world “broke in two” and in Taos, a place free from social conventions and expectations, she reinvented herself. She once wrote that rebirth didn’t happen in “one convulsive flash,” but was “a slow, dark passage in time accomplished with blood and sweat.” By living an authentic life, Mabel also set an example for Georgia O’Keeffe and other women visitors. In the lifeways of the community-oriented Taos Pueblo people, Mabel saw possibilities for a utopia that would counterbalance the social malaise caused by industrialization.
After Mabel established her residence, she invited guests to help interpret her vision. The artists, writers and intellectuals who visited–among them painters John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe, photographer Ansel Adams, composer Leopold Stokowski, dancer Martha Graham–appreciated the creative space she provided which, along with the northern New Mexico landscape, inspired new work. In fact, D.H. Lawrence deemed New Mexico “the greatest experience from the outside world.” Known for her generous hospitality, Mabel’s meddling often infuriated her guests. Some took revenge: writers Witter Bynner and Carl Van Vechten satirized Mabel, and D. H. Lawrence and Myron Brinig bumped her off in some of their literary works.
Although remembered primarily as a salon hostess and art patroness, Mabel was a staunch advocate of native rights. One of her visitors, John Collier, Sr. (who later became the nation’s first Indian Commissioner) helped Mabel, her husband Tony Lujan from Taos Pueblo, and a host of New Mexican writers and artists defeat legislation that would have stripped Pueblo people of their lands.
Mabel’s home and the books she wrote left a lasting legacy. She published four volumes of memoir (1933-1937); Lorenzo in Taos (1932); a book about D.H. Lawrence; Winter in Taos (1935), considered her finest literary work; and Taos and Its Artists (1947), the first treatise ever written on the subject. Mabel’s life and writing still inspires scholars, writers and media from the U.S. and abroad. This year marks two new books published on her: In Mabel’s Mirror (in Italian, about her years in Florence, 1905-1912) by Italian poet and author Marco Tornar, and The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan: Sex, Syphilis, and Psychoanalysis in the Making of Modern American Culture by Mabel’s biographer Dr. Lois Palken Rudnick.
When Millicent Rogers (1902-1953) first glimpsed the expansive Taos Valley’s “astonishing black gash” of the Rio Grande Gorge set against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, she exclaimed “”Why has no one ever told me about this?”. Known as the Standard Oil Heiress, beginning with her debutante days in the 1920s Millicent’s activities peppered society pages. By the time she arrived in Taos she had made her mark name for herself in the fashion world, done philanthropic work, and assembled several collections. Dressed by leading courtiers like Mainbocher and Schiaparelli, Millicent’s collections of haute couture designs repeatedly placed her on the best-dressed list. Her own creations set trends with celebrities like Wallis Simpson and led to a collaboration with the fashion world’s “uncontested genius” Charles James.
Millicent’s talents, however, eclipsed the fashion world. She illustrated children’s stories written for her sons, learned to work with metal to craft her own jewelry and designed her own car. A brilliant conversationalist and well-read polyglot, she taught herself Latin and ancient Greek. In World War II she contributed to the war effort, opening her colonial estate in Virginia as a rehabilitation center for injured and shell-shocked Naval pilots from 1942 to 1945 and establishing and procuring funding for the Medical and Surgical Relief Committee, which provided medical supplies to the French, Dutch and Belgian undergrounds. (Later, in Taos, Millicent would support Indian rights. In 1948 when Taos Pueblo was threatened with losing their medical clinics, she paid for tribal council members’ travel to Washington, D.C. to discuss the situation with U. S. Government officials.)
In summer 1947, days after arriving in Taos, Millicent attended her first Indian dance. Accompanied by artist Dorothy Brett’s Taos Pueblo friends Trinidad Archuleta, his wife, Rufina, and other family members (including Trinidad’s uncle, Tony Lujan, married to Mabel Dodge Luhan), Millicent traveled to the Indian encampment at Stinking Lake near Dulce on the Jicarilla Reservation. The experience, which included participating in a round dance, so entranced Millicent that she decided to move to Taos in 1948 where with the help of Mabel Dodge Luhan she acquired an old adobe with a view of Taos Mountain.
Fascinated with the native peoples of the Southwest, Millicent attended dances at Taos Pueblo and traveled to ceremonials at Hopi, Gallup and “Apache land.”There she saw silverwork and weavings made by the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni people and began collecting jewelry and textiles. Within three years Millicent assembled over 2,000 pieces of Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Pueblo art, including pottery, jewelry, rugs as well as Hispanic colcha embroidery weavings, santos (painted or carved saints) and furniture. Her collection formed the core of today’s Millicent Rogers Museum, a gift to the community of Taos from her sons, Paul and Arturo Peralta-Ramos. Millicent continues to inspire: her work with Charles James recently inspired a spring-summer collection for Dior, and she is the subject of the recently published Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers by Cherie Burns (2011).
A descendant of a pioneering Hispanic New Mexican family, Cleofas Martinez spent her youth in her native Arroyo Hondo north of Taos. The family prospered through the hard work of her father who farmed, raised cattle and sheep and, when needed with his wife’s assistance, ran a mercantile. After schooling under the Sisters of Loretto in Taos, then at the Loretto Academy in Santa Fe, in 1898 Cleofas married Venceslao Jaramillo in Taos. The couple moved to El Rito where her husband owned land and a store. Venceslao had served on Territorial Governor Miguel Otero’s staff before their marriage. In 1912 after his election as state senator he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and helped draft new legislation for the brand-new state of New Mexico. His political career ended when he became ill. After his death in 1920, Cleofas discovered that her husband’s property was heavily mortgaged. By the 1930s she had relocated in Santa Fe, established a business to support her family, and was known for her astute business acumen.
Inspired by the Santa Fe art colony and the author Mary Austin (one of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s guests), Cleofas began her writing career. Her storyteller mother and her brother Reyes Martinez, who worked for the Federal Writers Project, provided inspiration and encouragement. Cleofas published her first two books in 1939 In Cuentos de Hogar (Spanish Fairy Tales) she translated into English twenty-five Spanish folk tales she heard in childhood. A magazine article with inaccurate recipes spurred Cleofas to write The Genuine New Mexico Tasty Recipes: Old and Quaint Formulas for the Preparation of Seventy-Five Delicious Spanish Dishes (1939) which featured authentic recipes used in New Mexico for centuries.
Concern with the disappearance of the centuries-old Hispanic traditions led Cleofas to found the La Sociedad Folklorico de Santa Fe (Folklore Society of Santa Fe), an organization dedicated to preserving the Spanish language and Hispanic folkways in New Mexico. Dedicated to capturing the culture and customs for posterity, Cleofas wrote two more books. Shadows of Past (1941) included vignettes of Hispanic life and memorable portraits of women in her family. Romance of a Village Girl (1955), an autobiography written in the style of the Spanish ballad, is Cleofas’ most significant contribution. Documenting seven decades of her life, this detailed account captures religious ceremonies, holidays and ritual life. Taken together written accounts not only advocate for and preserve New Mexico’s Hispanic folk life and customs, they also document the life of a Hispanic woman who stepped outside her cultural and social norms to record what she thought was important. As a testament to the significance of her work, Cleofas Jaramillo’s books are still in print. They continue to inspire generations of Hispanic scholars and women authors.
The story of Virginia T. Romero (1896-1998) provides a glimpse into the centuries-old traditions at Taos Pueblo (dating from 1350). Born at Taos Pueblo, Virginia Trujillo was named Pop Tö, which means “Flower House” in her native Tiwa language. Her training in the traditional ways of her tribe was interrupted by a foreign educational system. In the early 1900s Virginia, like other Indian children throughout the country, was removed from Taos Pueblo to attend Santa Fe Indian School. Forbidden to speak her native language, Virginia learned arithmetic, geography, writing and history in English. She also received vocational training appropriate for girls: sewing, cooking, laundry and other housekeeping skills.
Like other Taos Pueblo women, Virginia devoted herself to the welfare of her husband Joe D. Romero and their 11 children. The family lived off the land and from the work of their hands. Assisted by her daughters, Virginia prepared and preserved food, took lunch to her husband and sons working the fields, did laundry and other household chores, tended the vegetable garden, and baked bread in the hornos (outdoor beehive ovens made of adobe) until the time came to prepare the family’s evening meal. Virginia used skills learned from her mother to make moccasins and the traditional white leather boots worn by Taos Pueblo women and sewing skills learned at boarding school to make clothes for her family. She also used her schooling to serve her people. Fluent in English and Spanish and able to write in both languages, she served as interpreter for the tribal government.
As a child Virginia had watched her mother shape clay into water jars, bean pots and dishes, the traditional cook ware of generations of Taos Pueblo women. One day her father gave Virginia a bag of clay and predicted that it would provide her with food, clothing and money. That gift launched Virginia’s eighty-year career as a potter. In 1919 she began making her own utilitarian ware. After she mastered her craft, she began selling her work to locals and to tourists. Her work evolved into more decorative pieces: wedding vases, cylindrical vessels, and rimmed bowls. By the 1930s, collectors began purchasing Virginia’s pottery and she won prizes at Santa Fe Indian Market and at the annual intertribal ceremonial exhibition in Gallup. In 1960 she received a certificate of merit for “producing and exhibiting Indian arts and handicrafts of prize-winning quality” from The Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial Association.
In September 1994 the Millicent Rogers Museum honored Virginia, the first Taos Pueblo person to receive such recognition. Today her work resides in private collections in the U.S., Germany, Japan and other countries and in national museum collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA), the Southwest Museum of the American Indian (now part of the Autry National Center in Los Angeles), the School of American Research and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, and the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos. Her pottery legacy continues through generations of her family and contemporary Taos Pueblo potters.
Award-winning writer and researcher Elizabeth Cunningham has had a lifelong love affair with the American West. She was instrumental in creating the “Remarkable Women of Taos” theme. Visit www.taos.org/women for more comprehensive coverage of area Remarkable Women and 2012 events. Or visit www.mabeldodgeluhan.blogspot.com. For an expanded version of this story, which includes seminal Hispanic author Cleofas Jaramillo, visit www.hawk-media.com.
This article appeared on page 5 of HighCountry Magazine 2012.
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