TAOS, NM — Eyes from the past peered back at me through photographs, deep-set gazes in the portraits of couples facing the camera, lives captured in time. Pictures, names, birthplaces, and family lineages were set adjacent to each other on rectangular fabric banners, capturing the legacy of Manito families with deep New Mexico origins.
Levi Romero, author, poet, and fellow native Nuevomexicano, describes the word Manito as “a derivative of the word hermanito, a term of endearment,” and an identity first applied by Mexican immigrants to reference “New Mexican Hispanics.” In his book Querencia: Reflections on the New Mexico Homeland (University of New Mexico Press, 2020), Romero describes his own contemplations on the Manito diaspora when a friend of his mentioned the New Mexican Manito experience as one “much farther from their native homeland.” Expanded from Romero’s article in the mentioned book, this concept is further explored and deepened through the visuals displayed in Following the Manito Trail, on view through July 31 at the Millicent Rogers Museum. The show asks what it means (and looks like) to sustain and nurture a culture and identity even while that culture is far removed from its ethnic homeland.
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A main feature of the exhibition is large banners that include the following familias: Arguello, Perea, Quinto, Sanchez, Sandoval, Soto, Torres, Valdez, and Villa. The banners offer a short but descriptive narrative, a graphic representation of the genealogy family tree, and photographs, all in an attempt to capture, delineate, define how the “Manito experience” is captured within family.
Following the Manito Trail is also part of the larger Manitos Community Memory Project, which has a mission to not only further expand the Manito discussion but to “serve as a space for people from these rural communities … to reconnect, recollect, record, and reflect on their shared cultural heritage.”
The exhibition itself, complete with visuals and artifacts, “is a cultural heritage exhibition that shares the migration experiences, creative practices, and largely untold stories of the Manitos,” states the museum website. “These families carried their culture with them through their migrations to other states for seasonal and permanent work during the 19th and 20th centuries.”
My maternal grandfather, Leonard Martinez, was a Manito; born in 1912 in Llano Largo near Peñasco, New Mexico, the son of Maximillano and Victoriana. He grew up within the Indo-Hispanic cultural and physical landscape of Northern New Mexico but wandered further up north in search of work and ended up settling in Rawlins, Wyoming, where he met and married my grandmother Catalina (Catherine) Lopez, who was of Mexican descent. The familia settled there, staying until Leonard’s only daughter, Anna Lee, moved back to the homeland of New Mexico. This is where my own story begins, a granddaughter raised in New Mexico with her own growing querencia.
Accompanying each of the exhibition’s banners were also objects such as a family rifle complete with canvas case, a Spanish colonial traveling trunk, a 19th-century kettle of iron and wood, and a colcha with wool on wool embroidery and natural dyes. While these objects were visually stunning and spoke to the past, only one was an object from the Manito familias featured in the exhibition.
Two objects specific to Following the Manito Trail spoke to me: a rifle and its tan canvas case. A weapon, used perhaps to hunt or used perhaps to protect, and the canvas case, which houses or protects this legacy of both violence and beautiful complexity of our tierra.
I speak for myself when I say that I didn’t have time to mail in or even hand-deliver the item I had from my own grandfather to include in the exhibition. “Qué pasó?” I asked myself. Why weren’t there more actual objects from the featured familias? Were we not given enough time or instruction? Or deeper, was it that familias like my own are more prone to keep things to themselves, to not make a display of our own lineage and cultura?
Along with the banners, four “topic” panels define and explain the concepts of Familia, Querencia, Being Manito, and Migration as Survival. Moving through the exhibition, two sitting stations were available to watch videos, one of which was a digital “cuento” as told by Tranquilina Pacheco (a short five-minute video, complete with voice-interview, photographs, and artwork, with an acoustic guitar accompaniment playing in the background). A large video monitor, placed front and center, displayed various photos, families and lives lived.
Strolling through the Millicent Rogers Museum, seeing my own family name displayed there as part of the exhibition was complex and strange, to say the least. Should I be honored and excited? Sentimental? Should I focus on just the history, the facts, the lovely graphics of each banner with their soft-colored outlines and carefully crafted design? Or should I resist this space? Aren’t museums sometimes exploitative, colonizing spaces that manipulate history to fit mainstream narratives?
Instantly I thought of what my own Papacito (my grandfather Leonard) might say about this exhibition. Would he even be at all honored or impressed by his family name displayed in a museum in Taos? No sé. And because I don’t know, my questions linger, spiral, and then fold in on themselves, speckling my alma with a smattering of something not deep as regret but as colorless as undeniable questioning.
What does it mean to belong to a community? And what does it mean to build community, and to reconnect when your familia has been displaced from its deep origins? I asked myself these questions as I meandered through the rest of the museum.
Adjacent rooms within the museum proudly displayed their collections: Native American and Hispanic jewelry, pottery, and other religious artwork, each with captions stating dates, locations, and origins. The lighting in each room and display was soft, inviting. A bowl created at Santa Clara Pueblo. A retablo depicting San Juan and San Isidro.
Moving through the museum (my first time ever visiting, despite having been to and passed through Taos hundreds of times), I was amazed by the breadth of the expansive collection even as I was rattled with doubts in my own heart. When a museum volunteer kindly informed me one of the rooms within the museum had been an actual morada (a meetinghouse or chapel of New Mexico Penitentes), my face became hot. For a moment, all I wanted to do was run outside and just sit, crumbled and still, in clear view of Taos mountain — one of the sacred peaks of the Sangre de Christo mountain range — unmistakable from any window inside the museum.
My own Nuevomexicano identity cannot be — is not — defined by museum artifacts nor interpretations. Instead, it begins in actual place, in landscape, and from there extends out to familia (who’s your primos, who’s your Nana or Abuelita or Tío), and then equally to traditions (language, food, religious traditions, and even music). Similarly, while the museum’s exhibition can clearly not solely define the Manito Trail, it at least opens an ever-widening exploration and documentation of the experiences.