I was 27 years old in 1990 when I returned to live at my dad’s place in La Cienega. The land was not far from an abandoned Keres pueblo, and it bordered colonist cousins, such as the Gonzales, Pino, Rael, C’de Baca and Gurule families.
I soon paid a visit to my Uncle Veo, whose home is on a hill within eyeshot of the birthplaces of his mother and grandmother. As we visited, I shared that I was happy to be living in La Cienega, where I had many childhood memories. With my mom and my dad, we had often visited cousins here, and after my parents parted ways, I lived with my dad every other weekend and in the summers.
Over a glass of his signature capulin (chokecherry wine), I shared with my uncle what it meant to me to live within walking distance of the place my grandmother took her first breath. My uncle decided that a tour was in order, and he walked me to each window in his home, where he pointed out geographic landmarks that had familial significance. When we got to the north-facing window, he snappily asked, “Camilla, como se llama esas?” pointing to the mountain range where Santa Fe is nested. Before I could answer, he asked, this time in English, “C’mon, what are those mountains called? What are they?”
“Umm, the Sangre de Cristos,” I replied timidly, as though I had been asked a trick question. “Yes!” he stated in a louder voice. “Yes! And where are you?” he asked forcibly, as though the truth was soon to be realized. “Where are you? What is this place called?” he asked emphatically. “La Cienega?” — again as though I was about to say something incredibly wrong.
“Yes!” he exclaimed. “And the Sangre de Cristos’ moisture runs off to create the cienegas, the springs of the blood of Christ! You are back to the home of your grandmother!” Oh my, if the cienegas are a place of lifeblood, I thought, then I am sure to be of a place rather than just from it.
The summer of 1990 was also the year my maternal grandmother, Carolina Vieira de Montoya, passed away. Her childhood home held cottonwoods and springs of the Sangre de Cristos. There’s nothing like mortality to foster introspection — in this case introspection about identity and place.
It’s apparent in many accounts and writings of El Camino Real, which traversed this same valley on its long route to Mexico City, that for both Natives and colonists, the springs, the Santa Fe River and La Cienega Creek were a life source. They provided solace for those tackling the difficult escarpment at La Bajada just to the south of our tranquil oasis. If the lifeblood flows from the crown of the Sangre de Cristos, what then is La Bajada?
The black basalt, volcanic lava flow that forms the wall of La Bajada is perhaps the ogre of the area, a tired gatekeeper of escarpment and plateau that still challenges at each traverse. Within Native ancestry, common familial lineages were undaunted and unaffected by La Bajada — the Spanish administrative dividing line between the Río Abajo (lower river) and the Río Arriba (upper river) of the Río Grande Valley. Prehistoric evidence demonstrates an exchange of goods above and below this daunting escarpment. The southern pueblos of Santo Domingo, Cochiti and San Felipe shared languages, goods, blood and traditions with the northern pueblos of Santa Clara, Tesuque and Nambe.
The late 16th and the 17th century brought the onset of Spanish wagons, caravans and livestock moving along the Camino Real. Squeaking wooden wheels, clacking hooves and sharp metal moved rock and earth. The tyrant of La Bajada turned away the weak and was unforgiving to those unprepared for the trip. Traveling from the village of Bernalillo to the small community at La Bajada with any expectation of arriving before dark required leaving before sunrise. It is estimated that it took approximately 9 to 12 hours to cover 25 miles by wagon. But the climb up and over the 500-foot precipice of La Bajada was even slower. Either hot and thirsty or cold and certainly tired, travelers dreamed of the reprieve waiting for them just ahead at a paraje (established accommodations) in La Cienega, where one could water livestock, rest and get a hot meal.
El Paraje del Alamo in La Cienega — predating the better-known Rancho de las Golondrinas — was such a paraje. It was described in the 1700s as a two-story plazuela (plaza) where visitors could spend the night. Oral history informs our family that El Paraje del Alamo was the location of my grandmother’s birth, alongside springs and under the cottonwoods out that north window, south of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Today, though not at the exact location where travelers long ago climbed La Bajada, Interstate 25’s assault on the escarpment still demands respect. It is one of the steepest climbs of the entire interstate highway system, and even with weather forecasters helping to inform our willingness to head up or down this imposing slope, we risk becoming new additions to its list of casualties.
La Bajada is a fickle maiden, the before and after for a passing, a control point, a venue for trust that there is something more forgiving on the other side.
Camilla Bustamante lives in La Cienega, New Mexico. She obtained her Master of Public Health and Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in 2005 and today is the board president of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area. Bustamante is employed by Santa Fe Community College and places high value on environmentally healthy, community-based education and economic development.