Por­traits of a cul­ture

The writ­ings of Fray Angélico Chávez

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Camille Flores

At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, the New Mex­ico Ter­ri­tory was still fight­ing to be­come a state, and a sense of pro­gres­sive des­tiny filled the air. Amer­i­canos — artists, writ­ers, busi­ness­men, and a de­vel­op­ing breed of so­cial sci­en­tists (such as an­thro­pol­o­gists and ar­chae­ol­o­gists) — had “dis­cov­ered” the South­west and were putting down roots. The old or­der, char­ac­ter­ized by a land-based peo­ple and econ­omy, inched to­ward the new.

Such was the cen­tury of Fray Angélico Chávez, whose birth in 1910 and death in 1996 spans a great pe­riod of change and pur­pose. And, as Ellen McCracken’s book The Life and Writ­ing of Fray Angélico Chávez: A New Mex­ico

Re­nais­sance Man clearly con­veys, Chávez was a man for his time. The ci­gar-smok­ing priest with the snappy beret was such a facet of lo­cal color in Santa Fe that many of us thought we knew him. But McCracken’s book tells a very dif­fer­ent story than what we might ex­pect.

As McCracken is a lit­er­ary scholar, her in­ter­est nat­u­rally grav­i­tated to­ward Chávez’s writ­ing, al­though he was a man of many tal­ents. Her method, to present a chrono­log­i­cal sur­vey of his huge body of writ­ing (24 books and more than 600 shorter works), slowly ex­poses Chávez’s de­vel­op­ment at each stage of life. So we are given glimpses of his­tory and of real peo­ple who in­habit his world — and ours.

Born Manuel Chávez, this Fran­cis­can priest, artist, preser­va­tion­ist, and his­to­rian cre­ated writ­ings that res­onate with New Mex­i­cans be­cause they re­flect our own unique ex­pe­ri­ence as a peo­ple of the South­west. His pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion in writ­ing, ac­cord­ing to McCracken, was to pro­mote and pre­serve the “New Mex­ico His­pano eth­nic­ity” as “a cru­cial el­e­ment of Amer­i­can his­tory”; he wrote “to ex­plain his spe­cific geospace and cul­ture to a larger au­di­ence.” Chávez cared greatly that the His­pano cul­ture that evolved in this re­gion would not be sub­sumed into the greater Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence or into the great Amer­i­can melt­ing pot.

Chávez en­tered the Fran­cis­can sem­i­nary in Cincin­nati, Ohio, at the age of 14, join­ing a class of over­whelm­ingly Ger­man-Amer­i­can stu­dents. It must have been a shock to Chávez, whose boy­hood vi­sions of Fran­cis­can life had been formed by sto­ries of the ear­li­est Span­ish colo­nial set­tle­ment in the west­ern United States. Per­haps in or­der to make him­self known — and, more im­por­tant, un­der­stood — the young man be­gan right away to demon­strate a gift for writ­ing and for art, for which he earned the nick­name “Angélico,” af­ter the 15th-cen­tury painter Fra An­gelico da Fiesole. Many of what McCracken calls his “ex­u­ber­ant es­says and ar­ti­cles about New Mex­ico” from his sem­i­nary days were pub­lished in Catholic pe­ri­od­i­cals with na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion, such as St. An­thony Mes­sen­ger. He would con­tinue to merge art and writ­ing, cre­at­ing a dual nar­ra­tive with which to teach the faith and share his val­ues.

Dur­ing the young man’s in­fre­quent vis­its home (ow­ing to the ex­pense and time in­volved), he formed last­ing friend­ships with writ­ers who worked in Santa Fe, par­tic­u­larly poet Wit­ter Byn­ner, Thorn­ton Wilder, Paul Hor­gan, and John Gould Fletcher. He found in them kin­dred spir­its who shared a love of the tra­di­tional In­dian and His­pano cul­tures of the South­west (if some­what over-ro­man­ti­cized ver­sions). The group fi­nanced the pub­li­ca­tion of his first book, Clothed With the Sun.

As a newly or­dained priest, in 1937 Chávez was as­signed to the fri­ary at Peña Blanca, where his du­ties ex­tended be­yond Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to sev­eral nearby pue­blo mis­sions. His writ­ings from this pe­riod re­veal the dele­te­ri­ous work ethic that would drive the re­main­der of his life. Be­sides his min­is­te­rial du­ties (and a part-time job as the town’s post­mas­ter!), he un­der­took preser­va­tion of the old churches. Without fi­nan­cial sup­port from his or­der, he be­gan to re­store the fail­ing his­toric struc­tures him­self, us­ing ma­te­ri­als he could beg or find, and he hand-painted the mu­rals he used as vis­ual nar­ra­tives on the church walls. He penned his po­ems, es­says, fic­tional works, and doc­u­men­ta­tion of preser­va­tion ef­forts deep into the night, get­ting by on lit­tle sleep. By the end of his fifth year at Peña Blanca, his health was fail­ing and his weight had dropped dan­ger­ously. In let­ters to fam­ily mem­bers, Chávez ex­pressed fear that his work was un­ap­pre­ci­ated and that he de­sired to leave the parish.

His exit came with World War II, dur­ing which Chávez served as an Army chap­lain in the Pa­cific. Let­ters and ser­mons from this pe­riod pro­vide a glimpse at the suf­fer­ing he en­coun­tered. Cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Chávez and Arkansas-born poet and fel­low sol­dier John Gould

La Con­quis­ta­dora pro­ces­sion, Fi­esta, circa 1948, with Fray Angélico Chávez on the far left (in sun­glasses); photo by Robert H. Martin, from ¡Con­cha! Con­cha Or­tiz y Pino: Ma­tri­arch of a 300-Year-Old New Mex­ico Leg­end by Kathryn M. Cor­dova, file photo

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