Don J. Usner captures the sounds and look of the town
Chimayó, a sprawling village set in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountians, is a place like no other. Since the 1980s, Don J. Usner has been preserving the stories and folkways of the Chimayosos, as well as the regional Northern New Mexico Spanish expressed through the dichos — th e sayings and maxims — that dominate their speech. In his latest book, Chasing Dichos Through Chimayó , Usner captures in words and photographs the singular world of Chimayó’s residents. On the cover is Capilla de San Antonio, Potrero , which the author shot in 2009; courtesy University of New Mexico Press.
Some towns are so small and old they’ve become worlds unto themselves. For writer and photographer Don J. Usner, that town is Chimayó. With its santuario, Good Friday pilgrimage, heritage weavers, father-and-son lowriders, dark beauty, and entrenched poverty, Chimayó is a placelike no other. Over the centuries, many of its inhabitants have preserved as well as adapted a mix of Spanish colonial and indigenous faiths and artistic traditions.
Since the 1980s, Usner has been preserving the stories and folkways of this sprawling village, home to some 3,000 people who live in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, about 30 miles northeast of Santa Fe. The author has deep roots in this land. His family has lived in the village continuously since its founding in 1701. For his latest project, Chasing Dichos Through Chimayó , Usner sought to capture the intensely regional Northern New Mexico Spanish as expressed through the sayings and maxims that still dominate the speech of the Chimayosos, an affectionate name for the town’s residents. With an observant ear for everyday speech, Usner re-creates the conversations of the town’s viejitos , or elders, peppered with the dichos that proliferate in the residents’ singular dialect of Spanish. Consider these:
Vale más amigos que dinero en el banco. Friends are worth more than money in the bank.
Le falta un real para el peso y la mitad de la semana . He is a quarter short of a dollar and half of the week. (He is daft.)
Él que nace pa’ trabajos, desde la cuna los pasa . One who is born for misfortune starts having it from the cradle.
Dios resiste a los soberbios y da gracia a los humildes. God denies the wise and gives grace to the humble.
Al que va a la bodega por vez se le cuenta, beba o sno beba . People will talk when someone goes into a bar, whether he drinks or not.
Si no es santo es porque no la cuelgan . If she is not a saint, it’s only because they don’t hang her on the wall.
“People often think this book is going to be a list of dichos. It’s not. It’s about chasing the dichos, pursuing these conversations, and hearing them in living time,” Usner said in an interview with Pasatiempo . “It’s about the people who say and use them.”
Both a Chimayó insider and outsider, Usner was raised in Los Alamos, where his father worked at the lab. But growing up, Usner and his siblings spent most of their summers at their grandmother’s Chimayó house, rambling through hills and woods, picking fruit off trees, assisting farmers with acequia irrigation, and living off chiles, beans, and papas fritas at a time when few in Chimayó’s population had regular access to a grocery store. As a child and teen he was goaded by relatives to memorize the names of ancestors long gone, and he also soaked up the intensely idiomatic and regional Spanish of the village. “I was nursed on dichos for so long they became a deep part of my memory. A lot of them come to mind all the time. There are some I always get a kick out of.”
For the record, Usner’s favorite dicho is Buscando trabajo y rogando al Dios no hallar /I’m looking for work and praying to God I don’t find any. “It was a dicho that got used back in the day to explain how desperately they needed employment in Española. For many of the men, their options were to go to work in the mine, or they had to leave the state for work. Hence they were praying to God for work, but at the same time they didn’t want to have to work any of the incredibly hard labor they had to endure.”
The writer currently makes his home in Santa Fe but lived in Chimayó full-time for 15 years and returns there frequently. “I would like to consider myself Chimayó in my blood and bones and sensibility. But in some weird way, it’s not my prerogative to decide that. It’s up to the people to decide if I’m not of their ilk because I haven’t spent enough time there. I certainly always feel totally welcome, but there are some people there who consider me something of an interloper.”
Through the photos and stories in his new book, it is clear that Usner ranges widely through Chimayó. He make note of mothers dealing with hasty young sons: Está como dos en un zapato/ He is like two in one shoe (He’s anxious to get going); a grandmother casting aspersions on neighborhood riffraff: No vale ni un cero a la izquierda/ He’s not worth even a zero to the left side; and an elderly man of few words who demonstrates the saying Hacen más unos callando que otros gritando/ There are those who accomplish more by being quiet than others who are shouting.
Al que va a la bodega por vez se le cuenta, beba o no beba.
People will talk when someone goes into a bar, whether he drinks or not.
Usner’s other works on the village include Sabino’s Map: Life in
Chimayó’s Old Plaza and Benigna’s Chimayó: Cuentos From the Old Plaza , which gathers traditional stories from Usner’s grandmother, born at the tail end of the 19th century. The author said his idea and research for the current book took several years to bear fruit. “A long time ago I realized I had this collection of dichos that was really valuable and interesting. But, from the beginning, I thought I wanted to do something that was different with them. My first impulse was to just take pictures and have the images alternate with the dichos. Well into the process, though, I became fascinated with these encounters. I started writing down the interviews with the Chimayosos and recording their conversations on my iPhone.”
Years in the making, the new book is both a joy and a sorrow to read. Many of the elderly women and men who grace its pages with their vibrant conversations and deep sense of survival and history are already in ill health as the chapters progress; others have moved on to one of the town’s camposantos , or cemeteries.
Throughout the book and from the rolling list of dichos, the reader gets a sense of the inhabitants’ wry sense of humor. The author shares this memory of his late cousin Modesto Vigil: Irked by the notion that the town’s flock of Good Friday tourists mistakenly believed the santuario is also the town’s primary church, Modesto would walk through the throngs of thousands, yelling, “You’re going the wrong way!” The lonely crusader urged the pilgrims to take their sacraments at the Holy Family Church: “The sacraments are in the other church, not the santuario.”
Even with three books under his belt, Usner says he is by no means done with Chimayó. “There are about 3,000 people who live here, broken up into tiny little subcommunities and plazas [old neighborhood centers]. I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of what there is to write about there.”