16. Isleta


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Isleta is the largest of the present Rio Grande Valley pueblos, with a population estimated at 1,250 or 1,300, a splendid domain of agricultural land and one of the most interesting Mission Churches. It is directly on the west bank of the Rio Grande, about thirteen miles south of Albuquerque, and it is here that the two lines of the Santa Fé Railroad system separate, one going south to E1 Paso and the other west to California. From the railroad station, the whole town is visible, with its surroundings of vineyards, orchards, and alfalfa fields; and to every train that stops comes a procession of women and girls bringing great trays of apricots and grapes, or peaches and pears, according to the season, and of bright colored pottery without regard to the time of year.

The name of Isleta, or Little Island, arose from the fact that the original village was stationed on a kind of island or delta between the bed of a mountain arroyo and the Rio Grande. The pueblo marked the southern boundary of the province which in Coronado's time was called Tihuex, and extended from Isleta northward until it met the Queres province near San Felipe, and included the Puará of Friar


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Ruiz and Espejo, Sandia, and all the valley in the present vicinity of Albuquerque and Bernalillo. Benavides in 1630 describes this Tihua province and the church at Isleta as follows: “This nation includes fifteen or sixteen pueblos and perhaps 7,000 souls, all baptized, in a district twelve or thirteen leagues in length, with two conventos, that of San Francisco of Sandia and that of San Antonio of Isleta, in which there are schools for teaching reading and writing, singing and playing on various instruments. These two conventos are very costly and beautiful.” Thus without going farther back we know that by 1629, when Benavides left New Mexico, Isleta was the seat of an important mission with a handsome church and convento and a resident priest. It is interesting to know that when the Tihua towns in the Salinas Valley, Cuará, Tajique, and Chilili, were attacked by the Indians of the Plains, and finally abandoned, their inhabitants came into the Rio Grande Valley and settled at Isleta, thus adding very considerably to the population of that pueblo.

At the time of the Pueblo Revolution of 1680 it had become a comparatively large town, with 2,000 inhabitants, and at the first news of the uprising it was designated as the point at which all the Spaniards should rendezvous for mutual protection. When Governor Otermin left Santa Fé on his retreat, he confidently expected to find the remains of the little Spanish army, and all the inhabitants of the lower country, congregated there. But Alonzo


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Garcia, who was lieutenant governor, supposing that Otermin was killed in the uprising, and fearful of an attack from the Indians, had already left Isleta for Paso del Norte, taking with him many of the inhabitants of the pueblo as well as the Spaniards who had gathered there. Governor Otermin, with all the refugees from Santa Fé and the north, reached Isleta on August 27, 1680, but found it entirely abandoned and without a single inhabitant left to tell the tale of the retreat. It was not till the governor, with his long caravan of weary Spaniards, arrived at Alamillo, near Socorro, that they met and united with the similar procession under Garcia that had started south from Isleta.

In the campaign of 1681 for the reconquest of New Mexico, Isleta played a very important part. It was about the 1st of December when Otermin's army reached the town and found it reoccupied by Indians to the number of 1,500 or more. At first they were disposed to resist, but finally surrendered, renewed their obligations and brought many children to be baptized. During the year the old church had been burned, and its walls used for a corral for the animals owned by the people. Otermin continued his march as far as Sandia, and part of his army visited Cochití and Santo Domingo, but he finally retired to Isleta where the re-Christianized Indians were threatened by those still in rebellion. Finally the expedition was abandoned and the Spaniards returned to El Paso, accompanied by the Christian Indians of Isleta who were afraid to remain, and who


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subsequently established a new town in what is now Texas, where it still exists as Isleta del Sur.

More than ten years later, on the final reconquest of New Mexico by De Vargas, that remarkable general made Isleta his headquarters for a considerable time, while conciliating the Queres Pueblos and preparing for his successful march to Santa Fé. As soon as possible after the pacification of the province, the church was restored; that being the first business that was pressed upon both Spaniards and natives by the authorities, civil and religious.

The church in Isleta is very well located in the center of the town and fronting upon a large public plaza. It is one of the largest and most important in New Mexico, and is flanked with extensive buildings used as a residence for the priest, and other ecclesiastical purposes. The church itself is of adobe, one hundred and ten feet by twenty-seven feet in the inside, with walls four feet in thickness, and lighted by four high windows. It is floored throughout with boards, but contains no seats.

St. Augustine is the patron saint of Isleta, and so the church is dedicated to him, and his figure is of course the predominant one. There is the old statue, about two feet high, carved in wood, with black beard and tonsured head; the robes decorated with the figured gold which is a distinguishing mark of the ancient wood carvings which came in with the reconquerors; and there is the new statue of twice the size, beautifully colored, and characteristic of the style which the modern French priests have introduced.


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MISSION CHURCH AT ISLETA


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troduced. The latter is honored now by being the chief figure in the procession; but a good priest told me that the people had not transferred their affection to the new image, and mournfully insisted that it did not hear their prayers so well as the old one of their fathers.

In the body of the church are four large and ancient oil paintings; one of St. Bartholomew with the saw, one of a venerable saint with a square and book, one of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and one of Santa Rosalía. The latter is a very valuable and beautiful work of art, and will well repay a careful study. Behind the altar, on either side of the large statue of St. Augustine, are figures of the Virgin and St. Joseph; a larger image of the Virgin stands to the right; and in front is a small wooden carved statue of the mother of Our Lord in the antique Spanish style and no doubt cotemporary with the “old” San Agustin. On the walls around, are several crucifixes of various ages and styles, and an interesting painting of the Assumption, and a multitude of mirrors and painted lithographs of saints, in the embossed tin frames which were so general in New Mexico until recent years.

No mention of Isleta, far less a description of its ancient Mission Church, would be at all complete which did not allude to the extraordinary phenomenon, certainly believed in by thousands of people, known as the Rising of the Coffin of Padre Padilla. With no pretense of explanation, or any certainty of statement, we simply give the story as it has been


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repeated for many, many years, and has the confidence of many, many people. As everyone at all familiar with New Mexican history knows, Juan de Padilla was the first Christian martyr of the Southwest. When Coronado's expedition set out on its return to Mexico in the spring of 1542, Father Padilla and his brother Franciscan, Luis de Escalona, announced their determination to remain among the Indians as missionaries, as long as they were permitted to live. So the Spanish army retraced its way back to civilization; and the two devoted Franciscans were left alone to endeavor to convert half a continent of Indians to the Christian faith. Tradition tells us that Juan de Padilla crossed the Great Plains to do his work in the far-famed Quivira, and History has crowned him as without doubt the first martyr to lose his life in that distant region.

Tradition again steps in, and tells us that in some way his body was transported from the scene of his martyrdom, and when a Christian church was erected at Isleta it found its resting place close to the altar in that sacred temple. History throws somewhat of doubt on this, as being difficult to understand, and suggests that the martyr whose remains are revered in the Isleta church is some other one of the early Franciscans who suffered death later and in the nearer vicinity, so that there is more probability of his entombment there; and the historian Frank de Thoma wrote a learned treatise on the subject in 1895 arguing that the sacred remains might be those of Friar Ruiz or one of his two companions who were martyred in 1580, or of one of the


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twenty-one Franciscan missionaries murdered in the Pueblo Revolution just a hundred years later.

The local tradition, however, is untouched by any of these historic doubts, and clings tenaciously to the belief that the coffin entombed at Isleta contains the body of Juan de Padilla and no other. The story is no new one, but has existed for generations, and is briefly told by one of the most intelligent citizens of central New Mexico, as follows: “No one at Isleta has any doubt that the remains of Padre Padilla were brought from Quivira to the pueblo of Isleta and buried there within the church. The coffin was made from a large cottonwood tree hollowed out for that purpose. Everybody in that vicinity firmly believes that once every year the remains of the padre come to the surface, so as to be seen, and the people were allowed to view the body before it was buried again. Many claim to this day to have pieces of the clothing that the good old priest wore, made of a kind of serge. I lived not far away when a boy and heard the story all my life, and it never occurred to me to have the slightest doubt of its truth. The old people all believe that on a certain day the coffin in some mysterious way pushes itself up through the earth to the very surface, and the remains of the saint are then exposed, being very well preserved, dry as a mummy, with long dark whiskers; and that even his clothing is in a remarkable state of preservation. Many of the people have little pieces of the grave clothes, which are supposed to have worked many extraordinary cures.”

Whatever version of the tradition is correct and


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whatever may be the exact facts, the belief of thousands of people must have some foundation, and this strange story adds to the interest of the old church; and the place where the coffin is said to rise periodically is certainly an object of interest.

Isleta is admitted to be the richest and most prosperous of all of the Pueblo towns, and this has been true for many years. It possesses a large acreage of very fertile soil, and the people have shown much intelligence in raising diversified crops, including many kinds of fruit, instead of confining their products to a few kinds of grain. The beautiful vineyards that surround the town are a delight to the eye, and produce enormous crops of the Mission grape, which is one of the most delightful varieties for eating, as well as an excellent wine producer. Apricots, peaches, and pears are also raised in large quantities.

As a rule the Pueblo Indians do not accumulate money. As a people they are not accumulators of any kind; but are generally satisfied to raise enough produce to meet the needs of life, year by year, without any desire to heap up riches. In most of the pueblos the wealthiest of the people are those who possess the most Navajo blankets and strings of fine coral or turquoise beads. What they have acquired, over and above the requirements for current living and the raising of a family, is invested in that way or in a few animals.

But at Isleta it is different. Here for many years there have been really rich men, rich according to


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the American standard of wealth, in the gold and silver coin of the realm. A curious piece of history, not usually known in these days, gives a remarkable illustration of this fact.

In the time of the Texan invasion, in 1862, the United States army officers in charge of the finances in New Mexico, suddenly found themselves entirely without funds. On account of the slow and difficult communication across the Great Plains, between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains, transportation was irregular, or perhaps in the vast transactions of the great war someone had forgotten to transmit the necessary money for the maintenance of the little Union army far away on the Rio Grande. At all events the paymasters were without funds, and every resource was exhausted. There were no banks, and the merchants had need of all their available funds. It was then, when all ordinary methods had failed, and the officers were almost in despair, that the person from whom they secured the necessary money to meet the immediate exigencies of the army was the governor of the pueblo of Isleta, a very intelligent and fine looking Indian, named Ambrosio Abeytia. He was considered at the time to be the wealthiest Pueblo Indian in the Territory, and without any hesitation he furnished the American commander with $18,000 in specie, merely taking a receipt in recognition of the obligation. Years passed without his making any claim upon the government for this amount, as he imagined that it would be returned without request on his part when


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it was convenient to the national authorities; but after waiting twelve years, he concluded to take a trip to Washington on the subject and proceeded there accompanied by his nearest friend, named Padilla, who was also for a number of years governor of Isleta, and by John Ward, then the United States Indian agent for the Pueblos. it is gratifying to know that through the personal interest of General Grant, then president of the United States, he received the amount so generously loaned in the time of need, with the thanks of the government. Hon. Amado Chaves, who has since held many positions of honor, was then a young man in the Interior Department in Washington, and was called on to take charge of Don Ambrosio during his sojourn in the capital and accompany him on his return to New Mexico; and he gives a most interesting account of the interview between General Grant and the Isleta governor, in which he acted as interpreter.

In many respects Isleta is one of the most interesting of all the pueblos. Its people are certainly the best known of any Pueblo Indians to the general American public, for the town is so conspicuous from the Santa Fé Railroad, and so easy of access from Albuquerque, that it is seldom without visitors, and its women are never without a fair representation in front of the Alvarado Hotel and the Harvey curio establishment, for the benefit of the tourist travelers on each passing train.

There are a number of festivals during the year when an opportunity is afforded to see the ceremonial


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dances of the people; some of these are similar to those to be seen at other pueblos, and some are peculiar to Isleta itself. The great annual festival on the Saint's Day of San Agustin, the 19th of September, is the largest affair of the kind, but is less interesting to the tourist than similar occasions in some more remote pueblos, because of the enormous crowd of visitors from the neighboring towns in the Rio Grande Valley, who literally take possession of the pueblo for that day. In the course of time it has become more of a Mexican fiesta than an Indian one; the people of the pueblo being almost crowded out of their own town, or rather, showing their extreme politeness and hospitality by giving way to the visitors who fill the plaza and the streets and many of the houses themselves.

There is a festival, or rather a succession of festivals, of which foot races are the feature, held on Sundays in Lent, ending on Easter Sunday, in which a race course 320 yards in length is prepared, and sixteen contestants, eight on each side, take part. Then there is another festival in the spring, popularly known as the Acequia Dance; and a peculiar celebration, exclusively belonging to Isleta, which precedes the regular festival of San Agustin by about two weeks, and is known as the festival of San Agustinito (the Little St. Augustine).

All of these are connected with religious services in the old Mission Church, which thus hallow the enjoyments of the people.

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