is faded and fuzzy. An elderly man of small stature, his hair
and beard a shaggy gray, sits upright in a slatted wooden chair.
In his knotty right hand, he clutches a cane carved to curl into
the shape of a horse's head. His brown eyes sink like shadows
between high cheekbones and bushy brows. And a gentle, jolly smile
emerges from his lips.
Gallegos was 73 in 1937 when he he sat outside his adobe house
in Agua Fria to have the provocative portrait snapped. His engaging
looks alone would have been enough to inspire a photographer to
record his likeness for the generations to come, but Gallegos
was no ordinary man. A santero, or maker of sacred images, he
was renowned for the religious wood carvings he created with a
pocket knife. He lived as a farmer yet he left behind a legacy
that, while still little-known today, places him among New Mexico's
the man," Melinda Romero Pike, a lifelong Agua Fria resident,
proudly recalls. "I remember seeing him there in his little woodshed,
deep in meditation, carving in the cool of the morning."
Pike was 16 when her great-uncle, her "Tio Celso," died at 79.
She still remembers his funeral: the bells of San Isidro church
cried a mournful toll as people gathered at the graveyard to grieve
his death. The affair was small, but the loss was monumental.
"Tio Celso was born during the Civil War and he died during World
War II," Romero Pike says. "He lived during a time when life was
history buff who has traced her family lineage back six generations,
Romero Pike has pieced together a rough history of a man whose
talent reached beyond New Mexico's still-isolated borders into
mainstream art centers like Chicago and New York. At home in Agua
Fria, however, no one considered Celso a great artist. He was
just a sweet neighbor who prayed many hours a day and carved in
his spare time.
a poor little man living in a poor little village, but there was
something in him that was beyond all that," she says. "Compared
to some other artists of his time, he's not recognized. He's like
the forgotten santero."
story begins and ends in the tiny agricultural village of Agua
Fria, six miles west of Santa Fe. Celso was born in 1864, the
fifth and youngest child of Jose Jacinto Gallegos and Florentina
Dominguez Gallegos. Like his two brothers and two sisters, Celso
was brought up to be close to the land. Above all, he was taught
to be close to God.
between 1835 and 1850, Celso's father and an uncle donated a plot
of land on which to build a village church. Local legend has it
that Celso's father tossed his hat in four opposite directions
to determine the church boundaries. Exactly when the adobe Church
of San Isidro was completed is unknown, but like most churches
then, it quickly became the community's spiritual and social hub.
family, who lived next door, the church was a source of pride.
His father volunteered as sacristano, or caretaker, while his
mother assumed the role of resador, or reader of prayers. The
resador preserved traditional Hispanic prayers and hymns, attending
baptisms, wakes and funerals to lead the faithful in prayer and
siblings eventually married and settled upon the stretch of family
land. Shortly before the turn of the century, Celso, a carpenter,
married, too. In his worn wedding picture, Celso stands seriously
in an ill-fitting suit, his intense brown eyes the focal point
upon his contemplative face. His wife, Adelaida Montoya Gallegos,
died shortly after their one daughter was born. Celso never remarried.
The baby was raised by a relative.
Celso's parents died, they passed their titles of sacristano and
resador down to him. Celso soon gained respect throughout the
region as a highly spiritual man. "Santa Fe knew Celso by virtue
of his prayer," Romero Pike says. "He was requested to attend
wakes all over Santa Fe and surrounding villages because he knew
the most beautiful prayers and hymns by heart. He directed many
souls to heaven."
legend has it that Celso started carving after inheriting an eighteenth-century
wood carving that his great-great-grandfather was believed to
have made. As he did in prayer, Celso poured his entire spirit
into his art. Though crude, Celso's santos (saints) expressed
his deep religious devotion and appeared throughout the church
as personal offerings of faith. Celso gave other works to relatives
was a prolific artist: Besides religious sculptures, he carved
cemetery markers, chests, and walking canes. His front yard was
inhabited by an array of horses, birds and other whimsical creations.
In one corner of the yard, Celso posted a sign: La Curiosidad,
it said, Curio Shop. "He probably had one of the first galleries
in Santa Fe for all we know," Romero Pike jokes.
first public exhibition was in 1926, when the first Spanish Market
was held in downtown Santa Fe. By 1931, a local newspaper article
proclaimed Celso "one of the best known and beloved of the native
craftsmen, and one of the most skilled." The exposure, plus the
respect of local Anglo art patrons, brought Celso recognition
among Hispanic art aficionados beyond New Mexico. In January,
1932, his work was featured in a prestigious exhibit of American
folk art in Chicago. By the late 1930s, collectors from New York
and elsewhere were driving to Agua Fria to purchase the work of
the San Isidro Santero, as Celso was known.
carved until he could no longer hold a knife in his arthritic
hands. When he died on April 6, 1943, his artistry had been acclaimed
in exhibitions and publications nationwide. But at his funeral
the next day, Romero Pike says, Celso was remembered not for his
art, but for his faith.
to most of his own people was the fact that he was a pioneer santero
of renowned fame," she says. "Celso went to his grave serving
his community and his church. He died a very poor, humble man."
Celso's greatest gift to his community was the collection of his
work left in the village church. But sometime during the 1960s,
Romero Pike says, a new clergyman discarded the work during a
church restoration project. The church graveyard where Celso was
buried was bulldozed clear of the wooden markers that marked his
and other graves.
like in the Bible: Celso came into his own and his own received
him not," she says. "This church was loaded with Celso's work,
but they got rid of it and replaced it with all that shiny Plaster
of Paris stuff coming out of New York. What they didn't know was
that Celso was once famous in New York."
today, the Church of San Isidro bears no hand-carved memories
of Celso. His house, which was sold years ago, still sits next
door; instead of his curio shop sign, a "Do Not Park in Driveway"
sign is posted out front. With hundreds of cars zooming through
Agua Fria daily, Celso's quiet village is no more.
to the museums and others who had the foresight to collect Celso's
carvings, however, many of his remaining artworks have now become
models for modern santeros and other artists as well. And thanks
to Romero Pike's ongoing research into her Tio's life, Celso's
legacy has survived. But if Romero Pike had one wish for her own
lifetime, it would be this: to see a plaque with Celso's name
set into the stone along the Museum of Fine Arts' "Walk of Fame"
in downtown Santa Fe. She wants him to finally have a place of
honor next to the likes of Tommy Maccaione, Georgia O'Keeffe,
and others who made Santa Fe the art center it is today.
always perpetuate the memory of Celso because we can't afford
to forget him," she says. "I haven't forgotten him. After all,
blood is thicker than water."
Fe writer Carmella Padilla is the author of "The Chile Chronicles,"
published in 1998 by the University of New Mexico Press.
Stories by Carmella Padilla