The Padre’s House

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In 1804 a Pueblo Indian sold his four-room adobe house in the farming community of Taos, New Mexico, to Don Severino Martínez, a Spanish trader. No other details of this transaction are recorded, although the dwelling was to become famous—both for the family who lived in it and for its survival as the best example of a Spanish hacienda in the American Southwest.

Situated in the farthest corner of the vast Spanish Empire, at the end of the Camino Real, the ancient road from Mexico City, Taos is almost as isolated now as it was then, but Don Severino Martínez had done well to buy his house. Over the years, as Taos grew into an important commercial center and meeting point for three cultures, Martínez became the town’s leading merchant and its mayor. He kept on adding to his home, so that by the time he died in 1827 it had grown to twenty-one rooms that enclosed a courtyard (a placita ). Today the Martínez family’s house still stands as a monument to the ferment of cultures in the early history of the Southwest.

The best-known inhabitant of the Martínez hacienda was Don Severino’s son, Padre Antonio José Martínez, the priest of Taos. He achieved permanent notoriety as a character in Willa Gather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop : “The priest of Taos was not a man one would easily forget. His broad high shoulders were like a bull buffalo’s, his big head was set defiantly on a thick neck, and the full-cheeked, richly coloured, egg-shaped Spanish face —how vividly the Bishop remembered that face! … his mouth was the very assertion of violent, uncurbed passions and tyrannical self-will; the full lips thrust out and taut, like the flesh of animals distended by fear or desire.”

Willa Gather’s picture of the Southwest and its early inhabitants isn’t easy to shake off, even today. She saw a racial contest where modern ideas struggled against ancient fears and superstitions. To Gather, Father Martínez represented all the evil, corruption, and backwardness that the novel’s hero, the first bishop of the new territory of New Mexico, Jean Marie Latour, would ultimately defeat.

Padre Martínez served as the priest of Taos from 1823 until his death in 1867. His antagonist, the first bishop of the vicariate of Santa Fe, Jean Baptiste Lamy (Gather’s Father Latour), held his post from 1853 to 1885. The two men warred with each other in the same turbulent years that saw the transfer of New Mexico from Spain to Mexico and subsequently to the United States.

When Don Severino bought his house in 1804, the Spanish and Pueblo Indian populations had been living in relative peace for a century or more. Although the Pueblo revolt of 1680 had been launched from the nearby Taos Pueblo, during the reconquest of New Mexico the Spanish soon learned the advantages of a more pacific policy toward the native inhabitants. A growing trade between the Spanish and the Pueblo Indians and the nearly constant threat of raids from Comanches, Apaches, and Navajos helped bring the two groups together.

 
 

In the expanded Martínez hacienda, the family could now withstand an Indian attack and could even hold off a prolonged siege. At the first sighting of a cloud of dust on the horizon the household would hurry back to the house, driving their carts and herds of sheep through the large protected gateway (the zaguán ). All the main entrances faced into the placita , where a well provided water, and the defenders could shoot down on any invaders from behind a high parapet on the roof.

 

Don Severino’s hacienda was ideally adapted to its site in the valley of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Its thick walls, made from the most readily available building material—mud—formed rooms that were warm in the winter and cool in the summer. In its design and in its building techniques the hacienda resembled similar structures that could be found in any Mexican town and even as far away as Spain, where adobe brick construction had been brought by the Moors during the Middle Ages.