Feminist Mexican-American Artisan Leaves Legacy

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Dona Agueda Martinez

SANTA FE, N.M.–Dona Agueda Martinez, a traditional weaver or tejedora, wove beautiful rugs and blankets during her long lifetime, which she also interlaced with creativity, humility, vigorous physical activity and harmony.

Despite her own passing in June, her art lives on in the talent and passion of young people whom she trained and inspired.

“Earth I am and to the Earth I will return,” said Dona Agueda, in the closing scenes of a documentary film about her austere but harmonious subsistence life in a secluded northern New Mexico village. It portrays Martinez as a common, everyday woman whose life experience and struggle are as heroic as those usually identified with “exceptional” individuals.

At the age of 102, Dona Agueda returned to the Earth, which she revered as the sacred giver of life. “How can the Earth not be a blessing?” she asked. “It gives us everything–our food, the cotton and wool that become our clothes, the sheep and cows for meat and milk. The Earth is my life.”

This renowned weaver, of Navajo and Mexican ancestry, reared nine children on her earnings from her rugs and blankets and from the vegetables and grains she grew and sold on her farm. Throughout the 1960s she conducted local workshops passing down her craft to scores of eager apprentices who wanted to learn her techniques. Today, her daughter, Cordelia, helps keep alive her mother’s legacy by conducting workshops at the Ghost Ranch Conference Center, not far from Georgia O’Keefe’s old residence. And dozens of younger female artisans owe their start in weaving to Dona Agueda’s inspiration.

Despite her fame and the many technological advances that she witnessed across 100 years, Dona Agueda always preferred the quiet, contemplative, unobtrusive life on her farm. Even television annoyed her; she said it gave young people negative ideas such as fighting and stealing.

Agueda Martinez was born on March 13, 1898, in Chamita, New Mexico, a small village less than a mile north of what was once the first capital of New Mexico, San Gabriel del Yunque, and the second oldest European settlement in what is now the United States.

Married at 18, she supported her family after she and her husband were separated and he passed away. Her descendants include 10 children, 77 grandchildren, 149 great grandchildren and 59 great-great grandchildren.

In the spring and summer, she planted and cared for her garden of beans, corn, squash, chili and wheat; in the fall she harvested and ground the chili, corn and wheat; in the winter she carded, spun and dyed her own wool with multi-colored plants and flowers that grew around her adobe home.

Dona Agueda, as she became known to the thousands of people who knew and admired her artistry and traditional way of life, began weaving cotton rag rugs, “jergas,” when she was 12. In 1916, at the age of 18, she learned how to weave wool rugs and blankets from Lorenzo Trujillo, a famed Chimayo weaver.

Over the years, as she became more and more dedicated to her craft, doing her “dance on the loom,” as she called it, Dona Agueda transformed her once coarse throw rugs with simplistic line patterns into the coveted creations of an artist. At one time she had worked for 25 cents an hour, but in recent years her meticulously designed wool weavings with their rich earth tones, blazing sunset reds and oranges, and piercing indigos and azures, commanded as much as $3,000 each. Even her cotton rag rugs were pieces of art.

Her tapestries reflect many influences–from the serrated diamond designs produced by early Rio Grande Spanish weavers, to modified Navajo stepped motifs and Pueblo Indian patterns of solid, alternating stripes.

“I hardly ever get to keep any of my weavings,” remarked the petite and wispy weaver, in Spanish, during a recent interview. “I sell them even before they are off the loom.” Eager buyers and art collectors somehow found their way to her modest adobe home in the tiny village of Medanales, nestled between the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, about 35 miles north of Santa Fe. Many of her weavings have been displayed in museums nationwide, including the Smithsonian, and awards and citations have poured in.

Numerous articles about her work and life have been published, but Dona Agueda was particularly delighted by the one in Ms. Magazine: She couldn’t figure out how an older traditional Nortena could be included in a feminist magazine.

And yet, she was a true feminist in her own right, for she broke with convention by tilling and planting the land, chopping the wood, hauling water from the well–all usually considered men’s work.

Then late into the night she turned to her heart’s desire and her livelihood–weaving.

Dona Agueda told an interviewer that voting was the most important advance for women during the 20th century. “It’s very important to vote,” she said. “I get upset with my family if they don’t vote.” She also offered a bit of advice for girls: “Get a good education, because you don’t know what’s ahead of you. It’s not like your husband will take care of you–nowadays it’s a fifty-fifty world.”

Dona Agueda was proud that all of her daughters had learned to weave, but she lamented that the “art of weaving” was devalued by the younger generation of men. “My daughters and granddaughters all know how to weave. And some of my grandsons, only they don’t want to weave because they think it’s women’s work.”

Only days before she passed away, she had taken one blanket off her loom and had started another one. She said weaving helped her keep her mind “strong and focused.” She boasted that she never copied her designs and that she had never used a design more than once.

Adelita Medina is a freelance writer, researcher and fundraising consultant. Originally from northern New Mexico, she now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

For more information about Agueda Martinez and her work: “Dancing to Pay the Light Bill: Essays on New Mexico and the Southwest,” by Jim Sagel, Red Crane Books.


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