Ranchos de Taos, N.M. In the center of this northern New Mexico village stands a sun-baked adobe church made famous by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and the photographs of Ansel Adams and Paul Strand.
But if it weren’t for an annual ritual that has been kept alive for nearly two centuries by the close-knit community of Ranchos de Taos, it’s likely the iconic church wouldn’t be standing at all.
Hundreds of parishioners gathered over two weeks under the summer sun to plaster the thick walls of the San Francisco de Asis Church with a fresh coat of mud, from the massive buttresses at the back of the fortress-like church to the courtyard walls and the tops of the bell towers.
It’s a lot of work, but resident Guadalupe Tafoya says the payoff is knowing that the community’s symbol of faith will be able to weather another year.
“If we don’t come together, we end up losing,” said Tafoya, who has helped with the plastering ritual — or enjarre as the parishioners call it — since she was a young girl.
“This is an organic structure. It’s adobe, it’s alive, it expands, it contracts so we work with it,” she said. “It holds everything, it holds joy, it holds grief, it holds sorrow, it holds hope and prayer. Most of all, it holds the traditions of the people of Ranchos.”
Parishioners of San Francisco de Asis have been caring for the Catholic church ever since its construction was completed in the early 1800s by the families who lived in what was then a remote settlement a few miles from the Rio Grande and north of the crossroads of El Camino Real and the Santa Fe Trail.
Like generations before them, the modern parishioners waste no time mixing the mud and doling it out to those who are armed with trowels.
Two teenagers take turns shoveling piles of dirt that were trucked in from a special area just south of the village. There, the dirt is perfect — just the right color with just the right amount of clay and sand.
Then experience comes into play, as only the right amount of water and straw make mud worthy of the project.
Joe Mondragon, 77, knows the recipe. He sprinkles in a handful of straw before telling the younger men to mix the mud with their hoes.
“It always seems to work,” he said.
The old-timers say the job is much easier now with trucks, wheelbarrows, cranes and garden hoses. As the story goes, horses and buggies used to haul in the dirt and everybody from the village’s children to its goats and dogs would stomp around in the mud to mix it up. Parishioners would then ferry the mud to the plasterers in rope-handled wooden buckets.
“The old people from way back, they already had it perfected,” said Leroy Mondragon, as he mixed a trough full of the mud used for the final coat.
The work is serious but the parishioners find spare moments to share stories, laugh and whistle tunes.
“It’s a time of great joy and a lot of hard work,” said the Rev. Francis Malley, who has presided over the church for nearly six years. “You don’t often get the chance to actually put your hand in mud and put it on and then in the space of two weeks see the final result. I think it gives the people a great deal of satisfaction and love for the church.”