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The Art of Preservation Amid Great Change: Honoring the Legacy of Fabiola Cabeza de Baca 

A man tends to a pig roasting in an open pit with flames emerging from it at the Highlands Matanza

Pig roast at the Matanza

When the Highlands University Cultural Park opened this fall, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca’s legacy was felt in the sweet corn scent of roasting chicos and the mouthwatering smoky smell of blistering green chile. The horno, were both chicos and chile are roasted, serves as the heart of the Cultural Park where community members can gather to celebrate the food traditions of New Mexico.

According to northern New Mexican folklore, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca invented the hard-shell taco and propagated the widespread use of chopped green chile as relish on a range of New Mexican dishes. And as her books and other publications reveal, Cabeza de Baca was deeply dedicated to the cultivation and preservation of traditional New Mexican recipes.

Food is not typically associated with universities, but Highlands has always been a part of the long history of rich food traditions in Las Vegas and the surrounding areas. The new Cultural Park will bring those traditions to the forefront again, and it will be a place to celebrate and honor the legacies left by community members and alumni like Cabeza de Baca.

For Eric Romero, Language and Culture department chair at Highlands, the creation of the Cultural Park is a way to rebuild the kind of food sovereignty that Cabeza de Baca supported throughout her life. “Historically, Las Vegas and Northern New Mexico has had an agricultural foundation,” Romero said. “But right now, we’re pretty much a food desert. We don’t eat the food that we produce.”

Although Cabeza de Baca may have been among the earliest people to record the hard-shell taco recipe in 1931, earlier recipes can be traced to southern California in 1914. It remains plausible, that her recipe was among the first to be recorded in New Mexico. Still, folklore can take on a life of its own. May 16—her birthday—was declared Fabiola Day by the New Mexico legislature in 2021 due to her numerous contributions to New Mexico over the nearly 100 years of her life. Her dedication to preserving and promoting Hispano cultural traditions is well-documented, but her life was anything but traditional.

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca was born in 1894 when New Mexico was still a territory. She was raised by a wealthy Hispano family who grazed large herds of cattle on vast sections of what was once the Las Vegas Grandes land grant. As she writes in her memoir, “We Fed Them Cactus,” Cabeza de Baca spent the school year with her grandmother in a big house on Hot Springs Boulevard in Las Vegas. When not in school, her grandmother taught her the uses of traditional herbs and how to conduct herself as a lady.  Cabeza de Baca’s mother died in childbirth when she was 4 years old, so she spent her summers running wild on her father’s ranch in La Liendre—something she writes in her memoir that her grandmother would have frowned upon had she known how little housework was done. As she recounts in a manuscript she never published, she preferred riding her horse to doing housework and one day she arrived home to find dirty utensils and dishes running in a line from the ranch door to the well. “The poor dishes were thirsty and started out for relief,” her brother, Luis, said.

Cabeza de Baca loved the landscape and the stories she heard growing up. Although the tales of Billy the Kid and Las Gorras Blancas were from before her time, she recounts them in detail in “We Fed Them Cactus,” alongside her own memories of her childhood and her time in Las Vegas and La Liendre. Her rendering of the legends and dichos she grew up with paint a romanticized picture of Hispano culture, but her dedication to preserving cultural stories and recipes is one she would carry with her throughout her lifetime. In particular, her love of the Llano informed her connection to the people of New Mexico and the work she later pursued. As she wrote in her memoir,

A storm on the Llano is beautiful. The lightning comes down like arrows of fire and buries itself on the ground. At the pealing of thunder, the bellowing of cattle fills the heart of listeners with music. A feeling of gladness comes over one as the heavens open in downpour to bathe Mother Earth. Only those watching and waiting for rain can feel the rapture it brings.

Cabeza de Baca’s deep roots propelled her life’s work and determination to preserve as much as she could of what she called “the good life.”

Wealthy families at the turn of the century expected their children to be well-educated, and Cabeza de Baca was no exception. She began her studies at age four at the private Loretto Academy in Las Vegas, but according to her niece, Esther Branch, Cabeza de Baca was promptly expelled for slapping a nun and refusing to apologize. She transferred to a public school run by New Mexico Normal School, now known as Highlands University, where she completed her studies and earned a high school certificate in home economics in 1912 at age 16. She was also afforded the opportunity to study for a year in Spain at age 12—an experience she would repeat later as a young adult. Cabeza de Baca’s father did not want her to pursue work following her education and tried to dissuade his daughter from accepting a teaching position in a one-room school house, but as she would demonstrate throughout her life, no one could stop her from doing anything she set her mind to.

As she chronicles in “We Fed Them Cactus,” Cabeza de Baca began her teaching career in 1915 in a schoolhouse six miles from her father’s ranch. Six miles was too far to travel by horseback, so she boarded with various families who lived close to the school. She threw herself into the job wholeheartedly. Cabeza de Baca had a natural curiosity and instinct for adaptation that foreshadowed her approach to her entire career. She wrote:

“It was a mixed school. There were the children of the homesteaders, the children of parents of Spanish extraction, and children with Indian blood but of Spanish tongue. … They certainly were a hardy lot for otherwise they could not have survived the cruelty of the wind, the droughts, and the poverty which surrounded most of them. They asked my advice on many subjects but I never felt capable of giving it

Chile roasting at the Highlands Matanza

Chile roasting at the Matanza

to them. My education was from books; theirs came the hard way. It was superior to mine.”

Curiously, although her memoir was published in 1954, Cabeza de Baca chose to end her book with a detailed account of her first year of teaching, the Anglo homesteaders’ encroachment on her father’s land, and the Great Depression of 1918 that led to further loss of land and wealth for her family and many other Hispano ranchers. The confluence of these events, however, would steer her towards her life’s work.

Cabeza de Baca taught for twelve years in Santa Rosa, El Rito, and other rural settings. In 1914, she attended night classes at New Mexico Normal University while teaching fulltime and earned a university degree in pedagogy in 1921. Always ambitious and eager to learn, Cabeza de Baca went on to enroll in a degree program in 1927 for home economics at New Mexico State University. In a speech she gave much later at Highlands University, Cabeza de Baca recalled that her early introduction to home economics by her grandmother had not been that helpful. “What did we learn—fancy hand sewing. I remember making a tea apron of fine cambric trimmed in lace.  . . . We also learned to make candies and cookies.” But when she earned her high school diploma in home economics at Highlands—then the Normal School—she had learned much more: “foods, clothing, home management, art appreciation, house planning, home nursing, child care, interior decoration, chemistry of food and nutrition, textiles, and perhaps some others.” By 1927, however, home economics had become a burgeoning field, and the program at NMSU helped Cabeza de Baca stay up to date on the progress and new technologies available.

While she studied at NMSU, Cabeza de Baca taught Spanish classes and her education and background in home economics caught the attention of New Mexico’s director of extension work, W. L. Elser. The Agricultural Extension Service had been initiated across the U.S. in 1914 as a way to support farmers, introduce new technology to make things more efficient, and encourage them to stay on the land. In New Mexico, however, the population was already largely rural and largely Spanish speaking and the state was slowly learning to adapt the government’s initiatives to New Mexico’s particular needs. It wasn’t until 1917 that the New Mexico Extension Service hired agents who spoke Spanish, and in 1929, when Cabeza de Baca agreed to leave her teaching career to become an extension agent, she was among just a few Spanish-speaking Hispano women who had been hired. W. L. Elser understood at the time that it would take someone of her background to reach different communities in the state.

Although Cabeza de Baca’s wealthy upbringing may have presented some barriers in visiting small villages early on, her natural curiosity and desire to learn made her very successful at her job. “She represented the government going into households and introducing new food traditions,” Romero said. “That was really an interesting period because you think it would be somewhat antagonistic to have government workers going into communities and telling locals how to cook their food.” But as Romero acknowledges, she succeeded at her job. This was in large part due to her instinct to observe the food traditions that were already working in the small villages and on the Pueblos she visited, and to integrate them into her teaching as well as to introduce new food preservation techniques such as canning with a pressure cooker.

Cabeza de Baca’s 101-year-old cousin and former New Mexico legislator J. Paul Taylor recalls traveling with her on occasion. During one memorable visit, he said he and a high school teacher from Las Cruces, Gloria Shelley, visited Cabeza de Baca at her home in Santa Fe and travelled with her to offer their condolences to famous potter Maria Martinez, who had recently lost a son. “It was the most wonderful chatting because Fabiola would talk about the Hispanic ways of burying people, and Maria would talk about the Indian ways of burying people,” said Taylor. “We were just stupefied. Really, it was so wonderful to sit and listen to Fabiola and Maria Martinez talk about their grief and their coming together with cultural norms that were comforting to both of them.”

Cabeza de Baca’s desire to learn was lifelong and she often infused the books she would later write with the things she had learned. In her book, “The Good Life,” the first half is a fictional account of the Turrieta family that shows the seasonal rituals and customs of Hispano families in conjunction with the foods they harvested and prepared. In one chapter, the Turrieta family participates in a burial, which is described as an “Indian burial”—no coffin—but which is accompanied by a traditional Hispano feast like the kind often prepared for weddings. In another chapter, a curandera resembling her grandmother teaches a younger family member about the uses for various herbs. The younger family member, though interested, is predisposed to cure various ailments with Western medicine.

The blending of cultural traditions and acknowledgement of the changes that come with each generation made Cabeza de Baca more successful than other extension agents. As she wrote in the Journal of Home Economics in 1942, a family she visited once served her fried potatoes, canned beef, and white bread while they ate beans, chile, and tortillas. When she asked them why they’d served her different food, they said “We thought you didn’t like the kind of food we poor people eat.” She explained that not only did she eat the same food, but that it was much more nutritious. Her cousin, J. Paul Taylor, remembers that she was always received warmly. “I went with her to some of those villages,” he said. “It was always so nice because she was so welcome there.”

Cabeza de Baca married Carlos Gilbert in 1931. Women did not commonly marry in their 30s during that time period, but to make matters worse, Gilbert was divorced. Cabeza de Baca’s father disapproved of the marriage so the couple eloped to Mexico. Following the wedding, Cabeza de Baca continued her work as an extension agent. It was rare for Hispanic women to work but even rarer for them to continue work after marriage. She would not be deterred. The marriage lasted a decade before it ended with divorce in 1941. The couple did not have children together, either. “They were very unusual choices,” Taylor said. “But Fabiola liked unusual things.” Following her divorce, “She didn’t go by Gilbert,” Taylor said. “I don’t think the marriage was a good one. She always used C de Baca, or Cabeza de Baca, in her writings and I appreciated that.”

Not long after her marriage, while traveling through Romeroville, a train struck Cabeza de Baca’s vehicle, injuring her leg. While she recuperated, she began writing Extension Circulars to disseminate information about nutrition and to share the many recipes she had collected. Eventually, her leg was amputated, and she resumed her travel to villages in northern New Mexico. Taylor recalled a visit to his cousin with a neighbor, Eliza Fountain, following a long day of travel for Cabeza de Baca. “Eliza looked down at her feet and she said, ‘One of your legs is much more swollen than the other.’” Taylor remembered. “And Fabiola said, ‘Well, you know Eliza, my wooden leg doesn’t swell.’ Of course, Eliza was terribly embarrassed about that—but Fabiola, she was always good for a joke.”

Cabeza de Baca didn’t allow marriage or disability to slow her down. Her work as an extension agent often began at 6 a.m. and ended at midnight due to long drives and poorly maintained roads. Taylor remembers frequent visits to her house at 501 San Antonio Street in Santa Fe, back when he was president of the National Education Association of New Mexico. “While I was preparing my shower, she was in the kitchen preparing eggs and bacon for me. I decided that was just too much her,” Taylor said.

Two students tend to boiling pots over open fires at the Matanza

Matanza cooking

“I told her I had to be at the office of the NEA at five in the morning. I had to beat her out the door before she started fixing breakfast for me.” Although she became skilled at cooking and is now known for the recipes and food traditions she preserved, Esther Branch, claimed her aunt didn’t like to cook. In fact, Cabeza de Baca revealed in an interview that she hired help to do her housework and do the cooking—but according to Branch, she taught her staff how to prepare the food the way she liked it.

Cabeza de Baca’s writing began with Extension Circulars, but she had long been interested in collecting folklore, legends, and dichos. The recipes she collected from the Native, Anglo, and Hispanic communities in northern New Mexico became so popular when they were published in a Circular in 1931, that she turned it into her book, “Historic Cookery.” The book was a testament to the living, changing nature of food and culture and was republished many times, selling tens of thousands of copies. It was so popular that New Mexico Governor Thomas Mabry sent a copy to every state governor across the country, along with a sack of pinto beans. “She demonstrated a flexibility and creativity rather than being a staunch defender of one singular traditional way of cooking,” said Romero. “She facilitated that creativity and created contemporary cuisine. She was ahead of her time.”

In addition to “Historic Cookery,” Cabeza de Baca wrote “The Good Life” and “We Fed Them Cactus,” both of which provide nostalgic accounts of Hispano life in northern New Mexico. In her work, Cabeza de Baca was adept at connecting with people regardless of culture or background, and she even reportedly taught herself Tewa and Tiwa. As a government employee, Cabeza de Baca had to walk a fine line between pushing an outside agenda on rural New Mexico communities and advocating on their behalf. Historian Maureen Reed, author of “A Woman’s Place,” believed her memoir writing was strategic. Cabeza de Baca came from a family of politicians, and as such, she was rhetorically savvy. In her relative position of privilege, Reed argued in her book, Cabeza de Baca may have been able to do the work she did by appealing to Spanish nostalgia through her writing. Despite her romantic views of the past, Cabeza de Baca understood that change was inevitable and lived accordingly. Ultimately, Cabeza de Baca’s preservation of Hispano history, multi-cultural recipes, and her unconventional life demonstrated to New Mexicans that observing traditions and embracing change were not at odds.

Cabeza de Baca remained an extension agent for 30 years, and in her unpublished manuscript she wrote, “Extension means just that,” she explained: “To extend the work by way of passing it to friends, neighbors and relatives.” In addition to her extension work, she wrote bilingual newsletters, wrote a weekly column in Spanish for El Nuevo Mexicano, participated in weekly radio programs, published her books, and gave countless presentations, talks, and interviews. Even after she retired, she worked as a trainer and consultant for the United Nations and the Peace Corps, and she was very active with collecting Hispano folklore with La Sociedad Folklórica “To really become part of the community, you have to be familiar with the stories that preceded you,” said Romero. “And what better mechanism besides food stories? When I take a picture of my tacos and send them to you on the other side of the United States, I’m still engaging in that tradition. Storytelling centered around food is historic.”

The Highlands University Cultural Park, completed in October, is an outdoor community space that will feature events centered on local food traditions. In addition to the horno, the Cultural Park will consist of a variety of gardens to grow traditional foods, including raised beds, a healing garden, a pollin

People gather for food at the Highlands Matanza

Highlands Matanza

ator garden, and traditional orchards. “It’ll be a demonstration garden where we can grow local, indigenous food and take it from ground to plate or ground to jar,” Romero said. “Because we want to emphasize some preservation strategies that have historically been in place as well.”

Romero has hosted a Matanza, chile roasting, and chico roasting at the Cultural Park this fall, and he has big visions for how the space will bring the communities in and around Las Vegas together. Much like Cabeza de Baca, Romero hopes community members will share food traditions and recipes. “It’s a wonderful endeavor to say ‘well how do you make your chicharrones?’ or how do you prepare your green chile stew?’” Romero said. “It leads to discussion and brings in that tradition. And particularly for those students who are here from outside of the state, they will truly get—not a pun—a taste of local flavor.”

At the end of her memoir, Cabeza de Baca wrote, “Each generation must profit by the trials and errors of those before them; otherwise, everything would perish.” For a book focused on history and tradition, Cabeza de Baca acknowledges that change is not only inevitable, but necessary. Just as Cabeza de Baca blended tradition with change, the Highlands Cultural Park aims to do the same. “We have stories around food and food tradition, but deep at heart it’s a historical lesson,” said Romero. “We can use this Cultural Park to reflect upon our larger multicultural history.”