New Mexico

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Looking for Santa Barbara

Yesterday I wrote about the Saint Lady of Mesilla, Francesca de Garcia, who paints retablos which are devotional paintings of the saints and Virgin Mary. A reader asked me to look for a Saint Barbara. “I used to throw a Feast of Saint Barbara party every year because when I was looking for a good time to have a housewarming shortly after Thanksgiving, that was the name on the first Saturday in December,” she wrote.

I should have mentioned that Francesca has a website where you can purchase her retablos (according to her web site, she’s sold some 75,000 “Little Saints” in the past 15 years). She has painted “over 400 different folkart images of Catholic saints, religious icons, angels and name sakes and pre-religion prophets.” I’m not sure what pre-religion prophets are but you can find them at And, of course, she has a Santa Barbara.


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The Saint Lady of Mesilla

The Saint Lady of Mesilla

Retablos painted by The Saint Lady of Mesilla. Photo by David Lansing.

In the afternoon, I went looking for The Saint Lady. The saint lady is Francesca de Garcia. The last time I was in Mesilla, Garcia had a little shop called Casa de Santiago—House of the Saints—where she sold inexpensive retablos of over 200 saints, many I’d never heard of before.

Garcia had started painting the saints shortly after her husband died, as I remembered. But Casa de Santiago was gone. Or perhaps it had moved. I went into a shop selling bright red ristras not far from the old plaza and asked the woman there if she knew what had happened to The Saint Lady, fearing she had died. The woman said she was still around.

“She usually sets up at the Mercado on Friday afternoons,” she said. “If she’s feeling well.”

I walked over to the Mesilla Square and soon found her retablos. But she wasn’t around. An older gentleman said she was in Las Cruces. Like I said, The Saint Lady painted every saint you could imagine but her specialty seemed to be the Virgin Mary.

There were dozens of them on the table in the plaza. There was Our Lady of Refuge and Our Lady of Sorrows and Our Lady of the Snows. You could buy Our Lady of Czestochowa-Poland or Our Lady the Virgin of Charity (Cuba) or Our Lady of Guadalupe (several versions of this Mexican icon).

Our Lady of Copacabana.

I ended up buying Our Lady of Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia. I liked the way she looked. Very, very stylish. Like Madona. The rock star, not the virgin. And I liked that there was a Virgin of the Copacabana. It wasn’t like she was the patron saint of nightclubs or anything, but I didn’t care. I liked the idea anyway.

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La Posta de Mesilla

La Posta in Mesilla has been serving up tacos “to eat with your fingers” since 1939. Photo by David Lansing.

I got to Old Mesilla around eleven and realized I hadn’t had dinner last night or breakfast today and I was hungry. I was still thinking about Janine and the guy with the gun but there wasn’t anything I could do about it at this point. I parked near the plaza which was empty except for a couple of kids playing up on the bandstand which had flags of the U.S. and Mexico, crossed, painted on the façade of the roof. I was thinking maybe I’d have lunch at La Posta, if it was still around. It was a good New Mexican restaurant. Not great, but good.

The last time I’d been to La Posta was about 20 years ago, when I was working for Sunset magazine, and I was writing a story about retro highway diners. I’d gotten the idea from a framed copy of a Life magazine article from July 1, 1957, hanging on the wall in La Posta. The article was titled “Roadside Inns and their Fine Foods” and included a story about La Posta as well as The Crab Broiler in Seaside, Oregon; Nepenthe in Big Sur; and the Ojai Valley Inn in Ojai. I’d been to all of them many, many years ago.

It was something to think about Life magazine writing a story about La Posta 55 years ago and how the restaurant was still here, serving up the La Posta Specialty: a starter of chile con queso and corn tortillas, guacamole, red enchiladas, tamale, rolled taco, frijoles, sopaipilla, and, for dessert, an empanada served hot with ice cream, all for just $14.25. That’s what I ordered, even though I knew I would never eat it all.

Just seeing that big platter of food made me nostaligic. I’m not sure for what. Maybe for the day when even something like a taco was just exotic enough to American tastes that the La Posta menu needed to describe what it was and how to eat it: “The taco can best be described as a Mexican sandwich. Eat tacos with your fingers!”

Yes, eat tacos with your fingers. They’re best that way.

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I just sat in my car in White Sands listening and watching the thunderstorm. It was something to see. Dark. Spooky. Sort of biblical I guess you’d say.

But it passed as quickly as it came. I rolled down my windows and slowly drove through the park, the light in the late afternoon soft, the air clean and delicious.

Originally I figured I’d drive to Mesilla, just south of Las Cruces, and spend the night but when I got to the highway I turned north, towards Alamogordo, instead of south.

Alamogordo, in case you were wondering, means “big cottonwood.” Or maybe “fat tree” (gordo means fat in Spanish and alamo can either mean tree or cottonwood or even poplar). The city of Alamogordo says it’s “The Friendliest Place on Earth.”

I can’t say I picked up that vibe.

I stayed at the White Sands Motel, about five miles from Holloman Air Force Base, and it was just fine. A little threadbare but what the heck do you expect for $49.95? There was a young couple staying in the room right next to mine that were straight out of a Raymond Carver short story. They kept me awake much of the night with their arguing and shouting and crying and drinking. Around three in the morning, I heard the door to their room slam and then someone got into the pickup parked outside and started it up but didn’t go anywhere. This was the husband or maybe the boyfriend. After awhile, he turned off the engine and came back to the room but he was locked out.

“Janine, goddamnit, open the door!” he yelled, throwing his shoulder against it. I could hear Janine on the other side of the wall crying. “You don’t open the goddamn door I’m gonna shoot the both of us,” he said.

Now, this is the point at which you wonder should you get involved in a domestic argument. There’s a couple of drunk people on opposite sides of a cheap motel door and evidently someone’s got a gun. I suppose I could have called the cops but I was worried that would only make it worse. I didn’t want to be crouched behind my lumpy double bed while the cops shot it out with the husband in the parking lot of the White Sands Motel. So I told myself I’d just monitor the situation. And if it looked like the husband really had a gun, then I’d call the cops.

Anyway, the threats and door pounding went on for at least another half hour and then it quieted down. I didn’t get much sleep after that and shortly after dawn, packed up as quietly as I could and softly opened my motel door. The husband was slouched over in an old rusty metal chair outside the door of the motel. An empty bottle of Jack Daniels was in his lap. I didn’t see any gun. I opened the door to my car as quietly as I could since it was parked not five feet away from the sleeping drunk, started her up, and quickly backed out of the lot. I’m sure Janine was just fine.

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Shelter from the storm

A thunderstorm over White Sands National Monument. Photo by Evgueni Strok.

The dark shadows from the nearing storm cast a cool, blue light across the towering sand dunes, transforming them into a pitching ocean. What once looked eternally still and solid now seemed as fluid as a rolling breaker. Lightning strikes, once faraway in the San Andreas Mountains, are getting closer and closer.

Though black masses of clouds now block out the horizon, making it impossible to tell exactly where the mountains are—my compass point—I feel almost certain I’m heading in the right direction. I remember passing the same skunkbush sumac, wrapped in a mounded plaster cast of etched gypsum, on my way out on the trail. And there’s the three brittle soaptree yuccas where I first stopped to drink some water two hours ago.

A deafening clap of thunder, a brilliant lightning strike and just when I’m almost certain that I’m lost, I see it: The glare of my car in the deserted parking lot. I run as fast as I can and nervously open up the car door just as the first large plops of the thunderstorm smack against my chalky windshield.

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