"When Helen Cordero
began making clay persons in the late 1950s, she was 45 years
old, the six children she had raised were grown, and she
was doing beadwork and leatherwork with her husband's cousin,
Juanita Arquero, to make a little extra money. Most of the
profits, however, had to be used to buy more materials.
"Why don't you girls
go back to the potteries?" Fred Cordero's aunt, Grandma
Juana, asked. "You don't have to buy anything; Mother
Earth gives it all to you."
And so, Juanita, who had
learned to make pottery as a child, "started up again" and
Helen spent six months learning the ancient art from her.
Juanita was already an accomplished potter, and in comparison,
Helen's bowls and jars didn't look right. "They just
kept coming out all crooked, and I was ready to quit," said
Helen. "I didn't think I would ever get it right."
Juanita suggested that
Helen try figures. "It was like a flower blooming," said
Helen. Small frogs, birds, animals and, eventually, "little
people" came to life in abundance.
One of the first times
Helen showed them at a Santo Domingo feast day, folk art
collector Alexander Girard of Santa Fe bought all of the "little
people" (standing male and female figures, 8 to 9 inches
high) that she had; he asked her to make more and larger
figures and bring them to him. Shortly thereafter he commissioned
a 250-piece Nativity set.
Girard then asked Helen
to make an even larger seated figure with children. Perhaps
he was thinking of the "Singing Mothers"--figures
of women holding or carrying a child or two that several
Cochiti potters were making. Helen went home and thought
about Girard's request. "I kept seeing my grandfather
(Santiago Quintana). That one, he was a really good storyteller,
and there were always lots of us grandchildren around him." Santiago
Quintana was also a leading member of one of the clown societies
and a mucho sabio. And he was a valued friend and
collaborator to several generations of anthropologists and
observers of Pueblo life: He wanted his traditions preserved
and maintained, and he went to great lengths to ensure that "they
got it right." When Helen remembered her grandfather's
voice and shaped that first image of him telling stories
to five grandchildren, she made two significant modifications
in the Singing Mother tradition: (1) She made the primary
figure male, rather than female, and (2) she placed an unrealistic
number of children on him. Subsequent Cordero storytellers
have had as many as 30."