Traditional New Mexican Hispanic Crafts

Yesterday and Today

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In New Mexican Spanish there is an old saying, "Muchos pocos hacen un mucho—a lot of nothing makes something." And so it is that the simple utilitarian and devotional material culture of Hispanic New Mexico has become the focus of collectors, museums, art historians, cultural anthropologists and tourists. In the eyes of the early New Mexican Hispanics, their hand crafts stood witness to an often struggling existence in a harsh landscape. The simple crafts of 18th and 19th century New Mexico spawned a renaissance of contemporary Hispanic artists inspired by the work of their ancestors.

Since the recolonization of New Mexico by Don Diego de Vargas in 1692, the Hispanic people have created a variety of art forms, including straw applique, weaving, furniture, santos, blacksmithing, jewelry and tinsmithing.

Straw applique

The simple craft of straw applique or inlay article whose origins indicate Northern Africa, has been practiced by both Native American and Hispanic peoples since the early 1700s. The predominant form has been the blackened cross embellished with an endless variety of geometric designs, although chests, boxes, candle sconces and other items are also covered in the golden straw or corn husk designs.


Cox Cross
Josie Ward Cox
Straw Applique Cross


Sagel textile

Teresa Archuleta Sagel Vallero Star Blanket (Detail)

Throughout the colonial era beginning in 1598, until World War II, a pastoral economy dominated by sheep husbandry gripped New Mexico. Wool weaving engaged entire families and small villages; it became one of the most prolific crafts of the past two and a half centuries. Weavers supplied material for clothing, blanketry, bedding and carpeting for domestic use as well as blankets and yardage for trading. Yearly trade caravans sent hundreds of blankets south into New Spain. In 1807, master weavers Juan and Ignacio Bazan were brought in from Puebla (Mexico) in an effort to upgrade the weaving done in the Rio Arriba. The influence of the master weavers was soon felt and contributed significantly to a lasting textile industry in New Mexico.

If weaving was the most prolific craft produced in New Mexico, the embroidered wool ground known as colcha was and is perhaps the most time-consuming craft practiced by Hispanics. While specific dates and origins of the colcha with its economic stitch are difficult to establish, scholars place its appearance in New Mexico by at least 1750. Colcha work has evolved and flourishes today as a distinctive colonial tradition reinterpreted by new generations of colcha stitch embroidery.

Any observation of New Mexican Hispanic arts would reveal the primacy of religious art. Research indicates that by the late 1700s through the early 1900s, the art of the santero, or saintmaker, was in great demand for religious purposes. The earliest religious imagery made in New Mexico after 1694 were likely those painted directly on the walls of mission churches. Today, vestiges remain of that decorative art behind the altarpieces in the churches at Laguna, Trampas and San Miguel in Santa Fe. By the mid-1700s, paintings on brain-tanned hides of buffalo, elk, or deer were uniquely common to New Mexico, serving as tools for religious education especially among Native Americans. The artists remain unidentified and these early hide paintings still puzzle scholars.

Art of the Santero

Carrillo San Jose
Charles M Carrillo
San Jose Retablo
Photo by Ron Behrman from Charlie Carillo:
Tradition and Soul /
Tradicion y Alma
Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts, LPD Press
Albuquerque, NM 1995

With the steady growth in population in the late 18th century and the spread of settlements into new microbasins, churches and chapels were built. The increasing trend was to create fully carved and painted altarscreens known as reredos, altares or corateles. These altars included a carved architectural framework inset with hand-adzed panels painted with imagery of saints. This internal and localized form of icon varying in size from miniature pieces to altar screen-size panels, became the most common devotional imagery of late 18th and 19th century New Mexico. Two basic types of images emerged from the village workshops in the late 18th century: retablos and bultos. Retablos depict a vast number of saints, trials of the Virgin Mary, and the passion and crucifixion of Christ. Bultos refer to carved images of saints.

In making both forms, the santero initially coated the pine panel or cottonwood root figure with gesso made from gypsum and animal hide glue. Colors and pigments came from trade items such as indigo and vermillion and locally produced colors derived from vegetable dyes, clays, minerals and carbon soot. Both forms were finally sealed with a resinous coating made from pinon sap. The colors were often so vivid that colonial authorities mistakenly reported that altar screens were painted in oil paints.


While furniture was never an abundant item in New Mexican colonial homes, there is a rich history article of carpentry and furniture making that was well-established by the mid-1700s. Although several varieties of wood were available in New Mexico, from the 16th through the 19th century, the choice was exclusively ponderosa pine. Traditional items made by Hispanic artists and craftsmen include chests, boxes, doors, trasteros, benches, chairs and tables.

Ironworking constitutes still another colonial tradition alive today. Unlike the other iron-rich colonies of the New World, New Mexico did not produce iron, which was always imported in scanty amounts. Nonetheless, blacksmiths fashioned a variety of utilitarian tools and household decorations and handed down their skills over the generations.

With the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, imported trade items began to influence New Mexican artists. Only the santeros with their distinctive localized style remained unaffected by the early trade.


Beginning in the late 1840s, a variety of commercial goods arrived in New Mexico via the Santa Fe Trail. Tin cans were quickly recycled into a number of utilitarian objects by the newest class of artisans in New Mexico, the tinsmiths. New data suggest that the greatest output of tinwork article occurred between 1860 and 1890. Tinsmiths' family workshops produced frames, nichos, sconces, crosses, trinket boxes and other objects with beautifully executed surface embellishment reflecting a style unique to New Mexico.

Sandoval mirror
Bonifacio F Sandoval
Tin Mirror

Revival of the traditional arts

What has come to be known as traditional Hispanic New Mexican art has evolved over a 300-year period. From 1694 until early 1900, the production of decorative and utilitarian arts was based on local demands and had a distinctive style. With the advent of the railroad in 1879, and the influx of Anglo writers and artists, attitudes toward Hispanic arts began to change. By the 1920s, fewer santeros, weavers, furniture makers, blacksmiths and tinsmiths were continuing their skills, as commercial goods replaced the handmade items. Recognizing this, the Santa Fe colony of Anglo writers and artists founded the Society for the Revival of Spanish Colonial Arts, which was later renamed the Spanish Colonial Arts Society. This group represented the first efforts of non-Hispanics to promote Colonial arts, although many notable collectors had already amassed sizable collections of traditional Hispanic arts. Led by curiosity and an interest in preservation, the artist colonies in Taos and Santa Fe focused on small Hispanic villages, launching Hispanic artists into a tourist/collector-oriented market.

Between 1935 and 1952, in spite of Anglo patronage and enthusiasm, traditional Hispanic crafts weren't deemed as "collectible" as Indian arts and crafts. Many functions of the Society were assumed by federally-funded arts projects and vocational training programs under the New Deal of the 1940s. The Spanish Colonial Arts Society remote was revitalized in 1951 and with that came a rebirth of interest in the artistry of Hispanic New Mexicans. By 1971, Spanish Market was established as an annual event on Santa Fe's Plaza during the last full weekend of July, and in 1989, the first annual Winter Spanish Market was successfully introduced. July 1989 marked a significant event for New Mexican Hispanic arts: the opening of the Hispanic Heritage Wing of the Museum of International Folk Art remote in Santa Fe. The Museum's new wing houses the largest collection of Spanish Colonial and Hispanic art and hand crafts in the United States. A permanent installation, Familia y Fe, honors 400 years of Hispanic artistic traditions in the Southwest and a gallery of changing exhibits will continually feature the work of outstanding contemporary regional folk artists.

While the majority of work produced in the early years of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society conformed exactly to historic pieces, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw Hispanic artists reinterpreting the arts of their ancestors in non-traditional ways, as well as promoting the traditional forms. A cultural renaissance has led to an explosion of Hispanic arts in both traditional and non-traditional formats. In the past five years, Hispanics have reshaped traditional perspectives on Hispanic New Mexican material culture. Traditional Colonial arts based on historic prototypes, research and innovation are now exhibited in major galleries and museum collections throughout the United States.

By Charles M. Carrillo pic santero and anthropologist in Santa Fe.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 5

Related Pages

Patrocinio Barela, Carver article
Hispanic Arts & Crafts Tour of Northern NM article
The National Hispanic Cultural Center of NM article
New Mexican Furniture Through Time article
Three Hispanic New Mexico Metal Traditions article

Marco Oviedo, Carver article
Santos of New Mexico: A 400-Year Tradition article
Vallero Star Blankets article
Hispanic and Native Churches in Albuquerque article
Straw Art in New Mexico article

Collector’s Resources

Santa Fe

Joan Caballero Appraisals PO Box 822, Santa Fe, NM | 505-982-8148
Castillo Gallery | 505-351-4067
Chimayo Trading & Mercantile | 505-351-4566
Montez Gallery / Montez + Santa Fe aka Heaven | 505-982-1828
Museum of International Folk Art | 505-476-1145
Oviedo Carvings & Bronze | 505-351-2280
The Owings Gallery | 505-982-6244
The Rainbow Man | 505-982-8706
Wadle Galleries Ltd pic 128 West Palace Ave | 505-983-9219


Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462


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