CARNUEL, N.M. — The sun beats down on the high mountain church in a rural farming community folded into the crevices of the Sandia Mountains. Smoke rises from grills in the stands outside, as 2005-era Usher and Sean Paul dribble out from a PA system.
Only a few people linger inside the cool sanctuary of the San Antonio Mission Church, waiting for the service to start in whitewashed pews.
First, the dancers must be readied.
Families straighten the silken ribbons affixed to the ornate tear-drop miter headdresses, straightening the band of fringe obscuring the eyes, folded kerchiefs of lace and paisley beneath. Brightly dyed capes depicting la Virgen surrounded by flowers billow in the hot winds. Yellow, hand-stitched hearts frame a picture in memorial of Jacob Coco, a dancer who died the previous year.
In this moment, there’s transformation. Teens in Vans sneakers, men in plaids, women in floral prints all become danzantes.
In the left hand, the danzantes hold a wooden, three-pronged palma inlaid with mirrors or turquoise, a representation of Palm Sunday. The other hand holds the guaje, which rattles in time with the steps. The leader represents the Aztec King Montezuma, Monarca, ascribed as the originator of the dances, and he is joined by a girl in a white communion dress, la Malinche.
Ted and LeAnne Chavez follow other congregants into the church for vespers before the procession. In previous years, the figure of Saint Anthony would be carried up the mountain to a small spring for a blessing, but the combination of drought, heat and health concerns shortened the procession. (Photo by Dianna Cervantes for Source NM)
After vespers, the procession begins. Dancers lead the way to a lilting violin and guitar. The congregation lines the sides of the dirt road, while others carry a figure of Saint Anthony behind them.
Usually, the participants travel up the mountain in the summer to the Ojito de San Antonio, a spring, performing a ritual blessing. The program is cut short this year, for fear of aggravating the mayordomo’s back injury, but the heat also poses a threat to dancers fainting, and there’s the ever-present concern of fire sparking in the tinder-dry bush.
“It’s probably not a good thing to be up there, as dry as it is,” said Monarca Ted Chavez. If someone’s car churns up a stone and it sparks on the bottom of the vehicle, or if anyone tosses a still burning cigarette, “it could start a fire,” he said.
The observance centers around the adobe church, the land around it marked by fire and water. Dry streambeds are surrounded by stricken silver birch and cottonwood, and a lightning strike burned through the grove just to the north.
After the procession, in the dining hall of the Holy Child Catholic Church, Chavez swapped the headdress for a camouflage patterned ball cap, emblazoned with the bright yellow Cabela’s logo.
This year marked Chavez’s final year of leading the processions after 41 years of dancing. “It’s sad, but it’s time,” he said.
Over the years, his brother, wife, daughter and grandchildren have joined him in the steps he learned from his father, uncle and grandfather. “I told my son he’s got to keep going, at least for me,” he said.
Deja Tapia, 6, plays the part of la Malinche in the procession. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
His family was given land in the Cañón de Carnué Land Grant, tying them here since the 1800s. The community was established in 1763 by genizaros, captive people from the Pueblos along the Middle Rio Grande, who were converted to Catholicism. Forty-eight thousand acres were regifted to their descendants in 1819, which was later shrunk to 2,000 acres by the U.S. government.
The community of Carnuel was split in half by the construction of Interstate 40 in the 1970s. It destroyed much of the acequia system and required years of restoration work. Beyond the ditches, many of the spring-fed streams shrunk or dried entirely from development and drought — including the namesake Ojito de San Antonio.
“We’ve had the spring since we were kids, until now,” Chavez said. He estimated it’s been about 12 years since the spring ran.
He described how the mountains ran with water. Whether from snowpack, or from the Ojito feeding a stream into an arroyo in his backyard to join Tijeras Creek and flow into the Rio Grande.
But drought reshapes the present, he said. The snows don’t last as long. His mother’s well ran dry, like many others, as groundwater in many of the East Mountain communities declines along with the aquifer levels.
“My grandchildren didn’t grow up like we did, with all the water and the greenery,” he said. “To them, this is normal.”
To his left — the same formation she takes in the dance — is daughter LeAnne Chavez, who is also retiring alongside her father.
“It even comes to a point where I’m thinking about moving out of state,” she said, cutting up enchiladas for her youngest child, cherry blossom nails flashing.
The region has been fast-growing, with new housing developments and an 8,000-person population boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. But with the growth, the groundwater wells have dropped at an alarming rate.
LeAnne Chavez adjusts her father’s kerchief before the dance. 2022 marked their last season dancing together, as both intended to retire. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
Sometimes, it’s nice to dream of somewhere greener, maybe the Pacific Northwest, she mused. A cement and limestone quarry has operated just outside town since the 1950s, now owned by GCC Rio Grande. In 1994, under different leadership, residents said Tijeras was coated in limestone dust, and that quarry blasts were cracking their house foundations.
The noise and dust may have died down, but LeAnne Chavez said the industry still changes how she feels about her hometown.
“Even the cement plant, how they’re digging into the mountain and destroying the land. It seems like it’s not always worth staying.”
Not even a week after the matachines procession, the Sixty-Six Fire sparked up, burning on both sides of I-40, shutting down all traffic through the mountains, burning down two houses in Carnuel. The wildfire’s cause is still under investigation.
“We’re always in a drought. It’s been the status quo for two decades, but it’s just become more and more dangerous,” said Leroy Gonzales, the mayordomo for the Acequia Madre de Carnuel and owner of Rock Canyon Taproom, which fundraised for the families after the fire.
Even with the heavy monsoons cracking over the mountains a few days after the fire, Gonzales said it’s not enough.
“Despite the green just after the rains, the ground is dry again,” Gonzales said. “It’s what makes every year fragile, this drought, every year more dry and dangerous.”
Find the next article, Salted earth at the tail of the Rio Grande’s snowmelt, at SourceNM.com on Monday.
This project was funded by a grant from the Water Desk and by States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit news organizations and home to Source NM.