Fire-ravaged New Mexico villages cling to faith, ‘querencia’


Eileen Celestina Garcia raced down the mountain overlooking her parents’ ranch home in northern New Mexico where friends and family gathered for decades and where she sat countless times among the quiet Ponderosa pines .

A forest fire was raging and Garcia knew she only had minutes to reach her parents and make sure they evacuated in time. Her hands brushed the trees as she spoke to them, thinking the least she could do was offer gratitude and prayer in case they weren’t there when she returned.

“You try not to panic – maybe it’s not real – just ask for miracles, ask that this doesn’t affect our valley and it stops,” she said.

Like many families in New Mexico, Garcia’s is deeply rooted not just in the country, but in their Catholic faith. As the largest wildfire burning in the United States cuts through the high alpine forests and grasslands of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, many in its path pleaded with God to intervene in the form of rain and calm winds, and to protect their neighbors and their beloved landscape. .

They invoked Saint Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, the Virgin Mary as blessed mother and the various patron saints of the scattered villages. The fire for several weeks covered more than 262 square miles (678 square kilometers), destroying dozens of homes and forcing thousands of families to evacuate.

Favorable winds have helped firefighters recently, but conditions are expected to worsen over the weekend, with back-to-back days of red flag warnings. Forecasters warned of potentially historic conditions.

“There will be no respite from these winds,” said John Pendergrast, an air resources adviser on the fire.

During tough times, predominantly Hispanic working-class neighborhoods also rely on community and the lessons of those who came before them. Simply put, it’s querencia – a love of home or attachment to a place.

Some described fleeing the wildfire and imagining the faces of their neighbors in the lush valleys they helped bale hay, fix cars or harvest firewood.

“One of my neighbors described it as seeing the mountains around us burning, it’s really like seeing a loved one burn,” said Fidel Trujillo, whose family was evacuated from the small town of Mora. “And I don’t think that’s some kind of exaggeration.”

Religion is infused into homes across the mountains, where crosses hang over many doorways. Elected officials and firefighters frequently credited the prayer when the winds died down enough to allow firefighters to better control the blaze. They prayed even more when things got tough. Some started novenas or nine-day prayers and encouraged family and friends to join in.

The preservation of the faith in this region was somewhat out of necessity. The Spaniards settled in the area centuries ago, but the Catholic Church as an institution was a long way off. Even now, deacons and priests rotate between missionary churches for mass or to perform the sacraments. People like Trujillo and his wife serve as butordomos or guardians of these churches.

The landscape also includes historic Spanish land grants, large ranches, traditional irrigation systems known as acequias and moradas, which are meeting spaces for a religious brotherhood known as penitentes.

Prayer is intertwined with everything, says Trujillo, something that has been passed down from generation to generation. Her father marked the hiking trails with crosses to remind her to “pause, pray and give thanks,” Trujillo said.

By the grace of God, he says, his stepfather’s ranch in El Carmen survived the fire, as did his childhood home in Ledoux. He is unsure of his current residence in Mora in the middle of a valley popular for its Christmas trees.

“Sometimes when things get out of your control, you have to lean on that faith,” Trujillo said. “That’s faith.”

For many New Mexicans, no matter where they live, coming home is strong.

Felicia Ortiz, president of the Nevada Board of Education, recently purchased 36 acres (14.5 hectares) behind one of the mission churches to maintain her roots in New Mexico. The earth has burned, but she hopes there are trees left.

Near her childhood home in Rociada, she remembers trampling the earth to make adobe bricks and logs that her family harvested to build a barn. She and her sister skated on a frozen pond in the yard and sledged down the hills. They watched the full moon rise over a tree next to their gambling house as her dad played “Bad Moon Rising” on vinyl.

The flames destroyed the house.

“I look at the footage, and it looks like something out of a horror movie,” Ortiz said. “The tree I had a swing on is just a stick. The big piñon where we picked the piñon is like palitos (little sticks) now.

Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo called northern New Mexicans physically, emotionally and spiritually strong — “a race of our own.” Many residents invoked the teachings and resilient spirits of their ancestors as they offered their homes to evacuees, fed them, rescued animals and launched fundraisers.

Garcia and her 9-year-old son, Leoncio, took refuge during the coronavirus pandemic at his parents’ ranch in Sapello and did not leave. This is where his family milked cows and made cheese to sell to neighbors. This is where she sat among the trees overlooking the valley and dreamed of going to college and helping her family.

More recently, the trees gave her the comfort she needed to write a chapter in a book about pioneering women.

As she fled, she seized photos of loved ones and a bag containing religious items she carried on a 100-mile (160 kilometer) pilgrimage she organized and walked for 10 years.

“If our ranch and our trees are still there, what I continue to see is an opportunity to provide a healing space for people to come and sit with the trees they’ve lost,” a- she declared.


Fonseca is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at


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