Taos County, New Mexico
Rafaelita D. Yazza

Picuris Pueblo - Living Treasures
Story by Virginia L. Clark * For The Taos News, October 12, 2001

Rafaelita Duran Yazza is Picuris Pueblo's choice for this year's Taos Living Treasure. This beloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother is well-known in the Picuris and Santa Fe Indian communities for her ongoing involvement in both tribal life and for her 25 years as a nursing assistant at the Public Health System (PHS) Indian Hospital in Santa Fe.

Yazza was born 75 years ago in Picuris Pueblo, on Aug. 9, 1926, to Amanuelita and Ramos Duran. After her mother died, while Rafaelita was still young, she was raised by her stepmother, Sylvanita, along with her brother, Bernard, sister, Lydia, and stepsister, Marina.

She recalls school days in Santa Fe with great relish. "We attended Picuris Day School from the first through the sixth grade," Yazza said. "After we completed sixth grade, we were all sent to Santa Fe Indian School, a boarding school. We spoke no English when we first went; it was hard not being able to communicate. We always used to make fun of ourselves for the way we spoke English. We used to be grounded for speaking Indian," she said, a trace of humorous disbelief in her voice. "We used to have so much fun when we got together ... the pronunciation we used to do."

Her eldest son, Stan, said his mother is known to be rather quiet and shy, but he added, "Mom's got her own funniness." Since she never learned to drive, a number of family tales turn on Rafaelita's mishaps with cars and travel. "I guess she's just a scaredy-cat," Stan said. And sometimes, she had good reason to be scared. "We had a big station wagon, an old '70 Plymouth, a huge one. It was sitting outside the garage one day and Mom decided she wanted to move it. When she stepped on the gas, she went right on through the garage. She was crying, saying she had just wanted to move the car. We told her, "Mom, you always wanted a den!" And when (we made it a den), we put a big window there, where she crashed through the wall."

Her sister, Lydia Duran Tsosie, did all the driving, and the dynamic duo of Aunt "Lele" and Auntie "Ralph" were seen everywhere, browsing in D.C., shopping in Seattle, and just about everywhere the Tekawitha Christian Indian conventions took them.

Tekawitha is a Mohawk from New York, whom Rafaelita said is supposed to be canonized, to honor all Native Americans.

Stan says the traveling sisters are notorious sightseers and window-shoppers. "They're always going on trips. And they got left behind in Seattle. My Mom and Lydia, they were window-shopping, as usual, and they were the only ones who missed the bus and had to take another one. Everyone was teasing them because they were late."

One of Rafaelita's travels allowed her to meet the grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Charles McGilberry, the couple who ran Santa Fe Indian School when she was a student. "Charles was part Choctaw," Rafaelita said. "When I went to Washington, D.C. I met the grandson, Charles Blackwell. He comes here, Picuris and Santa Fe, for our feasts sometimes."

After high school, Rafaelita thought she would enter nurse's training. But she married her late husband, Hubert Yazza, and worked a couple of years after graduation, doing housework here and there, she said, and then had four children -- Stan, Charlotte, Dennis and Wayne. With most of her babies grown, she worked one year at St. Vincent's hospital in early 1961 and then transferred to PHS Indian Hospital. "I worked funeral med(icine)-surg(ery) and also pediatrics," she said. She relates how the old PHS was divided into male and female sections and had only one doctor for the whole floor. On evening and midnight shifts, there was only one registered nurse for each section. The new building is top of the line, she said, which boasts state-of-the-art facilities, including cardiac catheterization, critical care and outpatient clinics. "I remember the move to the new building," she said. "In those years, we had to do everything, help with each department; things weren't specialized." She also recalls how mechanizing a seemingly insignificant task made all the difference in a day's work. "I remember we had to shake all those thermometers down, every single one of them. When we finally got a machine to shake them down, that was a relief."

When asked if she's happy to be retired, she said, "Oh yes! Back to being a homemaker and a grandma." She admits to being an avid gardener and spoiling Wayne's children, who all live in Picuris. Rafaelita's renown as a cook is legendary in the family and she has been in many cooking competitions with her sister, Lydia. Stan reports how he and his cousin once rebuilt many of the hornos, the adobe ovens, that were in disrepair around the pueblo. "My cousin, Carl Anthony Tsosie, an active council member in Picuris and former lieutenant governor of the tribe, built her horno in Santa Fe. She's always baking traditional food, especially the bread, some cookies, prune pies."

And since all her children and grandchildren participate in the ceremonies and social dances at the pueblos, she sews all their costumes. And that, Stan said, is an ongoing endeavor because the children are constantly growing. "Years ago, I used to embroider their clothing," his mother said. "But that's long ago. I make all the traditional clothing for the grandchildren." Her five grandchildren are Darlene (Stan's daughter), Allen (Charlotte Y. Bain's son), Francine, Wayne and Celestino (Wayne's children).

Rafaelita has just recently reached the ranks of great grandmother because of Francine's four-month old son, Isaiah "Da Man" Damian. Her sister, Lydia Tsosie, has seven children -- Clifford, Dale, Connie T. Gaussioun, Judy, Desbah, Patrick and Carl Anthony. Her brother, Bernard, has three children -- Edmund, Anthony and Liam.

Sunday (Oct. 14) at 1 p.m. at Bataan Hall at the Taos Civic Center, Rafaelita is to be honored with three other Taos Living Treasures. "She's going to have four dancers and a couple of singers doing the Belt Dance," Stan said, "a traditional Picuris dance. She seems real happy to be honored."

In 1987, Ted Egri's vision became a reality when he founded a program to honor individuals with a lifetime of service in the community. The vision, the Taos Living Treasures program, continues to recognize the contribution and spirit that its founder fostered so many years ago. This year's recipients are Rafaelita D. Yazza, Crucita Romero, Lottie Van Nevel and Frances Mares Martinez. They were nominated by members of the community who wrote letters specifying why their nominee deserves the title. Judges selected the finalists. Mayor Fred Peralta plans to present a plaque on behalf of the community to the four recipients Sunday (Oct. 14) at 1 p.m., at Bataan Hall at the Taos Civic Center. Speeches of tribute, entertainment and a free public reception follow.

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© Karen Mitchell