The Trujillo Family
Family's solid foundation, lasting closeness rooted in 140-year-old house
By Jaime Loren Gross, For The Taos News
Isabelle Rendón's father and mother were Carlos J. Trujillo and Isabel Padilla-Trujillo
ARROYO HONDO -- There is no sneaking into Isabelle Rendón's house. As soon as you step onto her porch, a plastic squirrel announces your arrival with a rousing rendition of "It's a Small World After All."
"She only does that when a big truck drives by," Isabelle assures me when she sees my startled expression.
For the record, this motion-detecting rodent sounds off when the smallest car drives by, and when children on bikes pass by, and when Isabelle's granddaughter, Elena, steps outside for a moment.
"Doesn't that thing drive you nuts?" I finally ask. "Oh no!" she exclaims, "I love it. Sometimes, I go out there and walk by, or wave my hand in front of it just to hear her sing!"
Isabelle is a woman who appreciates the small things in life. This quality is reflected in her home, an extraordinarily inviting space filled with family photos, "World's Greatest Grandparent" plaques, cozy couches covered with Mexican blankets and colorful crochet throws, and the smell of something delicious in the oven. Family members love spending time in the house.
"This is the most peaceful place and the most comfortable house I have ever been in," said Linda Sanchez, Isabelle's niece.
Indeed, the traditional adobe house has provided comfort and shelter for generations of Trujillos, from Isabelle's grandfather, Jose León (in the mid-1800s), to, most recently, her granddaughter, Elena.
Isabelle, who inherited the house in 1960 when her mother died, knows it has been in her family for at least 140 years. However, she suspects it may go back even farther than that -- after all, "these houses were built who-knows-when" and her family history has been poorly documented.
Similarly, Isabelle believes that her mother's ancestors came from Spain and her father's from Mexico, yet she admits she "has no proof."
"Gosh, it would be nice to have really asked about so many things," she said, a touch of sadness in her voice. "And now I don't know who I could ask -- everyone is gone."
Every Memorial Day weekend, family members from all over the country return to the house for a family reunion -- this year marked the 40th such gathering, with 83 relatives attending.
"This house is the center of all our meetings and reunions," said Isabelle, the head organizer and host of the event. "It's been suggested that we move the reunions to the community center, but I said no, because to me that draws us away. The community center wouldn't have that special -- " she struggles to find the right word -- "blessing of home."
Although relatively unaltered in floor plan, the house has undergone many transformations over the years. Isabelle leads me from room to room, describing how the house looked during her youth in the 1930s and '40s. As she speaks, gesturing and pointing, she paints a vivid picture of life during the Great Depression.
We stand in what is now Isabelle's kitchen. Back then it was a storage room where Isabel, Isabelle's mother, kept her home-canned jars of vegetables, fruits and meats, sacks of flour and sugar, and various fruit pies and biscochitas.
"We were poor, but we were never hungry," Isabelle said several times, emphasizing her mother's resourcefulness. "My mother gardened, canned, and made preserves. She made bread and tortillas -- the best tortillas in town!"
The family had chickens for eggs and a cow for milk, and what they couldn't grow or raise or sew themselves, they bought on credit from the local store.
For families who lived paycheck-to-paycheck, credit was a way of life. But there were dangers.
"[The store owner would] set a date -- 'by this date you pay me, and if you don't, your land is responsible.' This used to bother my mother because she was afraid of losing what little she had. She used to tell us, 'if you are ever in a bind, if you ever need something, if you ever need money, never, never 'apothecar' [mortgage] the house. Find another way.'" Nodding, Isabelle adds, "I heard it from so many people: 'We lost what we had because we owed the company store.'"
In 1928, their father, Carlos, went to work on a sheepherding ranch in Rock Springs, Wyo. For 15 years he worked away from home, sending his paychecks back to his family and visiting when he could. It was hard on the family, but "we didn't know anything different," said Beatrice, Isabelle's oldest sister. "It was just the way life was. Everyone went through hard times then, everyone was poor."
Carlos died on the ranch in 1943 at the age of 53, when Isabelle was only nine.
"He was thrown off a horse ... and dragged on Holy Wednesday; he expired on Good Friday. [On Thursday], our cousins, Stella and Jose Vigil, visited him at the hospital. He told them that he did all kinds of yelling and screaming while he was being dragged through the sagebrush, but finally he said, 'Madre Maria Santisima favoréceme de este animal' -- 'Mother Mary of God, save me from this animal' -- and right away his boot and stirrup got untangled."
Isabelle is silent for a moment. "This is what led me to my strong beliefs in the church and in the Blessed Virgin Mother, my patrona. You can ask anyone in Arroyo Hondo; they will tell you, 'Ah yes, Isabelle; she's a Blessed Virgin Mother fan.'"
Although she saw little of her father, Isabelle's few memories are vivid.
"I remember him shoeing his horses, feeding his dog, Jeff, milking Betsy the blind cow, seeing him and Mama play cards at the kitchen table while the woodstove crackled on cedar wood ... and I remember he would come home in a Trailways bus and he would pick us up in his arms and hug us."
Much of Isabelle's youth was spent with her mother.
"My mother was always home, and I was always with her. As long as I was with my mother, nothing else mattered. I don't know why [I was so attached] -- maybe because I lost my father so young?"
She shrugs. "Now I do things the way my mother did -- 'this is how my mother made tortillas,' 'this is how she cleaned the cobwebs.' Anything my mother did was right."
Isabelle stops to point out the bedroom that she and her three sisters shared while growing up. It originally had a mud floor with jergas -- woven rugs stitched together so they covered the whole floor. The girls slept on wool mattresses, with sheepskins and tanned goat pelts on the floor beside their beds. Every fall they had to wash the wool inside their mattresses and the jergas with homemade soap.
Many other chores around the house demanded their time and attention.
"We had dirt roofs, so we had to sweep the snow off or else they'd leak. Also, we had to sweep the snow around the house because there wasn't a concrete foundation, just stone and mud. We'd bring in chips and wood for the woodstove, and fill the buckets from the well. My sisters would scrub the wood floors on Saturdays, on their hands and knees. And we had to disinfect the outhouse with Lysol®."
As Isabelle's mother aged, it became more and more difficult for her to maintain the house. In 1951, the traditional adobe mud-and-straw plaster was replaced with easy-to-care-for cement stucco and the kitchen was wired for electricity. When her daughter took over the house, the building was further renovated and modernized.
"When my mother was young, she had time to keep everything up because she was always home," Isabelle explained. "But I worked, spent a lot of my time away from the house. [With two children to care for] I wanted the easy way out."
Soon full plumbing was installed and the roof was redone in metal and pitched. When the vigas broke due to roof leakage, they were simply covered up with a new sheetrock ceiling.
Today, the physical presence of the Trujillo house seems representative of the family itself, an interesting mix of past and present -- the mud floors beneath the new hardwood, the mud plaster beneath the stucco, the broken viga beams beneath the smooth sheetrock. At first glance, only the newest layer is visible; the old is hidden just a little below the surface, unseen and perhaps unknown.
But if you look closely enough -- peek through the cracks, tap gently on the floor -- you'll realize the ancient layer is there. It forms the foundation of a home, the roots of a family.
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© Karen Mitchell