Taos County, New Mexico
Tessie Ortega

The Raels of Questa
Life in plazuela strengthened family bond, shaped their lives
By Jaime Loren Gross , For The Taos News

QUESTA -- A small, feisty woman with a head of curly white hair, Tessie Ortega cradles an enormous ring binder containing the complete genealogical history of her family, the Raels. This impressive book is at least three inches thick and very heavy, yet she keeps it on her lap for the duration of our talk. To my surprise, she thumbs through it only occasionally.

Tessie, like most of the Raels, knows her family history inside and out. She's fastidious about facts, muttering what sounds like complex algebra while working out birth- and marriage-dates in her head. She spells the name of a distant ancestor, then explains when and where he was born. And then, without missing a beat, she casually mentions that Santa Cruz, his birthplace, was actually called La Caņada back then -- "but just put Santa Cruz because you don't want to confuse people ... because they can get confused, you know?"

Yes, I know. My own head is spinning with Rael-related trivia, and it's only been five minutes.

We drive down the road to Rael's Market, owned and operated by her elder cousin, Aaron Rael Sr. He hastily pulls out the now-familiar binder, muttering that his is the revised edition, then produces several more binders stuffed with family documents, photos and his own typewritten stories about growing up in Questa in the early 1900s. His wife, Ruth, is there too, and Tessie's daughter, Esther, stops by. We all sit in the corner of the market on couches and bucket seats from an old truck, watching as Aaron pulls various laminated pages from the binders and hands them around.

Tessie and Aaron are the ninth generation of Raels to live in New Mexico and the third generation of Raels to live in Questa. The first Rael, Alonso Rael de Aguilar, came to New Mexico in 1683 from Lorca, Spain; more than 300 years later, his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren discuss him fondly and familiarly.

"He was an educated man," Aaron points out proudly, then shows me an outline of his family tree in which he notes that the 22-year old Alonso "came to help Don Diego de Vargas reconquer New Mexico. Alonso was a soldier in Spain; he brought 100 soldiers under his command." Soon after Alonso arrived in El Paso (at the time, part of New Mexico), he married Josefa Ana Garcia Noriega, a local woman. Alonso had a mistress, Maria Micaela Lopes, with whom he had a son named Pedro Marcial Rael -- the first New Mexican Rael.

The first Raels to move to Questa were Jose Antonio Rael and his wife, Maria Manuela Cisneros, in 1861. Both Tessie and Aaron are quick to point out that their great-grandmother, Maria Manuela, was a "captive full-blooded Navajo" raised by a family in Chamita, and both are proud to be one-eighth Native American. They only discovered this part of their heritage within the last decade, in the time since their family began to gather and preserve genealogical data.

Neither "my father nor my grandfather ever told me that my great-grandmother was an Indian," Aaron said. "I don't know why but I guess it wasn't important to them. But I am proud to have Indian blood; that makes me more American ... [because] the Indians are the pure, real Americans."

In the late 1800s, Tessie and Aaron's grandfather, Eliseo Rael, bought a plazuela (also known as an hacienda) along the main road in Questa. "The plazuelas were built like an army fort in the shape of a U," Aaron explained. "[They were] built of adobe; the walls were about two-feet wide and very hard to break."

Originally, the plazuela had a "big gate" on the east end that closed off the U-shape, with all windows and doors facing inward so as to protect the family "from the Indians that used to roam and raid this part of the country," he added. But by the time his grandfather bought the building, the gate was gone and the Indians were largely at peace with the settlers.

One day, finally fed up with the limitations of the plazuela, Aaron's mother, Adonaisa, and Tessie's mother, Esther, decided to take matters into their own hands. "When their husbands were out of town taking care of sheep, these two ladies took the opportunity to dismantle the fortress and make it a regular living quarters with doors and windows on the outside. When the men came back, they found a bunch of holes in the walls," said Aaron.

Six families lived in the Rael plazuela. Tessie lived with her three siblings and her parents, Jose Praxedes and Esther Gallegos. Next door was Aaron, his nine siblings and his parents, Enriques and Adonaisa Gomez. These two families made up the southern leg of the plazuela, with their grandparents and aunts and uncles making up the rest. Both cousins speak fondly of growing up in the plazuela. "I think we grew up so nice," Tessie said. "My childhood, I enjoyed it."

Her father, Jose Praxedes, known affectionately as "J.P.," had a tremendous influence on his family. A gentle, loving man, he passed his values on to his children in clever ways. Tessie recalls a certain lesson about lying. "My dad used to tell me 'the truth is like a seed, it always comes out' He never punished us -- he made it like a joke. My sisters would smoke, and he'd see them in the outhouse. He'd go and throw water into the outhouse, saying, 'I saw the smoke, I thought there was a fire.' And my sisters would be so ashamed, they wouldn't do it again."

Determined to keep his family's history and culture alive, "he hired a man to play Spanish music -- we learned el vals (waltzes) and la cuna (square dancing). He'd invite our great uncle to dinner and he'd [the great-uncle] tell us how the family came here, how they were afraid of the Indians, how they had to hide."

Along with this emphasis on respecting the past came lessons about respecting one's peers and elders. "If someone elderly was in our home and they asked for water, we had to get it for them and stand like this --" Tessie said, demonstrating by crossing her arms under her chest and assuming a child-like expression of exaggerated patience -- "while they drank it. And we were taught to say 'buenos dias, buenas nochas, como esta usted?' and then to leave, and stay out of the adults' way."

Education was highly valued in the Rael family. Tessie attributes her drive for knowledge to her father, who "had no schooling, but he was so smart -- and you should have seen his handwriting! He could read, too. When he was supposed to watch the sheep, he'd take a book with him. He used to tell us: 'You have to get an education, because no one can take that away from you.'" Tessie's father fiercely pursued knowledge his entire life. At the age of 50, while living and working in Santa Fe, he attended law school at night simply to learn more about a subject that interested him.

Growing up, Tessie and her siblings and cousins were all taught the same values, values passed down through the generations: "Be good citizens and good Christians. Respect your elders. Respect other people -- even if you think they are wrong, respect them for what they are; don't act like you know what is better." "I taught my children that if you respect other people, you will always get along in life," said Tessie. "I was taught that; I taught my children that; and I hope my children teach their children that." She was also taught something that today seems key to understanding the Rael family's intimacy. "My grandfather always used to say, 'unidos siempre y no los vencen' -- 'united you stand, divided you fall.' Stay together, he told us." And they have.

Today, 140 years after the first Raels settled in Questa, the bulk of the Rael family still lives and works in the small town. In addition to being geographically close, the Raels share an emotional closeness remarkable for such a large family. As Aaron's son, Aaron Rael Jr., said: "The Raels from hardware? They're five or six generations removed, but we still call them cousins." Tessie elaborates, explaining: "Since we grew up in the plazuela together, we became very close. We grew up close; we were always together -- we'd walk to school together -- and now we are still very close. If something happens in the family, we're right there, to be with each other. It's a bond between us."

Although the family is now scattered in various homes throughout Questa, they still have a "center, a gathering place," Tessie said. This is Rael's Market, in the family for 74 years. Although it has come a long way from the bustling 1927 store that, according to Tessie, "had everything ... dry goods, grains, lumber, coffins and Questa's first telephone," Rael Market is still alive and well. More than just a store, the market serves as a social gathering place for the family and community. Sons and daughters and cousins stop by daily, to pick up lunch or a snack or just to say hello. And it is not such a far leap from the family's roots. Aaron motions out the window of his shop; right across the street, within view, are the last two existing walls of the Rael plazuela.

Back at Tessie's house, I ask: "What keeps your family here in Questa?" She grins widely. "Business," she said, "family." She rests her hands on the massive genealogical book in her lap and adds earnestly, "I would never leave Questa. This is where I was born. These are my roots."

Return to the Taos County Home page, or use your BACK button

© Karen Mitchell