The Bernalillo Santero: Filimón Aguilar
Story and photography by Don Toomey
One would think that it would be but a short step for a former hairdresser to retire, and then become an accomplished santero. Yet for Filimón P. Aguilar of Bernalillo, the gestation period involved some 23 years. His first carvings, two wall hangings for his wife Alicia, were done in 1968. As a hair stylist, Filimón gave his business precedence over his carving. It wasn't until December of 1991, with retirement looming on the horizon that Filimón , through a quirk of fate, was asked to help out his ailing brother-in-law at the winter Spanish Market Festival. The brother-in-law, a tin artisan, had asked Filimón if he would assist in running his concession at Spanish Market. During Market, when things were slow Filimón walked around the hall at the La Fonda Hotel and began to more closely examine the work that was offered for sale. He paid particular attention to the carved bultos and thought, "I can do this!" In the meantime his brother-in-law said he would teach Filimón tinsmithing, if he was interested in learning the craft. Filimón thought it would be nice to know. but carving santos would be better! When Filimón and his wife left Spanish Market he mentioned that he would like to try his hand at carving santos. Alicia encouraged him and noted that if it didn't work out nothing would be lost.
Filimón had some tools that his children had given to him when he announced that he would be retiring shortly. The idea of the tools was to encourage Filimón to develop a hobby, other than raising dogs, to occupy some of his upcoming leisure time. With tools in hand, plus an old Case pocketknife, he went to work on a small piece of aspen that was in his workshop. The only religious work he had in the house was an old crucifix, but as a Catholic, he knew the saints and their iconography. So Filimón began carving a crucifix. He began with the head and found that his many years of experience working on faces as a hair stylist made carving easier. He continued working on the corpus, and the longer he kept at it the better it became. It took a month to complete the piece and to mount it on a cross. Alicia thought it was beautiful and claimed it. From then on Filimón has continued to carve santos.
From December of 1991, through the following April, he carved three bultos. At this stage Filimón was unsure of his talent and how to proceed. He was aware of the great master santero, the late Horacio Valdéz (1929-1992), who lived in Dixon. Filimón wrote to Horacio expressing his uncertainty as to how to proceed, and asked the master if he would look at his work and offer some counsel and advice. Horacio invited him to Dixon and asked Filimón to bring along some of his work. When Horacio examined Filimón's bultos he was taken aback and could hardly believe that Filimón had only been carving seriously for a little more than three months. Horacio's unqualified response was to tell Filimón that "he was starting at the top" and that he should continue with his work since he obviously possessed the necessary talent.
Filimón returned to Bernalillo and in a burst of creative energy carved a few more bultos. He then gathered up his work and submitted it for judging by the Spanish Market Committee in order to enter the 1992 Summer Spanish Market. At that particular judging the committee examined the works of about 100 applicants. Filimón was one of fifteen applicants accepted to show their works at the upcoming summer Spanish Market. Thus, Filimón Aguilar's career as a santero began.
When Filimón was asked to reflect on the long santero tradition in northern New Mexico, and to identify an artisan from the past who had given him inspiration, he answered without hesitation that it was the 19th century master santero José Rafael Aragón (ca. 1796-1862). He noted that Aragón was an artisan ahead of his time, especially when one considers the crude implements, and that he was possibily unschooled with no formal art training. Filimón went on to remark that although we have no formal portrait of this master santero, we can, by examining his bultos and retablos, come up with a pretty good approximation of his facial features. One can do this because most santeros seem to project their own personality and physical features into their works. Aguilar claims that Aragón had a Roman nose, since almost all of his santos have that distinguishing bump on their noses, even the female saints. So, if Rafael Aragón came to life, and walked in at Spanish Market, quite a few santeros would immediately recognize him. Looking at works by contemporary santeros, Filimón claims he can see their likeness in their works too.
Filimón regards his carving style as closely resembling that of his mentor Horacio Valdéz. In terms of pinning a label on his style he regards his style of bulto carving as academic/provincial, a style that is more closely baroque. He believes that a number of contemporary santeros copy works of the older santeros and this tends to perpetuate 19th century santero styles into the late 20th century. He believes the craft tradition should evolve and that we should not be repeating past styles. Filimón thinks that a hundred years from now what we are doing today will be called traditional/colonial, but he feels his work stands out from what other contemporary santeros are doing.
Filimón was born in Waldo, a village one mile west of Cerrillos, one of a large family of 17 children. He attended the public schools in Waldo, but in the late 1930s his father realized the children needed more schooling and discipline than was available in Waldo. So the family moved to Bernalillo and Filimón was enrolled in St. Nicholas Academy, run by the Christian Brothers in Bernalillo. Here, education and discipline was meted out with absolute certainty. Filimón completed high school and by that time thought he wanted to leave Bernalillo for good. This opportunity arrived when he went into the U.S. Navy and spent 4 years serving out his hitch in Japan and Korea. After discharge, he returned to Bernalillo, courted and married Alicia Crespín from Cuba, New Mexico, settled down and raised a family. Now, you would have to drag him out of Bernalillo!
Filimón is a full-time practicing santero who continues to produce his marvelous bultos. He prefers doing bultos rather than retablos because carving gives him more personal satisfaction. He claims that it would be more of a challenge for him to do retablos since he doesn't believe he can paint worth a lick! The few retablos that he has done he generally gives to people who have bought his bultos. He does this as an act of appreciation or as a Christmas gift. He has not made any retablos for sale to date.
Although Aguilar prefers carving bultos he is well versed in the iconography so necessary in painting retablos. Within the last year he has been coaching his 13-year-old grandson Lorenzo Miera from San Ysidro, and Lorenzo's schoolfriend Tim Lucero from Bernalillo, in the art of retablo painting. This is done after school. Filimón's guidance and understanding has been so successful with these two teenagers that both have entered and sold their works at the last two Spanish Market Festival in Santa Fe. One of these teenagers possesses exceptional talent and ability and has the potential of becoming an outstanding santero.
In his relatively short career as a santero, Filimón Aguilar has earned the approval and praise of his peers and has won recognition and numerous awards in many juried Hispanic arts and crafts events.
In regards to a family tradition in Hispanic arts and crafts, Filimón recalls that his grandfather, who lived in the village of Ortiz, located 6 miles east of Cerrillos, had built a family chapel in the village. Filimón can still remember the long narrow chapel with hand-carved stations of the cross on the walls. The family believes that their grandfather carved these. Unfortunately, his grandfather went blind in the late 1930s and the family closed up the chapel and donated the furnishings to the church in Cerrillos. His grandfather then came to live with the family in Bernalillo and Filimón remembers him, blind though he was, sitting on the porch carving little wooden dolls with his pocketknife. Filimón would love to run across one of his late grandfather's carvings.
When asked if any other members of his large family produces traditional Hispanic arts and crafts, Filimón is quick to point out that there are a number of family members involved in traditional crafts. He has a niece who carves bultos and paints retablos, and who exhibits at Spanish Market. One of his brothers in-law, also from Bernalillo, produces bultos and retablos. There is a nephew from Alamosa, Colorado, who paints retablos, in addition to a couple of nephews from Cuba who carve and paint, and another brother in-law is an accomplished tinsmith. Filimón's daughter Lorrie is making a name for herself doing lovely traditional straw appliqué inlay crosses, and his youngest daughter is just beginning to do punched tinwork. Filimón sees his family as very involved in carrying on traditional Hispanic arts and crafts.
Although Filimón Aguilar has come relatively late to his true calling as a santero, he fully recognizes that God has given him a truly remarkable gift. He is well aware of this gift and is most willing to share it with others, thus making his second career truly most satisfying.
Don Toomey is a retired geologist living in Placitas and interested in northern New Mexican Hispanic arts and culture.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 1, No. 2, Summer 1996.
Copyright 2002. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.