Cultural Dichotomy In A Río Rancho Santero
by Don Toomey

The santero and artist Rubén Gallegos is a soft-spoken, handsome, middle-aged resident of Río Rancho. He is an artisan of varied talents. Rubén was born in the northern New Mexico village of Santa Cruz. His New Mexican roots go back at least three centuries. He is Hispanic from his father's side and Native American on his mother's side, from Taos Pueblo. Herein lies his cultural dichotomy. Both cultures, Hispanic and native American, are rich and colorful and have played a great part in Rubén's artistic outlook and career. At an early age he realized just how important his cultural heritages were to him and he has continued to be aware of this unique gift that is such a part of his art work.

Rubén was brought up within a traditional family setting very much centered around the Santa Cruz church, a church with so much beautiful religious art. He recalls that instead of paying attention to the sermons on Sunday morning his eyes would wander all over the church interior trying to imagine what the early santeros were thinking when they created these beautiful works.

As he grew older he appreciated this religious imagery even more. Rubén was very fortunate in that he attended the McCurdy Mission School in Santa Cruz from kindergarten through the eighth grade. This school offered an outstanding art program coupled with a rigorous academic curriculum. At an early age the basic rudiments of art were offered to an aspiring artist. He went on to complete his high school tenure at Española following the McCurdy Mission School. After high school graduation he studied architecture at a vocational school but he found this to be artistically restrictive. From there he went on to college where he majored in art. Rubén received his Bachelor of Arts degree with a minor in education from New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas. At Highlands he studied painting under the well known New Mexico artist Elmer Schooley and came to appreciate fine art done by a master. For the following eight years Rubén and his wife Jean taught at Española High School. He taught art courses and Jean taught business courses. Teaching left little time for painting, so when Jean was offered a position at Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute, Rubén decided to pursue his art full time.

Rubén's interest in religious art had not changed during his schooling, and once he had the time to become serious about devotional art in 1988, he pursued it vigorously. To Rubén, a lot of this research was done by carefully observing other artists' work, by going to the library to do the necessary iconographic research, and by going to Spanish Market to talk to other artists. In 1989 he applied to the Spanish Colonial Arts Society to become an official participant in Spanish Market. Since painting is Ruben's first love he submitted a series of retablos to the screening committee. He considers himself fortunate in that he was accepted the first time around. The committee also noted something quite different in his retablos. Not only was he painting the accepted Hispanic religious imagery, but all his retablos carried an added feature that reflected his Native American cultural heritage. The borders of each retablo included a variety of very detailed geometric Indian designs. These are the designs found on Indian pottery, and some of his designs are reminiscent of Hispanic and Indian weaving patterns, thus again emphasizing his dual cultural background. The designs have become a Gallegos trademark that are recognized by collectors. Rubén also does paintings of Indians, both Pueblo and Plains, that also carry the distinctive geometric borders.

Since his acceptance into Spanish Market, Rubén also carves bultos. Yet, although he finds carving very challenging, it is perhaps more satisfying. Rubén notes that if he had unlimited time he would definitely be doing more carving even recognizing that you have to put more of yourself into the overall process. He doesn't do many bultos, and when he sells the few he carves it becomes rather difficult for him to let them go.

Rubén uses a combination of natural pigments, watercolors, and acrylics saying he uses whatever medium works best with what he is working on at the moment. He claims he is still learning the process of preparing and working with natural pigments.

Rubén's business card proclaims that he also does handpainted storytellers and eggs. When asked how and when this came about he notes that some years ago, while he was still teaching, he was asked to be a participant in an Albuquerque art show. The show had a Christmas theme and all the participants were asked to carry this theme into their booth decorations. Responding to this, Rubén painted a group of chicken eggs with typical southwestern and Indian designs. There was hardly any interest in his paintings but the eggs sold out! Realizing the significance of this, he put away his paintings and began to paint eggs full time! In the following years he has evolved and mastered this difficult technique and is now regarded as a accomplished egg painter. He uses a variety of bird eggs, supplied by a national outlet, ranging in size from that of a finch to those gigantic ostrich eggs. Rubén paints a variety of scenes on the eggs ranging from geometric designs to typical Southwestern views. He also paints religious scenes, and those in essence, become three-dimensional "retablos!" Recently Rubén painted a large egg for President and Mrs. Clinton and they were so pleased with it that they sent Rubén a small wooden egg that both graciously signed for him.

When questioned as to who in the long line of northern New Mexico santeros had been an influence or inspiration on his work, he said surprisingly that he really couldn't identify one particular santero. He noted that he has been thoroughly exposed to the entire santero tradition, especially by growing up in northern New Mexico and attending the Santa Cruz Church with its marvelous devotional art. Still, if he had to choose one of the early santeros it would be the so-called Laguna Santero. Rubén feels that his work is so dynamic and the beauty outstanding. He has always admired the Laguna Santero's work and feels that to some measure his own work reflects some of that style.

When I asked to classify his particular style of art he replied that it is very detailed. In a sense, one might say that it is contemporary folk art, but definitely of a religious nature. Retablos are Rubén's best sellers, and Our Lady of Guadalupe is his favorite avocation. San Antonio is his favorite saint as a bulto. Of contemporary santeros Rubén regards the work of Victor Goler as outstanding, and he has been a long time admirer of his style and ability as a first class painter. In addition, he believes there is a good deal of spirituality in Victor's pieces. Of all the works he sees at Spanish Market he thinks that the art of Ramón José López are marvelous and notes that López is so multi-talented, doing beautiful works in everything he attempts.

When asked to talk about what he likes and dislikes about Spanish Market Rubén responds that there is a great deal to like, especially the camaraderie. He also likes the meeting and coming together of all those very talented artists and seeing their works displayed. To Rubén, the most important part of Market is gaining inspiration from this vast array of art work. Yet, he offers that Spanish Market is becoming too large, and this will become a major problem as more and more artists qualify as participants. The downtown Santa Fe Plaza is just too small to hold everyone comfortably. More to the point, he mentions that the end of July heat and sun exposure are definitely a detriment. By the end of the first day one is ready to melt away. Many participants can foresee the day when Spanish Market will be conducted in an inside hall or center.

Rubén Gallegos has won recognition by his peers and is the recipient of the prestigious E. Boyd Award in 1992. His art works are handled by the Móntez Gallery in Santa Fe and Scottsdale, in addition to Harvest Maiden, The Last Straw, and Casa de Avila in Albuquerque's Old Town. His painted egg art and storytellers are sold exclusively at the Indian Trading Post located in the Santa Fe La Fonda Hotel.

The distinctive art works of Rubén Gallegos are an important art form that combines both the richness and diversity of his Hispanic and Native American cultural heritage. His art is his life's work and he fervently wants to pass on this tradition to his children. In this respect, Rubén has been quite successful since his sixteen-year-old son John Paul is continuing the family tradition.

John Paul Gallegos started working seriously on devotional art in 1991 when he was eleven years old. His father has been his sole teacher, and in the last few years John Paul has become accomplished in retablos and bultos, but this year he has concentrated primarily on bulto carving. He has been a participant in the Spanish Market Youth Category for the last few years and he has won the San Pasqual Award in 1994 for a bulto that shows San Pascual in his kitchen. John Paul's best selling retablos are San Pascual and Our Lady of Guadalupe. His favorite saint is San Nicolás Obispo.

Rubén Gallegos is an artist of immense talent who creatively combines the best elements of his Hispanic background along with his Native American cultural heritage to create exceptional works of art.

Story by Don Toomey. Don, a retired geologist living in Placitas, is a staff writer for Tradición Revista.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 1, No. 4, Winter 1996.
Copyright 2002. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.