Get Muddy, Save a Church

Regular mudding events keep church and tradition intact for the Hispanic communities of northern New Mexico

"I love working with the mud," says effervescent 18-year-old Antonia Abeyta as she tosses a glob of adobe onto the wall of the historic church of St. Francis of Assisi, in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. She's immersed in a ritual that each year brings together the entire community of Ranchos de Taos to replaster with fresh mud every square inch of the exterior of this old Spanish church. Similar events occur regularly at many of the adobe Spanish churches across northern New Mexico. Among the oldest in North America, these churches were built by early Spanish settlers in the Southwest — and are now kept standing by their descendants many generations removed.

The annual renewal of the church is something of a community responsibility-cum-reunion that holds a place of honor in the June calendar of the Abeytas and all their neighbors. Families apply mud side by side, three generations deep, working the way earlier generations taught them, the way they will pass on to those who come later. Writer Les Daly joins this year's mudding event and finds that there's much more involved than meets the eye. Eighty-year-old Eloisa Mondragón, known by all as "Tia" (aunt) Loy, tells the mixer how much clay, sand and straw goes into making the adobe. "Too much straw, it won't smooth, not enough, it won't stick; one handful and she knows," says one volunteer.

The method of applying the finishing coat that gives the building its texture is a tradition that many believe goes back to the Moors. At St. Francis, a thin mixture of mostly sand and water is hand-brushed with woolly sheepskins over every outside surface of the structure. It dries to a rich, smooth café con leche finish, a mellow hue that photographers find irresistible.

St. Francis and other community churches are living architecture, Daly writes, not what the original builders created but a compilation of that and everything that has occurred since. The accumulated past, it might be said, has been made part of the present to be preserved.

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