San Luis Rays

Frank White stands at an overlook on the high road from Taos for a long time, looking out over the clean, cool, sunny New Mexico mountains before shaking his head sadly. He's thinking about how the native peoples of the Taos Pueblo settled these lands long before Spaniards like Coronado first appeared.

"I feel a turmoil inside me," he intones, remembering that Catholicism, so long a driving cultural force in northern New Mexico, wasn't always a part of life here. The downfall of indigenous pueblo peoples, he says, "was all caused by religion."

As if to wipe it from his mind, White performs a native ceremony, courtesy of that percentage of his personal heritage he says is Ute Indian: Raising his arms from his toes to the sky, he welcomes the rising sun. It looks like good exercise.

It's White's way of introducing another pocket history lesson along the trail on one of his Milagro Tours--educational car caravans led into New Mexico several times each year under his expert tutelage.

White's ties to the region run deep. Rooted in its ancient Indo-Hispanic culture, he grew up in and around the San Luis Valley, born into a family that originally settled in El Rito, New Mexico, early in the century. It's an area kept pure by its own isolation, he says, where unique music, foods and belief systems persist to this day. But formal records of the region's history are haphazard. Enter Frank White, who took it upon himself to pull them all together. He spent years educating himself in Southwestern history and folklore, especially as it pertains to his own birthplace.

Nowadays, when White isn't keeping track of the bucks as business manager of public radio station KUVO, he's promoting that very culture. In addition to leading the Milagro Tours, he has spearheaded other KUVO-sponsored programs, including Canciones del Pasado, a series of folk-music concerts and an ensuing cassette, as well as a study of medicinal herbs and edible plants used by valley settlers.

"It's a part of my life--a thing I lived," White says simply, not wanting to bask in the limelight. After being fascinated by a documentary on Cajun music and culture, he decided that he "wanted to do something along the same lines for the folks in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico."

White organized the Canciones project as a way of bringing the culture he grew up with to the city-dwellers of Denver. An annual April concert combines live music, food, games and other San Luis traditions with a friendly attitude and a low admission price designed to encourage people of all economic levels to attend.

"We get a good representation of the Hispano community," he says. "It's like a family affair, for everyone from the young to the young at heart. And we get a lot of interested Anglos, too."

The entertainment is purposely low-key and homey, performed by neighbors rather than flashy stars.

"It's folk music," White emphasizes. "It's not like what Linda Ronstadt does--she does a wonderful job, but this is different. The guitars might not be right all the time, or the violins might sound a little squeaky. To me, that's folk music."

A cassette of Canciones music has aired on radio stations across the country, sending the valley's distinctive sounds--a homespun mix of corridos and rancheras--out into the world.

White likes to tell a story about those broadcasts as a way of portraying the valley's continuing solitude: "There's one song on the cassette, 'Pajarito Amarillito (A Little Yellow Bird).' Some people in Las Vegas, New Mexico, took a liking to it, and it was played regularly every afternoon on a radio station down there. People would request it.

"Well, wouldn't you know--we got a letter from one of the tiny villages that said, 'Soon, when we get electricity, we can get the cassette, but now, we gather around someone's pickup to listen.'

"It's the same as when I was a youngster. We had no electricity until I was in high school, and we always used a battery radio or pickup in the same way."

Electricity isn't the only thing White did without as a youth.
"When I was growing up--this was in the Fifties--we used home remedies only," he says. "I never went to a doctor until I had to get a physical to participate in high-school athletics." Everyone in his community used indigenous plants in many ways--as antiseptics, cough syrups, curative teas and even shampoos and mouthwashes.

A resurgence of interest in herbal medicine in the Sixties and Seventies spurred White to study what was, to him, just another part of his life. "I wanted to know why and how they work," he says.

Next on the local-history scholar's agenda is a series of slide-illustrated programs at the CU Museum of Natural History. The first, taking place February 19, focuses on foods and recipes unique to the valley region. Included on the menu are some of White's favorites--bolita beans. "They were the only beans I knew," he says, waxing nostalgic. Smaller, rounder and higher in protein and minerals than the more widely used pinto bean, White says, the caramel-colored legume is also tastier than the pinto but needs a longer growing period. Bolitas came north from central Mexico, traded from tribe to tribe--a tradition that hasn't yet died.

"When we had a good crop, we'd trade the beans for chile, or if our crop wasn't so good, we'd trade mutton for beans," White recalls. "That's how it was, trading back and forth."

Bolitas are served simply, boiled with salt, oregano and, if you have it, a little bit of bacon or ham hock, then thickened with a roux of flour and lard. "Oh, my goodness," White enthuses. "It makes such a nice, tasty gravy!"

Fried bread, meat and chile fill out the valley-focused menu, along with biscochitos, anise-and-cinnamon-spiked cookies, and capulin, or chokecherry, a local fruit prepared in various ways.

White hopes that spreading the culture of his boyhood will generate its own warmth. "The more we share," he says earnestly, "the better we understand each other." And he especially hopes to keep the old ways alive in some small way.

"We're always changing; things don't stay the same," White says. "But it's nice to look back."

--Susan Froyd

La Comida del Valle: Foods of the San Luis Valley, 7 p.m. February 19, Dinosaur Hall, CU Museum of Natural History, 15th and Broadway, Boulder, $5, 492-3396.


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