Isleta is the largest of the present Rio Grande Valley pueblos, with a population estimated at 1,250 or 1,300, a splendid domain of agricultural land and one of the most interesting Mission Churches. It is directly on the west bank of the Rio Grande, about thirteen miles south of Albuquerque, and it is here that the two lines of the Santa Fé Railroad system separate, one going south to E1 Paso and the other west to California. From the railroad station, the whole town is visible, with its surroundings of vineyards, orchards, and alfalfa fields; and to every train that stops comes a procession of women and girls bringing great trays of apricots and grapes, or peaches and pears, according to the season, and of bright colored pottery without regard to the time of year.
The name of Isleta, or Little Island, arose from the fact that the original village was stationed on a kind of island or delta between the bed of a mountain arroyo and the Rio Grande. The pueblo marked the southern boundary of the province which in Coronado's time was called Tihuex, and extended from Isleta northward until it met the Queres province near San Felipe, and included the Puará of Friar
At the time of the Pueblo Revolution of 1680 it had become a comparatively large town, with 2,000 inhabitants, and at the first news of the uprising it was designated as the point at which all the Spaniards should rendezvous for mutual protection. When Governor Otermin left Santa Fé on his retreat, he confidently expected to find the remains of the little Spanish army, and all the inhabitants of the lower country, congregated there. But Alonzo
In the campaign of 1681 for the reconquest of New Mexico, Isleta played a very important part. It was about the 1st of December when Otermin's army reached the town and found it reoccupied by Indians to the number of 1,500 or more. At first they were disposed to resist, but finally surrendered, renewed their obligations and brought many children to be baptized. During the year the old church had been burned, and its walls used for a corral for the animals owned by the people. Otermin continued his march as far as Sandia, and part of his army visited Cochití and Santo Domingo, but he finally retired to Isleta where the re-Christianized Indians were threatened by those still in rebellion. Finally the expedition was abandoned and the Spaniards returned to El Paso, accompanied by the Christian Indians of Isleta who were afraid to remain, and who
More than ten years later, on the final reconquest of New Mexico by De Vargas, that remarkable general made Isleta his headquarters for a considerable time, while conciliating the Queres Pueblos and preparing for his successful march to Santa Fé. As soon as possible after the pacification of the province, the church was restored; that being the first business that was pressed upon both Spaniards and natives by the authorities, civil and religious.
The church in Isleta is very well located in the center of the town and fronting upon a large public plaza. It is one of the largest and most important in New Mexico, and is flanked with extensive buildings used as a residence for the priest, and other ecclesiastical purposes. The church itself is of adobe, one hundred and ten feet by twenty-seven feet in the inside, with walls four feet in thickness, and lighted by four high windows. It is floored throughout with boards, but contains no seats.
St. Augustine is the patron saint of Isleta, and so the church is dedicated to him, and his figure is of course the predominant one. There is the old statue, about two feet high, carved in wood, with black beard and tonsured head; the robes decorated with the figured gold which is a distinguishing mark of the ancient wood carvings which came in with the reconquerors; and there is the new statue of twice the size, beautifully colored, and characteristic of the style which the modern French priests have introduced.
MISSION CHURCH AT ISLETA
In the body of the church are four large and ancient oil paintings; one of St. Bartholomew with the saw, one of a venerable saint with a square and book, one of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and one of Santa Rosalía. The latter is a very valuable and beautiful work of art, and will well repay a careful study. Behind the altar, on either side of the large statue of St. Augustine, are figures of the Virgin and St. Joseph; a larger image of the Virgin stands to the right; and in front is a small wooden carved statue of the mother of Our Lord in the antique Spanish style and no doubt cotemporary with the “old” San Agustin. On the walls around, are several crucifixes of various ages and styles, and an interesting painting of the Assumption, and a multitude of mirrors and painted lithographs of saints, in the embossed tin frames which were so general in New Mexico until recent years.
No mention of Isleta, far less a description of its ancient Mission Church, would be at all complete which did not allude to the extraordinary phenomenon, certainly believed in by thousands of people, known as the Rising of the Coffin of Padre Padilla. With no pretense of explanation, or any certainty of statement, we simply give the story as it has been
Tradition again steps in, and tells us that in some way his body was transported from the scene of his martyrdom, and when a Christian church was erected at Isleta it found its resting place close to the altar in that sacred temple. History throws somewhat of doubt on this, as being difficult to understand, and suggests that the martyr whose remains are revered in the Isleta church is some other one of the early Franciscans who suffered death later and in the nearer vicinity, so that there is more probability of his entombment there; and the historian Frank de Thoma wrote a learned treatise on the subject in 1895 arguing that the sacred remains might be those of Friar Ruiz or one of his two companions who were martyred in 1580, or of one of the
The local tradition, however, is untouched by any of these historic doubts, and clings tenaciously to the belief that the coffin entombed at Isleta contains the body of Juan de Padilla and no other. The story is no new one, but has existed for generations, and is briefly told by one of the most intelligent citizens of central New Mexico, as follows: “No one at Isleta has any doubt that the remains of Padre Padilla were brought from Quivira to the pueblo of Isleta and buried there within the church. The coffin was made from a large cottonwood tree hollowed out for that purpose. Everybody in that vicinity firmly believes that once every year the remains of the padre come to the surface, so as to be seen, and the people were allowed to view the body before it was buried again. Many claim to this day to have pieces of the clothing that the good old priest wore, made of a kind of serge. I lived not far away when a boy and heard the story all my life, and it never occurred to me to have the slightest doubt of its truth. The old people all believe that on a certain day the coffin in some mysterious way pushes itself up through the earth to the very surface, and the remains of the saint are then exposed, being very well preserved, dry as a mummy, with long dark whiskers; and that even his clothing is in a remarkable state of preservation. Many of the people have little pieces of the grave clothes, which are supposed to have worked many extraordinary cures.”
Isleta is admitted to be the richest and most prosperous of all of the Pueblo towns, and this has been true for many years. It possesses a large acreage of very fertile soil, and the people have shown much intelligence in raising diversified crops, including many kinds of fruit, instead of confining their products to a few kinds of grain. The beautiful vineyards that surround the town are a delight to the eye, and produce enormous crops of the Mission grape, which is one of the most delightful varieties for eating, as well as an excellent wine producer. Apricots, peaches, and pears are also raised in large quantities.
As a rule the Pueblo Indians do not accumulate money. As a people they are not accumulators of any kind; but are generally satisfied to raise enough produce to meet the needs of life, year by year, without any desire to heap up riches. In most of the pueblos the wealthiest of the people are those who possess the most Navajo blankets and strings of fine coral or turquoise beads. What they have acquired, over and above the requirements for current living and the raising of a family, is invested in that way or in a few animals.
In the time of the Texan invasion, in 1862, the United States army officers in charge of the finances in New Mexico, suddenly found themselves entirely without funds. On account of the slow and difficult communication across the Great Plains, between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains, transportation was irregular, or perhaps in the vast transactions of the great war someone had forgotten to transmit the necessary money for the maintenance of the little Union army far away on the Rio Grande. At all events the paymasters were without funds, and every resource was exhausted. There were no banks, and the merchants had need of all their available funds. It was then, when all ordinary methods had failed, and the officers were almost in despair, that the person from whom they secured the necessary money to meet the immediate exigencies of the army was the governor of the pueblo of Isleta, a very intelligent and fine looking Indian, named Ambrosio Abeytia. He was considered at the time to be the wealthiest Pueblo Indian in the Territory, and without any hesitation he furnished the American commander with $18,000 in specie, merely taking a receipt in recognition of the obligation. Years passed without his making any claim upon the government for this amount, as he imagined that it would be returned without request on his part when
In many respects Isleta is one of the most interesting of all the pueblos. Its people are certainly the best known of any Pueblo Indians to the general American public, for the town is so conspicuous from the Santa Fé Railroad, and so easy of access from Albuquerque, that it is seldom without visitors, and its women are never without a fair representation in front of the Alvarado Hotel and the Harvey curio establishment, for the benefit of the tourist travelers on each passing train.
There is a festival, or rather a succession of festivals, of which foot races are the feature, held on Sundays in Lent, ending on Easter Sunday, in which a race course 320 yards in length is prepared, and sixteen contestants, eight on each side, take part. Then there is another festival in the spring, popularly known as the Acequia Dance; and a peculiar celebration, exclusively belonging to Isleta, which precedes the regular festival of San Agustin by about two weeks, and is known as the festival of San Agustinito (the Little St. Augustine).