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Know the West

Benigna's Chimayo: Cuentos from the Old Plaza


    And then Grandma sits down on an old wooden wheel, leans on her knees, tucks her skirt between her legs, and begins her favorite of the old stories. I listen, watching the dust motes float in shafts of sunlight ...

To a young Don Usner, summers in the New Mexican hamlet of Chimayo meant chili and watermelons, worship in the Santuario, and the traditional tales of his grandmother, Benigna Ortega Chavez. While Usner wove the Ortega family's famed wool blankets, his abuela wove rich stories of The Little Shepherd, who understood the speech of animals, of how the Knight of the Feather outsmarted a foolish king, and of Maria Linda, who, persecuted by an evil stepmother, was saved by the intervention of the Virgin Mary.

In his new book, Benigna's Chimayo, Usner retells 14 of Benigna's tales in English, to be enjoyed by readers of any age. His sister, Carole Usner Hunt, has translated eight of Usner's renditions back into Spanish.

Benigna learned these cuentos from her Chimayo elders nearly a century ago. The tales' story lines and themes weathered the long-ago journey from Spain, but generations of re-tellings have saturated them with the color and flavor of northern New Mexico. Though rich with magic and fanciful characters, Benigna's cuentos are often grounded in experience. Stories of young men leaving home to ask a tyrannical king for work remind Usner of his great-uncles' migrations to Colorado and Utah mines, where back-breaking labor returned them haggard and worn to their families.

Full-page photos of Benigna embellish the cuentos with glimpses of this 102-year-old storyteller in action, gesturing with one hand, leaning back in her chair, and doubled over with laughter.

    Grandma looks at me over her glasses, smiling. "Dime la verdad, 'jito. Isn't that a good story? I don't know who made it up, but it's true. The people used to have lots of wisdom and say many things that were true, but now? Nada de eso."

Benigna's Chimayo: Cuentos from the Old Plaza, by Don J. Usner, illustrated with photos and drawings, 153 pages, cloth, $19.95, Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico.