The sun rises early and hot on a New Mexico summer mornng, and so do the women who bake the bread for the village. A batch of 14-16 loaves at a time is a job for more than two hands; on this particular morning, it took six hands to work, and many more to drink coffee and laugh at the Anglo newcomer helping make the bread that would be sold through0ut the village. Accustomed as I was to baking for my family and friends, two or three loaves at a time was an appropriate number for my two hands.
The invitation to participate had come the afternoon before, after a quiet visit, during which I was observed and apparently approved. After the rising and shaping of the loaves, it was placed in the pre-heated beehive oven to bake. Small sticks of wood were placed in the adobe oven and set afire. This was fed regularly until the oven came to the right temperature, which was determined by holding a small piece of paper inside till it caught fire. They transferred the loaves on a large wooden paddle, after which a piece of wet burlap cloth was hung over the opening, and secured by a piece of weathered corrugated metal. Without clock or timer, they seemed to know precisely when it was done, and the next batch could be baked. As the bread was removed from the oven, it was placed on a blanket on the floor behind the couch in the communal room to cool, or to”sleep” as they say.
By this time we were a group or old friends trading stories of children and grandchildren as women have done through the ages. Women came throughout the morning, and though some were reluctant to smile and accept my presence, most were amiable. Suddenly, someone suggested dressing me in typical Isleta wedding clothes just for fun. Everyone clapped and laughed while covering their mouths with their aprons so as not to show their teeth, which would have been impolite. A shapeless knee-length white cotton dress with ruffles around bottom and sleeves, through which they quickly ran a narrow red ribbon, came first. Over this a rather heavy black wool tunic was placed, which was secured over one shoulder with a large safety pin. A narrow woven band wound around several times as a belt. They brought out a box of beautiful soft white deerskin which they wrapped round and round my legs, over deerskin moccasins. Finally a cotton apron went over all. After surveying their handiwork, they all removed some of their turquoise jewelry to hang around my neck and place on my wrists.
I felt truly resplendent, and asked if there were a mirror so that I could admire my glorious apprearance. Oh yes, behind the couch where the bread was sleeping on the floor, there surely was a mirror. I carefully tiptoed around the bread and saw my “ancestral” self! It was such a wondrous sight, I stepped back a step or two to better admire the entire figure. Woops! Tripping, I sat heavily into the mass of baked bread. With one step, I had endangered Pueblo and Anglo relations, which might never be restored. I could not move, but sat nearly in tears, thinking too of the money they had lost because of me in the sale of their bread.
There was great silence, as they were apparently too horrified to speak, when suddenly, the hostess, my friend’s cousin, looked at me over the back of the couch and simply said. “We have to break it up anyway to eat it.” And the room exploded in laughter. The dictionary defines “gracious” in several ways, but I will always have my own definition.