Ask an ordinary Catholic around the world to name the first book of the Bible and he’s likely to say, “Genesis; the story of Creation.” Now, ask an ordinary Taoseño to name the first book of the Bible and he’s likely to say, “Oh, that would be “The Book of Martínez; the story of Creation.”
We may smile at the discrepancy between the two answers, but the truth of the matter is that if one were to look through the telephone directory of Taos County, one would be struck by the strange fact that Martínezes do seem to outnumber all other last names by a ratio of 17-to-1.
Proudly, local people still tell of how, at the beginning of time, God was lonely and so He created various generations of man to keep Him company. He formed them in His own image, but in alphabetical order. First, He started with the Archuleta, the Baca, the Chávez, the Durán, the Esquibel, the Fernández and the Gutiérrez clans. A little worn out, He continued to form the Herrera, the Ibarra and the Jaramillo families. Since there were no Spanish names that began with the letter “K,” God had to form the Kennedy family next because at least they were Catholic. He went on to create the Lovato family and finally, needing rest, He said, “I’m exhausted; let’s just let the rest of the world be Martínez.” And God rested on the seventh day. This folk story illustrates the legendary founding of the Martínez clan.
Historically speaking though, the most notable figure of the Martínez presence in Taos is to be found in the middle of the Plaza where the statue of Fr. Antonio José Martínez is enshrined. He was a popular and often controversial figure even in his own time. Padre Martínez’s paternal grandparents, José Martín and Micaela Valdez, had settled at Santa Rosa de la Capilla in Abiquiú, New Mexico. His maternal grandparents, Juan Antonio Santisteban-Coronel and Francisca de la Luz Trujillo had founded La Cañada de Cochití. His parents were Antonio Severino Martínez and María del Carmel Martínez.
The Martínez family name originally descended from Hernán and Luis Serrano-Martín of Zacatecas, México. They had come to this area with the Don Juan de Oñate expedition of 1598. “Martínez,” sometimes spelled with an ‘ez’ or an ‘es’ suffix, has been linked with two possible origins. The ‘ez’ ending could have been added to indicate a New World or a Crypto-Judaic origin. The ‘es’ ending has been linked with an Hispanic peninsular and Catholic origin. In 1786, Gov. Juan Bautista de Anza had concluded a Comanche-Spanish Alliance and therefore opened the Abiquiú area for settlement.
Antonio Severino and María del Carmel Martínez were married in an elaborate ceremony. Following the customs of the day, Don Severino wore his hair parted down the middle of his head and tied into two ponytails that were wrapped in colorful ribbon. Doña María del Carmel wore her hair piled high on her head. Her cheeks were accented with traditional face powder made of crushed eggshells called cáscara and a reddish rouge made of rosemary leaves.
Soon, they started their “little” family. Their firstborn was named Antonio José (born Jan. 17, 1793), followed by his sister María Estefana (born Jan. 1, 1797), Juana María (born July 26, 1799), José María, José Santiago and the family was completed with the birth of baby Juan Pascual Bailón (born in 1833). Such a family would eventually need to receive a good education and so Antonio Severino acquired 60 rods of land from Antonio Archuleta of Taos on Oct. 3, 1803. The family moved to Taos in 1804 into the rambling adobe structure that is now called The Martínez Hacienda ( Hacienda de los Martínez). They were accompanied by a part-time nanny; a part-time wet nurse fámula (servant) who had been bought from a Navajo tribe.
Antonio José was married in Abiquiú at the age of 17, but his wife died in childbirth a few years later. After he was widowed at the age of 22, Antonio José went on to study for the priesthood in Durango, Mexico under the direction of Bishop José Antonio Laureano Zubiría. Having excelled in Latin, rhetoric, mathematics and theology, Antonio José was ordained as a priest. First, Fr. Martínez was sent to the Church of Tomé. Having won a bid to be closer to his childhood home, he was assigned to the Church of San Jerónimo in Taos Pueblo. He was entrusted with the curacy of Taos in 1826. Finally, he was sent to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Taos. The Catholic church had been built in 1762 and then reconstructed in 1882. The third reconstruction of the church would burn in 1961 during the middle of the Taos Fiestas.
The local Spanish people composed a folk riddle based on his life story. It went thusly: ¿Cómo puede ser que un hombre en el servicio de Dios se case con hija y madre, siendo doncellas las dos? This means: “How can a man of the cloth in the service of God verily be wedded to both daughter and mother, though virgins both they be?” The answer, of course, was Padre Martinez of Taos. This man of the cloth had been married first to a daughter of the church and when he was widowed, he married Holy Mother the Church.
Among his various accomplishments, he brought the first printing press on this side of the Mississippi in 1835. On it, he published his grammar books and catechisms. He began a Spanish-language newspaper called El Crepúsculo, the precursor of The Taos News. He created co-educational schools in Taos, reasoning that girls had souls and brains just as boys did, and they also needed to be cultivated. He also played an important role in the adoption of New Mexico’s first constitution. In 1837, he tried to discourage the farmers of Chimayó from rebelling against the government of Santa Fe. That same year he became spiritual advisor to Los Hermanos Penitentes.
He allowed the Hermanos to hold public rites at Santa Cruz de la Cañada. Fr. Martínez educated various youth in the Taos area for the priesthood including Fr. Ramón Medina, who is buried in the Peñasco valley. Fr. Martínez tangled with Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy over civil rights and canonical issues. This part of the story was popularized in Willa Cather’s classic Southwestern novel, “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” The story was later corrected and upended by Fray Angélico Chávez in “But Time and Chance. ”
When he died on July 27, 1867, Padre Martínez was buried in Kit Carson Park in Taos. The epitaph on his tombstone calls him, “el Honor de su Patria” (the honor of his homeland) .
Larry Torres is a local historian and foreign language coordinator at the University of New Mexico-Taos. In 2017, he was honored as a Tradiciones Unsung Hero.