For years, people from Taos Pueblo and visitors to the historic village have enjoyed the aroma of freshly baked bread as they walk to the pueblo’s central plaza.
Often the smell comes from a simple house on the corner of the main road, across from the Taos Pueblo government offices on Veteran’s Highway.
There, Mary Romero spends hours heating up a traditional adobe horno with cedar and baking perfectly rounded loaves. Some she sells as Mary’s Baked Goods at a table set outside the gate to the home she shares with her partner of 34 years, Rodney Concha, a jeweler, and where they raised their daughter Megan, and son Jon Paul.
Many other loaves of horno bread she gives away when someone, especially a child, needs one. “Some people can’t even afford bread,” Romero said. “By my way of thinking, it is only flour. We can always buy more.”
She’s the person who makes a lot of the bread for Taos Pueblo ceremonies and she’s generous about giving it away, said Kathleen Cornbringer Michaels, who nominated Romero for the Unsung Hero award.
“It was a surprise, a big, big surprise,” Romero, 52, said about receiving the Unsung Hero nomination. “My family, myself, we all got caught off guard. It’s an honor.”
Romero said COVID-19 has upended traditional activities at the pueblo.
“Two days in July they didn’t dance,” she said. “It’s kind of a heartache for us because we count on these ceremonies for prayer and for our way of life. It’s just part of our religion. When this happened it was a little frightening.”
She said they are hoping the pandemic will be contained enough that the Feast Day can still take place Sept. 30 at the pueblo.
“They pray for everyone – not just the pueblo, not just the town of Taos, but for the whole world,” she said. “Makes me feel really humble to be a part of that.”
Ilona Spruce, director of Taos Pueblo’s tourism department, said Romero is “just a really good person. She’s pretty heartfelt. At the end of the day, there’s times she would just give the parking monitors loaves of bread for them to take home – they are tourism employees. She’s kind in that gesture.”
Romero was raised at Taos Pueblo. Her father died before she was born and her mom worked to raise her four children. When Romero was about 10 years old, her mom married Joe Struck. “He was a wonderful man,” she said.
She met Rodney Concha in high school but she didn’t start dating him until later. She worked at the Taos News and then worked for a gallery on Taos Plaza before launching her own businesses.
In 1997, she and Concha opened a small, popular eatery in their courtyard. They sold hamburgers, hot dogs and Frito pies. When children showed up to buy something with pennies and dimes, they never turned them away. “And Rodney wouldn’t let me take their money,” Romero said with a laugh.
“We would always make sure they had food. We always tried to do for the younger generation.”
She learned to make traditional horno bread from Concha’s mom, Pauline Concha. She remembers Boy Scouts lining up outside of the horno waiting for a fresh loaf of bread. Concha kept a tub of butter on hand for them, too.
“[Pauline] was a little 5-foot-nothing lady but she was full of power,” Romero recalled with a laugh.
When their children were little, Romero served a term on the board of the Taos Day School.
In recent years, the family has fallen on hard times. Concha fell ill with kidney disease and eventually had to stop making his jewelry. Romero said their now-adult children – Jon Paul and Megan – have been there to help her with him. Megan picked up his tools and began making jewelry as well.
In January, Concha broke his back in an accident. Surgery was postponed due to the coronavirus. Now that he’s better, they are trying to help him become stable enough physically to go on a kidney transplant list.
Despite those hardships, Romero still makes her bread as often as she can. It takes four armloads of cedar to heat up the horno to the right temperature. “It burns hot and then also the aroma when you pull out the ashes is amazing.”
True to her nature, Romero directs attention away from the reasons she is being honored as an Unsung Hero to thank other people.
“I want to say thank you to healthcare workers, especially those with their own families,”
she said. “They work so hard to take care of us. I just pray for them, and all my teachers at Taos Day School, who have such a creative way of taking care of our kids.”
Hers is a simple life, an open-hearted life, one committed to her family and the pueblo.
“I’m not like a millionaire,” Romero said. “I don’t have the greatest car or the biggest house, but I feel pretty rich in life. I feel like I’ve had a really good life with my family.”
For the many small acts of generosity and devotion over the years, Romero is an Unsung Hero.
Want to know what Mary’s Baked Goods look like? Follow her on Instagram at MarysBakedGoods.