When Kathleen Branchal Garcia was growing up, Taos to her was a small place of community, tradition and celebration, a place where neighbors gather with friends and those friends become family.
It has been her work and honor over the years, she says, to maintain all of what used to be, what is and what will be Taos.
“I think it's really important to give and be part of the solution rather than expecting others to do it,” Branchal Garcia said. “You learn so much more by giving from yourself.”
She grew up in Ranchos de Taos and was involved in many of the traditional happenings of the Taos area. One of her most memorable contributions was her time on the Fiesta Court and her current work as the Fiesta Council’s treasurer.
As a 1982 Taos Fiestas Princesa in her teens, Branchal Garcia began learning the songs and dances of the Fiestas de Santiago y Santa Ana. This was the beginning of her long history of community participation that she is known for today.
“She loves Taos. To her, it is truly home,” said Don Francisco Trujillo, president of the Taos Fiesta Council. “She is very faithful to her church and community.”
Trujillo and Branchal Garcia were both honored royalty on the same fiesta court. Taos still remembers when this court painted the town with celebration.
“We were literally thrown out of the adult church party, so we decided to make our own,” Trujillo said laughing.
After being rushed out of the adult festivities, Trujillo said that year’s court decided to have a party of their own as they loaded up in trucks and drove to whatever dance halls and hangouts were open. From Taos to Arroyo Hondo, the teens drove around performing La Marcha to the crowds, securing their status as Taos royalty.
The night ended on the side of the road in Arroyo Hondo when the truck ran a flat tire and the group had to be assisted by the sheriff.
With the teenage fun behind them, the two would see each other again years later as associates on the Taos Fiesta Council.
Trujillo said he brought Branchal Garcia onto the council later in life because he knew she was the right person for the job and could honor both the treasurer position and the 100-year-old tradition of the fiestas as a whole. She even served as the president of the council for a short time.
The longstanding festival in Taos means more than just the Mass and the parties to Branchal Garcia. For her, these fiestas are a “Welcome Home” event for Taos, a chance to celebrate with friends, family and visitors. It’s a time of year when all of Taos comes together.
“There is nothing that is similar to the fiestas,” she said. “It’s important to keep it going.”
According to Branchal Garcia, helping with the fiestas is a way to help preserve the culture of Taos and to ensure that future generations can celebrate and have fun for years to come.
This year, the council and community were devastated to make the decision to cancel the fiestas for only the second time in its history. The pandemic protocols prohibit social gatherings.
In order to keep the spirit of community going when it’s not fiestas time, Branchal Garcia has shared her talent and passion for music with members of the San Francisco de Asís Church choir.
For several years, Branchal Garcia has enjoyed her time as a key member of the Ranchos church choir, time that was unexpectedly interrupted recently when a positive COVID-19 test shut her world down for an entire month.
Cases of COVID-19 in Taos County began to see a slight uptick in May and Branchal Garcia’s fortunes fell to the virus on May 27.
After feeling ill for a few days beforehand, she decided to get a test, which confirmed her fears.
“All of the sudden, I started to feel chills,” she said. “I thought it was just allergies so I stayed home and isolated myself in my office. I started to struggle with a shortness of breath.”
The virus took all her energy, and worst of all, her voice. Well into July, Branchal Garcia was unable to speak without a rasp in her throat. As of August she was still working to get back her singing voice.
The woman who tirelessly gives so much to her community, was confined to a small space during her recovery, but still managed to have a positive outlook for the future.
In her position as chief procurement officer for the New Mexico Correction Department, she couldn’t stop working for long. Branchal Garcia oversees the purchases for all seven state correctional facilities. This work is especially important due to the fact that she has to ensure the public’s money is spent in the correct, legal way.
Working through COVID-19 was tough, but eventually Branchal Garcia was able to muster some strength and immediately began looking for ways to help those around her.
Despite her quarantine, she was still able to manage a bit of work for the fiestas and the church remotely. For Easter Mass, Branchal Garcia was able to remotely facilitate the choir and give the community a small sense of normalcy while she recuperated at home.
She was already providing some music for the online Masses, but helping for Easter gave her a lift she needed in her isolation.
“That really helped me, because I was starting to get really depressed not being able to go to Mass.” she said. “The Easter Mass really took me home, because it really provided some support for me in all my depression.”
Recovery was not easy and was more than a monthlong battle for this community queen.
“I can still play my guitar, but I can’t sing,” she said.
“I just get too winded.”
After two negative tests for the virus, Branchal Garcia was designated as officially recovered by the New Mexico Department of Health. Once she started feeling better, her work for the community took off yet again.
Unable to fully return to choir efforts and full fiestas duties, due to the cancellation of the event, Branchal Garcia said she had to do something to help those around her.
She even began baking small chocolates for community members as a symbol of hope in trying times.
“I felt like I needed to help,” she said. “I feel like COVID has really made people want to reach out and make a difference.”
Choir, fiestas work, community volunteering, working through a deadly illness – none of it stops Branchal Garcia.
“I don't believe that I'm a hero,” she said. “What I have given as a confirmation facilitator, as a music choir director, the fiesta council, is nothing in comparison to what I have received.”