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Ruth Calderón

Ruth Calderón

Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge, now closed, stands quietly by the highway.

Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge, now closed, stands quietly by the highway.

Ruth Calderón, in the WAC, in 1943

Ruth Calderón, in the WAC, in 1943

The incomparable Mrs. C
Ruth Calderón and her legendary Raphael's Silver Cloud Lounge

There are times when the universe gives us an unexpected gift that brightens our lives. One day in October the Signpost editor sent me the phone number of a woman who wanted to contribute some dichos (Spanish sayings) to my small feature, El Rinconcito español; I called the number and spoke for the first time to my gift from the universe, Ruth Calderón.

I could hear age in the voice of Mrs. Calderón, but I also heard a deep interest in life and in the countless persons who have peopled her own. I heard humor and affection, more than a few dichos, questions about Placiteños with whom she has lost contact, and the first threads of a fascinating ongoing life story. We talked for hours that day in English and Spanish, the language changing with the topic.

In December I finally met Mrs. Calderón at the Rio Rancho home she shares with her daughter and son-in-law, Conchita and Larry Sánchez. It was like finding family. She showed me around her part of the house and then she fed me: Una sopa de arroz (Mexican rice), frijolitos, chile, and tortillas. It was the best of food—the kind prepared and served by loving hands. During my next visit I was treated to beautifully wrapped sweet tamales made by Conchita—and, oh bliss—a burrito of chicharrones (crisp fried pork rind and chile). I did most of my fact-gathering for this story by phone and e-mail; during our visits, food and conversation come first.

Many readers will remember Ruth Calderón from Raphael's bar and dance, in Algodones. She and her family ran Raphael's for thirty-two years. The bar was named for her son, who'd discovered the property while driving home to Raton from Las Cruces, where he attended NMSU.

The family lived in a trailer adjacent to Raphael's. Ruth brought in bands to play New Mexican and country music; David Allan Coe played there, as did blues musicians John Hammond and Albert King; later came musicians from Northern Mexico to play música norteña. Her local clientele dwindled when the Mexican bands played, but Mexicans came from as far as Las Vegas, New Mexico, to dance and play pool and enjoy Señora Calderón's hospitality and good food, as did people from three pueblos: San Felipe, Santa Ana, and Santo Domingo.

Ruth Calderón was treated with respect by all her customers, and could calm a rowdy customer with a gentle touch on the arm, and a soft “Don't you think you've had enough to drink?” She told me about a Halloween when everybody went to Raphael's in costume: she dressed as a man, wore a mask, and appeared as a “couple” with another woman, and no one recognized her. During the evening she pretended to make a pass at the waitress, who was dressed as a French maid, and was instantly reprimanded by one of her favorite customers; later he was mortified to realize he'd reprimanded “La Señora.”

During the early years at Raphael's, her now famous chicharrón burritos cost $.75 each; by the time Raphael's closed, they cost $3. Sometimes she prepared meals for her regular patrons simply out of friendship.

The family attended weekly mass at the San Antonio Catholic Mission, in Placitas, though they had to rush back to Algodones to open Raphael's—until the law changed to prohibit Sunday openings.

Maria de Refugio “Ruth” Ávila was born in 1921 in Brilliant, New Mexico, a small town northwest of Raton, near Trinidad, Colorado, where cattle walked the main street. It was a region of coal mines and the immigrants from around the world who worked them. The town was owned by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, supplying the railroad with coal during the first half of the twentieth century; now it's a ghost town. Ruth's mother, Concepción, was from Saucillo, Chihuahua; her father, Ambrosio, from Jerez, Zacatecas, was a coalminer.

Ruth had five sisters and two brothers. With immigrant children from many different language groups, school was a multicultural experience, with everyone working to learn English. At home she learned to sew and helped her mother with the ironing. Ruth's mother washed clothes for a wealthy Colorado family who paid for her work in huge cans of milk and hindquarters of meat. The milk was made into cheese, the meat into jerky, as the small icebox in the company house held little and the only other way to preserve food was by lowering it into the well.

In January 1943 Ruth joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps; she was in the first group of women from New Mexico to join the war effort. She was sworn in at Carlsbad Caverns and sent to Florida for basic training; then she was sent to Cooks and Bakers School. As an auxiliary of the Army, the WAAC had no military status; however, President Roosevelt signed legislation in July 1943 that made all servicewomen members of the Army and dropped the first A in WAAC. The working and disciplinary status of members of the WAC (Women's Army Corps) remained that of the WAAC, but the women were now eligible for benefits accorded soldiers, though there remained considerable controversy about the kinds of work women should do in the Armed Forces.

Ruth remembers living in a tiny two-bed dormitory at Maxwell Field, in Alabama, considering it a luxury. She cooked for hundreds of people at a time—a skill and talent that would be put to further good use. The other women in her company were from Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Texas, and from less rural backgrounds than Ruth, and aside from youth they hadn't much in common. However when her father would send her canned tortillas, the other women eagerly helped eat them.

She was preparing to go overseas, when word came that her brother, Ambrosio, had been killed in Germany. Ruth received her discharge from the Army in November 1945, with the rank of Mess Sergeant. Before returning to Brilliant, she stayed briefly in Texas, where she went to beauty school. It was in Texas that Ruth first experienced racism against Mexicans, though during her Army service in the South she'd faced confusion over “black” and “white” facilities before being directed to the “white” ones.

In 1948 Ruth married Narciso Calderón, of Dawson, New Mexico. He, like her father, was a coal miner. In addition to their children, Conchita and Rafael (who later changed the spelling of his name), Ruth raised her sister Lupe's two children, Manuel and Carolina, after Lupe's untimely death. In 1951 the coal mine in Brilliant closed, and the family moved to Raton. Ruth worked for the Raton Post Office for fourteen years. Then, as she puts it, “In 1973 I quit the Post Office to become a bartender.”

Before opening Raphael's, the Calderones took their first trip to Mexico. Ruth found relatives of her father in the state of Zacatecas, and the couple visited Manzanilla and other tourist areas and had a wonderful time. Her father had warned her that “nice” women didn't go to cantinas in Mexico, but, road weary, she and Narciso entered one; they didn't care for the way the men looked at her and took their drinks—hers a soda—to their car.

In Algodones, Ruth worked an entire month cleaning the restaurant-lounge before she opened it as Raphael's, in 1973. Neither she nor Narciso had any experience with bars, so the previous bartender stayed on. There was easy access to the building at that time via Exit 248 off I-25, and customers came regularly from Algodones, Bernalillo, and Placitas. Ruth did a little radio advertising, but most of her advertising was word of mouth. Former patrons remember “Mrs C.” or “Señora Calderón” and her family as “fine,” “generous” people, and “muy lindas”—and, of course, you can't find a good chicharrón burrito just anywhere.

Three feature movies were filmed on location at Raphael's, including Sam Peckinpah's Convoy, in 1977. Mrs. C. and her family met Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw, as well as Steve McQueen, who was then dating McGraw. Mrs. Calderón, herself, is seen tending bar early in the movie. Actor Wes Studi, who plays Joe Leaphorn in the film versions of three Tony Hillerman novels, made his directorial debut at Raphael's with Bonnie Looksaway's Iron Art Wagon, which was screened at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Raphael's is still listed as a “location” on the New Mexico Films Web site. It also appears in a couple of Sarah Lovett's novels, and Tom Waits referred to it on his 1975 album, Nighthawks at the Diner. On his Web site it's described as “a classic road house” where “lots of cool bands played.”

Narciso Calderón passed away in 1989, shortly after they'd celebrated forty years of marriage. Raphael's closed in 2005. Really, it lost it's heart on September 11, 1999, when Señora Calderón's youngest child, her son, Raphael, unexpectedly died. She continued running the cantina for a few years; then Conchita and Larry and their sons, Ben and Kipper, ran the business until finally closing its doors. The building is still there, east of I-25. It might well have closed an era, given the growth of fast-food strips and the big casinos—but it may yet be chosen as a location for another movie.

Coal miner's daughter, WWII veteran, hairdresser, wife, mother and foster mother, seamstress, postal worker, cantinera (bartender), movie extra, cook, and my gift from the universe (Thanks, Conchita, for sharing), Ruth Calderón has a huge heart that holds no bitterness; she's gracious and lovely and full of stories; she remembers customers at Raphael's by name, and yes, she cooks like a dream. At eighty-five, she no longer drives but stays active cooking, sewing, crocheting, doing the family laundry, cooking, cooking; at times her legs hurt and she has to use one of her “friends”—a cane or a walker (with a handy seat for resting)—on her walks. She has a young mind and a quick sense of humor, and she looks forward to visiting Placitas again; she wants to see how it's changed and hopes to see a few former regulars of Raphael's and catch up on their lives.

A public-lands experiment needs to re-engage the public

Not long ago, a fat patch of private land lay isolated within the Jemez Mountains, surrounded mostly by Forest Service land. Though off-limits, many New Mexicans knew that this place, the Baca Ranch, supported an enormous elk herd and contained both geological and archaeological wonders.

Today, that 89,000-acre private ranch is better known as a "public lands experiment." Bought by the federal government in 2000, it's now the Valles Caldera National Preserve—so named for the collapsed volcanic dome within its boundaries—and it’s run by a board of trustees appointed by the president. These trustees are charged with setting policy based on advice from the public and staff scientists, who are studying everything from elk herds to stream water quality.

As its founding legislation states, the trust must protect the preserve's natural and historic resources, operate as a working ranch and become financially self-sustaining within 15 years. Those last two requirements came courtesy of New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, who opposes any new public lands in the state.

At its creation, giddy New Mexicans hoped that the land and its resources would be preserved and that feuding factions would come together in support of an experiment closely watched by the rest of the nation. Most of all, we hoped to finally set foot on the land to hunt, ski, fish, hike, graze cattle, bike, bird watch or just lollygag.

Six years into the experiment, once-feuding factions are working together. The Valles Caldera Coalition, formed to support the creation of the preserve, today consists of more than 40 conservation, recreation and ranching groups. But giddiness has been mostly replaced by disappointment and even bitterness, as public access has remained minimal. When trustees opened the preserve this summer for one day only, thousands of people showed up, jamming traffic and angering many who’d warned that preserve staff would be overwhelmed by the pent-up demand.

For its part, the coalition is increasingly frustrated by the trust and its lack of long-range planning on issues such as recreation, wildlife, transportation and fire management. But most of all, the coalition is worried about the trust's dismissive attitude toward the public. "Who is the trust accountable to?" asks coalition coordinator Marty Peale. "The public? Domenici and the congressional delegation? Mark Rey?” (the secretary of Agriculture) “Or the White House?"

Thus far, even though the trust has focused most of its planning efforts on grazing, relations with local ranchers that were nurtured by the Bill Clinton-era board have eroded under a new board appointed by President Bush. Last winter, the chair of the trust, a rancher herself, announced a new approach to grazing that would bring in more money, though still not enough money to generate a profit. The trust had allowed local ranchers such as those from Jemez and Pojoaque pueblos to graze small numbers of cattle on the caldera while they worked to restore their rangelands. The new arrangement ended that deal; instead, an out-of-state rancher would be invited to graze 1,200 steers on the preserve. This controversial plan fell apart, but not before causing bad feelings.

Apparently not learning anything from the dustup, the trust recently announced that any rancher can bid for grazing privileges next year, when 2,000 head of cattle will be allowed to graze the Valles Caldera from June through September. While it's true that the trust is under pressure to generate revenue for the preserve, running cattle is not the way to do it. A 2005 federal report showed that in 2004 alone, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management lost at least $115 million as a result of their livestock programs. Not only is it financially unwise, but bringing in large-scale cattle operations from non-local ranchers also jeopardizes the board's relationship with northern New Mexicans. And it betrays those who supported ranching as a way to forge alliances with local communities.

To be fair, the trust is faced with what seems an impossible task, thanks to Sen. Domenici's insistence on multiple use and financial sustainability. The preserve is nowhere close to bringing in more money than it spends. It also needs to welcome back the public by involving local people in planning what happens on the land. Bill DeBuys, a writer and former chairman of the trust, says he presided over the trust’s last public meetings, which were held in 2001.

"In all our public meetings,” he recalls, “people said to us, 'The place is great as it is, so don't screw it up.'" Five years later, that still seems like good advice.

Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a freelance reporter in Albuquerque, New Mexico.





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