By Dixie Boyle
Photo courtesy Mary Ballejos
Talk to anyone born and raised in the East Mountains and there’s a good chance they know the name Carmen Padilla—in fact, she may have helped bring some of them, or their parents or grandparents, into the world. When Carmen started delivering babies in 1930, there were over 800 registered midwives in the state of New Mexico. Even as late as the 1950s, few women living in rural areas had the luxury of giving birth in a hospital. Instead, they regularly turned to midwives and folk healers like Carmen for their care.
By the time she received her retirement commendation from the state of New Mexico in 1985 for 55 years of service, it is estimated that Carmen had delivered over 100 babies, many to first-time mothers. She provided care to these women from the initial stages of their pregnancy up through giving birth and sometimes even afterward.
That’s because Carmen was also a curandera, a folk healer of the kind that have been vital to communities throughout Latin America and the Southwestern United States for centuries. Skilled in the use of healing herbs and other plants, curandera are leaders in their communities, serving advisory roles in a number of physical, practical, and spiritual matters. They are traditionally thought to be able to ward off evil spells, cast by witches called brujas, which make people sick in body, mind, and spirit. Many curandera also use prayers and religious symbols to assist in their work.
Even before settling into her life of midwifery and healing, Carmen had distinguished herself, and not just as a wife and mother but also as a business owner and an independent spirit. “Mom was friendly, talkative, made friends easily, but did not want anyone to tell her what to do,” says her daughter, Mary Ballejos. “She would put you in your place—she was spunky, outspoken, and always on the go.”
Born in 1909 in the village of Punta de Agua just northeast of the Quarai Mission Ruins, Carmen lived most of her life in Mountainair. It was there that she met her first husband, Paul Padilla. In addition to working as a midwife after her certification by the State of New Mexico in 1930, she also helped Paul, with whom she had Mary, in operating a small grocery and clothing store as well as their restaurant, the El Charro Café.
The El Charro was an extremely popular gathering spot. Not only was the food delicious, thanks to Carmen’s way with tortillas and other local specialties, but it was also the only restaurant in Mountainair that stayed open until 1 a.m., allowing those who attended local dances and fiestas to stop and have something to eat before heading home after a night out. Carmen also sold bootleg whiskey on the side for those wanting something stronger to drink, which was expected of business owners during these years and in most cases ignored by law enforcement.
When Paul passed away from a heart attack in 1949, Carmen decided to close the grocery store and renovate that portion of the building into her home and the back section into apartments. These she rented by the night, week, or month. On occasion, she even provided a free place to stay for those who could not pay.
After a short-lived marriage a few years later to Miguel Padilla, Carmen left the ranch in Claunch where he worked as a cowhand and retuned to Mountainair for good. She resumed operations of the El Charro Café, while at the same time working with other midwives and curanderas to meet the medical needs of the people in Mountainair and other East Mountain communities. Carmen had cultivated a small medicinal herb garden, and she also gathered beneficial plants along roadways and in the nearby Manzano Mountains. According to Mary, her mother had always had a love of gardening and an interest in the healing properties of herbs. While many curandera learn from their mothers and grandmothers, Carmen was entirely self-taught.
Granddaughter Diana Chavez remembers accompanying “Grandma Carmen” when she was called upon to deliver a baby. “It was fun when there were other kids to play with, but when it was a first-time baby, we were on our own,” Chavez says. “We had to stay outside and didn’t get fed until the baby was born—and it was a good thing many people still had outhouses in those days!”
Chavez is still in awe of the dedication shown by her grandmother and the other midwives in the community. “They traveled all over—to Edgewood, Moriarty, Monte Prieto [south of Gran Quivira], Lucy, Willard, and even to Torreon.” It could be exhausting work, Chavez says, but her grandmother never flagged.
When Carmen passed away at the age of 92 in November 2001, she was remembered by many Torrance County residents for her knowledge, skill, and kindness. Today, several nieces and cousins follow in her footsteps, continuing the legacy that has come to mean so much to the people living in New Mexico’s rural communities.
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