By Katie Woody
On the side of a mountainous bluff in Grant County, N.M., a nun kneels in prayer every day, wholly vigilant and never wavering. From dawn until dusk, she can be seen with her head bowed, hands clasped in silent meditation. The Kneeling Nun, however, isn’t a faithful woman, but a large rock formation that casts its gaze across the Santa Rita pit mine.
Elena Escobar Tafoya was born in 1916 in the shadow of the Kneeling Nun in Santa Rita, a mining town just 15 miles east of Silver City, N.M. Today, the town no longer exists as it once did, for it has been gobbled up by mining expansion, and the community has been replaced with a large open-pit mine. Santa Rita is the oldest active mine in the Southwest United States and one of the largest open-pit mines in the world, measuring slightly more than 1 1/2 miles wide and 1,600 feet deep. For people in this area of New Mexico, mining has always been part of life and plays a key role in their heritage.
Tafoya grew up part of large family in Santa Rita. She lived in a small house with her parents, Timoteo Padilla and Cruz Maldonado Padilla, as well as six brothers and seven sisters. The Padilla home had a kitchen, from which her mother sold tamales and menudo to local workers at lunch time. The other two rooms were sleeping quarters, divided between boys and girls. The tight living situation was tough, Tafoya recalls, but the entire family worked together to survive, led a strict but loving mother.
"I don't know how my mother did it, but we did," Tafoya said.
She remembers a trip to visit relatives in La Union to the east of Santa Rita. The entire family piled into a horse-drawn wagon and set off on a three-day journey in the direction of El Paso. She fondly recalls resting in the bed of the wagon with her brothers and sisters and admiring the expansive sky and countless stars above.
Tafoya started her formal education in Santa Rita at age 7.
"We had to walk over the mountains to go to school," she said.
A few years later, the family moved to Hanover, where she attended a Hanover elementary school before entering Hurley High School. She was in the eighth grade when her mother said "that was enough" and withdrew her from school, Tafoya recalls.
Outside of school, she spent time with her family, attended church and explored one of her greatest loves: music.
"The only thing that I liked was music," Tafoya said.
She recalls going to church as a young girl and praying to the Virgin Mary to give her musical talent.
"I knelt to the Virgin and I asked her to let me please play one hymn," Tafoya said.
She did learn a hymn, and went on to play the organ at her church for many years. As a young unmarried woman, she came across a piano for sale and decided to ask the owner if he would sell it to her. Though she didn't have all the money up front, the man agreed; she paid installments on the $75 bill.
It was at a dance in Hanover where she met the man who’d become her husband. Raymundo Tafoya courted her for a while, but her mother was very opposed to the relationship, tearing up letters he sent to Tafoya. The two were in love, though, and on one occasion, he arranged for a group of musicians to come and serenade outside her house. Her mother wouldn’t let her look out the window, but she recalls hearing the music through the walls.
When they eloped in 1941, she dreaded telling her mother. When her sister had informed their mother she’d gotten married, she’d been slapped, and Tafoya didn’t want to go through the same thing. Luckily, the young bride's brothers offered reassurance, saying they’d protect her when she broke the news to their mother.
After their nuptials, the Tafoyas lived with family for a week, and then moved into a house owned by the Empire Zinc Mining Company. She continued living in a house on mining company property for more than five decades. She says her rent declined from $15 a month to $1 a year.
Tafoya remembers often worrying about Raymundo when he was working, since mining was a dangerous occupation. It was only months after their wedding when the Tafoyas learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II.
They were concerned even before Pearl Harbor that the Japanese might attack, she said. The community was greatly impacted by the attack and the ensuing war, Tafoya says, because many of their neighbors had sons stationed in Hawaii.
Upon hearing the news, many of them came together to pray for the safety of the soldiers, and the general attitude of the town seemed to change. Wealthier members of the community were instantly kinder to those who were less well off.
"At least they said 'hello,'" Tafoya recalled. "At least they talked about the war and all those things. I remember a little of that. We all came to pray together."
Raymundo was called to enlist in the military but didn’t pass the necessary entrance exams, so he didn’t have to fight in the war. Many of the mine laborers weren’t so lucky, however, and the town was left with a shortage of male workers. To fill the gap, the mines began employing females. At the time, Tafoya was too young to work in the industry so she took care of her house and family and worked in the community when she could.
It was in her kitchen where Tafoya learned of the end of the war. She heard the ringing of the church bells to signal the news, and much of the community gathered to pray and thank God, she recalls.
After the war, several mines closed in the area, and the Tafoyas were forced to travel to Arizona for a short period to find work. They didn’t like the climate or the environment of the neighboring state, so they quickly returned to Hanover, where Raymundo was able to find work again.
The 1950s were a turbulent time for the mining industry in southern New Mexico. Like many locations in the area, the mines were segregated and pay was often unequally low for workers of color. A group of miners, mostly Latinos, organized a strike to protest the discrimination they encountered daily. Many local residents supported the strikers by visiting their picket lines around the mine. Tafoya and her sister came out to support Raymundo whenever they could. During the strike, the mining company used strike breakers to continue production, driving a painful wedge into families who had members on both sides.
"My husband and his cousin were very close, good friends, and he was a scab [who worked in place of striking miners] and my husband was not, so they didn't talk to us anymore," Tafoya said. "[But] now we're good friends again."
Mrs. Tafoya was interviewed in Hanover, New Mexico, on July 15, 2004, by Brian Lucero.