What's in a name?

In search of the elusive 'Taos' mystique

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Approach any person who lives in Taos and ask them why they live here, and you will be likely to receive various responses. Most common among them will be: “My ancestors have always lived here.” “I was driving through, ran out of gas and got trapped here and I wasn’t able to escape.” “I came to be part of ‘The Commune’ in the 1960s because Taos is a four-letter word like 'love.'” “I came for the red and green chile.” “I wanted to be a Taos artist.” “The mountain called me.”

These, and many more reasons, define a people who have come to make their home in the land of cool, refreshing sunrises and brilliant, dramatic sunsets. The problem here though, is that the last person to come to Taos wants to be the last person to come to Taos and lock the gate behind him. Once we are firmly retrenched here, we all become very possessive of this, our treasured chosen homeland.

Looking beyond the personal reasons for living in Taos, we can find just how many times this place has changed names across the centuries depending on available records. This ‘place at the red willows’ has been recorded in the annals of local history successively as “Brava” in 1540 when Don Hernando de Alvarado (a native of the small town of Las Montañas in northern Spain who became captain of artillery for the Coronado expedition) mentioned it to his superior, Don Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. It was then rechristened “Tlaxcala,” recalling an earlier symbiotic encounter between Spanish settlers and friendly Indians near Mexico City. 

By 1598, "Tuah-Tah," was the name recorded by Juan Belarde who was secretary to Don Juan de Oñate (a conquistador, explorer and colonial governor of the Santa Fe de Nuevo México province in the Viceroyalty of New Spain). He wrote: “On this day, after Mass, we went on to the province of La Tuah-Tah, the place of the red willows ...” For years there was even a motel in Taos bearing this name.

Sometimes the place reference was to “Tayberón” in 16th century records. Subsequently, a document in Mexican archives also refers to this place as “Valladolid”; the kingdom of El Cid who was the symbolic hero of Spain’s liberation from the Moors. It had also been recognized in letters of the time intermittently as “Don Fernando,” “San Fernández” and “Fernández-Chávez de Taos” by 1760. It had been named for Capt. Fernando de Chávez who had settled in this area prior to the Taos Pueblo Revolt of 1680 

People, such as tutelary goddess cum Taos doyenne Mabel Dodge, promoted the idea that “Taos” was possibly a reference to a way of life. “Taoism,” [Romanized as Daoism], is a term meaning “the way” or “the path.” It is a Chinese philosophical tradition that emphasizes living in harmony. 

The first known reference to the quest for the meaning of Taos in a book was recorded by artist and author Blanche Chloe Grant (1874-1948) in her classic “When Old Trails were New.” Grant was the first person who donated a piece of art, which launched “The Firehouse Art Collection.” She mentions that Dodge was the first to promote the idea that we are all "called by the mountain," referring to Taos Pueblo Peak. The mountain will then either “accept you or reject you.” Since then, legend has become recognized as fact.

Based on Dodge's proposal, the flower children and their descendants made a brilliant calculation: Taos is exactly 180 degrees opposite the world, longitude and latitude-wise from holy Tibet. It is for this reason that Buddhists have been attracted to this spot for several decades. Some will even tell you that we have legends that tell us on this side, the world was light for a year. They have opposite legends that mention for a year the world was dark. “We are here to complete a spiritual journey,” they say.

Performers and singers have also popularized the name of Taos in song. It is not generally known, but after years of imitating other country singers, the late Waylon Jennings found his voice in the music scene in 1967 with his album "Love of the Common People." Among the songs in his album, was one written by songster Bob Ferguson. It was titled “Taos, New Mexico.” 

Part of the lyrics to this romantic ballad say: To Taos Pueblo, out in New Mexico, one night my weary feet did go, so I stopped that night in Taos. There's a story in Taos town that if a stranger comes around when a fresh snow is on the ground, a new love will be born in Taos … Some night if it should snow there's a place you really ought to go. There's a legend that is true I know in Taos, New Mexico. 

Following his footsteps, another Taos transplant was guitarist Antonio Mendoza who would regale the crowds at the plaza restaurant The Cocina. His slant on Taos music included the lyrics: You can be anything you want to be in Fernández de Taos by the Río Grande … be a louse to your spouse in Taos… In Taos, New Mexico we have no sexico; just intellexico, in Taos, New Mexico.

In 1972, Canadian-born Richard Dean Taylor wrote about serving time here in his song, "Taos, New Mexico." Part of his lyrics are desperate pleas from a mom to her son who can’t move because he’s stuck in Taos: My mamma wrote a letter, in it she said: “Son, you better hurry, get home quick. Maria’s tired of waitin’ and you know she started datin’. Then she got her kick. Here I am in jail with no-one to pull my bail And I just wanna go home and when I do, I'll never leave Maria alone. I'm serving time in Taos, New Mexico …

Other fans include writers such as Lyn Bleiler of the Society of the Muse of the Southwest (SOMOS). She has set legends and rose-colored glasses aside and tells us that Taos was first inhabited by the Anasazi Indians circa 1,000 A.D. It has seduced myriads of other notables like Carl Jung, Jaime de Angulo, D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Thomas Wolf and Martha Graham.

Then there are the rest of us non-notables who persist in living here. The question then, is why people might choose to settle in Taos. It is not easy to live here. Many Taoseños have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Many are single parents trying to raise children by themselves while they go to classes at night in pursuit of a college degree and straddle various languages. And yet we stay. 

Perhaps it is the famous Taos mystique that binds us all together despite a history of revolt and rebellion, arguments over land and water usage. Perchance we like gluten-free and social change. Maybe it is the electro-magnetic emanations from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that give us the will and courage to stay. It could be the Taos Hum that lulls us into a sense to security like a child resting in his mother’s arms. Could be that we come because of the slogan, “Taos” is a four-letter word for “snow.”

Why question heaven on Earth or the proverbial gift horse? Taos IS a four-letter word. Taos means "home."

Larry Torres is a local historian and foreign language coordinator at the University of New Mexico-Taos.

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