Commander of the rebel base, caretaker of culture

Tessa Córdova, Chicana activist and educator


Adorned in silver, wearing all black with winged eyeliner (the Chicana war paint), Tessa Córdova is as fearless as the culture she and her family represent.

Smiling and rushing about the colorful and unmistakable New Mexican cultural center studiously preparing coffee like a true professor, she begins the presentation that reveals the history and mission of her life's work at Las Pistoleras Instituto Cultural de Arte, 1219 Paseo del Pueblo Norte in El Prado.

Meant to empower las mujeres (women), the institute's moniker came from a poem of the same name written by Córdova's close friend Anna Martínez.

"For me, it was a metaphor, her pistola (pistol) is her education," Córdova said.

Upon walking into the small, decades-old space on the Córdova's property, one can't help but notice the painted portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata by Leo Romero. In one corner is a sign that reads "¿Qué pasa raza?" (a coined phrase of her father, Arsenio that Tessa translates as "What's up?").

If that sign is hanging on the front door, then Las Pistoleras is open. And inside there are various artworks on the walls, giving the space a sort of gallery atmosphere. Near the kitchen, within the library, book titles cover topics, such as art, protest and history with a particular Southwest focus. Near the front entrance is a faded photograph featuring Córdova's grandmother Josephine and her grandfather Willie.

Las Pistoleras opened May 4, 2013 in honor of Córdova's great-grandmother María de la Nieves Martinez's birthday.

"This was our dream, we [Cordova family] advanced ourselves so that we could have a place that was credentialed," she said.

The student, the teacher

Córdova is the fourth generation of her family in El Prado and 11th generation Taoseña. She came from writers and educators.

Her grandmother Josephine and mother Kathy were both teachers and self-published authors. Her father was also an educator. She found inspiration from them as well as other Taos legacies and her former teachers: activist and folk singer Jenny Vincent and a pioneer of the Chicano movement, Enriqueta Vasquez.

"That family strength and those connections were always present," she said.

Groundbreaking Tejano singer Lydia Mendoza; theater playwright and director of "La Bamba,” Luis Valdez; and southern New Mexico author, Denise Chavez also influenced Córdova to pursue her family’s dream and her personal aspiration of creating a communal space.

Córdova dove into her studies with her family's encouragement so that when Las Pistoleras became a reality, not only would it preserve culture, it also would have the same scholarly credibility as any academy.

She earned her doctorate degree from the University of New Mexico, where she continues to teach courses, covering subjects surrounding feminism, gender and el movimiento. Her degree in American studies concentrated on the Southwest while her thesis focused on the historical, political and literary contributions of the Chicano movement. Her dissertation, "Recordando Nuestra Gente: Ritual Memorialization Along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro," focused on the cultural networks between Mexico and various areas of New Mexico through a narration that followed two women who died in the marital process.

The mission

Part of Córdova's and Las Pistolera's mission is to pass tradition and education on to youth.

"It's important to have youth programs, but if you don't have any adults that understand them culturally or the set of values and morals we carry, it can get kind of crazy because people are approaching it like a textbook," she said.

The operation also includes activism, arts, organic intellectualism, theater, community, culture and, most important, identity.

"The people here have a history, a long history and there's a lot of trauma affiliated with that," she said, further discussing strategies Las Pistoleras uses to formally educate people and pass on the rich heritage of Chicano and mestizo (mixed race) ancestors.

Previous initiatives celebrating activism and culture included the 2015 tourism and educational, cultural incentive honoring Cesar Chavez. The weekend-long celebration included lectures, art markets, poetry, music and film events organized by Córdova and other community members.

Las Pistoleras also hosts events every year for el Dia de los Muertos, featuring the creation of shrines and calaveras (skulls), inviting community members to gather and spirits to visit.

The institute is doing more than reclaiming culture. It also serves as a base for protest and provides education on the proper and formal styles of activism. It is a place where difficult and controversial dialogues can happen, giving people a space to express themselves.

Previously, Córdova and other community activists challenged the molybdenum mine in Questa as a health and environmental concern. Las Pistoleras was also used as a headquarters to organize against the attempted annexation of El Prado by the county and town of Taos.

"That’s why Pistoleras must exist. Here we are, free to speak what we want," said Córdova. "I've always seen activism in this community."

Traditionally, like most New Mexican affairs, events at Las Pistoleras begin with a meal. More than an alliance for intellectual and creative freedom, Córdova and Las Pistoleras give the comfort of tía’s (aunt) old recipes. Before the revolution there will be beans and rice.

“We always have food, that’s how we were taught to receive people,” said Cordova. “We have a full meal with everything that we do.”

The cooperative hosts lectures, movie nights, documentary screenings, and story and craft time for children. It also serves as a practice and performance space for all arts including poetry, music and theater. The institute offers educational field classes for both children and adults. Last summer, Las Pistoleras hosted a field class that focused on Chicano writers and educators in the upper Río Grande Valley.

Supporting the arts in more ways than one, Las Pistoleras also features the sale of works by native New Mexican artists, authors and regional products. Córdova retains only 25 percent of revenue from sales to help maintain the cultural haven.

"This idea of pushing things forward and moving things forward, not always necessarily because of the money, is very important to me and very important to Pistoleras, that we can help ourselves and just have this place for us to congregate," said Córdova.

With the help of the entire Córdova family, Las Pistoleras and Tessa Córdova continue to provide a base from which the community can protest, celebrate, learn and thrive.

“She’s a very giving and educated person who provides resources to the community. I am very, very proud of her,” said her father, who also contributes time to maintaining Las Pistoleras. “She has been involved in preserving the culture and the tradition of our people, our values and our history.” 

Las Pistoleras will continue to empower women and Chicanos, educate youth, host gatherings and keep community traditions alive.

“I hope our contributions to the community are everlasting,” said Córdova.

To contact Las Pistoleras Instituto Cultural de Arte, find it on Facebook or call (575) 758-3227.


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