Following the Manito Trail: Ernesto's Story
MsEd, SAS, SDA (retired)
Ernesto’s father, Rudolfo Lopez, working on a railroad in Ely, Nevada, 1957.
Ernesto’s story is a typical Manito story. It’s a story of courage, persistence, and adventure. Just like his predecessors, he left behind all that felt safe and familiar to seek better employment, professional options, and to pursue his personal and intellectual pursuits. He was the first in his family to earn an MBA. Even though he left as a teenager, he remained extremely connected to his family, his local community, and culture. He proudly identifies as a New Mexican.
The Lopez family settled in the valley of Penasco many generations and centuries ago. Ernesto’s ancestors like all the early settlers worked very hard to establish their lives in the challenging yet beautiful terrain of Northern New Mexico. Most men, including Ernesto’s father, had to leave their homes and families to seek employment in the neighboring states and beyond. For example, they went to Wyoming to herd sheep and Colorado to build the railroad, often during freezing winters. They sacrificed to support their families, while the women were left behind to care for the children and maintain their homes.
Ernesto as a child, 1949.
Ernesto was born in Embudo, NM, the third of seven children. He resided in picturesque Peñasco Valley on the High Road to Taos. As a small child, he would spend summers in the mountains with his paternal grandfather, Rudolfo López. Hard work was his Abuelo López's main religion. He resented having to share the fruits of his hard work with the local church and priests; as he put it, "these 'do-nothings' expect me to work like an animal and give them part of my crop!" That was the time of the primicias ("tithes," roughly), whereby one tenth of the harvest had to be donated to the church. In his youth, summers were spent in the mountains of Tres Ritos helping his Abuelo López care for the livestock, though Ernesto often wandered away to follow the creek and catch fish. In August, the older children and teenagers were employed on potato farms, earning money for school clothes.
Ernesto also spent many Christmases with his maternal grandparents, the Ortegas. His maternal grandfather, Alfredo Ortega, was very religious and pious. He and the family prayed the rosary nightly on their knees before going to bed. Abuelo Ortega walked over two miles each way to church, even during winter when the snow could get several feet high. Ernesto made this walk with him on many occasions. It instilled in him the value of religion.
Ernesto's maternal grandparents, Euphemia Vazquez-Ortega (1884-1957) and Alfredo Ortega (died 1963), circa 1930s.
Growing up with a workaholic father, Ernesto and his siblings worked hard on the farm from a very young age. Life wasn’t easy and experiencing the simple joys of childhood were rare. Receiving a Sears catalog before Christmas was an exciting event, allowing the children to dream of toys they could never have. Without commercial toys, the children created games from household objects and recycled materials. During their rare free time, they mainly played outdoors, catching frogs in the wet fields during summer and sliding over the snow using a cardboard box in the winter. Ernesto often passed time placing bets with his older brothers on how many Chevys versus Fords would be on road (though his savvy older brothers always won, knowing that there were very few Fords). Sundays were typically the day to visit maternal grandparents, to play outdoors with local kids, and to eat abuela’s pozole and tortillas.
Ernesto (second from left) with mother Luisa and four other siblings, 1945.
Ernesto realized early on that farming and ranching were not to be his future career. He attended St. Anthony’s parochial school in Peñasco, and after finishing eighth grade joined the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Santa Fe. After three years there, though, he realized that the priesthood wasn’t his calling, either. He returned to Peñasco, completed high school, there, and at age 17 joined the US Air Force. He was stationed at Walker Air Force base in Roswell, NM before attending a microwave radio school and a local college at Kesler Air Force based in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Ernesto with his fellow airmen at Walker Air Force Base, Roswell, NM, preparing for deployment to Vietnam, October 1966.
Ernesto volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1967, where he worked repairing microwave radios. During his service in Vietnam, he had a close encounter with destiny. While fixing the equipment on the roof of the hangar during a typhoon, a sheet of corrugated roofing flew by and came dangerously close to hitting him. Thankfully, he returned safely from Vietnam and briefly lived in California (where many New Mexican expats relocated). In the end, though, he permanently relocated to Belle Harbor, Queens, New York. There he attended Pace College on the G.I. Bill, completing his studies while working a full-time job and eventually earning his MBA from the New York University School of Business.
Ernesto hard at work on a microwave radio tower in Vietnam, 1968.
After graduation, Ernesto spent his career working for various financial institutions. He mostly worked for international banks as an accountant, vice president, comptroller, and compliance officer. Many of those banks were South American affiliates, meaning his knowledge of Spanish became very useful and his Hispanic heritage was enriched by people from other continents sharing and comparing experiences. Those experiences gave him an opportunity to improved his written and spoken Spanish communication skills.
As it did for so many others, New York City opened the door to the world for Ernesto. Visiting the Egyptian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art’s impressionist art inspired him to learn how to paint and create stain glass art at the local college. He also studied French in the French Alliance Institute in Manhattan. Currently, Ernesto participates in various organizations such as the American Legion (Post 2001); the National Cursillo Movement; he Third Order of the Legionaries of Christ; and the Executive Forum of NYU, where he served for years as treasurer and webmaster. In New York Ernesto met and befriended people from all over the world, including me! The Polish woman who introduced him to world travels and would eventually become his wife, Elzbieta Jasinska.
Ernesto at home in Belle Harbor, Queens, NY, getting ready for the 2018 Veteran's Day parade.
One of Ernesto's more memorable vacations was his trip to The Silk Road and Samarkand, Uzbekistan, a city he had dreamed of visiting since he was 10 years old. During this trip, he visited a local art gallery; there he noticed a piece of black pottery that reminded him of María Martínez’s artwork from San Idelfonso Pueblo, NM. When he pointed out the similarities, the artist and owner of the gallery replied that he had been inspired to make the piece after visiting Santa Fe and seeing Martinez’s work! The pieces exhibited at the gallery were directly inspired by and based on her techniques. It seems the Manito Trail not only crossed the U.S., but had crossed the Pacific Ocean and into the heart of Central Asia.
Traveling the world and living in NY never stopped Ernesto from taking annual trips to New Mexico, though! He returned every August to satisfy his need to breathe fresh air and hike his favorite mountain, La Jicarita. He would always return to NY with 50-pound box of green chile, amusing the neighbors with the unfamiliar scent of chile roasting on the grill. Even in New York, Hatch green chile is very often on the menu. It is added to many dishes that you wouldn't think would have it, including Polish dishes like chicken soup or bigos, a traditional stew of cabbage and meat that Polish hunters have prepared for hunting trips for centuries.
I remember the first time Ernesto took me to visit New Mexico - it was an amazing experience. I remember the breathtaking scenery as my father-in-law Rudolfo drove us from the Albuquerque airport to Peñasco; the variety of landscape during the three-hour drive being surprising. Visiting pueblos for the first time was a big culture shock! It was very different from what I'd grown up learning in Poland about the U.S. southwest, which was entirely based on watching Bonanza and TV westerns.
Visiting NM every year gave me opportunities to enjoy many different experiences. Attending performances at the Santa Fe Opera with the sun setting on the horizon was thrilling to begin with, but it was particularly special and relevant to watch a performance of "Doctor Atomic" knowing that Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic age, was just on the other side of the mountains. I felt privileged to visit the Monastery of Christ of the Desert in Abiquiu; it was a spiritual awakening to attend the monks' chants, which felt like they transferred me to another dimension. Ojo Caliente was a relaxing refuge that was always welcome after long drives. The most exciting and memorable visit was probably our trip to Bisti Badlands - something that I feel we must repeat. No matter where we traveled in New Mexico, we found that dining at truck stops was an excellent strategy: the more trucks there were, the better the food and the more interesting the people you could meet!
Ernesto with a hunting Golden Eagle in the mountains of Kazakhstan, October 2019.
As we traveled abroad extensively and experienced different cultures, cuisines, and traditions, Ernesto always compared them to his childhood home and experiences in New Mexico. No matter how beautiful, exotic, and exciting the destination, he is always most excited to return to his querencia. He loves staying outside in the soft New Mexico night, listening to the sounds of the nearby creek and watching the stars. He feels the starry skies of Peñasco are the most beautiful in the world.
Since retiring in 2007, Ernesto and I have enjoyed a peaceful life on the quiet Rockaway Peninsula of Belle Harbor. A history buff by nature, Ernesto divides his time between reading from his substantial history and science library, feeding the seagulls on the beach, visiting U.S. National Parks, and travelling the world. As for me, I feel that it is my responsibility to educate people on the East Coast about the "foreign country" of New Mexico - many people out here have no understanding of New Mexican geography, ethnic groups, or even that New Mexico is a state! Even though it can sometimes be exhausting to explain that "YES, they speak English in New Mexico," or "NO, you do not need a passport to go there," or "NO, it is not all desert," I love to share about Ernesto's querencia. The people of New Mexico are friendly, soft-spoken folk who live in unity in the LAND OF ENCHANTMENT.
Ernesto's favorite mountain in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, La Jicarita, also known as Jicarita Peak.