The Laguna lived on the banks of the Rio San José in west-central New Mexico for thousands of year. They arrived long before the advent of written records.
Laguna means “lagoon” in Spanish. Long ago, ancient inhabitants in this area constructed a dam, which formed a small lake. It was the only lake in the region at that time, making it a noteworthy topographical detail. It dried up long ago. According to Laguna oral history, their ancestors originated on the other side of the lake. When researchers analyzed 1,449 archaeological sites and conducted an anthropological analysis of the Laguna oral history, they established that the Laguna have lived in this area since about 6500 BC.
The modern Laguna pueblo was established in 1699, following the social upheaval caused by the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 and the Spanish campaign to reconquer the region in 1692. A group of refugees from other pueblos established the settlement with the permission of the Spanish governor, Diego de Vargas. This diverse group built the pueblo’s main village on the west side of the San José River, including the San José mission.
The San José de la Laguna Mission is perched on top of a hill, surrounded by weathered, adobe homes. The church’s white exterior provides a sharp contrast to the earth tones surrounding it. Villagers built the mission in 1699, after the Pueblo Revolt. It was the last mission built in the early mission period and remains one of the best preserved. The interior is 105 feet by 22 feet. The only openings are the doorway and a small window below the twin bells.
The interior ambience plays a central role in the allure of the church. Laguna art and rare early Spanish paintings line the walls and surround the altar. Red, green, yellow and black murals adorn the earthen walls. Tribal members painted the ceiling above the sanctuary with the Laguna symbols for the sun, the moon, the stars, and a rainbow. Talented artisans intricately carved all of the woodwork, including the vigas and the latticed ceiling. A portrait of Saint Joseph visually dominates the center of the reredos, flanked by Saint Barbara, protector against thunder, lightning, and sudden death, and Saint John Nepocene.
There are many ties between Acoma and Laguna. They are neighbors location, share a language, and share high school. However, they have a complicated history.
Painting of San José
San José is the patron saint for Acoma and Laguna pueblos. Long ago, the priest of Acoma, Father Ramírez, brought a painting of San José to Acoma. King Charles II gave it to him. The people of Acoma and Laguna believed the painting had supernatural powers, which they credited with Acoma’s prosperity. In the meantime, Laguna was suffering. Disease, drought and crop failure had decimated their community.
Laguna asked Acoma to loan them the painting. They hoped it would bring them the same prosperity that it had brought Acoma. The people of Acoma were not enthusiastic about the prospect, but their priest insisted that tribal members consider it. After a year of deliberation and debate, Acoma decided to draw lots to let God decide. Unsurprisingly, given the community’s obvious reticence, “God” decided the painting should stay in Acoma. The Laguna were livid. A group of them broke into Acoma’s mission and stole the painting, which, of course, provoked everyone in Acoma pueblo. Somehow Acoma’s priest calmed his congregation down and convinced them to share.
Acoma vs. Laguna
With the painting secured, Laguna prospered, which only enhanced faith in the painting’s power. As a result, they had no intention of returning it. For more than a century, Acoma asked for the painting and Laguna refused to return it. They asked the priests to help negotiate a solution, but they didn’t come up with anything mutually acceptable. Finally, Acoma pursued the painting through the courts. The Pueblo of Acoma v. the Pueblo of Laguna was decided by the Supreme Court of New Mexico in favor of Acoma.
The large oil painting on canvas, which portrayed the standing figure of Joseph holding the baby Jesus, was said to have been sent to New Mexico by Carlos II, king of Spain from 1665 to 1700. It was believed that the painting of Saint Joseph worked miracles for its possessor. Most important to the pueblos was the belief that the painting brought life-sustaining rain to the parched agricultural lands that provided their main source of food.
When Acoma set out to reclaim the painting from Laguna, they found the image of San José resting against a mesquite tree in the canyon that separates the pueblos. They decided that the saint “was in such a hurry to get back to his home in Acoma that he started out by himself.”
Laguna Pueblo offers church tours daily. There is no fee. To get to Laguna, take exit 114 off I-40 between Albuquerque and Grants. For more information, call San José Mission at (505) 552-9330.