Fabiola Cabeza de Baca


by Michael Ann Sullivan

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca was born 16 May 1894 in Las Vegas, New Mexico to Graciano Cabeza de Baca and Indalecia Delgado. The Cabeza de Bacas trace their ancestry back to Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca who explored New Mexico in the 1530s. Fabiola’s paternal great-grandfather, Don Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca held title to the Las Vegas Grandes land grant awarded him by the Mexican government in 1823. Her uncle Ezequial Cabeza de Baca was elected the first Lieutenant Governor for the State of New Mexico in 1912, and the second Governor of the state in 1917. The Delgados on her mother’s side were also a prominent family.

Fabiola’s mother died in 1898 leaving behind four children—Luis Maria, Guadalupe, Fabiola, and Virginia. Fabiola and her siblings were raised by her father and paternal grandmother Estafana Delgado Cabeza de Baca. Fabiola's early life was spent on the family ranch on the Llano, near the town of Las Vegas, in northeastern New Mexico. Although a ranching family, the Cabeza de Bacas belonged to a wealthy Spanish or Hispano elite and women did not perform manual labor. Estefana spent her time doing charity work and supervising servants who did all the cooking and cleaning. Fabiola tried as much as possible to escape prescribed gender roles for young women in her youth and rode with her father and grandfather overseeing the ranch when she could. Her father allowed her to help during branding time and she had her own tame pony—yet she longed to be able to break young broncos like the young men on the ranch.

When the children were of school age, Estefana insisted that the family move into town where she and the children took up residence in a large stone mansion in Las Vegas. Fabiola continued to spend summers on the ranch with her father and uncles away from her grandmother’s strictures. She escaped the tedium of needle work and other suitable activities wandering the family ranch on her own. Fabiola attended the Loretto Academy, a Catholic school run by the Sisters of Loretto. However, after slapping one of the nuns during her first year there, she was expelled and completed her education at a public high school run by New Mexico Normal (later Highlands University). In 1906, she spent a year in Spain studying Spanish and history. She graduated from high school in 1913 with a teaching certificate.

In 1916, she took her first job as a school teacher in a one-room school in rural Guadalupe County six miles from the family ranch but a day's ride from the closest town. She boarded with a local family as it was too far to travel back and forth each day. Her father opposed her working but Fabiola insisted on accepting the position. Children in the region worked to help their families survive only attending school for sometimes half the year and most teachers had no more than an eighth grade education. Fabiola found teaching in Guadalupe County to be challenging. The school had few resources and she managed with an oil cloth black board, outdated books, no bathroom, and no running water. Her students in addition to being frequently absent came from very mixed backgrounds. She recalled her students were “the children of homesteaders, children of Spanish extraction, and children of Indian blood but of Spanish tongue.” Fabiola often used her own money to purchase school materials and she fashioned her own bilingual reader. When teaching music she had the students teach each other their traditional songs—Spanish folk songs, cowboy ballads, hillbilly songs.

Cabeza de Baca taught school for the next ten years although never again in such rural and poor circumstances. She taught at Santa Rosa and at a Spanish-language school started by Vencesleo Jaramillo in El Rita. She began taking summer classes at New Mexico Normal earning a BA in 1921. She majored in Pedagogy and minored in Romance languages. After graduation she spent another year in Spain doing genealogical research at the El Centro de Estudios Historicos. On her return to New Mexico she again resumed teaching at the school in El Rita. After being assigned the home economics courses, Cabeza de Baca became intrigued with this new field of study. Home Economics applied progressive goals of efficiency and science to the kitchen and family. She began taking classes at New Mexico Normal in foods, clothing, and chemistry. In 1927, she moved to Las Cruces and attended New Mexico State University earning a degree in Home Economics in 1929. Cabeza de Baca then embarked on a thirty-year career as an extension agent.

The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 and the Smith-Hughs Act of 1917 had provided federal funds to states to educate farmers through agricultural and home extension agents. Agricultural agents taught farmers more efficient crop and livestock practices and extension agents taught farmer’s wives lessons in nutrition, food preservation, food preparation, and home technology. These acts were designed to keep rural Americans (who were fleeing the country for urban employment) on farms by improving their lives through scientific expertise. However, New Mexico did not mirror the national experience. New Mexico was largely a rural population and 82% of its citizens were living in a depressed economic situation even before the Depression hit in 1929. Rural reforms in New Mexico attempted to alleviate some of the worst effects of poverty by bringing modern home economics and agricultural practices to the Southwest.

The Extension Service eagerly offered Cabeza de Baca a job after she finished her degree. Although the New Mexico Agricultural Extension Service had been assisting the rural population for a decade they had made little headway. Not one of their agents spoke Spanish. Sixty per cent of New Mexico's population was Spanish and over half of the entire population, and most rural women, spoke no English. Cabeza de Baca was the only extension agent in the state who spoke Spanish, holding that job for a considerable period of time. She began her post in Rio Arriba and Santa Fe Counties. Her job kept her on the road often from dawn until midnight. Rural areas were sparsely populated and many miles separated farms and homesteads. In describing her home state Cabeza de Baca related, “New Mexico has not reached a million in population—some of our counties are larger in area than many of our eastern states—we say so many miles to a person rather than persons to a mile.”

Cabeza de Baca taught rural women new gardening and poultry-raising techniques, how to can vegetables and fruits, use sewing machines, and make simple home repairs. She translated government bulletins into Spanish and even learned to speak Tewa and Towa. Her work often challenged traditional ways and the conventional division of labor. Rural women often did not conform to Anglo ideas about farm work and often participated in what was considered heavy farm labor. In addition to bringing rural families new home management techniques, Cabeza de Baca also valued the traditional ways. She helped her clients combine tradition with new modern information to better their lives. She taught women, for instance, how to use sewing machines and integrate them into traditional crafts like colcha and quilting. Her ethnicity coupled with her reverence for the old ways lent to her success as an extension agent.

In 1931, Cabeza de Baca married Carlos Gilbert an insurance agent and activist in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Cabeza de Baca eloped with Gilbert to Mexico to marry. A previous marriage made him an unacceptable partner in her father's eyes. The couple divorced after ten years. Cabeza de Baca spoke little about her husband either during or after her marriage ended. However, it was likely due to Gilbert’s position within LULAC that Cabeza de Baca also became involved in the early Hispanic civil rights movement. She served as a trustee for the national organization and as president of the Santa Fe Ladies Council of a local chapter of the group. In 1939, she was the director of Junior LULACs for the New Mexico region.

In 1932, a serious accident interrupted Cabeza de Baca's career as an extension agent. A train hit her car injuring her leg which was eventually amputated. After a two-year convalescence, however, she was back on the road. Her disability did not seem to hamper her work. Even while recuperating, she worked writing extension circulars on canning and food preparation. After returning to work she continued to visit thousands of homes throughout rural New Mexico. During the 1930s, she also began to compile copious notes about village traditions. She collected recipes, folklore, herbal remedies, religious rituals, and planting practices. She sent these and other recipes to the Santa Fe paper Neuvo Mexicana and held a bilingual weekly radio program on KVSF on homemaking. In 1939, she published a compilation of old and new recipes gleaned from her extension work and from Anglo, Indian, Spanish, and Mexican families.

Historic Cookery was originally published as an extension circular but was republished several times. Governor Mabry sent hundreds of copies to other state governors and officials as publicity for the state.

Cabeza de Baca began writing in earnest in the 1940s. She believed writing to be one of the most potent forms of social action. At first she began writing articles for the New Mexico Agricultural Extension Service bulletins portraying traditional New Mexican village cultural practices. One of her first efforts “Noche Buena” carefully documented traditional Christmas cooking within its historical context. These articles culminated in a book length tribute to Hispanic traditions entitled The Good Life. Published in 1949, The Good Life was a fictional story of the Turrieta family and life in their village accompanied with recipes of their favorite food. Cabeza de Baca intended in this work to share some of her experiences with her rural clients. She felt that their way of life was rapidly vanishing and she attempted to preserve it in a book.

She published her next book We Fed Them Cactus in 1954. It chronicled four generations of her family history on the Llano Estacado gleaned from stories or cuentos that her uncle had told her and her brother. The opening line stated, “This is the story of the struggle of New Mexican Hispanos for existence on the Llano, the Staked Plains.” Cabeza de Baca’s poignantly recounts her families decline from wealthy land grant holders to struggling ranchers as the United States increasingly encroached on their title to the land. Although nostalgic it also presents a critical view of progress as it affected the Hispanic people of the Southwest.

In the 1950s, Cabeza de Baca’s extension work branched out into the international arena. Under the auspices of the United Nations, she began to develop home economic programs in Mexico. She traveled to remote Mexican villages and trained workers in the techniques she had acquired working in Pueblo and Hispanic villages. She retired from the New Mexico Agricultural Extension Service in 1959, although she continued to consult for the Peace Corps. In her later years, she became an active member of La Sociedad Folklorica of Santa Fe, an organization dedicated to preserving Spanish culture, traditions, and folklore. Fabiola Cabeza de Baca died in Albuquerque on October 14, 1991.

Sources Used:

Merrihelen Ponce. The Life and Works of Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, New Mexican Hispanic Woman Writer: A Contextual Biography. PhD Dissertation. The University of New Mexico, 1995.

Maureen Reed. A Woman’s Place: Women Writing New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

Virginia Scharff. Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.



For thirty years, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, Nuevo Mexicana, social reformer, and historian traversed many miles of her home state as a representative of the United States Agricultural Extension Service.