Celebrating San Isidro Labrador

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By Alejandro Lopez

In northern New Mexico, as indeed throughout the Spanish-speaking world, the feast of San Isidro Labrador on May 15th, is deemed to be an auspicious day, particularly for farmers. In many communities, bultos (three dimensional wooden representations of the saint, his plow, a pair of oxen, and an angel guiding the plow), are walked in procession from a chapel where a función, or celebration takes place, to the fields where his blessings are invoked. Popular wisdom has it that frost can be expected up until the 15th of May but that thereafter, it is safe to plant every kind of crop. It is also hoped that a field blessed by San Isidro is a field that will resist being plagued by chapulines (grasshoppers) or fall victim to granizo (hail), diluvios (flooding), or sequía (drought).    



San Isidro Labrador, before having become the patron saint of farmers, was himself a humble Spanish farmer living outside of Madrid in the immense wheat country of the surrounding Castillian plateau. He was frowned upon by many of his contemporaries for placing his spiritual practices of early morning prayer and visits to local shrines before his duties as a farmer; as well as for sharing up to his last morsel with the poor and hungry and, in some cases, with snow bound birds in the wintertime.  


Yet for all of his piety and kindness, neither his fields, family or community suffered any significant losses. Indeed, when he shared food with the poor, the near empty pots in his family's kitchen became replenished. When he shared grain that was destined to the mill with hungry birds, the flour more than filled the original sacks. And, when he tended to the fields after a morning of prayer and visitations, an unexplainable energy efficiently drove his plow and oxen forward, completing in little time what normally would have taken anyone else much longer. Later, image makers everywhere, including in New Mexico, would render this energy into the form of an amiable angel guiding the plow and oxen through the fields.


What lessons do we, fast-paced twenty first century people, have to learn from this historical personage in the small agricultural communities and Indian Pueblos of Northern New Mexico? Does the example of San Isidro not serve to remind us that the miracle of life sustaining more life in our fields is just that – a miracle? A miracle which ultimately cannot be mediated or understood by means other than a deep sense of spiritual awe, reverence for life (or the divine), appreciation, and a willingness to share with others, knowing that the Source of All Life is inexhaustible.


Historically, this belief in the inexhaustibility of the Source was given its expression by nuevo mejicano farmers when, in the fall, the chilero (chile vendor) commanded his sons or daughters to "copetear el bote" or fill the bucket that served as a measurement of a certain amount of chile "to beyond heaping" before handing it over to the buyer; or in the case of Pueblo Indian people inviting anyone and everyone to dine at your feast day table knowing that through their presence, blessings were accruing.  


San Isidro is venerated today in feast days and processions throughout Spain, Latin America, and Hispanic communities of the Southwest.  In New Mexico, he is celebrated in many communities on either May 10th or May 15th. Some notable celebrations take place in La Mesilla, a village outside of Española; the community of San Isidro in the Jemez Mountains; and in Agua Fria village near Santa Fe.

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