By Lupita P. Gonzales
For the Optic
It can be asserted that Las Vegas, New Mexico, is a treasure trove of fascinating individuals from diverse backgrounds. These interesting people live among us and enrich our existence with their life stories and what they “bring to the table.”
Such is the case with the local couple, Bernabe (Bernie) and his wife, Nancy Up-the-grove Jaramillo.
Bernie hails from nearby Trementina, now a ghost town located between Las Vegas and Tucumcari. He claims to be the descendant of a family of buffalo hunters.
Son of the late Maria Elvira (Cordova) and Bernabe Jaramillo Sr., Bernie wryly says, “Since I was born in the year of the rooster (1945), I’ve been scratching for a living since then.”
Yes, Bernie has a “dry” sense of humor, but despite his self-effacing pronouncement, he has considerable accomplishments to his credit. He graduated from New Mexico Highlands University in 1968, and taught mathematics and chemistry in Mora for two years.
From 1970 to 1972, Bernie served in Vietnam. Upon his return to Las Vegas, he pursued further coursework at Highlands, but due to “the gray economy,” he turned to working on adobe restoration jobs with friends and has been working at Ross’s gas station on Grand Avenue for years.
Nancy, too unfolds a fascinating tale, as well as a sense of humor to match Bernie’s. Born in Lockport, N.Y., “on March 18th in the 1950s,” she won’t divulge her age. She does, however, proudly expound on her familial origins.
Nancy — a proverbial “blue-eyed Indian” — is the daughter of the late Howard James and Agnes Up-the-grove Lee. Fred Lee, Nancy’s brother, currently lives in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. The elder Mr. Lee boasted mixed Onandaga/Anglo descent, and Agnes, Seneca/Pennsylvania Dutch. Nancy proudly retains the Up-the-grove matrilineal name of her mother, in the Native American tradition.
The general public, perhaps through their high school or college American literature or history studies, might be familiar with Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” or perhaps even the saga of the Iroquois Constitution and the six nations in the New York to Ontario region.
Well, such is the background of Nancy’s ancestry.
Nancy has two sons by a prior marriage, Ian and Neal Morris. Ian serves in the Air Force in Wyoming and has two children, a girl and a boy, while Neal works for Whole Foods in Kentucky and has one son. During the ‘80s, Nancy served on the Board of Cooperative Education Services and worked with special education in New York schools.
Nancy subsequently earned her bachelor of professional studies degree from the State University of New York Empire State College in 1993, with emphases on environmental design and planning, specializing in adobe building construction. She then worked for the Department of Public Works in New York. She clarified her reason for focusing on design, “because I like living in a harmonious setting, like ancient Indian Feng-Shui — the art of placement creating a deep sense of contentment, prosperity and well-being into one’s life.”
But now, fast-forward into the late ‘90s, Nancy has worked at various schools in New Mexico, initially substituting, then as a teacher in Pecos, Santa Fe, Vaughn, Mora, Dulce and Torreon, on the Navajo Reservation. Certified as a K-8 teacher, she has taught all subjects.
Nancy has fond recollections of a particular accomplishment of her gifted Navajo students at Torreon who created a sci-fi film titled “The Lizard People,” in which students blended in the cultural beliefs/lore of why “the people” (Dineh) left Chaco Canyon. The film was eventually entered in the Santa Fe Film Festival. “The kids did all the acting, filming, etc. Genuine.”
She also is a proponent of spiritual healing “the Indian way, natural healing — herbal and hands-on. We don’t call ourselves ‘medicine men,’ but rather teachers, using plants, herbs and native tradition of ‘dream-keeping.’ If a person has a dream, then there is a certain ritual which must be handled strictly, with a ceremony involved.”
She further emphasized, “We can’t do medicine for money.” Generally, the exchange is foodstuffs. She elaborated, “It does work! You (the healer) are the vehicle — keyed into the Creator — like all miracles.”
But let’s get back to the Nancy-Bernie connection. The couple met at the turn-of-the-century. Apparently, Nancy was pursuing her love of literature at Carnegie Library, and a specific title she wanted had been checked out by a certain Bernie Jaramillo. The library staff contacted Jaramillo about the request, and he arranged to meet her at the library to turn the book over to her.
Now, get this, folks: It was rumored that Bernie, a confirmed bachelor, was often heard to say, “I’ll get married when I meet a blue-eyed Indian!”
Y que paso, Bernie! (Hint to readers … Nancy is blue-eyed, etc.)
Yes, it became a “story-book romance,” and, in 2000, Nancy and Bernie were married at their property at Monte Aplanado, near Mora. They constructed a “holy space” of a circle of white quartz within an arbor fashioned into an arch, with two pastors and a Kickapoo Medicine Man officiating. During the ceremony, the bride and groom exchanged baskets — his full of deer meat, hers filled with corn bread — representing the sentiments, “he will hunt; she will cook.”
The couple settled into a house on Las Vegas’ west side — a house which they collaborated on renovating. But in 2001, while Nancy was teaching at Vaughn, her parents’ health began to fail, so she left her job, traveled to New York and returned, bringing mom and dad to live with her and Bernie in Las Vegas.
The elderly couple survived until mid-decade, with Nancy’s father passing in 2005 and his wife about two years later. Both are buried in the National Cemetery, as Mr. Lee had served as a US Air Force pilot during WWII. About two years ago, Bernie’s mother, Maria Elvira, passed away in 2011 at the age of 90.
Nancy remarked, “This is the first time we’ve been alone!” (in this house). Earlier, one of her sons had lived with the Jaramillos, and then her parents, the Lees, did. But Nancy and Bernie aren’t just lolling around. As well as continuing to refurbish their home on Lopez Street, they are furthering their plan of running a small sweat lodge — a purification lodge in the Native American tradition — on their at Monte Aplanado site. There’s work to be done, though, because due to vandalism, the original setup needs repair — the tarps are in shreds. But the Jaramillos are not giving up on the project.
In their “spare time,” Bernie and Nancy frequent the Abe Montoya Recreation Center swimming pool, doing water aerobics. Nancy also likes to sing, so she joined the NMHU Community Choir. She currently functions as a consultant for mediation of Native American cultural concerns for entities such as funeral homes, elder care centers and educational institutions.
As for Bernie, apparently when he’s not recreating, rebuilding and refurbishing, he continues to ply his “year of the rooster” activity.