Early one morning in
1921, Alfonsa Vigil opened the door to her family's new general
store in the village of Chimayo. As she waited for the first customers
to arrive, Vigil looked out upon the scenic Potrero, a grassy
stretch of pastureland, where the store stood just west of the
legendary Santuario de Chimayo. "May God bless each and every
one that comes through these doors," she said.
It was a prayer Vigil
repeated every morning until the day she died. Today in Chimayo,
Vigil's daughter, Elma Vigil Bal, whispers the same morning prayer
as she opens the double doors of El Potrero Trading Post for business.
Located in a funky, pitched-roof adobe fronted by a shady white
portal, El Potrero is the latest incarnation of a business that
has been in Vigil's family for four generations and seventy-five
Since its 1921 beginnings
in a back room of Alfonsa and Jose M. Vigil's house, El Potrero
has evolved from a remote village general store to a religious
arts shop that features one of northern New Mexico's largest selections
of devotional art. Indeed, El Potrero today is as much of a religious
institution as the Santuario de Chimayo itself. "When I was little,
this was the only store in the Potrero," Vigil Bal says. "Today,
things have changed, but my family is still here minding the store."
Elma Vigil was seven
when her parents put her to work in the store alongside her brothers,
Modesto and Orlando, and her sister, Josephine. It was a time
when a nickel could buy a can of sardines or a loaf of bread.
"I remember my dad used to go to Espanola to pick up the groceries
in the buggy," she says. "The trip took him all day, but people
in Chimayo depended on him for many of the necessities of life."
The store soon became
so popular among local villagers that the Vigils had to expand
the structure. It was christened in 1948, with the date and the
words "Vigil Store" and "J.M. Vigil" painted on its new face.
Three years later, Elma Vigil married Robert Bal, and the couple
eventually had four children. The family lived in Los Alamos,
where Bal worked, but spent weekends and holidays in Chimayo.
Like their mother, the Bal children worked in the store from a
young age. They stocked shelves with everything from fresh green
chile to canning wax, including a small selection of religious
items for visitors to the church next-door.
"We became a part of
the store as soon as we were old enough to pump gas," daughter
Vikki Bal Tejada recalls. "We learned early on that this was a
For the next 20 years,
Elma Vigil helped her parents run the store. After her father's
death in 1973, then her mother's death two years later, she took
over. "My mother ran the store until the very last day before
she died," she says. "I started saying the daily prayer for our
customers after that."
Elma Vigil changed
the name of the store from "Vigil's Store" to "El Potrero Trading
Post." She ran the business for the next few years until passing
it down to Raymond, her oldest son. By now, the legendary Santuario
de Chimayo was renowned throughout the region as a spiritual haven.
El Potrero's customers began to change from a strictly local clientele
to one that included many tourists, scholars and others who were
drawn to the area's history. After viewing the extraordinary nineteenth-century
works of art in the next-door church, many people came to El Potrero
asking about traditional Hispanic art.
"People started asking
about where they could purchase locally handmade religious art
objects like they had seen in the church," Raymond says. "Mom
and I decided that was the direction in which the store needed
Elma Vigil traveled
around northern New Mexico in search of work by area santeros,
makers of religious images, to sell in the store. The locally
made work attracted more customers, including many collectors
of Hispanic art. Today, the long, narrow display space overflows
with fine religious art by some of the state's finest Hispanic
artists. The collection also includes items for the religious
pilgrim, such as rosaries, pocket-size prayer cards, medals, and
books on the saints. For lovers of religious kitch, images of
saints appear on T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, watches and more.
"We try to have something
for everyone and still have a high integrity in our selection,"
Raymond says. "But this is still a local village store. We try
and market the theme of religion in the broadest possible sense
so that we can meet the needs of the locals as well as the tourists."
Whether one is local
or not, walking into El Potrero is like walking into a neighbor's
home. The smell of freshly cooked beans hangs in the air, while
Elma, Raymond and Vikki greet customers as if they were old friends.
Vikki says El Potrero's success not only rests on a keen business
sense, but on the strong family sense that Alfonsa and Jose M.
Vigil instilled in their children and grandchildren long ago.
In times of joy and tragedy alike, the Vigils can always be found
at the El Potrero, sharing love, laughter and a prayer with each
other--and with all who walk through their door.
"I was away for fifteen
years chasing a corporate career, but I get a thousand times more
satisfaction helping this business grow," Vikki says. "By keeping
this business alive, we're keeping our family alive. Now, that's
a successful business."
Santa Fe writer
Carmella Padilla is the author of "The Chile Chronicles," published
in 1998 by the University of New Mexico Press.
Stories by Carmella Padilla