A FAMILY AFFAIR

by Carmella Padilla

Other Stories by Carmella Padilla

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 years.

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 family affair."

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 to go."

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.

Other Stories by Carmella Padilla

Carmella Padilla Biography


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