This bulto (carved saint figure) was made in southern Colorado in the Spanish colonial era and is a depiction of San Ysidro, the patron saint of farmers and laborers; this bulto is dressed in velvet and silk to show the esteem his followers paid to him. He was a much honored saint in the American Southwest, where scratching crops out of the high desert and sagebrush was tough going. In fact, farming was so hard back in those times, it took a saint tough enough to challege God himself to ensure a harvest at all. But there’s something even more formidable, even more feared, than the harsh desert environment, as told in this folktale from Quemada, a little town north of Santa Fe, New Mexico:
What Made San Ysidro Stop Plowing
One spring, on the fifteenth of May, which is San Ysidro’s fiesta day, San Ysidro crossed the river and began plowing his fields. But an angel soon appeared before him and said, “San Ysidro, God has sent me to tell you that you must not plow today, for it is your fiesta day and holy, and He will not like it if you plow on a saint’s day.” San Ysidro, however, did not stop his oxen and only shouted to the angel, “I’m sorry, angel, but you tell God I can’t stop plowing now, for the season is very late this year. It is now already the fifteenth of May and my beans and chili should have been planted long before this.” The angel, who was now following along in the furrow which San Ysidro continued calmly to plow, again called to San Ysidro: “God told me to tell you that if you don’t stop plowing He will send a hail-storm to ruin your beans and chili when they come up.” “Well,” San Ysidro called back over his shoulder, but without slowing down, “you can just tell God I’m going to plow this field today, saint’s day or no saint’s day, and that I’ll make the best of His hail-storm when it comes and save all the plants I can.”
The angel, instead of returning an answer to this, simply vanished, and San Ysidro continued with his work. But it was not long before a second angel appeared in the field, and this one also commanded San Ysidro to stop his plowing. But instead of stopping, San Ysidro only whacked his oxen the harder and as he set his plow a little deeper in the ground, and replied to the angel somewhat testily: “There is no use for you to talk to me. Whatever happesn, I’m going to plow this field today; I don’t care if it is my fiesta. And I can tell you further, it would be just the same to me if it were the fiesta of all the saints combined, instead of just my own.” “Well,” said the angel meekly, “I can only tell you what God told me to tell you. He said to tell you that if you didn’t stop plowing this time He would send cutworms and grasshoppers to eat all the beans and chili that the hail didn’t destroy.”
San Ysidro was a little vexed by this time, but he reamined as calm as possible as he replied to the angel: “You can just tell God to send on His cutworms and His grasshoppers, or any kind of bugs He has, and I’ll kill all of them I can. And while you are about it, you can tell Him I’m going to plow this field today, whatever happens, and that I’d be pleased if He wouldn’t annoy me further by sending you young angels down here. There must be something more useful He could have you doing.”
At this retort the second angel vanished suddenly, but before San Ysidro had plowed even one more furrow, a third angel made his apprearance and said, “San Ysidro, God says that if you don’t mind Him and stop plowing this minute, He will get really angry and send a bad neighbor to live right next door to you.”
Upon hearing these words, San Ysidro dropped his goad and shouted “Whoa!” to his oxe. When they had stopped he drew his plow out of the ground as quickly as possible and then, turning toward the angel, said: “Tell God He wins. I give up. I would try to make the best of His hail-storms and cutworms and grasshoppers, or anything else of the sort He could send me, but to have a bad neighbor is too much a trial even for a saint.”
This funny story is a counterpoint to the older stories of San Ysidro in Spain, where angels were often said to have done his plowing for him. In the harsher territories of the New World, nature was no longer benevolently yielding good crops on fertile land that seemed graced by God; angels weren’t doing the work. No, in New Mexico it seemed that every trial and plague a farmer could face was ever-present and God was something of a trickster. In New Mexico, it was up to people to look after each other. Good friends and good neighbors were the most important things to a farmer’s faith in his fortune.