By Kate Nelson
Late-afternoon light tinged with autumnal gold spills into the sala grande of J. Paul Taylor’s home. The muted melodies of a mariachi band performing on the Mesilla Plaza seep through the adobe walls and wind down the zaguán, a hallway connecting the home’s living areas to this southern New Mexico town’s historic square. Seated in one of his favorite chairs for holding an informal sort of court, Taylor greets me with the warmth of a treasured guest—a hallmark of his renowned hospitality.
Taylor, a formidable figure in New Mexico politics, history, and arts stewardship, passed peacefully at his home in Mesilla on February 12, 2023, at the age of 102. But on this day in Mesilla in 2019, he is closing in on his 100th birthday. He was always, he says, “a skinny, frail little guy,” and age has eroded yet more layers from his slight frame. The familial tremor that began afflicting him as a far younger adult is apparent; a walker is close at hand. Although his voice is faint, his memory stands firm, a boundless sky of local history, political endeavors, family lore, and a deep and abiding love for New Mexico’s art and culture.
Above us, cottonwood vigas are topped by willow latillas and then tules, or cattails—a southern New Mexico variation of the pine vigas and aspen latillas used in Northern New Mexico. Around us, the works of santeros and contemporary artists consume nearly every bit of wall and shelf space. Family photos, including ones of his beloved late wife, Mary Daniels Taylor, an accomplished photographer, author, and genealogist, cluster atop side tables. Taylor, an educator, legislator, and longtime regent of the Museum of New Mexico, seems game to welcome another guest, along with a soothing team of visitors—a daughter, a son, a daughter-in-law, some of whom live in the sprawl of connected buildings enclosing a patio just beyond the sala grande.
While portions of the home date to the 1848 founding of Mesilla, others reflect the oddball add-ons of a family that grew and then grew some more—a nursery here, a teen’s room there, an in-home oratorio to honor loved ones who died too soon—all of it grounded in the maestro-caliber craftsmanship of local adoberos and carpinteros. Together, the architecture, furniture, art, and occupants tell an often-overlooked story of New Mexico: that of the Borderlands, this region now anchored by Las Cruces, where an international boundary is less a mark on a map and more a state of mind—fluid, collective, bilingual, and embracing.
Since its proclamation as a state monument in 2004, the Taylors’ home has helped tell such stories as a by-appointment-only branch of New Mexico Historic Sites; it was bequeathed to the state of New Mexico upon his death. That bequeathment was a prospect that, at the time of my visit, with Taylor still alive and a global pandemic yet to strike, seemed absurd to consider. When trying to talk about it, his children invariably choke up, saddened by just the thought of walking into the future without their father. The historic sites staff who have worked most closely with Taylor to inventory the home’s contents and gather his remembrances of how each piece of art made its way here acknowledge that they’ve also given their hearts to the man in the sala grande. “You didn’t expect me to live this long, did you?” he has joked so often to them that it became reasonable to believe that he would, in fact, always be there.
Two and a half years later, the sala grande fell silent. J. Paul Taylor had weathered the worst of the pandemic, a variety of ailments, and finally a heart attack that left his body too weak to carry on. His light dimmed quietly a few hours before dawn on February 12, in his home and surrounded by his family. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in his honor, and said in a prepared statement: “You would be hard-pressed to find an individual as passionate about the people, culture, and communities of New Mexico as J. Paul Taylor. For my own part, I consider him to be a friend and mentor who demonstrated the heart of a servant, always striving to make New Mexico a better place to live for future generations.”
In the years prior to his passing, plans were well underway for how the Taylor Mesilla Historic Property would emerge as a full-blown member of the Department of Cultural Affairs family. Discussions over which objects might be displayed and how the rooms would be arranged to tell what kind of story always ended with Taylor’s own insistence: “I want the house to look like it’s been lived in.”
Living, after all, was what Paul and Mary Taylor did best.
He was a child of Chamberino, a farming village south of Mesilla, past the cooling breezes of the pecan orchards. Fields of cotton and chile still line the main road. A long view to the east reveals the Organ Mountains; to the south, Mexico, less than 30 miles away. Taylor’s mother, Margarita Romero y López, was descended from Juan de Cabeza de Vaca, one of Coronado’s soldiers, as well as other colonial-era luminaries, and grew up in a Romeroville mansion near Las Vegas, New Mexico. During a social event in Estancia, she met Robert Taylor, a handsome railroad man whose father had moved west after serving as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War.
In her delightful biography, J. Paul Taylor: The Man from Mesilla (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2012), Ana Pacheco recounts the young couple’s journey from Las Vegas to La Luz and finally to a dairy farm in Chamberino, five children in tow, before their youngest child, John Paul, known most often as “Paul,” arrived, seven years after his closest sibling.
Paul was delivered at home by his father’s sister Beulah. … Being the youngest, Paul was a bit spoiled, especially by his mother, who herself was the baby of the family. … Paul’s mother sent him to school each day with a lunch of sandwiches and fruit empanaditas, wrapped up in newspaper and tied with strings. He sometimes traded his mother’s delicious fruit pies for oranges and bananas with his friend Ralph, whose parents owned a grocery store. One year as an April Fools’ Day joke, Margarita sent Paul to school with cotton-filled empanaditas. When the children bit into the little fruit pies, they ended up with mouthfuls of cotton.
Besides a sunny sense of humor, Margarita also instilled in him a generous heart. “She had a great feeling for the needs of people,” Taylor said. “During the Depression she used to take cans of milk to the schools so the children could have milk.” His schoolmates were descendants of Anglo, Spanish, Mexican, Black, and Japanese community members, and during tough times, they banded together. In high school, he became editor of the school paper, “a mimeograph little thing,” that benefited not only from his curiosity in history and current events but his shorthand and typing skills as well. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt scheduled a trip to El Paso, a teacher loaded up three cars and bundled the paper’s young staff to the Cortez Hotel. “We were country kids,” he said. “We looked ragtag.” Somehow, the teacher talked their way past a hotel guard, and Taylor got his first taste of the political world from a woman still revered as a model of compassion.
“That was wonderful,” he said. “The farmers would have died without President Roosevelt and all the WPA things going on then.”
While attending the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University), he became enchanted by a young woman who attended the same church as he and his mother did. “She had this ebony black hair,” he said. “I could hardly move through Mass from looking at this charming girl in front. But we never met. Every New Year’s, they had a Sun Carnival Parade in El Paso. It was a chance to come out from the country. My mother went to our usual place, and guess who was standing there?”
Mary Daniels was attending the University of Texas at El Paso with a dream of becoming an archaeologist. The two “began a long friendship, which became a romance,” Taylor said, “and then World War II began.” On the heels of Pearl Harbor, Taylor joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to an intelligence unit based in New Orleans. In 1945, while home on leave, he and Mary were married early in the morning “because the train went at 10 o’clock. Mary’s parents had a little reception, and we stayed long enough to greet guests, then got on the train back to New Orleans.”
At 118 pounds, he had barely qualified for service. “I just did the two-year commitment,” he said. “So many of my friends did the four years. So many were killed in the war.”
After his service, the Taylors returned to Las Cruces, and he began working as an assistant registrar for the university, then as an elementary school teacher, a principal, and finally an associate superintendent of Las Cruces Public Schools. At times, he had to take on extra duties when the schools were shorthanded, including teaching physical education. “Do I look like a P.E. teacher?” he said with a laugh. Eventually, he said, “I could get back to doing what I really loved: working with teachers, getting into classrooms.” He championed bilingual education and instituted cross-border teacher exchanges, which led to lasting friendships.
He retired in 1985 at age 65, but his impact endured. In 2010, the idea for a J. Paul Taylor Academy took root. The charter school, based in Las Cruces, opened the following year with a mission of rigorous learning that includes conversational Spanish and healthy living. This past August, he celebrated his 102nd birthday with the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students, who lauded him with songs and dances. “You are a very special group of children,” Taylor told them, according to the Las Cruces Sun-News. “I’ve seen some of you grow up from kindergarten and first grade, and here you are, fine young people and adults.”
The school presented him with a poster onto which each of the twenty kindergarten students had left a print of one hand. Their two teachers had then made prints of one finger apiece. “So it’s 102 fingers,” says Alexandra McKinney, instructional coordinator for the Taylor site, when she showed it to me on a recent visit. The poster had already become yet another artifact for telling the story of the man in the sala grande.
Early in Taylor’s educational career, he and Mary purchased a tiny house in Mesilla and began having babies. Robert, Dolores, Michael, Mary Helen, John, Pat, and Rosemary.
Partway through the family’s growth, a neighbor came to the couple, asking that they purchase her home. Built in the 1880s, it had at one point been the home of parish priest Father Grange, conveniently set kitty-corner to the historic San Albino Church, now a basilica. The home was small and in sore shape, but the family agreed, given their love of its history. Thus began years of additions and renovations directed by Taylor, often with materials he scavenged from other aged structures.
“When I built the first shop for my folks on the corner of the plaza,” said Pat Taylor, today a renowned adobe preservationist, “none of that existed. My dad got an architect who asked him how wide the building should be. Dad put his back against a wall and stepped toward a line in the sand. ‘How’d you decide to make it that long?’ [a worker] asked. ‘Because that’s how long the vigas I found are,’ Dad answered.
“What always strikes me about the house is how interesting the vernacular architecture in there is,” he continued. “As you walk through, rooms change, window and door sizes change, nothing is in line with each other.”
That pieced-together process could complicate the plan to make the property fully accessible, with updated electricity and plumbing, plus the current Heart of the Desert store, facing the plaza, turned into a visitor center that will sell tickets for guided tours. Under the agreement with the Taylor family, the state has two years to accomplish that goal, but Patrick Moore, director of the sites, aims to cut that to six months.
“From a cultural standpoint, it will serve as a new opportunity to talk about New Mexico from a bottom-up perspective,” he says. “It’s a gateway to understanding not just J. Paul Taylor and Mary Daniels Taylor but also things that happened in U.S. history. So many things happened within range of that corner.”
In 1986, J. Paul Taylor won a seat in the state House of Representatives, serving from 1987 to 2005, a tireless advocate for low-income families, disabled children, immigrants, and Hispanic students who needed an extra boost. He served as chairman of the House’s Health and Human Services Committee, which helped guide the state through a divisive period of welfare reform. I was a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune then, and from my perch in the media gallery, would watch the often raucous debates of the full House on the floor. Any time Taylor stood and picked up his microphone, the arguing and chattering would dim to an almost reverential hush. It was in part to better hear his quiet, tremulous voice, but it struck me even then as a bipartisan sign of respect for a colleague who was regarded as “the conscience of the Legislature.”
His love for the state’s art, history, and culture made him a key player in creating the Department of Cultural Affairs, which he saw as an entity that could preserve New Mexico’s unique identity and ensure people throughout the state would learn about and celebrate it. That commitment continued after he left the Legislature, through the donation of his home and through his service on the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents, a citizen-led body that guides the development of the museums and historic sites under its purview and serves as trustee of their collections. Taylor dutifully attended the regents’ meetings up to the month before his passing—an example of the commitment he passed on to his children and grandchildren.
“In every aspect of my life, my grandfather’s been an influence,” said Paul Ratje, a photojournalist whose coverage of border issues has achieved international recognition. “He influenced my world view. He was interested in cultures, art. He was a collector, and his patronage of the arts was incredible. I’m also really interested in art. Having that artistic atmosphere in his house really changed me.”
Besides Taylor’s lifelong interest in the arts (he obtained his first two pieces of Native pottery as a child), the house witnessed his wife’s growth as a genealogical researcher, work that saw her digging through archives in Mexico and training students to follow her lead. Her records now proudly reside at New Mexico State University. She also wielded a camera that documented years of Mesilla life—fiestas on the plaza, local children, merchants whose shops have long since faded. Throughout it all, the house on the corner endured the antics of its rambunctious children.
“We were normal kids,” Michael said. “I remember Dad got mad at us one time. We had little tennis balls. We were throwing them and trying to get them into these pots. They were Maria and Julian Martinez pots,” treasures crafted by the famed San Ildefonso Pueblo potters.
The house grew into a time capsule of life on the border, seen most clearly in oversize paintings by Las Cruces artist Ken Barrick (1913–2007) detailing historic events such as the push and pull of whether Mesilla would belong to the United States or Mexico, a struggle finally settled by the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. Even in his final years, Taylor named as one of his favorite artworks a bulto of Santiago that was one of his first acquisitions, its $90 price tag paid for over time on his teacher’s salary. (A different Santiago—he of Matamoros—depicts the saint on a horse that towers over Moorish people, an act of dominance that became, in time, something that Taylor regretted. “So I keep it way up there,” he said, pointing to its perch on a high shelf.)
Any time I visited Taylor in his final years, we lapsed into lengthy reminiscences of our “old days” in the Roundhouse. The clarity of his memories always topped mine. “My dad can remember what he did on August 4, 1932,” says Robert, adding with a chuckle, “but he can’t remember what he did with his glasses.” Too often, the memories I shared with Taylor included him noting, “She’s dead now. He’s dead now.” His gift of a lengthy life carried sorrows that now his children and grandchildren must bear. The family gatherings and Sunday potlucks will move to another home, and the ache of the empty seat at the table will linger.
Still, says Paul Ratje, every member of the family endorsed the property’s donation to the state. “For us, it’s a sad thing, because there’s a hard transition,” he said. “This has been our meeting place, our home, and grandpa won’t be there anymore. But we think it’s a blessing he and my grandmother decided to make that gift to share the house, to have the history be taught.”
Alexandra McKinney spent countless hours in the house, talking with Taylor about the artworks, about the acequia outside, and about the history she now hopes to impart to visitors. If she could send him a message today, she said, it would ring with gratitude. “You and your family have given this state a wonderful gift to continue telling the story of the state that you loved, that your wife loved, and that your family loves.”
El Palacio thanks the Museum of New Mexico Press for providing images for this story. We are also indebted to the Friends of the Taylor-Mesilla Historic Site and to Ana Pacheco for her biography J. Paul Taylor: The Man from Mesilla.