Juan B. Rael interviewing Manuela "Mela" Martínez, Taos, New Mexico, circa 1930. Photo courtesy of the Rael Family.
By Enrique R. Lamadrid
Linguist and folklorist Juan Bautista Rael, highly regarded for his pioneering work in collecting and documenting the Hispano folk stories, plays, and religious traditions of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, was born on August 14, 1900, in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico. Famous for its spectacular setting north of Taos, the village lies in a deep, narrow valley between Taos mountain and the gorge of the Rio Grande to the west. His family prospered in sheep and cattle ranching and owned a mercantile business that served surrounding Hispano communities as well as nearby Taos Pueblo.
Juan's parents, José Ignacio Rael and Soledad Santistevan, raised a family of four sons, Sofío, Melecio, Juan B., and Elí, and a daughter, Carolina. José Ignacio had the foresight to recognize the changes that were coming with the increasing Americanization of New Mexico and realized that a fluent knowledge of English and a good education would be necessary for his family to excel. Since local schools were rudimentary at best, the family relied upon its own resources to get the best possible education for the children. Juan was a dedicated student from his earliest years, and his father's ambition was for him to become a lawyer and tend to the family lands and business. His elementary schooling was at Saint Michael's College in Santa Fe, and his high school studies were at the Christian Brothers' College in St. Louis, Missouri.
The boy's semester-long absences from his family led him to treasure the simple pleasures of village life. Summers are especially beautiful in Arroyo Hondo, and Christmas and Easter vacations were filled with colorful festivities and solemn ceremony. Rael later reminisced about how much the Pastores, or Shepherds', plays of Christmas impressed him as a child. Undoubtedly, the instincts and sympathies of Rael the folklorist can be traced to these beginnings -- watching rehearsals and performances depicting shepherds, angels, hermits, and devils.
What became clear in his post-secondary studies is that he was much more attracted to literature, philology, and the emerging disciplines of linguistics and folklore. His Bachelor's degree, from St. Mary's College in Oakland in 1923, led to a Master's degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1927. In the meantime in 1923 he married the beautiful Quirina Espinoza of Antonito, Colorado. Rael's first inclination was to become an English teacher, but his bride helped convince him that his opportunities and strengths would be as an Hispanist. After deciding on a university career of teaching and research, Rael relinquished his family inheritance in land, cattle, and sheep to his three brothers and his sister.
Rael realized that the wealth in northern New Mexico that interested him was the vast repertory of folk narrative, song, and custom that had scarcely been documented. While teaching at the University of Oregon, he returned to Arroyo Hondo in the summer of 1930 to begin compiling his famous collection of over five hundred Nuevo Mexicano folk tales.
By then his work had attracted the attention of pioneer Hispano folklorist and mentor Aurelio Espinosa who invited Rael to Stanford in 1933. Rael completed his doctoral studies in 1937 with a dissertation on the phonology and morphology of New Mexico Spanish that amplified the dialectological work of Espinosa with the huge corpus of folk tales, later published as, Cuentos Españoles de Colorado y Nuevo Mexico: Spanish Folk Tales of Colorado and New Mexico.
Well versed in the historic-geographic theory of transmission and diffusion of motifs, tale types, and genres, Dr. Rael set out on the formidable, almost quixotic task of gathering all the possible versions and texts of the tales, hymns, and plays he was studying. The vast majority of tales are of European provenance, with only minimal local references. He meticulously traced the shepherds' plays to several root sources in Mexico, and his study, The Sources and Diffusion of the Mexican Shepherds' Plays, is a standard reference on the subject. His ground-breaking study of the alabado hymn, The New Mexican Alabado, is also a prime resource. But inevitably the historic-geographic approach led more to collection building than to analysis. Later generations of scholars would develop interests in performance-centered studies, but the collections of Rael continue to be an indispensable landmark in the field.
Dr. Rael's academic achievements include a distinguished teaching career in Spanish composition, Spanish American literature, and Mexican culture. In addition, he founded and directed an international program, the University of Guadalajara School. He was also elected to the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española in 1974 and to the Academia Real de la Lengua Española in 1983.
Juan and Quirina or "Nina" Rael raised a family of four children, Maximina Rael Traynor, José Ignacio Rael, Juan B. Rael Jr., and María Soledad Rael Nowell. After sixty-seven years of marriage, Nina died on June 1, 1990. At the time of his own passing at age ninety-three on November 8, 1993, in Menlo Park, California, Rael was survived by his sister Carolina Rael Domínguez, his daughters, one son José Ignacio, sixteen grandchildren, and twenty-five great grandchildren. True to family tradition, all of his children and several of his grandchildren have graduated from Stanford University.