Superb Santera


Even though Amanda Griego is 21 years old, she’s had plenty of experience under her belt when it comes to showcasing her retablos at the annual Traditional Spanish Market in Santa Fe.

Submitted photos: Santera Amanda Griego stands next to a handful of retablos, or traditional religious art, she’s hand painted. Griego plans on showing her latest pieces in the 61st Annual Traditional Spanish Market in Santa Fe from Friday, July 27 through Sunday, July 29. This will be her fifth year participating in the market.

Griego, a santera, has exhibited her traditional retablos for more than four years at the market.

And this year is no different.

The Los Lunas resident is busy at work building up the number of retablos to be seen by hundreds of thousands of tourists at the Plaza in Santa Fe from Friday, July 27, to Sunday, July 29.

Griego says she has fallen in love with the whole experience, from creating a retablo to showing the final product at Spanish Market every summer.

“I love painting these, and I love going to Santa Fe every summer and putting my art on display,” Griego said “I love hearing people talk about them. It’s an awesome experience that I never expected to have.”

Griego tapped into the world of santeros at the age of 15 after learning about this type of religious art through santera Marie Luna. The two were introduced by a mutual friend in May 2006, who asked Griego if she would be interested in painting retablos.

“I said, ‘Sure, I would give it a try,’” she said.

Although Griego had been drawing and experimenting with painting for years, she didn’t have much information about retablos in general, but that all changed during her first meeting with Luna.

Luna jumped right in, teaching Griego what this traditional, religious artwork entailed, the process behind creating retablos, their artistic style and what it takes to be in Spanish Market.

“The first day I went to her house she showed me how to paint, and it was crazy because I wasn’t expecting it to go that far,” she said.

In the span of one day, Luna’s lessons included making gesso, a paint primer made out of animal hide and natural powders used to secure the paint onto the wood and enhance the paint colors, which add specific elements to retablos that identify what each saint is known for.

One visit soon turned into a whole summer full of lessons spanning three days out of the week.

“After that I would spend a lot of time with her when I first started out. We would go by her house and we would sit there and paint,” she said.

The goal of those lessons was to create enough retablos to show during the Spanish Market. For two months, Griego painted nonstop under the mentorship of Luna until she had about 20 completed retablos for the market in late July.

“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have been able to get in,” Griego said. “I owe a lot to her and I really appreciate what she’s done for me.”

Griego continued to showcase her retablos in the Spanish Market for two more years while attending Los Lunas High School.

Between school and homework, Griego squeezed in time during the school year to create a few pieces, but said most of her work was accomplished during the summer months.

Each time she sat down to paint a retablo, she practiced what Luna taught her and was soon completing the pieces on her own without any help from her mentor.

“I do pretty much everything on my own, except carve wood,” she said. “I’ve developed my own style, which was influenced a lot by Marie since she was the one who taught me.”

But from time to time, Griego calls or visits Luna to show her new pieces and receive feedback.

In 2011, Griego was accepted to show her retablos in the adult section of the Spanish Market.

The University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus student is currently working toward receiving a secondary education degree with the goal of becoming an art teacher.

Although being a santera persuaded her to take this path, Griego said before she started college she knew she wanted to get a degree in something related to art.

“I didn’t know how, but somehow,” she said. “Then, I decided on art education.”

For Griego, art was ingrained in her life since she was little. She began drawing as soon as she learned how to hold a pencil, she said.

As a child, she carried around a lined, spiraled notebook everywhere she went.

“Every time I went with my parents, whether it was in the car or a restaurant, I would take that notebook with me and draw,” she said.

She filled numerous notebooks with sketches of individuals that would pop into her head.

“I don’t know why I did it when I was young, but I would do it all the time,” she said. “It’s like how some people listen to music, because that’s what they love to do. It’s just been a part of me. I always did it.”

The final product, consisting of a carved piece of juniper pine wood with layers of paint, is something Griego doesn’t do alone.

Her father, Rick, pitches in during his spare time to carve the rectangular pieces of wood traditionally used for retablos and embellished with designs along the top and bottom.

While Griego was hard at work learning to paint retablos with Luna that first summer, Rick was learning to carve retablos from Luna’s husband, Ron, at the same time.

“(The Lunas) told us if we were willing to learn what they had to show us, then they would show us, so my dad agreed to it as much as I did,” she said.

After more than six years of creating retablos, the experience has become a father-daughter activity the two do together.

Each retablo consists of layers of paints, including gesso as the base coat, natural pigment water colors exhibiting the saint and a varnish made out of piñon sap to protect the painting, which she plans on making from scratch one day.

With each passing brush stroke, Griego tries to convey the saint’s life story.

“When people look at my paintings, I want them to see the saint’s life or how the saint felt,” she said.

To accurately portray each saint, Griego conducts extensive research on each of the saints’ lives and collects books and prayer cards to learn more about each one.

“Some people have told me that the saints look really sad, but a lot of them lived hard lives, so I don’t want to paint them smiling or looking really happy and enjoying life, because I know that a lot of them were martyrs,” she said.

She uses the knowledge of research that she gains about each saint to handwrite a description summarizing the saint’s life behind each retablo, and to inform passersby asking questions about the saints during Spanish Market.

Learning about each saint has brought Griego closer to her Hispanic culture, since she’s part of a small community of santeros who practice keeping the historic artform alive today.

Griego plans on showcasing her retablos in Spanish Market for as long as she can.

For more information on Griego’s retablos, visit her blog page at or her Facebook page.

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