The life and legacy of Tibo J. Chavez Sr.
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
The author of this month’s column is the past president of the Valencia County Historical Society and a professor of history at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus.
The author wishes to thank the Chavez family, especially Tibo J. Chavez Jr., and Rico Gonzalez of the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts for their assistance with this month’s column.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
New Mexicans have celebrated their statehood anniversary in many ways this year. In the process, they have learned about their state’s history as never before.
Coincidently, one of New Mexico’s greatest leaders of the last 100 years was also given life in 1912. It is fitting that we honor Tibo J. Chavez Sr., as we honor the state he helped develop and the history he helped teach us in his long, productive life.
Ancestry and interest in history
Tibo J. Chavez Sr., or simply Tibo, as he was known to most, was born in Belen on June 10, 1912, just six months and four days after New Mexico achieved its statehood.
His parents were 37-year-old Ignacio Rodrigo Chavez and 34-year-old Emilia Vigil Chavez. He was the fifth of seven children born to Ignacio and Emilia.
The Chavez family dated back to the Spanish conquest of New Mexico under Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. Don Pedro Gomez Duran y Chaves, born in Extremadura, Spain, was a soldier in Oñate’s small colonial army.
By 1626, Don Pedro commanded all Spanish troops in New Mexico. Famous Chavez ancestors included the fabulously rich Belen merchant, Felipe Chavez, known as “The Millionaire,” and Dennis Chavez, the most powerful Hispanic senator in U.S. history.
Tibo belonged to the 11th generation of the Chavez family in New Mexico.
On Tibo’s mother’s side, the family was especially proud of Francisco X. Vigil, a Valencia County deputy sheriff who lost his life in 1898 while bravely pursuing William “Bronco Bill” Walters, the most famous train robber in local history.
Tibo acquired his lifelong thirst for history as a boy learning about his heroic ancestors. His interest in history only grew as he read books and spoke to men and women across New Mexico. But unlike most of us who admire the past, he not only studied history, but also made it, preserved it and shared it with countless others.
Traditional and modern worlds
Tibo Chavez grew up in a very traditional Hispanic home. Spanish was his first language. His mother used herbs for many purposes, including as beverages and for cures. Cuaranderas, or experts in the use of herbs and other traditional cures, were respected members of his community. Dichos, or folk sayings, were used to teach values from one generation to the next. The Catholic Church played a central part in Tibo’s life, especially once he became an altar boy at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church.
But Tibo lived in two worlds: the traditional and the increasingly modern. He learned English and was introduced to Anglo ways in public school and as a Boy Scout, becoming Belen’s first Eagle Scout.
From the time he was 12 to the time he graduated from Belen High School in 1930, he worked part-time at Becker-Dalies, earning money and learning about the business world.
Tibo also learned about business from his father, who owned a farm, ran a construction business and operated a liquor store and bar on Main Street. Ignacio Chavez may have given his son his first lessons in politics when he served on the Valencia County Commission.
Tibo was always an overachiever. In addition to the Boy Scouts, work and activities at church, he found time to play four high school sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. Using savings from his job at Becker-Dalies, he bought his own violin and paid for private lessons.
Upon graduation from Belen, Tibo attended the University of New Mexico, earning his bachelor’s degree in four years at the height of the Great Depression. He managed to afford his college education by working three jobs, including as a salesman. Somehow he found time to belong to the UNM debate team and Foreign Service Club.
With help from Sen. Dennis Chavez, Tibo entered the prestigious Jesuit institution, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to study law and earned his law degree by 1939. He passed the New Mexico bar exam and, in a short article published in the Belen News on Oct. 5, 1939, announced his intention to practice law in his hometown.
Tibo practiced law in Belen until the beginning of World War II when he served the United States as a diplomatic attaché in the American Embassy in Santiago, Chile. He returned to Belen and his law practice at the war’s end in 1945.
And then he began his incredible public service in New Mexico. The list of organizations he belonged to and often led seems endless, but included the UNM Board of Regents, the UNM Alumni Association, the New Mexico State Police Board, the New Mexico Heart Association, the Belen Rotary Club, the Belen Lions Club, the Organic Gardeners Club in Albuquerque, the New Mexico Bar Association and the American Bar Association.
Entering politics, Tibo became a leader of the Valencia County Democratic Party by the late 1940s. Elected to the New Mexico State Senate from District 29, he served in the Legislature from 1948 to 1950 and from 1956 to 1974, including eight years as the senate’s majority party leader.
In the intervening years, 1951 to 1955, he served as the state’s lieutenant governor under Gov. Edwin Mechem. In June 1979, Gov. Bruce King appointed him state district court judge in the new 13th Judicial District, a position he held for the rest of his life.
Tibo was one of only a handful of people in New Mexico state history to serve in all three branches of state government in the course of his long political career.
Tibo Chavez made history in each of these roles. It would be difficult to find a major piece of legislation of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s that did not bear the imprint of his influence.
He was, of course, aided by his many political friends and allies in the state Legislature, including Fabian Chavez Jr. and Bruce King. It appears that he was most proud of two groundbreaking laws in particular: the Fair Employment Practices Act of 1949 and the state’s first DWI law, passed in March 1971.
Minorities had long faced discrimination in securing good, high-paying jobs in New Mexico. For example, Hispanics were hired by large railroad companies such as the Santa Fe, but only as manual laborers on track crews and as mechanics. Even the state police had unreasonable requirements, such as the requirement to be six-feet tall, a thinly veiled method to discriminate against most Hispanics.
While U.S. Sen. Dennis Chavez battled discrimination in hiring on the national level, Tibo fought against these practices in New Mexico. The result was the passage of the Fair Employment Practices Act, enacted before most other states and long before the national Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Tibo was also largely responsible for New Mexico’s first DWI law, introduced in the state senate as Senate Bill 1 in 1971. According to this law, drivers were required to submit to a breath test to measure the alcoholic level of their blood system when arrested by a police officer who had reason to believe that they were driving while under the influence of liquor.
In signing the bill in March 1971, Gov. Bruce King declared it to be “the most important highway safety measure ever passed in New Mexico.”
Disappointments and tragedy
Tibo enjoyed many victories in election campaigns and in state government. But he also suffered several major setbacks, both personally and politically.
Although his Fair Employment Practices Act helped many men and women in their search for job opportunities, discrimination continued to afflict minorities, women and others. And while the 1971 DWI law was an admirable start, DWI accidents continued to plague New Mexico at alarming rates.
Tibo was also disappointed by the defeat of a safety bill he introduced in 1973. Tibo sought to make wearing motorcycle helmets mandatory in New Mexico. Many bike riders objected that such a law would infringe on their personal freedom.
Members of the Hells Angels and Banditos protested so strenuously that the state police had to be called in to maintain order at the capitol in Santa Fe. The bill did not pass and the issue remains volatile to this day. Meanwhile, many have died or have suffered severe injuries without proper protection.
In another setback, Tibo lost to Jerry Apodaca in the Democratic primary of June 4, 1974. Believing that the time was right, Tibo had thrown his hat in the ring in the gubernatorial election, but faced stiff competition in a six-man primary.
He won 24 percent of the vote to Apodaca’s 31 percent, with the rest of the field dividing the remaining 45 percent of votes cast. Apodaca went on to narrowly defeat Joe Skeen, becoming the first Hispanic governor of New Mexico since 1921, an honor that would have been Tibo’s if he had prevailed.
Tibo told reporters that he had “no regrets or ill feelings” about the campaign which, he said, he had run at a “high level.” He made himself available with advice for Willie Chavez, his successor in the Senate, but only if the new Sen. Chavez wanted it. Using an appropriate dicho, Tibo said, “Advice not sought is given by busy-buddies.”
Unfortunately, Tibo’s wise counsel was not taken eight years later when the citizens of western Valencia County sought to create a separate county based on the enormous profits of the uranium boom in the Grants area.
As early as 1958, Tibo had addressed the Grants Chamber of Commerce, contending that Valencia County’s rich traditions and strength would be compromised if it were divided. Cibola County was nevertheless created on June 19, 1981. Sadly, the uranium boom ended shortly thereafter.
In a personal tragedy, Tibo lost his law partner, Denis Cowper. An Englishman, Cowper had migrated to the United States and had finished UNM law school in 1950. Coming to Belen, he joined Tibo’s law firm where he worked for the next 24 years.
Although very different, Tibo and Cowper became close friends and colleagues. While Tibo was well organized and punctual, Cowper was brilliant, but less organized and seldom on time.
When Filomena Baca, their efficient legal secretary, asked Tibo if she could help with one of his campaigns, he replied, “I’ll take care of the campaign if you take care of Denis and the firm.”
In addition to law, Cowper was fascinated by three interests: cacti, butterflies and Mexico. He was on a trip to Mexico to observe unusual butterflies when he disappeared in the wilderness in November 1974. His badly decomposed body was found in the jungle eight days later.
Hearing the news, Tibo said he was stunned by the tragedy. All of Belen agreed. The mystery of Cowper’s death has never been solved.
Preserving and sharing history
When not making history, Tibo Chavez was busy preserving and sharing it.
Tibo helped preserve history as a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s board of advisors and the Museum of New Mexico’s board of regents. As president of the latter board, he was especially interested in preserving the deteriorating Spanish mission ruins at the ancient pueblos of Abo, Quiri and Gran Quivara in Torrance County.
Working with Sen. Pete Dominici, Tibo secured federal funding to save the missions and make them part of what is now the Salinas National Monument.
Tibo also hoped to preserve Valencia County history through the creation of a local history museum. This dream was realized when the Belen Harvey House was saved from demolition in the early 1980s. A large part of the building soon became a museum.
With the help of dedicated people such as Marion Herlihy, Suzie Baca and Margaret McDonald, the museum preserved and displayed artifacts contributed by hundreds of people in the county.
Tibo helped preserve history through oral histories as well as artifacts. As a politician, he often visited people in their homes to learn their needs and ask for their support in elections. Tibo told author Daniel Gibson in 1983 that “when you go into homes, you become acquainted with people. And when you become acquainted … they take you into the kitchen and they give you the family secrets,” in the form of stories, herbs, dichos and documents.
Tibo interviewed hundreds of old-timers in this manner, including Felicita Montaño, José Dolores Cordova, Boleslo Romero, Cresencio Marquez, Toribio Chavez, José Ignacio Chavez and Luis Lockhart.
Tibo shared what he learned in books, plays and speeches. He authored two books, including “El Rio Abajo,” which he co-authored with fellow attorney and historian Gilberto Espinosa.
Published in 1973, this book remains the main source of information about the mid Rio Grande region of New Mexico. Long a rare publication, it is now available online.
Five years later Tibo published “New Mexican Folklore of the Rio Abajo.” The book includes some 90 remedios, or herbal remedies, complete with illustrations and descriptions of how each herb can help cure various ailments.
Tibo enjoyed collecting herbs from his garden or in the wild, storing them in glass jars that covered an entire table in his office. Remedies ranged from the most popular herbs, such as yerba buena, said to be able to cure almost all ailments, to dog skull, said to help heal broken bones when it is ground up, baked and applied to damaged bones.
Of course, Tibo never claimed to be a curandero. “I never recommend that anybody take a herb or tea,” he told an interviewer. “It’s up to them. I only tell them of the cultural uses of them. I tell them what the old-timers used them for. If they want to use them, they’re on their own. In the first place, I’m not a doctor; I’m a judge. In the second place, I don’t have malpractice insurance!”
As a lawyer, he knew that this disclaimer was important because he ran the risk of being sued if a person consumed the wrong herb, such as the poisonous garbancillo.
The second part of “New Mexican Folklore of the Rio Abajo” lists 81 of Tibo’s favorite dichos. Three examples suggest the wit and wisdom of these sayings:
Dicho: De lo dicho a lo echo, hay mucho trecho.
Translation: From talk to reality there is a great distance.
Dicho: No sera el Diablo, pero apesta asufre.
Translation: He may not be the Devil, but he sure as hell smells like sulphur.
Dicho: Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres.
Translation: Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.
Tibo and his family traveled around the world, often discovering that similar traditional remedies and dichos are shared by many cultures, suggesting that people are often more alike than different no matter where they reside.
In the early 1980s, Tibo became a moving force in a huge project to preserve the histories of local families in a 352-page book entitled, “Rio Abajo Heritage.” Tibo wrote the book’s introduction and, with Carter Waid, Marion Herlihy, Austin Lovett, Aubrey Notman, Gertrude Delgado and many others, helped compile hundreds of short family histories.
Tibo was also a major force in the organization and performance of “The Legend of Tomé,” another huge bilingual undertaking created as Valencia County’s main contribution to the bicentennial year of 1976. All work was voluntary, so it took a true mover and shaker to not only lead the effort, but also to make sure everything was done well and on time.
Only a person with Tibo’s persuasive personality and perseverance could have managed such an enormous project. The author remembers Tibo’s handshake, a firm shake in which he looked you straight in the eye, held your arm with his other hand and refused to let you go until you had agreed to whatever he wanted you to do on this or any other project.
He clearly used his political skills and salesman’s experience to get things done in the interest of preserving New Mexico’s history and culture.
Tibo also shared history through the Valencia County Historical Society, which he organized and lead as its first president in 1968. Many of these projects, from the museum to the “Rio Abajo Heritage” book, were sponsored by the historical society with Tibo as its leader. The historical society supported many other events, including field trips (led by “wagon masters”) and “show and tell” events where residents described unusual artifacts handed down in their families from own generation to the next.
Finally, Tibo gave countless speeches about history. In January 1975, for example, the News-Bulletin reported that Tibo had just spoken to 74 men and women at the Belen Senior Citizens Center. Enthralled, the crowd heard him describe New Mexico’s colorful past, including the four flags that have flown over the state: the Spanish, the Mexican, the Confederate and the United States.
On other occasions, Tibo liked to speak to groups about the alliance and cooperation of Hispanic settlers with Pueblo Indians in the later Spanish colonial period, in contrast to the earlier friction and violence that divided the two groups. He also liked to emphasize important, often forgotten contributions made by Hispanics in American history.
Tibo was perhaps most famous as a speaker for his herbal “roadshows,” as his family called them. Tibo and his wife, Betty, would load up a great variety of herbs and Tibo would describe them as Betty handed them to him, one by one, before appreciative audiences.
The last time I remember seeing Tibo was at one such presentation performed at the Harvey House Museum on a Sunday afternoon. I recall trying to take notes, but was soon overwhelmed by all the herbs he described.
Betty could hardly keep up with him. By the end of the presentation, the table was piled high with herbs. I was exhausted, but was sure that with his energy and enthusiasm Tibo could have kept going if there were more samples to share and more hours left in the day.
Tibo J. Chavez Sr. died of heart failure at the Lovelace Medical Center on Monday, Nov. 25, 1991. He was 79. A huge funeral was held in his honor at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church, the same parish he had grown up in and where he had been an altar boy from as far back as the 1920s.
Hundreds of friends and neighbors filled the church to capacity. In News-Bulletin reporter Sandy Battin’s words, “They came dressed in expensive suits and windbreakers, elegant hats and blue jeans … There were babies and judges, rich and poor, Spanish and Anglos.”
All admired Judge Chavez and came to show their respect. A riderless horse (his own Bronco), with empty boots turned to the rear, followed the hearse to the nearby cemetery.
Tibo left a great legacy in his political and personal lives. But in this centennial year, I think he would most like to be remembered for the history he made, preserved and shared with others. His legacy continued through his sons, Chris, Reggie, David and Tibo Jr., and especially through his wife, Betty.
After Tibo’s death, Betty, whose own family dates to before the American Revolution, became active in creating Founders Day celebrations to help celebrate the first Spanish settlers in New Mexico.
She opposed the use of a statue of Popé, the leader of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, to represent New Mexico in the U.S. capitol. She worked at the Belen Harvey House Museum as an active member of the Valencia County Historical Society that Tibo had helped found. She was the Belen Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year in 1998 and was honored with the prestigious Doña Eufemia Award, given by the New Mexican Hispanic Culture Preservation League in 2002.
The Chavez family has also used proceeds from the sale of Tibo’s books to establish the Tibo and Betty Chavez History Scholarship at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus.
Tibo had always hoped that courses on New Mexico history would become required subjects in the state’s public schools. Inspired by him and other historians, these courses are now required at the fourth grade, seventh grade and high school levels.
There’s a dicho in Tibo’s book on New Mexico folklore that I think of when I think of his life and accomplishments. In Spanish, the dicho says, “Semos como los frijoles, unos para arriba y otros para abajo.” Translated, it means, “We humans are like beans boiling: some are going up and some are going down.”
By respecting and recording Spanish culture and history in New Mexico, Tibo always tried to help others “go up” with renewed self-esteem and determination. We are all better off for his tireless work and inspiration.