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Conjuring Spain on a journey through the American Southwest

Janire Nájera interviews David Lopez for her multimedia exhibtion “Moving Forward, Looking Back: Journeys Across the Old Spanish Trail,” in which she follows the footsteps of trader Antonio Armijo. (Courtesy Janire Najera and Embassy of Spain)

You can say one thing for traveling by mule: Running out of gas is never a problem.

In 2014, Spanish photojournalist Janire Nájera retraced the footsteps of trader Antonio Armijo, who had trekked the Old Spanish Trail between Abiquiu, N.M., and San Gabriel Mission (near Los Angeles) in 1829 and 1830. Armijo journeyed in a mule caravan. Nájera made the trip in a 1984 RV that she nicknamed Orwell.

Sharing the driving with British photographer Matt Wright, Nájera made her way through New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California. She and Wright didn’t have to deal with ornery mules, but they did experience trials of the automobile era: The RV ran out of gas in New Mexico, and its exhaust system proved so troublesome that at one point, they had to camp overnight at a garage outside Las Vegas.

These minor setbacks notwithstanding, Nájera turned the trip into “Moving Forward, Looking Back: Journeys Across the Old Spanish Trail,” a multimedia exhibition that explores how people of Spanish lineage in the American Southwest relate to their cultural heritage.

Featuring photographic portraits of 18 residents of California and New Mexico, landscape photographs, and audio of the residents talking about matters related to tradition and identity, the exhibition at the former Spanish ambassador’s residence on 16th Street NW runs through June 28.

There also is a bilingual book version of the exhibition, featuring additional portraits, oral histories, historical essays and panoramic photographs by Wright. The “Moving Forward, Looking Back” project is an undertaking of Spain Arts & Culture, the cultural program of the Embassy of Spain.

Nájera, who splits her time between Wales, Spain and New Mexico, was at the exhibition recently for the official book launch. A slender, sunny young woman, Nájera said she had arranged the exhibition to capitalize on the layout of the Beaux-Arts mansion, creating a kind of flow that would evoke a journey.

At the start of that journey is a portrait of Rudy Sena, a New Mexican rodeo proprietor. With his cowboy hat, grizzled beard and eye patch, he struck Nájera as a classic archetype of the Southwest, so she gave him a high-profile position. “I wanted him to start the exhibit and have pride of place,” she said.

One of the portraits in the next room features Orlando Romero, a Santa Fe-born historian, writer and “santero” (a person who carves wooden images of saints). He is shown sitting in a room full of bookshelves, paintings and religious statuettes.

“I’ve never been in a house more Spanish than this one,” Nájera said, indicating the room’s Spanish colonial architecture and decor. Visiting Romero, she added, was like being in Toledo, Spain.

In general, Nájera was astonished by her interviewees’ strong sense of affiliation with Spain and Spanish culture. Sometimes they seemed to know more about Spanish history than she did.

Nájera said she considers a spherical garden panorama by Wright to be the exhibition’s end point. The work sits in the mansion’s tiled and columned patio, its eye-catching shape a reminder of Spain’s legacy around the globe.

‘A happy dance’

As visitors filed through the Embassy of Botswana, open to the public for the Around the World Embassy Tour on May 2, a quartet of dancers gathered at one side of a room. Wearing traditional costumes that appeared to be made of animal skins, with circlets of small rattles bound around their ankles, the two women and two men broke into a vigorous dance.

Sometimes moving slightly forward, sometimes staying in place, they executed stomping steps, allowing the heels of their supporting legs to rise gently off the ground. Now and then, the two men moved to the front and ratcheted up the scale of the dance, raising their knees up high and leaning forward so that they seemed as if they were about to lose their balance. At another point, one of the women danced while balancing a basket on her head.

The performance was by Rhythms of Kalahari, a dance group focused on the traditional dance of Botswana. The group performs locally and elsewhere, recently at the Wayne Art Center outside Philadelphia. The group’s core members are the two women who were dancing at the embassy: Botswana natives Mpho Charity Tessmer and Mumcy Mpelege. When not hoofin’, Mpelege is an educator and aspiring life coach based in Brooklyn; Tessmer, who lives in this area, studies nursing at Montgomery College in Rockville.

In a pause during the embassy performance, Tessmer explained that the ankle-bracelet rattles were made of insect cocoons into which small pebbles or sorghum seeds had been sewn.

In a subsequent phone call, Tessmer recalled learning about Botswana’s dance traditions as a child. For years after that, though, her preferred terpsichorean pastime was ballroom dancing. But after moving to the United States, she gained a new appreciation for the dance of her native land. After she met Mpelege, the two joined forces.

Tessmer said she is drawn to Botswana’s traditional dance because it gives her a personal connection with her homeland.

And besides, she said, “it’s a happy dance — I’m sure you could tell.”

Wren is a freelance writer.

"Moving Forward, Looking Back: Journeys Across the Old Spanish Trail" Through June 28 at the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain, 2801 16th St. NW. Friday-Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. (Monday-Thursday by appointment).

The Rhythms of Kalahari

Web site is under construction, but the group can be reached at