They call her La Reina, and the way Monica Sosaya Halford sat front and center telling stories about Traditional Spanish Markets of years past, you could understand why.
There was the story of how her late husband, Richard Halford, made Bloody Marys for the artists first thing in the morning, until a fellow artist “tattled” on them and put an end to imbibing on the job.
There were the memories of being just one of about 20 artists, all set up under the portal of the Palace of the Governors, and how the afternoon monsoon rains would send everyone dashing underneath the portal with them, leading to a big, soggy mess of wet people.
And her late husband again took center stage in a story as she recalled him sitting in a chair near her booth during the market, watching all the people come and go. Did that mean nobody dared to flirt with her when he was around, someone asked Halford, long known as the queen of the market.
“Who the hell wanted to flirt with me?” Halford said, drawing laughter from the assembly. “I wish they would have.”
Halford, 90, won’t be going to the market as an artist this year, marking the first time she has missed the event since she first joined it more than 40 years ago.
“I’m not gonna be in it. I’m too damn old,” she said during a small preview show and gathering of Spanish Market artists at artist Juanito Jiménez’s house in Tesuque. “I’m lucky if I know what a paintbrush looks like. I’ve done my time.”
Jiménez said Halford’s absence makes him sad. “It’s gonna be different,” he said.
Long believed to the oldest living artist participant in the market — though she and Jiménez said he actually has her beat in that category, by a year — Halford’s work is a mix of retablos, santos, paintings of matachin dances and embroidered quilts called colchas. Halford, a U.S. Navy veteran, was honored as a Santa Fe Living Treasure in 2017.
Jiménez and the other artists met late last week to capture some of the preview spirit of the old days, in part because the market’s organizers decided not to hold a preview or awards ceremony this year because of health concerns in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
They also gathered to pay homage to the grande dame of the annual event — a woman who inspired many others and whose absence this year speaks to the loss some feel for the good old days, when just a few dozen artists staked out their spots under the portal and tried to make names for themselves.
The market has drawn more than 200 artists, both adults and youth, though it will be about half that size this year.
The artists spoke about the old time collectors, like Julian Garcia, who supported and promoted so many Spanish Market artists and who, Halford said, would start twiddling his thumbs when he was going to buy some art.
They recalled the husband-and-wife team of Paula and Eliseo Rodriguez, straw appliqué artists whose work and presence long defined the market’s sensibilities.
They ran back over the names, the faces, the art of so many others whose presence once graced the corridor of the portal — all of them wishing for attention, hoping for sales.
The informal gathering of five artists — Mel Rivera, Rita Padilla Haufmann and Arlene Cisneros Sena were the other three — also gave them time to reflect on the last year of the pandemic, a year with no Spanish Market.
“It was hard for me to concentrate to get work done,” said Rivera, a straw appliqué artist who has been showing at the market for 35 years. “I didn’t have a deadline to work toward. There was no show to prepare for.”
One day he finally said, “OK, I should get this [art] done like there is a show.” He did, and is selling his wares next to Jimenez’s booth at the market.
He said Halford’s penchant for helping and encouraging younger artists is one of many reasons he wants to keep his own artistic traditions alive at the event.
“We are a unique group of artists,” he said. “We are Spanish artists. Most of us have been here for at least over eight generations.”
Unlike Rivera, Sena is not displaying her work at the market this year. She did not have time to prepare enough work, she said. But she found she “had to work” during the worst months of the pandemic, focusing on her art to get through the challenges of being cut off from so much of the community she loves.
She began participating in the market in 1992. She called Halford, who she said was always supportive of her work, one day shortly after her first show to ask a now-forgotten question, and the two became fast friends.
Often, she said, when she called Halford, the latter would answer the phone not with a “hello” but “What the hell do you want?”
Haufmann, a weaver, said Halford has been a mother hen of inspiration for many younger artists, especially with her colcha work. She said Halford, known for her outspokenness, is the sort of woman whose reputation precedes her.
“People would come up to me at market and say, ‘Oh, that woman,’ — be it something good or something bad — and I would know who they were talking about,” she said of Halford.
In a 2017 interview with The New Mexican, Halford said artists like her are a dime a dozen. But as the ‘21 show approached, she said it’s really not important to her whether people remember her name after she’s gone, so long as they appreciate her art.
“I want people who bought my art to have it bring comfort and peace in their homes,” she said. “If they remember who made it, OK, and if they don’t, that’s OK. As long as it brings them peace, I’m OK.”
Watching Halford hold court, Jiménez said he started calling her La Reina some years ago because she acted like a queen.
Halford corrected her friend.
“I don’t act like a queen, John,” she said. “I am one.”