She died in 1971, but when Carolyn Chatwin Murset talks about her grandmother today, the memories are still vivid. Like she’s sitting beside Domitila Trujillo, whom everyone called Tila.
“She was a strong woman,” Chatwin Murset says. “I think I got my love of kids and cake decorating from her — and my sense of humor.”
Perhaps that’s why she wrote Tales of Tila, a one-woman musical about her grandmother’s life in Taos. Through Tila’s eyes, Chatwin Murset broaches some of this country’s great glories and tragedies: the two wars to end all wars, the influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, and the Manhattan Project. Chatwin Murset may be telling the story of the everyday life of a Hispanic family but, ultimately, also the story of America. She performs the piece on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 8 and 9, at Teatro Paraguas in Santa Fe.
Born in California, Chatwin Murset spent her summers with her grandparents in Taos. In 1965, her family moved in with them for a short time when she was just a girl. “My dad converted her chicken coop into his plumbing and heating business office,” Chatwin Murset says, laughing. “My husband and I have chickens now, and that smell of the pasture brings me back to my childhood. I love the smell. It takes me back to being 7 and collecting eggs in my grandmother’s coop.”
Tila was funny, Chatwin Murset says, and in writing the 80-minute work, she tried to imbue the play with some of her irreverence. (“I knew she’d teach missionaries bad words in Spanish.”)
Another of Tila’s grandchildren, Arnold Trujillo, remembers her as “a really lively person, a kind person, a person the entire family gathered around. Everybody loved to be around her,” he said. “And she was an incredible cook. She made all kinds of pastries and goodies and was always in the kitchen.”
The play is a mix of Chatwin Murset’s memories, family stories, and her inferences from a family ledger Tila left behind, which she’d used primarily as a bookkeeping tool. When her mother inherited the small, handwritten book, she knew Chatwin Murset, a Mormon based in Utah, would be interested in reading it; she’s always been interested in genealogy and interviews others about their family histories in her podcast, Song Stories, Quiet Stories.
“It was like our family bible,” Chatwin Murset says of the ledger. Written in Spanish and English, it contains family births, marriages, and deaths (including pets); serious illnesses and hospital visits; property maps; recipes; sermons; and lists of purchases and how much they cost. “The prices of things were surprising,” Chatwin Murset says. Some, like a waffle iron, didn’t vary much in cost from today, while other prices were surprisingly high. A radio, she says, costs $249.
During a visit to her parents’ home in Bosque Farms 20 years ago, she transcribed sections of the ledger. “The juicy parts,” she says, “like the messages my grandparents would leave for each other, like ‘You’re watching TV too often.’”
It’s lucky she did. Most of the fragile book, which is now in a sibling’s possession, has since faded and become illegible.
Chatwin Murset begins Tila’s story at 10, when she stayed home to bake tortillas and look after her younger brother, Victor, while their parents and older brothers worked in the fields in Arroyo Seco. Soon after, Tila attended boarding school in Santa Fe.She’d leave Taos with her father and another student and take a wagon 41 miles to catch a train on the Chili Line, traveling through Ojo Caliente and eventually arriving at Lamy, the closest stop to the school.
Tila and her family weathered the Spanish flu, which took hundreds of lives in Taos County. All the schools, churches, and theaters closed, Chatwin Murset says, and the dead had to be burned soon after they died. And Chatwin Murset writes of World War II, when New Mexicans were among the first Americans sent to fight the Japanese. Tila’s husband, an Army veteran, was hired in 1942 to work for the Manhattan Project in the secret city of Los Alamos.
“He built laboratory buildings, barracks for the military police, engineers, and fabricators. He built apartments for the civilian scientists from all over the world and their wives and children. None of the builders or their families knew that the atomic bomb was being created. The wives and families of the engineers and scientists were not told what their husbands and fathers were making, either.
“We learned the truth Aug. 6, 1945, when Little Boy, the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima.
“The Secret City scene was hard to record, and it’s hard to perform,” Chatwin Murset says. “That’s a really dystopian scene.”
Still, her grandmother was just a woman going through life, as we all do.
“She was an ordinary person, but the events she lived through were extraordinary,” Chatwin Murset said.
At the end of each show, Chatwin Murset encourages audience members to go home and write in their journals — or start one.
“My intention [in writing the play] was to inspire people to write,” she said. “My dad kept a journal, and my mom always thought it was a vain thing to do. But if you don’t write about your life, people are gonna write what they think about you. I think everyone’s life is interesting, even if you don’t think it is.” ◀
▼ Tales of Tila
▼ A one-woman musical by Carolyn Chatwin Murset
▼ 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, and Saturday, Nov. 9
▼ Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie, Suite B
▼ Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors and students; 505-424-1601, eventbrite.com
▼ An audio recording of the musical is available through iTunes and Amazon