History-making NMSU Extension agent to be inducted into National Agricultural Hall of Fame

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, the first Spanish-speaking agent to serve in New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service who became one of the state’s foremost educators and cultural authorities of the 20th century, will be inducted into the National Agricultural Center’s Hall of Fame in October.

Cabeza de Baca will join the ranks of other illustrious figures who have made outstanding contributions to American agriculture, including George Washington Carver, Thomas Jefferson, Eli Whitney and another famous New Mexico resident with ties to NMSU, Fabián García, who became the first Hispanic member inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020. The induction ceremony will take place Oct. 5 at the National Agricultural Center in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

“The results of Fabiola’s focus on accessible agriculture education resonate still today,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “You can see her work and forethought when we talk about food safety and being a champion for the diverse communities in New Mexico by demonstrating the cultural relevance and versatility of different agricultural practices. It is wonderful to see Fabiola’s legacy cemented by this induction into the National Agriculture Hall of Fame.”

Over a decades-long career, Cabeza de Baca brought life-changing educational opportunities to rural and pueblo communities across New Mexico. She broke barriers as a published author, becoming a trusted chronicler of the state’s heritage and cuisines through a trove of beloved books, stories and recipes. She followed a calling for teaching and shared her expertise widely, touching the lives of many over a life that began when New Mexico was still a territory.

New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte nominated Cabeza de Baca for the Hall of Fame distinction.

“Over decades as an Extension agent, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca created an educational, cultural and agricultural legacy in New Mexico and beyond,” Witte said. “The work she trailblazed in agricultural outreach and education continues to shape New Mexico’s agriculture industry today. It’s an honor to have nominated her as an inductee.”­­

Born in 1894, Cabeza de Baca grew up on a family ranch in La Liendre, New Mexico, near Las Vegas in San Miguel County. She completed her early education at the Loretto Academy and later attended New Mexico Normal School, where she obtained a teaching certificate.

In 1916, she found work teaching in a one-room school in Guadalupe County. Since many children in her class spoke only Spanish, she developed her own bilingual teaching material and encouraged her students to teach one another their traditional songs, stories and customs. She taught at the school for 11 years, during which time she also completed a bachelor’s in education at New Mexico Highlands University.

By 1927, she enrolled at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts—now NMSU—to pursue a second bachelor’s in home economics. While attending NMSU, she taught Spanish classes. One of her students was W.L. Elser, a former director of the Cooperative Extension Service, who approached her about working for the university’s outreach arm.

Cabeza de Baca’s life took a new direction when she began her career as an Extension agent in 1929. Tasked with reaching Hispanic and Native American women, she worked primarily in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties. As the first agent assigned to pueblo communities, she learned to speak Tewa and, possibly, Towa to better communicate with the people of Nambé, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara, Tesuque and Jemez pueblos.

“Not only was she able to reach Spanish-speaking audiences, but she also reached Indigenous audiences in their own language,” said Karim Martinez, an Extension family life and child development specialist at NMSU.

Amid the Great Depression, Cabeza de Baca traveled across her districts to teach rural residents skills in food preservation, gardening, poultry-raising, sewing and home repair. She often encouraged residents living in communities without running water, paved roads, electricity or telephones to mobilize for more public services.

Despite losing a leg in a train collision, Cabeza de Baca continued to bring Extension education to residents across New Mexico. In 1947, she became the district Extension agent-at-large for six counties, covering a sprawling region of rural northern New Mexico from Dulce to Vaughn.

“For nearly a century, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca has been a role model for all Extension agents, not just in New Mexico, but across the country,” NMSU interim President Jay Gogue said. “Her steadfast commitment to our land-grant mission was truly remarkable. She spent decades traveling to all corners of the state to deliver knowledge to the people. New Mexico and our university are better because of her efforts.”

Cabeza de Baca is perhaps best known for popularizing New Mexican food. She published her first recipes in the early 1930s and gained attention for writing about fried U-shaped tacos and cooking with chile. Her first collection of recipes, “Historic Cookery,” is widely considered the earliest cookbook about New Mexican food. She published a second book, “Good Life: New Mexico Traditions and Food,” in 1949, followed by a memoir, “We Fed Them Cactus,” in 1954.

She also wrote extensively about traditions, folklore, herbal remedies, religious rituals and farming practices of Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo families in northern New Mexico. For many years, she penned a regular column in El Nuevo Mexicano, a Spanish newspaper in Santa Fe, contributed feature stories to the Santa Fe New Mexican and hosted weekly programs on community radio.

In 1950, Cabeza de Baca joined a United Nations mission to Mexico, taking her teaching skills across the southern border. In villages across the state of Michoacán, she set up 18 demonstration centers to teach household skills to women.

Cabeza de Baca continued to work in education and community building throughout her retirement and even trained a generation of Peace Corps volunteers. She died on Oct. 14, 1991, in Albuquerque at the age of 97, leaving behind a legacy marked by a deep love of New Mexico and a desire to improve the lives of those around her.

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“The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences honors Fabiola Cabeza de Baca’s legacy of outreach to all New Mexicans. She was a champion of food safety, cross-cultural learning and nutrition. Most of all, she understood that scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge inform one another and are embedded within cultural practices that connect us,” College of ACES Dean Rolando A. Flores Galarza said. “Agriculture works to provide us with safe, nourishing food, and Fabiola’s writings remind us how our work connects with the human stories and foodways in our diverse communities.”

For more information about Cabeza de Baca, visit visit https://nmsu.news/ACES-Mag-Spring-2023 or https://aces-heroes.nmsu.edu.

For more information about the National Agricultural Center’s Hall of Fame, visit https://www.aghalloffame.com.