Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Fabiola Cabeza de Baca was born on the de Baca family land grant on the Llano Estacado in northeastern New Mexico on May 16, 1898. When she was four years old, de Baca's mother died and her paternal grandmother, a traditional Hispana of the patrín (elite) class, became her primary caregiver. She grew up speaking Spanish, English, and two Pueblo dialects–Tewa and Tiwa–fluently.

In 1921 de Baca received a degree in pedagogy from New Mexico Normal University and taught in the New Mexico public school system for several years. In 1929 she received a degree in home economics from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. From 1929 to 1959 she worked as a home demonstration agent for the New Mexico State Extension Service, serving the Hispanic and Pueblo villages of northern New Mexico. There she founded clubs for women and children, taught nutrition, and organized marketing of craft products. In 1939 de Baca married Carlos Gilbert, an insurance agent.

Throughout her career as a practicing home economist, de Baca wrote several books and articles about folkways and culinary traditions among Hispanos. Her 1939 book Historic Cookery, based on observations in New Mexico village kitchens, eventually sold more than 100,000 copies. All of her writing furthered her cause of preserving Hispanic traditions and correcting American history, which she felt either neglected New Mexican Hispanos or misrepresented them.

In 1954 she published We Fed Them Cactus, her most autobiographical narrative and the book for which she is best known. The title refers to an incident that marked the end of an era for New Mexican Hispanos. Because of social, economic, and natural conditions– drought and the influx of American ranchers and homesteaders in the Plains in the late nineteenth century–her family was forced to feed cactus to their cattle. This tragedy calls attention to the communal bonds of Hispanic tradition and encourages Hispanos to remember a better way of life. Ultimately, We Fed Them Cactus imagines an egalitarian society in which all Hispanos, from empleado (laborer) to patrín, live in cultural harmony. Fabiola Cabeza de Baca died in 1993, after spending her final years in a home for the elderly in Albuquerque.

Becky Jo McShane Salt Lake City, Utah

de Baca (Gilbert), Fabiola Cabeza. Historic Cookery. 1939.

Reprint, Las Vegas NM: La Galeria de los Artesanos, 1970.

de Baca, Fabiola Cabeza. We Fed Them Cactus. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954.

Poythress, Stephanie. "Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert." In Notable Hispanic American Women, edited by Diane Telgen and Jim Kamp. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc. 1993: 178–79.

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