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A stroke of luck

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Commentary: Throughout my career, I have had many coincidences that make me think that we live in a small world. One of the most interesting occurred when I was the Director of New Mexico’s Commercial and Tourism Office in Mexico City. When I arrived, I made the rounds to different Mexican federal agencies, presenting myself and my state. In this respect, I scheduled a meeting with a high-ranking official (I will refer to him as “TM”) in Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Relations.

I arrived at the meeting and was escorted into TM’s ornate office, befitting of an important federal official. TM, a Mexican of Polish ancestry, was a big man, well over six feet tall and husky. As I told him about New Mexico’s new trade office in Mexico City and its functions, TM stared at me sternly. I started getting nervous thinking that he was annoyed with me for taking up his valuable time. I finished my introduction and he stared at me with that stern look for what seemed several seconds. He then said, “You said you are from New Mexico, from where?” I told him my hometown was Española and wondered why he would ask. He then laid his hands on this desk and said in a loud voice, “Let me tell you something about New Mexico and Española.” Oh no, I thought to myself, he had a bad experience in my state.

TM then proceeded to tell me how he and his future wife had left Mexico City to attend college in New York. When they graduated, they decided to buy a used car to see the U.S. on their way back to Mexico City. When traveling through New Mexico en route to Santa Fe, their car broke down in Española and they had to wait several days for parts to arrive. I slumped down in my chair thinking that something even worse happened to them in my hometown.

TM said that he and his future wife rented a hotel room and didn’t want to stay cooped up while waiting for their car to be repaired. They concocted a scheme to see northern New Mexico by calling a realtor under the guise that they wanted to buy a ranch. The realtor drove them to several sites and then took them to Dixon, New Mexico, where they fell in love with some property. On a whim, they decided to buy the property and live on it, which they named “La Chiripada.” They lived there several years until family obligations made them return to Mexico. He told me that living on that ranch in northern New Mexico was one of the happiest times of his life. His face then broke out in a smile and he reached over to shake my hand and said, “You are from Española, New Mexico, and you will receive my office’s full support in anything you need.” I couldn’t believe my luck. I worked with TM the rest of my tenure managing my foreign office.

In 1977, Pat Johnson, his wife, and brother, originally from the San Francisco Bay area, bought TM’s La Chiripada ranch. He was a self-described hippy that had fought for social justice in various places, who, like TM, fell in love with northern New Mexico. In 1982, they decided to try their hand at winemaking, establishing one of the oldest wineries in New Mexico’s modern age. New Mexico is the oldest European winemaking region in what is now the U.S., wine having been brought to the state by the early Spanish settlers, but this craft fell into disuse as winemaking went massively commercial.

On a recent trip to see land I have in the Mora Valley where my family is from, I stopped in Dixon to meet the owners of La Chiripada to tell them my story. Pat and his wife listened attentively, and Pat told me that he knew that he had bought the ranch from TM, but didn’t have all the details to his story. When they bought the ranch, they inherited a little wooden sign with the words La Chiripada on it, but didn’t know what the words meant. I was surprised when Pat’s wife showed me the original sign hanging in front of their house.

Pat told me that TM had visited the region about 15 years ago and was surprised at what the Johnsons had done with his little ranch. In another twist to the story, he told them that it had always been his dream to establish a vineyard on the property, something he had not been able to do before he returned to Mexico.

After buying the ranch, the Johnsons started asking around what la chiripada meant. The word is used more in Mexico than in northern New Mexico, so initially they didn’t have much luck. They finally came into contact with somebody from Mexico who told them that chiripada was a saying that meant a “stroke of luck” in Mexican Spanish. They loved the phrase so much that they decided to name their winery La Chiripada.

La chiripada certainly applies to TM’s time in northern New Mexico, which he had never planned. It applies to the Johnsons, who bought a beautiful ranch named after a phrase they didn’t understand, and on which they managed to establish one of New Mexico’s premier wineries. And finally, la chiripada applies to me for making a friend in Mexico City who supported my office and its objectives during my tenure there. It also applies to the luck I had in meeting the Johnsons and being able to tell my new friends about the personal link all of us have between Mexico City, Española, and Dixon.