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Reviving the ancient craft of earth-building

Anita Otilia Rodriguez has set out not only to revive traditional architectural skills, once practiced in the Southwest almost entirely by women, but to study and document earth-building techniques all over the world.

''Much of the world's population today lives in houses made of earth,'' Mrs. Rodriguez said during a recent interview in New York when she came to accept a $ 7,500 award from the Wonder Woman Foundation.

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''With a global housing crisis facing us today,'' she continued, ''I feel there is a sense of urgency about recording and documenting these techniques before they vanish. Because earth is free and since no country can now afford to house its poor, this knowledge needs to be gathered and the data stockpiled.''

Because earth is universally available, she says, and is non-industrial, nonpolluting, and easy to handle, it may be the only housing hope for millions of people in the years ahead.

Mrs. Rodriguez, an adobe specialist, was born and grew up in Taos, N.M., which she describes as a ''beautiful old adobe town.'' She is now working nearby in El Prado, at the craft called enjarrando, a series of building skills and crafts which go into the embellishing and maintenance of all architectural surfaces, including floors and walls. It also includes plastering, alisando (a method of slipping mud walls with colored clays), and the building of those fireplaces which are seen as a form of sculpture in traditional architectural design. It also involves the making of beehive-shaped adobe ovens.

Women who do this work are called enjarradoras, and since pre-Columbian times they have passed their skills on in a oral tradition. In the past, most of them worked for barter and trade rather than for wages.

''These skills have been completely unrecognized and totally overlooked by architectural historians,'' says Mrs. Rodriguez, and because the craft was no longer being practiced, it was dying out. ''When construction itself moved away from the socioeconomic pattern of vernacular native architecture, and when men took over completely, women were excluded and their skills shunted aside.''

Since the old enjarradoras were also passing from the scene, Mrs. Rodriquez decided that she would not only learn the craft but would preserve and document its technology. In danger of becoming extinct, this craft had been the mainstay of traditional Mexican architecture, both secular and religious.

She did this by visiting villages in northern New Mexico and seeking out the best enjarradoras. She then recorded interviews with them and photographed them and their work. Then she herself tested the centuries-old skills that they described and demonstrated for her.

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Today she is planning a book that will include the results of her research, and one day in the future she hopes to establish a vocational school through which she can teach these skills to other women.

Enriquetta Vasquez, who nominated Anita Rodriguez for a Wonder Woman award in the category of ''women working creatively,'' wrote of her: ''She has made important contributions toward the preservation of our native architecture in New Mexico, teaching local people to value it and recognize its function in the perpetuation of cultural patterns and life style. She is respected in her state as a preserver of traditions, and she became the first woman in many years to again make her living working as an enjarra-dora in this almost forgotten tradition. Due in large part to her efforts, women are now interested in learning enjarrando.''

Mrs. Rodriquez has written many articles on her craft, explained it on television programs, lectured about it, taught school classes, conducted workshops, and served as a consultant to state and federal housing agencies, the Museum of New Mexico, and the Kit Carson Foundation.

She not only works for private clients, but also as a consultant to architects and builders on right ways of building adobe structures and how to maintain them. She is also a licensed mason.

Mrs. Rodriquez, who has a young daughter whom she is also teaching to be an enjarradora, was one of 17 women (all over 40) from many parts of the United States, honored by the Wonder Woman Foundation for their qualities of courage, creativity, and personal growth.

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