Juan Bautista Rael

Photo courtesy of the Rael Family

Hispano New Mexican Folklorist, and Linguist

Juan Bautista Rael


Juan Bautista Rael was born in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico. He was highly regarded for his pioneering work in collecting and documenting the Hispano folk stories, plays, and religious traditions of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Since local schools were rudimentary at best, his elementary schooling was at Saint Michael’s College in Santa Fe, and his high school studies were at the Christian Brothers’ College in St. Louis, Missouri. His BA degree from St. Mary’s College in Oakland in 1923 led to a MA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1927. He relinquished his family inheritance in land, cattle, and sheep to embark on a university career of teaching and research.

Rael realized that the wealth in northern New Mexico that interested him was the vast repertory of folk narrative, song, and custom that had scarcely been documented. While teaching at the University of Oregon, he returned to Arroyo Hondo in the summer of 1930 to begin compiling his famous collection of over five hundred Nuevo Mexicano folk tales. By then his work had attracted the attention of pioneer Hispano folklorist and mentor Aurelio Espinosa, who invited Rael to Stanford in 1933. Rael completed his doctoral studies in 1937 with a dissertation on the phonology and morphology of New Mexico Spanish that amplified the dialectological work of Espinosa with the huge corpus of folk tales. Well versed in the historicgeographic theory of transmission and diffusion of motifs, tale types, and genres, Dr. Rael set out on the formidable, almost quixotic task of gathering all the possible versions and texts of the tales, hymns, and plays he was studying. But inevitably the historic-geographic approach led more to collection building than to analysis. Later generations of scholars would develop interests in performance-centered studies, but the collections of Rael continue to be an indispensable landmark in the field.

Dr. Rael’s academic achievements include a distinguished teaching career in Spanish composition, Spanish American literature, and Mexican culture. In addition, he founded and directed an international program, the University of Guadalajara School. He was also elected to the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española in 1974 and to the Academia Real de la Lengua Española in 1983. Among his acclaimed works are:

Cuentos Españoles de Colorado y Nuevo Mexico: Spanish Folk Tales of Colorado and New Mexico ([1957] 1977)

Music and Culture on the Río Grande del Norte: the Juan B. Rael Collection of Hispano Folk Music. Washington, D.C.: American Digital Library, Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, 1998.

Enrique Lamadrid

(coming soon)