Rubén Cobos

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Mexican American, Folklore, Music, Lexicography

Rubén Cobos


At age 16, Rubén Cobos and his penniless family arrived in Albuquerque from San Antonio, to say goodbye to his older sister Consuelo, a Presbyterian teacher who died from TB in a sanatorium a month later. Having escaped Piedras Negras, Coahuila, enduring untold suffering and privation during the worst years of the Mexican Revolution, the Cobos made their home in Albuquerque. 

Cobos received a solid liberal education, learned gardening, cooking, and carpentry at Menaul Presbyterian School. His Nuevomexicano classmates at first called him “surumato,” a derogatory nickname for Mexicanos. He later learned it came from a place name, Surumuato, Jalisco, where many strike breakers and braceros were recruited. He heard many unfamiliar words and verb structures, and kept notes over the next fifty years resulting in his now classic reference Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish (1983).

Cobos’ career at the University of New Mexico (UNM) is the stuff of legend. He boldly offered his services as a groundskeeper directly to president James Zimmerman, who obliged him a scholarship. In the illustrious Spanish department, he studied with folklorist Arturo L. Campa among others. His first teaching job was in Wagon Mound, where he first began his fieldwork, recording folk music, narrative, and poetry. Later he taught at NM Highlands University and continued his fieldwork. He began teaching at UNM in 1944.  

In 1949-50, he wrote a folklore column for El Nuevo Mexicano, the most prominent Spanish language newspaper of the day. He invited readers to submit folk poetry and narrative in an ongoing contest. There he declared the Indita (little Indian woman) ballad to be New Mexico’s unique contribution to the Ibero-American tradition, with its female gendered poetics, powerful first-person voicing, and reflective and sometimes chanted choruses. Beyond his research and writing, Cobos was an accomplished bel canto style singer who delighted audiences with Mexican canciones and corridos as well as Italian arias.

Cobos began his doctoral studies at Stanford in 1949, working with prominent Nuevo Mexicano folklorists Aurelio Espinosa and Juan B. Rael. He completed his exams, but not his dissertation. But his contributions to folklore studies—as a mentor and research collaborator—have been significant. For example, he was co-author with musicologist Richard Stark and folklorist T.M. Pearce on the landmark, Music of the Spanish Folk Plays in New Mexico (1969). He taught innumerable undergraduates and inspired and encouraged many generations of these students, including this writer. 

Further reading:

A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1983+.

Refranes: Southwestern Spanish Proverbs. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1973.

García, Nasario. An indelible imprint: Rubén Cobos, a multi-talented personality. Albuquerque: Río Grande Books, 2011.

Enrique Lamadrid