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Opening a Window on 'El Jefe'

'Barrio castle' offers a glimpse of New Mexico politician's soul. Like him, the edifice looms large.


ALBUQUERQUE — Manny Aragon, president pro tem of New Mexico's state Senate, strode into his "barrio castle," a political heavyweight in a monstrosity of volcanic rock, adobe and timber that stands as the crowning oddity in one of this city's poorest neighborhoods.

Wearing a collarless blue shirt with embossed silver buttons and knocking back a beer beside the huge wooden bar that is the centerpiece of the 7,000-square-foot home, he seemed a throwback to the Latino land barons of the state's territorial days.

Nobody can quite make sense of the Moorish heap of turrets and towers that is nearing completion after a decade of construction. Some say it is a monument to whimsical do-it- yourself barrio architecture. Others say it mirrors the bigger-than-life personality and appetites of the gravelly voiced man known as "the king of the Senate" and "el Jefe"--the Boss.

When pressed to explain the jumble of eccentric constructions, Aragon--a lawyer reared in a working-class family--answered simply, "Asi es. That's how it is."

A rusty 200-pound bell that will ring every hour hangs over an arched entrance adorned with 100 Russian olive trees. On the wall at the head of his king-size bed--which rests on a frame of illuminated glass bricks--is a concrete-cast replica of the state's Great Seal--6 feet in diameter and 5 inches thick. Beer bottles formed into abstract patterns decorate exterior columns. And etched into the tiles surrounding the bar are the words of Mexican revolutionary hero Emilio Zapata: "I prefer to die on my feet than to live on my knees."

"We originally submitted plans for a 2,400-square-foot home, but it got out of hand," said Aragon, 50, during a tour of the place built without blueprints about 100 yards from some railroad tracks. "I hope to move in later this year."

Already there are plans for a housewarming the likes of which has never been seen in this otherwise unremarkable stretch of scrap-metal yards, poultry farms and modest stucco homes.

But behind the party talk, Aragon--a liberal Democrat and Republican Gov. Gary Johnson's chief nemesis--is uncertain about the future.

"I haven't decided whether I'll run for reelection in 2000," he said.

Aragon has to watch his health: He has diabetes and high blood pressure. And political supporters of Johnson, who is up for reelection in November, are charging that Aragon is a tyrant with a penchant for making personal attacks against friends and foes alike.

Republican Party Chairman John Dendahl asserted that Aragon's sometimes-volatile approach to political discourse is eroding the Legislature's decorum and dignity.

"Like the phrase emblazoned on his floor suggests, Manny is constantly at war and unpredictable," Dendahl said. "He's given to wild philosophical ramblings that go on ad nauseam. But nobody dares gavel him down because he's president pro tem and leader of the majority party."

However, Jose Z. Garcia, a professor of government at New Mexico State University, suggested that Aragon is supremely conscious of his often dramatic and sometimes humorous theatricality--and uses tactical sparring to push his agenda.

"He's not a typical machine politician whose major job is to deliver votes for his area," Garcia said. "What he's done by sheer force of his intellect, audacity and daring is carve out a niche for himself in the rough-and-tumble contemporary political scene."

All agree that Aragon, the Senate's leader since 1988, seems to have gotten tougher over the years. Instead of resorting to tactful diplomacy in caucuses, for example, he sometimes cuts people off mid-sentence with a gruffness that can be alarming.

"I'm a very passionate debater," Aragon said. "And my beliefs and goals are the same ones I was brought up with.


"It's the Republicans who are mean-spirited," he said. "They're social Darwinists who'd leave the sick and dying out on the Santa Fe Trail while the rest of us pick them up and help carry them to the promised land."

That say-what-you-feel ethos is evident throughout the property that Aragon and his lifelong friend, Benny Saiz--who has done most of the labor on the house--hope will become a commune of sorts for their friends.

"This big old experiment in dirt and rock is going to be here forever," said Saiz, 60, admiring bedroom walls of clay and straw that he swears "shimmer like the fabled seven cities of Cibola when you shine a light on them."

"Too much straightness bothers me, so I deliberately slanted the lines of the place," Saiz said. "Crookedness gives it character, que no?"

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