Friday, October 28, 2016
NEW MEXICO DIARY - B (Christoper -- a dinner at the Old Mill -- Albuquerque to Santa Fe - a Casita -- Crypto Jews -- An Adventure in Old Santa Fe)
In many ways, my brother, Christopher, is my opposite. He is optimistic and ebullient in contrast to my pessimism and introversion. He tends toward acceptance of things at face value while I am intrinsically suspicious and skeptical. Christopher enjoys life, can be flamboyant, and makes big gestures, whilst I dismiss most pleasures and tend toward a bitter and penurious obedience to duty. He is generous and his hand is open. My generosity is, often, checked by transactional qualms – how will this gift or offer be received? What is its recompense? All too often, I think, my hand remains clenched.
Christopher’s appealing qualities have made him very successful in his career. For many years, he managed large and valuable hotels, supervised intricate labor and business relationships, and earned enough money so that he could retire at an early age. While I am still working for diminishing returns as a lawyer, Christopher lives on an estate across Puget Sound from Seattle.
A week before we traveled to Santa Fe, Julie and I went out to dinner with Christopher and my mother. Christopher was visiting and planned the outing. He drove down to Austin with my mother and we ate at the Old Mill Restaurant on the Cedar River at the edge of town.
The Old Mill, as the name suggests, was once a grain-milling business powered by the river sluicing under the ungainly building perched next to a small, concrete dam. The dam lies across the stream, a concrete wing dropped onto the Cedar and stretching between the tree-lined banks. Lights from the restaurant illumine the bark and undersides of the leaves of the trees grouped around the river and the water impounded behind the dam. In Autumn, yellow leaves fall into the mill-pond and deck its surface with a glittering gold mosaic. White water unfurls its plume over the apron of the dam. Next to the entry, a mill-stone is displayed like a giant warrior’s immense and perforated shield. Inside the restaurant, Christmas lights outline the bar and the big windows overlooking the stream shimmer with the reflections of diners and wait-staff and there is the low murmur of voices: in a hearth, a companionable fire is burning.
We sat at a table near the entry into the bar. A famous former executive at Hormel Foods sat with his wife and a couple of well-behaved-looking exchange students at a table next to us. Christopher offered to pay for the wine. "I will not buy cheap wine," he said. My mother demurred. The specialty of the house is prime rib and, so, that is what some of us ordered.
Christopher formerly managed the Hilton Hotel on the Plaza in Santa Fe. He was called to that operation after taking a break from employment so that he could superintend a multi-million dollar renovation of that property. Julie mentioned that she was scheduled to attend a conference at that hotel. Christopher was aware of the conference and had hosted it before and, indeed, knew the doctor who managed the program. Julie said that she would like to be upgraded to a Casita, that is, a suite of rooms in the old part of the Hotel. Christopher told us about some of the people who had worked for him at the Hotel, extolled the location and the city and the State of New Mexico, and, then, said that he thought it was unlikely that Julie could rent the Casita suites – "there are only three of them," he said. The Casita suites, Christopher told us, were part of the oldest part of the hotel, dating back almost four-hundred years. "It is part of the Ortiz hacienda," Christopher remarked. He said that the Ortiz family was very ancient and integral to Santa Fe. "The rumor is that they were Jews expelled from Spain who fled to Mexico. From Mexico, they migrated north, always staying a few steps ahead of the Holy Inquisition. They made the long march to Santa Fe and built their hacienda where the hotel now stands. The Casitas are the old wing of the hotel; under the modern stucco, the walls are made of adobe and stone and are six feet thick."
Christopher told us that he enjoyed the hour-long drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. "It is so wonderfully dark out there on the desert," he said. "You see so many stars."
I-25 runs past Albuquerque toward the jagged ramparts of Sandia Mountain. Immense, graceful viaducts sail overhead, carrying traffic on filaments of concrete into the city and away toward the mountains – the north-south freeway runs under those causeways that are white and slender as the throats of swan. The Rio Grande bends through Bernallilo, a high-desert suburb, 15 miles north of Albuquerque and, above the sinuous river, the big mountain rises high into the sunny, vacant-blue of the sky. Posted at 75 miles an hour, the freeway climbs to a barren plateau, stoops down a couple times to cross drive stream beds incised deeply into the land, and, then, gradually rises toward Santa Fe, the small city nestled at the foot of rounded, blue-green mountains. Santa Fe is above 7,000 feet with a low mud-brick profile that is mostly hidden by a forest of aromatic pinon pine.
Although the last two-thirds of the climb to Santa Fe would, indeed, be dark, the desert is now burdened by big casinos conveniently hunched over the freeway like predatory sphinxes. There is a casino with caravansarai towers, elaborate gas stations, and restaurants a little north of Bernallilo – this grandiose compound is owned by the San Felipe Pueblo of Tewa-speaking Indians. And, in the next big arroyo beyond the San Felipe casino, the pueblo of Santo Domingo operates a competitor establishment, also within a stone’s throw of the freeway interchange – the pueblo itself is far enough away from the garish casino so as to not be contaminated by its turquoise-decorated ramparts and the lights that undoubtedly turn night to day around that place.
Santa Fe’s population is about 70,000 people and the place seems primarily a resort and retirement community for wealthy older folks from California. Downtown is eerily quiet most of the day. At sundown, well-dressed people appear on the sidewalks among the low-slung adobe buildings – these are visitors seeking out the bars and restaurants in the center of the old city.
I had no difficulty exiting the freeway and making my way through modest tracts of adobe housing to downtown. At the lights, no traffic was waiting. The side-streets were still and, mid-afternoon, most of the businesses seemed to be shuttered for a siesta. At the Hotel, Julie was delighted to find that she had been upgraded to a Casita beyond the hotel’s dim walls and across a small courtyard from the main building. Dagger-like agave plants studded the raked, white gravel between the two wings of the hotel. In the Casita, a bottle of wine was waiting for us and there were fresh-cut flowers and a meat and cheese tray. The rooms were large with an elegant-looking fireplace in one corner. Shuttered windows repelled the brilliant sunlight outside. Near the bed, the wall facing outside had been penetrated to show the massive construction underneath the dry-wall and stucco finish – big, round cobble-stones heaped together were visible under an oblong of glass gripped in a sturdy picture frame. The rocks were dark as if seared by volcanic fires, blunt instruments as sinister as clubs. Presumably, the stones had been piled between adobe brick masonry to fill the wall and make it impregnable if attacked. Santa Fe had been burned to the ground once during the great Pueblo revolt in 1680 and those who directed the construction of these walls, apparently, intended to raise them against all enemies for all time. An ugly, defiant strength was revealed in the place where the glass made the wall into a museum exhibit. At night, in the dense dry darkness, the fingerprints of the laborers who had raised those stone walls shown as a faint phosphorescent traces – whorls like spiral nebulae on the stacked cobbles.
At the Old Mill, Christopher told us to look closely at the Hilton’s key card. As he promised, the card was decorated with a Star of David.
For many years, scholars and genealogists have searched for traces of New Mexico’s crypto-Jews. Until 1919, many of the villages and isolated hamlets north of Santa Fe had not been surveyed or mapped. In that year, cartographers traveled the high desert and canyons of the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains together with their basins to identify the places where people lived in that roadless and uncharted wilderness. It was known that curious folkways existed in some of these remote places. Pueblos on the Rio Grande plateau celebrated strange festivals – at the Taos Pueblo, the Indians performed a ritual battle between Moors and Christians, a masque presumably recalling the war on the Iberian peninsula that concluded just before 1492 with the defeat of the Muslims by the Catholic kingdom of Castille. For many years, historians argued about the origin of the Penitente brotherhood, the confraternity of Jesus the Nazarene that flourished in isolated Spanish-speaking villages in the high mountains or hidden in the canyon country by the Colorado border. Did the elaborate and, sometimes, frightening religious practices of the Penitente Hermanos originate in Gothic Spain or Portugal? When the Hermanos scourged themselves or carried their carved Bultos in processions into the icy mountains on Easter, were these rituals an elaboration of medieval piety in old Spain? Parts of what is now New Mexico are difficult to reach, but have been inhabited for hundreds and hundreds of years – family lineages trace back to the era of the Moor’s last sigh in Alhambra. High mountains and blazing deserts embalmed old traditions – the tiny villages scattered through New Mexico are, perhaps, a kind of time capsule containing many curious and half-forgotten relics.
Legend held that many Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism to avoid expulsion from Spain. These Sephardic Jews were called Conversos and the authenticity of their devotion to their new religion was often questioned. Some Conversos were thought to retain rabbinical beliefs and practices despite a surface veneer of Catholicism. In the New World, always a few steps ahead of the inquisition, Conversos might let the mask slip – indeed, eight-hundred miles north of Mexico City with its auto-da-fes and inquisitors, Crypto-Jews might emerge from hiding and might, even, dare to practice their religion openly in Santa Fe and environs.
How else to explain the substantial number of Espanols buried in old graveyards under stones carved with six-pointed stars? What about the ancestors with Hebrew first-names – for instance, the Ramirez or Martinez family members called "Adonay"? Isn’t this Adonai – that is, the name of the lesser gods and angels mentioned in the Old Testament? What was the language that an elderly woman recalled her great-grandmother speaking in one of the pueblos high in the mountains on certain holy days? Were those spinning tops sometimes given to children at Christmas Dreidels? Why did some groups of ostensibly Catholic Indians refuse to eat pork? Were the charms posted on the thresholds of pueblo kivas mezzuzahs?
All of these hints and rumors, all of these allegations of faint vestiges of Levitical or Deuteronomic law surfacing in unlikely places, formed an abiding legend. There is always the hope that someone lost on the serpentine forest roads in the Kit Carson National Forest, or some fly fishermen working his way upstream in some nameless canyon tributary to the Rio Chama, will glimpse half-fallen walls on a hilltop and will climb to them to find some huts, a corral for burros, and an adobe church or, perhaps, an intact kiva containing a menorah and, possibly, some fragments of the Torah.
On a family vacation in 1969, my father drove his stationwagon laden with family into old Santa Fe. It was a terrifying place. Although the main streets were paved, all of the side roads were deeply rutted, primitive, and not even gravel – rather, you could look to the side of the asphalt highway into ruinous-looking neighborhoods of tin-roofed adobe shacks lined-up alongside red sand and clay streets, more like badlands than traveled-upon lanes. As we approached the center of Santa Fe, the roads constricted and, at last, became single-lane passageways between badly battered and side-swiped pick-up trucks and decrepit cars. Several times, my father found himself staring down a malignant-looking one-eyed pickup truck full of small dark-skinned men drinking beer and shouting merrily in a language that we didn’t understand. Several times, we were compelled to back-up and, then, the people in the pickups behind us, rosaries dangling from their rear-view mirrors honked and made obscene gestures. The church near the ancient plaza were dark and showed cavernous openings in their squat fortified walls and the old commercial buildings where turquoise jewelry was sold with pots and Navajo rugs seemed shadowy, run-down, broken around the edges. Poor people squatted at street corners and, when we finally reached the center of the madness, the open park in front of the Palace of the Governors, the greenery was all frayed and withered and the palace building itself looked small and inconsequential, rows of impassive Indians seated on benches along the adobe portico guarding the trinkets that they had hauled to town to sell to the tourists. The shapely adobe walls were spattered with a vomit of graffiti and the labyrinth of one-way streets made it impossible to extricate ourselves from the ruinous city. Finally, my father fled down a dirt road and we climbed to a low terrace above the town and, then, road simply ended as a series of low, eroded cliffs. Dogs assaulted us, barking and sniffing at our tires and old women in black shawls watched without expression as my father maneuvered the unwieldy station wagon so that he could withdraw along the broken and rutted way that we had come. Between the houses, the pinon smelled of gin and clothes lines sagged with wet laundry and, as the lights came on unsteadily in the shacks, and the air began to fill with wood-smoke from cookstoves, my father said something like – "this isn’t a clean place," and "we have to get out of here." We had come from visiting relatives in Carlsbad. There is a university in Carlsbad and the city is very modern and there are wide open quadrangles between the bright new laboratories and lecture halls. Carlsbad is a very clean city.