Tuesday, November 29, 2016
NEW MEXICO DIARY - P (Mantis at Las Trampas -- Holy dirt -- an unfortunate contretemps at Chimayo -- Among the Sentient Pots -- A People's History)
From Rancho de Taos, I took the mountain road back Espanola.
The blacktop climbs eight or nine steep hills, then, drops into valleys behind them, but, apparently, the valleys are each slightly higher than the next and so, by this roller-coaster, progress, the traveler reaches a pine forest that extends like a great rumpled pedestal to the three conical summits of Truchas Peaks. The plateau is pitted with small round valleys, potholes a couple hundred feet deep with narrow ridges separating them. For the first twenty or so miles, there are no towns. The country is disorderly, up and down the waves of small hills – some of the holes have shallow-looking ponds in them, but the mostly the ridges and valleys are dry-looking.
Closer to Espanola, there are towns. They are small, huddled in the hollows, and poor. A sprawl of broken cars and trucks mark the outskirts and, then, there are a dozen or so huts with tin roofs. It’s early afternoon and smoke is coming from the stove-pipes piercing the tin sheets held up by crumbling adobe walls. I can smell wood smoke in the air.
The villages seem to be organized according to a principle of moeities – by this I mean that one small valley will hold a village and, then, just beyond the nearest ridge, there will be another village of about the same size and appearance. It’s as if the ancient communities divided at some point, part of the kin moving into the next valley so as to keep a steep wooded ridge between the two parts of the tribe. Some of the wooded ridges are marked with crosses, little Golgotha of three rough timber crosses marking the divide between the two places. An example is Las Trampas and Oja Sarco ("Corpse Eye?"), both tiny hamlets separated by a stony ridge.
Las Trampas is the site of San Jose de Gracio, an adobe parish church built in 1761. Whenever I have come this way, I always stop to photograph the old church. It is not as massive or fortress-like as San Francisco de Assisi in Taos, but built on a similar model, with broad heavy-set church towers surmounted by boxy steeples of old weathered wood. Las Trampas looks desperately poor – the streets are dirt and gravel and the town’s restaurant has a crudely written hand-lettered sign that is both humble and a little sinister, menu items spelled out in crooked Spanish words. No one is around – the place always seems like a ghost town with silent trench-like alleys between collapsing lathe and adobe shacks. The church is locked as always. Who knows when it is opened and for what occasions. A couple graves are marked in the bare dirt yard behind the adobe and mud walls surrounding the building. A dog is limping across a splintered porch.
On the wooden curb along the parking lot in front of the church something is moving. At first, I think that it is green lizard. But I see that it is a big, gaunt-looking praying mantis. The mantis claws its way out of a tangle of thistle and squats on the wooden trestle. It is as green as an emerald with dark, obsidian eyes.
Some people from Albuquerque pull up in an expensive car. A man and woman get out and begin to take pictures of church. The silence is heavy. The hills crowding around the valley are barren at their tops and scuffed-looking.
I drove on Truchas. The Spanish word means "trout." The town is built on a ridge so narrow that it can accommodate only a narrow lane between buildings. The structures on both sides are perched on the edges of steep canyon walls dropping several hundred feet to a rocky ravines. Each time I drive through this town, the number of art galleries increases. As far as I can determine, nine out of ten of the ramshackle buildings clinging to steeply pitched hillsides are now galleries. At the end of the lane, the ridge attaches itself to a broad meadow where some sheep are grazing. The meadow is slashed here and there with old fences and seems to slope very gradually upward to the pyramidal Truchas Peaks. The peaks look close, only a hour’s trek over the gentle incline of the pastures, but, in fact, the summit is probably 15 miles away.
Below Truchas, clustered in a dark-looking grooved ravine, there is Cordoba, presumably, the other half or moeity of the village community divided between the two places. You drive uphill to Truchas and down into the canyon for Cordoba.
Beyond Truchas, the road descends a great slope. The desert has climbed here, pushing its grey and parched tongue up against the edges of the mountain heights. Below there are labyrinths of pinkish and yellow badlands, puzzle and maze country extruded out of the flanks of the mountains. The hills are dizzying and you can see across the Espanola basin to the green and blue ridges of the Jemez mountains and Los Alamos.
The road slips into a ravine complicated by many flash flood gullies. Houses are half-hidden in the aspen groves. It’s a very slow road, interrupted by many intersections, with impoverished neighborhoods standing under hills of hot, sloping gravel. This is old Chimayo.
Then, I am at the bottom of ravine, waiting for traffic in sun-burned, tawdry Espanola.
The next afternoon, Julie and I drove back up the Chimayo road to the old Sanctuario directly under the white cross-studded Truchas ridge. The church stands in a muddle of small decrepit buildings in the center of the arroyo. You have to drive between vendors of sacred talismans and huts selling tamales and tacos to get to the parking lot. The fences around the parking lot are knit with crosses made from corn stalks and ribbons. Two horses are grazing under a couple of bright yellow cottonwood trees.
The Sanctuario also becomes more commercial each time that I visit. The mud church is humble enough, just a heap of adobe with some little belfries inserted into its mud-brown towers, but there is now an infrastructure of modern shrines and altars under the sanctuary, built up against the sandy slope where the holy place stands. Of course, the Sanctuario must be handicapped accessible and so long, serpentine ramps rise up the hill above the open-air shrines, their grade designed for wheelchair use, and, at the top, there is a small plaza surrounded by ramshackle sheds, some of them selling snacks, rosaries, postcards. There are thresholds in the Sanctuario requiring a step and I can see a paralyzed man in a wheelchair being scooted into the lean-to on the side of the chapel where there is a broad door and a level way. The church has a wall around it and some modern buildings to the side – it is the same kind of ageless building that I admired in Los Trampas, heavy beige-colored adobe with squat towers, a windowless bunker defensible in case of siege with a bare wooden cross over the entrance.
Inside the place is hushed and dark. The pews are dark wood and vestigial. A enormous club-shaped Christ, eight feet tall and carved like an instrument of war, stands at the rear of the chapel – his flesh is lacerated and he wears his crown of thorns like barbed wire wrapped around the thick part of a baseball bat. Across the aisle, Christ lies dead on a stony-looking bier, pale and limp, a life-sized corpse with gaping, bloodless wounds. The altar screen is white and red, the color of ox-blood, and there are niches holding archaic-looking and crudely whittled images of the virgin. A Bible sits on a pedestal next to several large and spiny-looking Penitente calvados, unwieldy two-hundred pound crosses that gouge your shoulder and tear your flesh the whole march from Gallup or Albuquerque or from wherever you are making your penance up into these foothills. The Bible is open to Psalms 36 to 38, but the text is written in Spanish and I don’t know what it means. A carved effigy of Santiago on his horse with his Moor-killing lance stands next to the Bible. The wood idols look like things made in the Congo or the archipelagoes of Papua.
The holy dirt is in the lean-to on the side of the chapel. You have to duck your head to enter the lean-to and the pocito filled to the brim with brown sandy earth is within another small dim chamber with an even lower entry-way – you crouch until you are almost kneeling to come into that space, a cell that feels cool as if you are far underground. Hidden track lighting casts a yellow ray down on the pit in the middle of the packed clay floor and the soil spilling out of the crater is lit so that it glows like honey. Some abandoned aluminum crutches rest against the adobe wall. A big man with tattoos who looks like an ex-convict, his bullet-shaped head shaved bald, is standing against the wall as another younger man kneels next to the healing dirt, washing himself in the sandy stuff so that it runs in rivulets down his knees and into his tennis shoes. It seems that the man washing in the dirt has trouble with his knees because he is rubbing handfuls of the soil into those joints. The ex-convict has a woman with him wearing dark motorcycle leathers and she has turned away discretely from the fellow massaging dirt into his legs. The ex-convict wears a tee-shirt that shows Jesus crowned with thorns. I step back away from the pocito, the sacred spring from which the healing dirt seems to well up. In the chamber next to the alcove with the pocito, the walls are covered with photographs of people, most of them Hispanic, little passport-sized photographs that paper the surfaces from floor to ceiling. Many of the people in the photographs seem to be hurt in some way, lips tilted askew or eyes occluded by tumors and it is painful to imagine the array of human suffering that the walls represent, the collapsible wheelchairs pushed to the side of the aisle and the orthotic braces, crutches, walkers. Julie goes into the alcove with the pocito and, from the long narrow room in the lean-to, I can see that the golden light aimed into the whorl of sacred dirt in the middle of floor is like the radiance of the oculus in the Agnes Martin chapel, an otherworldly puddle of brightness in a dimly lit place.
There’s a story, of course. There always is. It seems that a shepherd found a cross lying in a meadow in the arroyo in the mountain foothills. The cross was "budded" – that is, at the end of its beams, there were scallops representing buds bursting from the dead wood. The shepherd took the cross down the ravine to Espanola and entrusted it to the parish priest. The next day, he found the cross again, lying in the meadow at the same place where he had earlier discovered the relic. Puzzled, the shepherd again make the long hike to Espanola and, again, entrusted the artifact to the priest. The priest was surprised. He had not known that the crucifix had gone missing. On the third day, the shepherd came upon the crucifix again, bedded in the grass among the sheep, precisely where he had found it on the two previous days. This time, the shepherd did not pick up the crucifix and, instead, sent for the priest. After a few hours, the pastor made his way to the field and, after examining the relic, declared that it was a sign that a church should be built at that place. Spades were brought and when the earth under the cross was cut, fresh water welled up out of the earth. The water from this spring was miraculous – it had the property of healing the sick. The church was built adjacent to the holy spring. After a few decades, the water in the ooze dried-up, but the soil retained the healing characteristics of the spring. It was Tierra Sagrada or Tierra Bendito, the blessed soil of the place of pilgrimage. There are different versions of the story and, indeed, the tale probably pre-dates the Spanish villagers who lived in this arroyo in the early 19th century. The word Chimayo is Kewa for "healing dirt."
By 1860, the pilgrimage site was well-known throughout the Spanish-speaking villages of the Sangre de Cristo. Another, later chapel was built dedicated to the Nino de Atocha, the patron saint of Zacatecas, Mexico, the place from which the original pioneers in this valley had come. (The "child of Atocha" was a marvelous boy who visited Christian prisoners held for ransom by the Moors in the ninth century. The boy brought the hungry prisoners loaves of bread and, though at first, it seemed that he had come with only one or two loaves in his basket – all that the cruel Moors would allow into the cells -- the bread multiplied until all had been fed.) The Nino de Atocha is a chapel for children and it is decorated in brighter colors and contains toy-like images of the sacred boy, a porcelain doll with rosy cheeks dressed in rich purple velvet. The walls of that church are also plastered with images of sick children, a mosaic of misery all the more poignant because the sufferers are infants and toddlers.
The paths between the old churches are dusty. There are several gift shops filled with cheap curios. The air smells of chili. Many of the images of the churches show them decorated with a froth of white snow. Apparently, it snows here from time to time and this is regarded as particularly picturesque.
Julie went to the little café in the plaza while I inspected the chapel of the Nino de Atocha. It was about one o’clock, time for lunch. When I returned, we went into the café and ordered Frito Pies. The man behind the counter looked like Mr. Clean on the Procter and Gamble bottles of cleansing compound. He was muscular with a shaved head and arched white eyebrows dressed like the doughty advertising mascot in a white shirt and pants. Mr. Clean was surly. We sat at a splintery little table a dozen feet from the counter in the shack where he was cooking behind a screen of withered ristras. When the Frito pies were ready, he barked at us to come to the counter to pick them up and, then, balked at making change. Julie thought that he should have served the food at our table, such as it was, but I thought that this man was made in the image of distinguished trademark and that nobility of his kind has privileges and that, in any event, I was not proud to stir myself to get the bowls of chili and soggy fritos. The chili was mediocre and the meal was not served with the obligatory bowl of water and oil and corn meal.
Julie told me that there had been an unfortunate scene outside the café while I was looking at the photographs of sick and mutilated children in the chapel. The ex-convict wearing the Jesus tee-shirt and his girlfriend had come to the café, sniffed the air a little, and, then, decided that they weren’t hungry for whatever Mr. Clean was cooking. Next to the restaurant’s entrance, there was a catalpa tree, green with fat, dusty, heart-shaped leaves. The leaves were large and the ex-convict’s girlfriend stroked at them, feeling their texture, and, then, she apparently plucked one or two of the leaves as a souvenir. Mr. Clean came charging out from behind his counter, bellowing insults. He cried: "How would you like it, if I came to your house and picked the leaves off your trees?" The woman apologized and ex-convict, shamed, stared down at the dust. She said she would put the leaves back by the tree. "No, no, you’ve taken them already. Just get out of here," Mr. Clean said. The woman and ex-convict hustled away. Mr. Clean stood behind them in his white apron over his white nautical trousers and his white tee-shirt. "Trash!" he muttered under his breath. "White trash!"
Julie said that she thought the display of rage was disgraceful in a holy place.
I walked around to the front of the church to take a few pictures with my cell-phone. A shy-looking Buddhist monk in sunglasses was standing outside adobe wall surrounding the chapel. He fiddled with his cell-phone and, then, dropped the keys to his rental car. The keys glinted in the dirt and the monk seemed unaware that he had dropped them. It wasn’t entirely clear to me where he had pockets in his bright orange robe.
A young woman looking at monk said: "You dropped your car-keys." He thanked her and stooped to pick them up.
On the way back to Santa Fe, we stopped at the Poeh Cultural Center. The Pojaque pueblo has a large well-appointed casino with a strip mall, some fast food places, and an efficient, bustling gas station. Across the highway, on a frontage road, a mud-brown compound of buildings with a truncated, windowless tower comprises the Cultural Center.
An earnest young man greets us at the door and urges us to take a tour that he will guide. Julie buys some souvenirs and gives the Indian boy some money for the tour. First, we enter a side-gallery and look at the repatriated pots on loan from the Smithsonian Institute. We read about those pots in the lifestyle magazine in Santa Fe and here they are, hulking utilitarian vessels in a big glass cube. The pots are supposed to be living creatures, sentient and breathing, and it seems inhumane to me to confine them in such close quarters, all pressed together with scarcely room to stretch their arms and legs. I whisper to Julie: "This seems cruel. It’s like crowding chickens together in a laying house. They need more space."
Once viewed in those terms, the pots seem vaguely sullen and menacing. The big pear-shaped ceramics with white glaze and stepped thunder-cloud motifs shrug disdainfully and are about to release torrents of water from the sky, or, at least, the fire-protection sprinklers overhead. The young man enters the room and is anxious to answer questions about the pots. But like many Native American guides, he doesn’t really know anything about the subject on which he is talking – it’s his assumption that because he is a Tewa Indian, he necessarily understands his culture and its byways. But this assumption, of course, is incorrect – a culture is too complex and contradictory for any one person to wholly understand and, although the ways of a people are imbued with certain prejudices and characteristic attitudes, this nebulous Stimmung or ambience, must be applied to facts to be meaningful. Accordingly, the young man, who is friendly, handsome and well-meaning, simply repeats that the pots are living beings, although he is not clear how these pieces of ceramic can be understood in that fashion and what the implications of that belief might be. Do the pots have rights? Can they be said to communicate? Were they dead or merely imprisoned at the Smithsonian? Isn’t their liveliness, their vitality, connected in some form with their use and, as displayed in this antiseptic, climate-controlled glass case, aren’t they radically detached from use and, therefore, amputated objects in some real sense? The boy admits that that pots weren’t made by his forebears in any event – they come from the Cochiti and Tesuque Pueblos. "But we are trying to learn more about them," he says.
He leads us into the darkness of simulated cave. "Close your eyes now for we are about to go on a journey," the young man says. I dutifully close my eyes. "Listen for the sound of dripping water, enter into your senses, smell the earthy odor in the air, sense the ground enclosing you." I can hear water flowing, a patter of splashes as if some kind of New Age fountain were flowing. As for the odor of earth, I don’t smell anything.
The young man tells us to open our eyes and he, then, leads us through five rooms. The first four show the seasons. In the initial room, squat Eskimos are hurling atlatl lances at reindeer. A woman and a child crouch in a cave. The atlatl lances are obviously equipped with elegant, serrated Clovis tips. In the second room, spring is blossoming and the people are digging pit-houses. Some straggly ears of corn are portrayed in the diorama – the figures are two-thirds life size with huge brown eyes and high cheekbones. They are the sort of vapid, tubby caricatures of Indians that would arouse rage if they were perpetrated by a White artist. (Apparently, the woman who designed these cartoonish figures is herself Native American.) In the third room, the culture of the Indians has reached its high-noon: it is summer and the maize stands tall and proud next to three-story pueblo buildings where women are weaving and making graceful-looking pottery and where Katchina dancers, elaborately arrayed are entering onto the plaza amidst sacred smoke coiling up from a subterranean kiva. The guide’s patter suggests that he is telling the story of all Native Americans – how they emerged from the darkness of the Sipapu, hunted in the wilderness of the Bering Strait, then, developed simple villages and domesticated corn, and, finally, the flowering of the Pueblo culture.
The fourth room shows war. A Mission church is on fire. A mad monk, tonsured and in a brown robe, is flogging a cowering Indian. The Indian’s back is all furrowed with bloody lash marks. A woman screams and pleads with the monk to desist. But the war is already underway. From one of the vigas of the Mission church, a half-naked monk is dangling, shot full of arrows. On the horizon, smoke rises and there are storm clouds. In the chaos, we can see two young men running away from the burning church – they are the Tesuque runners, heroic figures like the Greeks who brought the news from Marathon; the runners are carrying knotted cords that will tell the other Pueblos when to rise up against the Spanish. (The date of the coordinated rebellion was August 11, 1680). "Some people don’t like this room," the young man says apologetically, "It’s controversial to some people." "It’s okay," I say. The young man says: "It shows the Pueblo Revolt when my people rose against injustice and threw out the Spaniards."
The Missions in New Mexico congregated people who had no natural immunity to western diseases and, so, half the population died as a result of measles and small pox. But the Franciscan’s intent was benign and, to this day, almost all of the Pueblo people are Catholic in one way or another. In the ecology of belief, religions always compete for dominance and nueva Mexico was no exception. About twenty years, before the revolt the Catholic priests suppressed the Kachina dancers and, then, executed by hanging several medicine men. Pope, the leader of the revolt, told the Pueblo people that if they burned the churches and refrained from growing the Spaniard’s crops, wheat and barley, the Kachinas would return to earth and be among their people once more and the great drought that afflicted the land would end. In the revolt, the churches were destroyed and the priests killed along with many converted Indians. Santa Fe was burned and its people forced into exile in El Paso. But, of course, each pueblo was autonomous and jealous of its own rights and could not maintain a concerted front against Europeans and, so, in 1692, the Spanish returned and after negotiating a truce that allowed them to enter the ruins of Santa Fe, began a course of reprisals. But, in some ways, the Spaniards had learned their lesson and, in general, they left the pueblos alone, allowing them to retain their customary independence and ancient rituals.
"Here’s how we live today," the young man says as he ushers us into the last room. Here an Indian boy is aiming his remote at a large-screen TV. The TV broadcasts news about the Pueblo’s victory in the Supreme Court, a ruling that allowed the construction of the casino. There are some family pictures, some military regalia, and a niche in which an image of the Virgin of Guadulupe is displayed. "This shows one of our houses," the young man says.
Julie likes the young man and buys some more souvenirs to show her appreciation of his ancient and noble culture. We drive down the frontage road to the Kokoman Liquor Store – it’s at 34 Cities of Gold Road. (The Poeh Cultural Center is at 78 Cities of Gold.) The liquor store has a fantastic selection of fine wines, the best, in fact, that I have ever seen anywhere.