January 17, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
I studied the weather for four days before making a break for the south, slipping between the winter storms along ice packed roads wreathed with snowflakes across sun-glazed plains in the direction of the Salt Lake Valley where much of the snow had evaporated under a stiff northwesterly wind and horses and cattle at American Fork grazed the still-green grass. In the Wasatch Mountains, Soldier Summit lay under several feet of windswept snow but soft sunshine pervaded the town of Price, Utah. Frosted angles in the Book Cliffs tilted in lavender and rose-hued shadow against the orange and red walls. South of Moab the piñon and cedar forests of the upland desert, the sandstone domes, and the slickrock buttes sheltered patches of snow. At Monticello, where the turned pinto-bean fields lay brown and undulant in the blue shadow of the Abajo Mountains, the suffering winter sun fell abruptly and I was accompanied on to Cortez, Colorado, by darkness and the smell of cedar smoke issuing from the semi-darkened houses beside the road.
In pickup trucks coming north from Shiprock, New Mexico, the next morning only the foreheads and eyes of the Navajo drivers, surmounted by wide black hats, showed above the steering wheels. At Shiprock, I turned away from the blocky silhouette of the Chuska Mountains in Arizona, toward Farmington on the four-lane road across which Indians stagger from the bars to the footbridges over the San Juan River and where fatalities are nearly a nightly occurrence. Named for the homesteader who discovered the archeological site in the l870’s and protected it against looters before the federal government relieved him of the responsibility, the Salmon Ruins are situated at the city’s eastern edge. They are the remains of an Anasazi village, whose three-foot-thick walls faced inside and out with brick and filled with stone rubble were built 22 years after William the Conqueror invaded England: a warren of kivas, storerooms, and sleeping quarters abandoned a couple of centuries later in the mysterious general catastrophe that overtook all the Anasazi communities of the American Southwest. “The Southwest,” Harvey Fergusson, the late New Mexican author, wrote in his book Rio Grande, “is a land of fallen walls, littered with ruins of all ages and in all stages of decay. Tribes, cultures, classes have lived and died here, leaving their shells to crumble slowly in the dry preservative air.”
Dust devils levitating paper bags and tumbleweed raced and spun in the streets of Bloomfield, and the wind blew hard over fields watered by the Navajo Irrigation Project on the mesa south of the San Juan. Past the dirt turnoff to Chaco Canyon the sagebrush plain gave way to the rougher canyon country of the Jicarillo Apache Reservation, and the long bulk of the Jemez Mountains rose slowly to form a barrier in the east behind the dusty Indian town of Cuba. More striking as you progress south than the darkening skins, the adobe houses, the bright soft vowels of the Spanish tongue, the greasy-green creosote bush, and the crooked cholla is the ubiquitous trash. Brown paper bags and plastic ones, paper cups with the straws poking through the plastic tops, fertilizer sacks, cardboard boxes, and torn burlap blowing over fields and across highways, hanging up on the derelict auto bodies and rusting farm equipment, the evicted wringer washing machines and coil refrigerators: These are only the dying wavelets of a flood originating deep in the Mexican interior that, smashing across the international boundary, submerges the border towns and cities and rolls northward as far as southern Utah and Colorado. Between Cuba and the hamlet of San Ysidro, volcanic necks supported by triangular pedestals appeared distantly in hazy profile out of the pale refracted light through drifting clouds of dust. Brown leaves clung in bunches to the great riverine cottonwoods, and thin yellow ones jittered in the aspen trees beside the highway; across the tremendous landscape, bursts and sprays of light came and went in a confused and windswept sky. East of Bernalillo, beyond the Rio Grande, the Sandia Mountains caught the golden sun of late afternoon and folded it away in shadow as if to preserve it through the winter, but the river itself remained concealed by the desert bluffs for many miles after the glittering lines of traffic on the interstate running parallel to it were visible.
While the Rio Grande is the great pump, rising near Pole Creek Mountain (elevation 13,716) immediately east of the Continental Divide and the town of Silverton, Colorado, to drain the watershed of the San Juan Mountains and irrigate the southern floodplain farmed by agriculturalists for almost a thousand years, the valley in which it flows has functioned since the 16th century as the trunk of a great proliferating tree drawing the Spanish and Mexican influences upward from a root system embedded in Mexico. With its large and territorially extensive Indian population, New Mexico would be the least “American” of the Southwestern states even without the Spanish presence, which, more than that of the ghostly Anasazi, is responsible for a sense of mystery that deepens as you approach Mexico. The secret of the Southwest is, to paraphrase Edward Abbey, that it belongs to everyone, and to no one; a region that so often appears to be disintegrating, culturally and politically, has in fact never been integrated. As the Navajos arriving from Alaska displaced the Anasazi, so the Spanish expropriated the Navajo and the Pueblo and the Americans superseded the Spanish, the Mexicans may well overrun the Americans by the end of the 21st century–or sooner. Unlike the historically naive and complacent “Anglos,” the proud descendants of the conquistadores in the valley of the Rio scorn and despise the Mexican wetbacks and migrants whose arrival in New Mexico disturbs them, perhaps because their Catholic faith has sensitized them to the ironies of history. For the time being, however, the People’s Republic of New Mexico remains much more Spanish and Indian than Mexican, in spite of having become a completely developed welfare state where the majority of shoppers pay for their groceries with food stamps, a tax is levied on every imaginable transaction, and residents with a convenient landfill available to them prefer to haul their garbage out of town and dump it anywhere in the desert.
At Albuquerque, thick clouds of dust blew out of the valley from the dry cuts made by earthmovers preparing for the advance of a modern city of half a million people, its towers glinting dully in a haze of topsoil and smoke. South of the metropolis Interstate 25 crosses the river, slipping between banks of rustling cane and the cottonwood bosques burred with their dead, light, resistant leaves where, some years ago riding horseback, I started thousands of wintering geese and cranes that rose in a single broad sheet like the surface of the water lifting away. Mountains–the Mazanos, San Matteos, San Andreas–rose starkly from the gravel plains stretching west and east: the dry brown sterile-looking mountains of the Southwest, their sharp peaks darkened by pine forests resembling at a distance cloudshadow cast against the brilliant sky. Beyond the Jornada del Muerto, the desert corridor where Spanish travelers died of thirst or were murdered by Apache raiders, uncertain vistas opened away through rugged mountain passes. Texture, form, color; blue, tan, beige, gray, and gold … Los Lunas, Tome, Belen, Jarales, Bernardo, Lajoya, Socorro: Spanish towns still inhabited by many of the families who settled them, though their wealth is nowadays invested in car dealerships and real estate rather than in peons, cattle, and sheep. Socorro, whose low roofs are punctuated by the spires and belfries of many churches, was invaded after the Mexican-American War by the victorious Texans who stole land from the Spanish settlers, drove their sheep from the range to make room for their own cattle, and forced many of them to flee into Mexico. Already the snowbirds were arriving for the winter: elderly couples with blue hair and no hair in Southwinds and Winnebagos from Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana driving slowly and craning their necks as if worried for their next meal. South of Truth or Consequences, a road sign indicated the turnoff to Silver City across the Black Range where Billy the Kid was raised and served his first brief jail term (made shorter still by an escape up the chimney after two days) for hiding a bag of laundry “stolen” by an older man for a joke. At Hatch, “Chili Capital of the World,” the river rode silver between constraining banks across green fields past houses from which the blue smoke rose in soft perpendicular columns toward the hazy silhouette of the Organ Pipe Mountains many miles distant, and fins of rock like gigantic gnomons pointed south toward enigmatic Mexico. Darkness fell as I skirted the Franklin Mountains but El Christo Rey, seeming to gather light to its alabaster form out of a dying sky, was visible on its barren peak awaiting night and the passage of drug smugglers with their guns and backpacks across the desert plain. On Good Friday, the people of Ciudad Juárez climb to the foot of the statue on their knees, in penance for their sins.
The following clay, December 12th–the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patron Saint of the Americas–I crossed the footbridge from El Paso and followed the Avenida Juárez to the cathedral plaza where Indians stripped to the waist in the 40-degree cold and with bells and rattles tied to their ankles, danced barefoot on the stone flagging beneath headdresses of red and yellow feathers. A single dancer wore on his shoulders a cape embroidered with the image of Our Lady, commemorating her appearance to Juan Diego in 1531. (Historians and cultural anthropologists have speculated that it is the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, also called Coatlicue–“Lady of the Serpent Skirt” –who is actually being worshiped in the guise of the Blessed Virgin.) The big cathedral organ throbbed behind the beat of drums and the rattle of tom-toms, while the bellringers high above the plaza seized hold of the clappers and swung them back and forth inside the bells, pealing out loudly above the crowd. A fat old woman under five feet tall wearing a shabby pink sweater and bedroom slippers hovered at the edge of the dance and now and again imitated its steps. Beyond the dancers a man sold candied cactus and people sat eating under a canvas tent, while another man bearing with outstretched arms an enormous festive cake on a board hurried across the street toward the mission. A crowd stood gathered beneath palm trees studying a mime as he powdered his face and adjusted his bulbous nose, another around a clown and his straight man in the roles of an outraged father and his disobedient son. The great bells clanged for Mass as the procession made its way across the plaza, led by ecclesiastical dignitaries under banners. These were followed by a lengthy train through the wide doors standing open upon the packed church: the halt, the blind, and the lame; the disfigured, the sick, the simple poor of Mexico. Above the roll of the organ the drums and tom-toms were audible, still beating their savage tattoo, while in the belltowers the ringers leaned outward above the low railing, leering like gargoyles among the agitated pigeons.
Annunciation House was a wedge of grimy red brick pinched between converging streets in downtown El Paso; the December twilight was well advanced when I arrived there at five o’clock. Lounging men made way for me to enter through the door standing open on the sala, its walls covered with maps and flags of various Central American countries and drawings of the Virgin. Of the 10 or 15 people in the room only two small boys pushing toy cars over the rug seemed engaged, everyone else maintaining an attitude of patient obligation like reluctantly gathered relatives waiting for Christmas dinner to be served. The proprietress wore no makeup and had her brown hair cut short and plain. She seemed pleasant but a little narrow, in the way of people who believe that reality is always hard and that whoever disagrees with this proposition is a sentimentalist. In one of the small plainly furnished rooms upstairs a party of refugees seated on improvised benches at wooden tables ate a supper of rice and beans, while a volunteer prepared an improvised chapel for the arrival of the priest from Juárez where Annunciation maintains a sister house.
“I’ll probably end up going down there,” Helen said. “You should hear an 11-year-old boy describe what it’s like to live in a war zone. Our relations with the police are pretty good, considering what it is we’re doing. But my view of those Immigration people is unspeakable. What does the earth look like in pictures taken from space? The divisions are between land and water, not one country and another. I suppose that’s hopelessly idealistic, but anyway. Good night.”