I always take books when I travel, and end up bringing more back with me.. This happened with my latest New Mexico road trip.
David Hatcher Childress’ Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries of the Southwest reminded me of the weirdness that wasn’t obvious. Or as he wrote: The history of North America was one of continual invasion and displacement . . . His reports of lost treasure, strange creatures, rumors of visitors from other continents and planets fit in with the state’s fantastic landscape. All the layers on incredible layers. You really need imagination to see it all.
I brought Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony along, not knowing it was about New Mexico. I felt it would be good to read a novel about Indians while I was passing through more Indian reservations than I could keep track of. Then it clicked: I kept recognizing the names of places. I was hooked into this story of Indian warriors who were brought into World War Two, then rejected by the white world as they came back to the Atomic Age. Maybe the medicine man didn't laugh all the time; maybe the dreams and voices were talking over again, as Silko put it. It was all more powerful when I was in those mountains, breathing that sky.
Then I started finding books. I’m always on the lookout for them. And when I travel, the hunter/gatherer instincts go into overdrive.
Mary Hunter Austin’s The Land of Journeys’ Ending won me over with its first line: This being a book of prophecy, a certain appreciation of the ritualistic approach is assumed for the reader. First published in 1924, it uses and defines the word “Aztlán.” Its map shows the region without the modern borders. It revels in geology, flora & fauna, climate, and history back to the time of what Austin calls “our Ancients.”
There’s great stuff like the story an African slave who went renegade, looking for the Seven Cities of Gold: So that is the last we see of Estevánico, going to a city of Zuñi in his fake medicine trappings, with his greyhounds and his concubines, plumes on his arms and his ankles; then confused rumor of flight and wounding.
Austin also gets quite poetic. But in New Mexico, poetry tends to radiate out of the Earth, come raining out of the sky. You can’t help it when it starts oozing out of you.
It happened to me. I put it in my blog.
And of course, this is Rudolfo Anaya country. Cruising the highway past signs advertising curanderas had me wishing I had packed a copy of Bless Me, Ultima. And one came to me. I can’t say how this happened, but in Ultima’s words:
A curandera cannot give away her secrets, but if a person really wants to know, then he will listen and see and be patient. Knowledge comes slowly --
And it comes from “the Aztec, Mayas, and even those of the old, old country, the Moors.” And you find it in New Mexico. You may see the fireballs that people call UFOs these days, but Anaya described as “brujas on their way to their meeting places.” Or the mermaid, or the golden carp . . .
It all had me feeling nostalgic for the legendary Wild West that dominated pop culture in my childhood, but is now being replaced by corporate-owned superheroes. To the video game generation it’s rapidly becoming like the mythology of a lost civilization. It needs to be documented.
And Mary Austin’s description of the cibolleros -- professional buffalo-hunters, men of mixed blood and habits, heir to that mysterious aboriginal capacity for “thinking buffalo” -- and a close encounter with some real, live buffalo had me evoking Buffalo Bill.
Then I found a paperback with Buffalo Bill’s Leap for Life on the spine. It was a reprint of the 100th issue of The Buffalo Bill Stories: A Weekly Publication Devoted to Border History. An alternate title, The White Death of Beaver Wash was given. It was packed with rip-snorting, blood ‘n’ guts action; it flirted with the supernatural and teetered on the precipice of surrealism.
And it has writing like: “There’s that Wild West wonder, Buffalo Bill, curse him!” ejaculated Brattle, with some misgiving.
The slim volume included another novella, The James Boys in California, by D.W. Stevens. The series presumes after their career as bank robbers, Jesse and Frank James devoted their lives to wandering the West, righting wrongs, like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, or the Cisco Kid and Pancho.
The prose gets flowery: “Draw your own, you yellow-faced, saffron-skinned alligator,” cried the young American, who was evidently in a high glee at the prospect of a “little fuss.”
Getting back to the Atomic Age, I found William Eastlake’s The Bronc People, a tale from the 20th century, when Indians became cowboys, that acknowledges the Hollywood western in the first sentence, then proceeds to deconstruct that myth and notions about history, race, and the American Dream.
Take the fact the Indians speak more languages than they could keep track of . . . but two of these languages they spoke poorly, so they counted them as one. English and Pueblo were the two foreign languages that counted as one.
Getting back to the Information Age, Juan Blea’s 2006 Butterfly Warrior, “a high tech thriller set in a Santa Fe seldom seen by tourists” mixes barrio angst with nanotechnology, with Aztec spirituality bubbling through: By taking the spirit of The Butterfly Warrior, we can live and die in peace knowing that ours is a just battle. It’s 21st century Chicanismo from the heart Aztlán.
And I'm delighted to report that literature is alive and kicking in New Mexico.
Now that I’m home, I’ll miss that crazy state, but I can visit it whenever I want through these books.
Ernest Hogan has recently been included in Chicanopedia, the Mexican-American Encyclopedia.