Thursday, June 10, 2021

Curse of the Burs


The budding bur
          Each morning, I take my dogs out for a walk, sometimes it’s just in the neighborhood, other times it’s on a brief road trip, driving through the old neighborhoods where my grandparents and parents built the old homestead, a few miles from the shores of the Pacific, sandwiched in between Santa Monica, Brentwood and Culver City, generally speaking, but no matter where I stop to walk the dogs, it never fails. Upon our return home, my two furry companions always have burs buried in the hair between their paws, or stuck to their hides. I even get them on my shoes.


Burs ready to attack

     If I don’t pick them out, the thorny little balls appear everywhere in the house, in rugs, socks, blankets, the couch and chairs. I mean, one under a bare foot can feel like you stepped on a piece of glass. It’s not like an epidemic, but there are enough of them to be annoying. After a while, the dogs aren’t picking up burs only outside but inside, as well.

     My girl dog, Phoebe (I plead innocent. It was a name given to her at the shelter.), something of a ragamuffin, curly, scraggily hair, picks up most of the burs. Rocky, the boy, suave, debonair, with straight, soft hair that lays so flat on him it would make an old-school pachuco jealous, doesn’t pick up many burs, but when he does, they go deep into his paws. Today, I had to go through their paws and manes to clear the field of the prickly little land mines.


Rocky and Phoebe ready to cruise

     As I picked out one bur, a fresh, hard, pointy one, I rolled it around in my fingers, just observing the thing. It wasn't the fine needles like the hair on a nopal’s tuna but deadly little spikes. It got me to thinking about something I'd read, long ago. The ones responsible.

     The thing about being a teacher, or retired teacher, is the amount of reading and research we need to do our jobs well, a lot of esoteric facts and ideas. That in itself can be a curse. You know the adage, “Too much reading (or knowledge) can be a dangerous thing.”

     Anyway, some place I read the bur wasn’t native to the Americas. I think it was the Aztecs, or some Mexican indigenous people who first began complaining about the bur, the strange little alien invading the halls of Moctezuma.

     According to lore, the bur came from Iberia, more than likely Andalucia and Extremadura, Southern Spain, home to many of Cortez’s soldiers, probably hitching a ride on saddle blankets, going back to 1519. As more Spaniards entered America’s shores, they brought along, unsuspectingly, the weeds and burs that grace our shores today. So, in some ways, I have my own Spanish ancestors to blame each time I sit and cut burs from my dogs’ paws or I step on a bur and let out a yelp.

     Then I thought about the Spanish conquistadores, descendants of Saracens and Arabs, and the Mexican charros, expert horseman, caballeros and cultural appropriation everywhere we turn We can’t discount the Arabs, right, in Southern Spain for 700 years, expelled in 1492, ironically, the same year Columbus embarked on his long journey across the sea. 700 is a long time. That's a lot of mixed breeding, biological and cultural.

     It was the Arab who brought the horse, the guitar, mathematics, poetry, and education to Iberia, one of the oldest universities in Europe founded in Granada, in the 13th century. Without Arab culture, we wouldn’t have words like Guadalajara, azucar, alberca, hola, ojala, and so many others, some words crossing over into English.

     The Arab-Spanish-Indian-Mexican cowboy took his place in history way before the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown donned chaps, boots, spurs, horses and transformed into mythic western cowboys.

     Around the world, today, you mention “cowboy,” someone in Africa thinks of John Wayne and Dale Evans, not Pedro Armendarez and Lola Beltran. Sure, I know, none of them are real cowboys or cowgirls but entertainers, actors and singers, but, in the eyes of the world, they are representations of the old west, Hollywood-manufactured cowboy myth, not the true cowboy of history.     

     The cowboy might just be one of the most culturally appropriated characters in history. All those descendants of German, Welsh, and Irish immigrant farmers who settled the U.S. southern states on into Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Montana, and Wyoming, you know them, the ones who, today, wear cowboy hats and boots, yell, "Yahoo!" and can’t wait for the next brand of Levis to appear on the market, the ones whose ancestors rode the Santa Fe Trail but whose history books give no mention to the Indians and Mexicans who made the trek before them, the real caballeros and charros, those who introduced the horse, saddle, leather goods, and the cattle-drive to the Americas.

     I’d go so far as to bet most kids today think the American cowboy is a product of Anglo Western culture and the American Southwestern states were always part of the U.S. The western cowboy hat and boots are iconic in the U.S., along with the horse and the saddle. You think most U.S. kids, or young adults, know the real history of the cowboy? That without Spain, Mexico, and Arabia there would be no Mexico, no U.S., no cowboy, no guitar, no horse, no boots, no wide-brimmed hats, no CMA, Country Music Awards, every year.

     People like Willie, Waylon, Dwight Yokum, and the Texas Tornadoes (or the survivors) know. They’ve talked about Spanish-Mexican influence in country music, especially Texas’ brand, but it goes back even further.


     Recently reading Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lora’s short book “In Search of Duende,” I was struck by how much the West owes the East, Arabia and India, especially in music. Lorca describe the Cante Jondo, the “Deep Song” of the gypsy, particularly the siguiriya, as a near-mystical experience, beyond words.

     Then, I listened closely, and I heard it in the voice of Juan Gabriel, Shakira, the gritos of the mariachis, and even the longing wails of singers like Randy Travis, Roy Orbison, Chris Issac, and Loretta Lynn. It also infused the voices of Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo, the gypsy crying into the night, the strains of a guitar, its dissonant sounds whistling like a warm breeze, inexplicable, all feel, no thought, and, I think, culture is not “one.” It is collective, and to reject one part, I once heard someone say, is to reject a part of yourself, like cutting off an arm or a leg.

    Ah, but as the poet said, “I digress.” It’s time to remove the final bur from Phoebe’s mane, gracias a dios.

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