Not a Leg to Stand On: A Tale of New Mexico

I have made many trips to New Mexico over the years. I go there primarily to visit family but almost as much as that I go to visit New Mexico. The Great State of New Mexico is for the most part what some people call a “fly-over state”, that is, a state that they fly over on their way from one interesting place to another. Those people do not know what they are missing.

New Mexico is a mystical place where the common and the uncommon mix in a blend that requires sharp eyesight and attention to discern one from the other. There are cultural and spiritual forces at play that defy the expectations of the casual observer and won’t show their faces unless the observer has earned a peek by letting his or her eyes and ears do the heavy lifting and the mouth take a holiday.

The population mix in New Mexico does much to impart this rainbow aura.  To simply say ‘Anglo’, ‘Latino’, and ‘Native American’ is to woefully understate the complexity of the state’s ethnic fabric. At it’s most basic level ‘Anglo’ means white, but that would cheat the term of its richness.  More accurate would be to say that Anglo means ‘Not Latino or Native American.’  Anglos have been in New Mexico in serious numbers for the last 150 years, and they came from all corners of the nation and even of the world. The descendents of these pioneers are the leathery, sunburnt ranchers and farmers, truck stop owners and city denizens who relate more to the other long time citizens than they do to the Californians, New Yorkers, Texans, and other recent migrants from East and West and Wherever who have flocked to New Mexico to partake of it’s economic or cultural scene. The term Anglo gets one to first base in describing this group, but still leaves one a long way from home plate.

Latino is nearly as complex a term. There is much continuity with the northern Mexican culture in New Mexico with a sprinkling of Central and South American thrown in for good measure. These are recent immigrants or the children or grandchildren of such immigrants. But things stretch out longer than that. Old families can trace their lineage back to the conquistadores who brought Spanish rule and culture to the territory in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, before the United States was even a distant enlightenment dream. These folk are spread throughout the New Mexican population but can be found in greater numbers in land grant areas and in the mountainous region of northern New Mexico. A person might be working next to someone with red hair, freckles and generally pale skin who communicates with the guy next to him in the kind of Spanish that you have to be born into to speak so easily.  One might perhaps hear a trace of the ‘Cathtillian’ lilt, a linguistic leftover from many years gone by.

Native American is probably the most rich cultural mosaic to be found in the state. New Mexico is home to nineteen pueblos and all or part of three other tribal reservations, the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apaches and the easternmost portion of the Navajos. Within those groups there is plenty of diversity if one wants to look around oneself and see it. It is my family and this rich cultural stew that keeps bringing me back year after year, and I am never bored or disappointed when I am there.

The first thing that I look for when I arrive at the Albuquerque Sunport is the unusual, and it is not normally long in coming. On one visit I read a newspaper article before my brother arrived to pick me up.  A person was crossing a street one dark night and was hit and probably killed by an automobile who’s driver took off and left the victim in the road. Shortly thereafter a driver for the local newspaper was making his early morning bulk deliveries and suddenly found himself rolling over a body lying in the middle of the road. Being a sensible man and knowing that the papers had to be delivered to their distribution points on time,  and further reasoning that the body in the road was probably already dead anyway, the driver proceeded to finish his deliveries before returning to the warehouse where the police were waiting for him. His plea that the pedestrian was already dead was received by the courts with a sympathetic ear and he was released to continue his duties with the instructions that, should he run over any more dead people in the future, he should make some effort to notify authorities of the event. The driver was assured that his employer would be understanding of his late deliveries as a result of performing his civic duty.

Another story which was told to me by my brother was the time that the Navajo Tribal Council proceedings came to a screeching halt when a snake was found in the Council chambers. The Hopis might dance around with snakes and the Pueblos don’t care about them much one way or the other, but the Navajos have no time for snakes. All proceedings were held impromptu in other locations or postponed altogether until a Hataali, or healer, could come and neutralize the negative energy brought in by the snake and restore harmony to the building and the proceedings within it.  When I consider all of the snakes in my state government and at the federal level I begin to wonder if the Hataali could use a little overtime.

Native American spirituality manifests itself in many ways in New Mexico, and often catches outsiders and even insiders by surprise. My brother Brad and his wife Patricia have a liking for Native American pottery and will open their wallets for a good piece. A good piece is exactly what they found while visiting the Indian Market at the former Santo Domingo and now Kewa Pueblo. A young Navajo potter was selling his wares and a piece caught their eyes. They purchased the item and took it home, much to the annoyance of our Appalachian mother who saw no point is spending good money on such useless things. It was a short time later when they noticed that if the pot was turned ‘just so’ and the sunlight hit it at just the right angle the pattern in the glaze looked like a face.

To my brother and his wife this feature leant an additional richness to the pot and when they ran into the young potter at a fair in Gallup they eagerly told him about the face in the pot. The young potter was not as enthusiastic about the face as were my family. In fact, they said that he turned as white as it is possible for a Navajo to turn and asked them closely about the details of the face. They said that they couldn’t remember much and asked if he would like for them to bring the pot so that he could see if for himself. The potter turned a shade even paler and vigorously declined their kind offer, and then began to talk about other pots as a way of collecting himself. My sister-in-law, who taught for some time ‘on the rez’, quickly deduced that the potter was afraid that he had somehow captured a spirit in the pot at some point in it’s making and was terrified that a very ticked-off spirit would someday come to exact revenge for all of that time that it had spent on my brother’s shelf, rather than out haunting and generally pestering people or doing whatever Navajo evil spirits do. None of us have any doubts that our young Indian potter quickly found a Hataali to do a his stuff and get himself into harmony and gain whatever protection that was there to be had.

Probably my favorite story of New Mexico concerns a tour which my sister-in-law arranged for my visit one year. The state has a rich Catholic legacy and is strewn with churches built of adobe hundreds of years ago and still functioning today. Some are located in pueblos, others in tiny communities in the mountains or in the larger towns and cities like Taos and Santa Fe. Each church is sort of the same and sort of different. The tour was a circuit which began at Kewa Pueblo north of Albuquerque, then branched off the main road north of Santa Fe and wound through the mountains towards Taos, passing through places like Tesuque, Nambe, Las Trampas, Truchas, and others.  It was about early lunch time when we arrived at the mission church at Chimayo.

Chimayo is an important church in northern New Mexico. Every year during Easter season there is a pilgrimage to that church and people will walk or roll or crawl great distances to hear mass there. An additional attraction is a dry well housed in a low structure on the north side of the church proper. This dry well has no water, as the name indicates, but is rather full of red dirt. This dirt, like the waters of Lourdes in France, is reported among the faithful to have curative powers. Evidence of these powers can be seen by the appurtenances hanging on the wall that visitors once needed but need no longer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We parked in the gravel lot a short walk up a hill away from the church and the cluster of buildings which serves it. My brother, his wife and my mother and I walked slowly up that hill, partly because it is a beautiful walk but mostly because Mom was about ninety years old at the time.  Arriving at the top of the hill Brad and Patricia went to find the bathroom facilities and I navigated Mom to some benches under the tall elm trees next to the church.

We sat there resting and chatting for a bit before we were joined at the bench next to us by four Native Americans with musical instruments.  Some of the instruments were store bought many years ago and some were homemade. The group, which seemed to not notice us at all, began to tune the instruments and when they were done with that they lit bunches of grass that had been twisted together which smoldered and gave off a fragrant smoke. The group used that smoke to ritually purify themselves in a manner that could have been a thousand years old.

My mother, a country woman from Hazard, Kentucky, was baffled by this performance and asked me what they were doing. I just wanted to relish the scene but Mom, who was extremely hard of hearing (deaf as a post would not be an exaggeration) was not to be denied. “What are they doing?” she asked again in the high decibel manner of the hearing-challenged everywhere. I tried to motion with my hands for Mom to wait quietly but she was relentless.

“What are they doing?” she said again. I tried to tell her that it was part of their religion in low tones, but low tones to Mom was like trying to hear a whisper on a flight line. I turned it up a notch and told her at a volume that was disconcerting to me that it was a part of their religion. “That doesn’t look like much of a religion to me” Mom stated with all the sensitivity of a machine gun.

By this time a slow and painful death would have been preferable to my conversation with Mom and I gave an imperative hand signal which stemmed her talk, if it did nothing to mollify her scorn of the purification ceremony which continued unabated and unacknowledged as if we were no more than two flies on the church wall. Brad and Patricia soon rejoined us and we returned to our inspection of the church and grounds.

At last we entered the church and began to admire the art and architecture, and before long we became aware that people were beginning to sit down in the long wooden benches. We realized then that a mass was about to begin.  None of my family is Catholic so the procedure of a mass was completely alien to us, but we recognized, at least Brad, Patricia and I did, that an experience that we would remember for years to come was about to happen.

We saw some activity at the front of the church but I couldn’t tell you what they were doing. Soon however we could hear music coming from behind us. We turned to see where it was coming from and behold! The Native American musicians that Mom and I had seen tuning up and purifying themselves were now making their way slowly down the center aisle, playing their instruments and singing a praise or worship song; I couldn’t tell because it was in a native tongue. They made their way in a slow and stately manner, oblivious to the idiot tourists who were flashing cameras in their faces, to the front of the church. Once there they sang the mass to the four directions, which is a classic pattern of Native American spirituality. It was one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen.  My knowledge of Native American spirituality was no greater than my knowledge of Catholicism but I could see that a worship that did justice to both traditions was underway, and if the cretins with their Nikons were unaware of it, I intended to be blessed by this experience, and blessed I truly was.

After the mass we arose from our hard wooden bench, with a predictable amount of grumbling by Mom, and we made our way up front and through a low door set in the north wall. This was the door that led to the dry well mentioned previously. The well was pretty uninspiring; just a ring of adobe bricks a couple of feet high with dirt in the middle. Apart from some troublesome sinuses and ringing in my ears I’m doing all right, so I had no urge to buy any dust and give it a whirl. I figured you had to be a Catholic to have much of a chance for success anyway.

Having had our fill of the church and the well we began to work our way towards the exit. Along and upon the righthand wall of this building were hung or parked the devices which people no longer needed after the healing dust of the well had done it’s miraculous work; a wheelchair, multiple sets of crutches, slings, back braces and the like were seen in profusion as we worked our way to the door. Then, near the exit, was the piece de resistance; a prosthetic leg.

All four of us just stood there and gaped at that peach-colored plastic, leather and metal leg hanging on the wall. Even Mom stood in front of that detached mechanical limb in speechless amazement. I don’t know how long we stood there, and I don’t know if the other tourists were as dumbstruck as we were. I doubt it, as they were probably winding their cameras and missed the whole thing.

Now I suppose that most of us have turned on the television at one time or another and seen some smooth tongued televangelist waving his arms about and knocking people down over here and raising up cripples over there, and many of us have responded with a dismissive ‘uh huh.’ But how do you fake that? I suppose the fathers or brothers or whatever the churchmen call themselves could have just hung up a prosthetic leg for sport, but I didn’t get any sense of that kind of thing going on there.

After getting ourselves back together we meandered back to our car and drove to the Rancho de Chimayo restaurant, where we had a very good New Mexican lunch. All of us agreed that if we lived close enough we would attend that church until the day we all die if only to have a chance to see the next guy who hobbled in on a wooden leg and walked out whole and happy.

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