THE LAST STORY
One winter was enough to bore a hole in my dirt roof. Then my walls began to dissolve a little more every year until almost two centuries after that first trickle I am no longer a church, or even the ruins of one. I am only a wall, a fragment of disappearing memory, like a last tooth in the silent jaws of my builders who lie buried under my floor.
But if you look closely you will see that patches of layered plaster still cling to me, each one a season in my history, a page in my story. Those layers were applied by human hands whose bones I tenderly cover now, returning their love. Just as they once sustained me, now I shelter them under my melted flesh.
You can see their fingerprints in my plaster, proof of how much they loved me. Come closer! See how this coat is a different color? I smell like mushrooms and moist dust, don’t I?
Feel how smooth I am, and how my paper-thin layer of micaceous orange clay looks like copper? It comes from that canyon, west of that cedar tree by about two fingers. The women of this village used to walk all the way to that canyon and carry it back, two comadres to a bucket, and decorate me and their houses with this clay.
We lived, the houses and I, we were born from the breathing earth, we were the membrane that united the village with nature and each other in interpenetrating cycles. Through us they molded a relationship with the seasons. They built us and we embraced them with graceful warmth while blizzards screamed across the frozen desert, we sheltered them from the summer glare, and in the sweet spring they repaired and re-plastered us in gratitude.
The winter storytelling sank into our bodies, we absorbed the harvest gossip, drank the cries of the newborn, the bendiciones and maldeciones of the dying and the living are stored in our walls. We are the witness. We remember their voices. Everything that was said and not said, the anger, the joy, the suffering and the prayers - we hold it - it is imbedded in us.
We are the only shape of their history that survives, the reliquary of their traditions, the evidence of their sense of themselves as a people, the people of a village with a name, even if only a place in the unmapped wilderness, with a crumbling church whose copper alis you can touch with your finger. Feel how slippery it is?
Let your fingers become eyes and ears. Hear that? Those are the enjarradoras, laughing and giggling. They called them golondrinas after the flocks of chirping swallows that build their mud nests on the walls of the canyons. That’s exactly what they sound like, isn’t it?
Not only did we shelter and keep them safe from the violence of nature, but we united them – especially me. Oh yes, people worked on each other’s houses – but everybody worked on me, the church. The men became zoqueteros, they hauled dirt and mixed it in great, shallow boats in bursts of intense labor. Then they would rest, keep the enjarradoras supplied with mud, and move the scaffolding. The women became cocineras and enjarradoras, the first filled the air with the aroma of food, the second with their ribald jokes and laughter, safe from censure high on the scaffolding, gossiping like birds.
They lovingly stroked me with wet plaster that felt to them like the sweet flesh of their children. It felt so good! Lay you palm flat on me, let your hand remember these fingerprints because they will be gone after the next spring rains. Don’t go!
Wait – let me tell you how they soaked that coarse orange clay until a layer of slippery, liquid copper rose to the surface like glittering cream on rich, red milk. Then they blotted that lovely color onto my walls with sheepskins. They would admire their work, comment on the way the light caught the soft undulations in my hand-made walls, how I shone like amber satin.
For a long time after they left I used to talk to the empty houses.
But one by one their vigas sagged, their walls dissolved, and they began forgetting, getting the stories mixed up or leaving out parts. Annoying as that was at least it was something. Now they are all nothing but shallow mounds, scraps of long-ago lived stories imbedded in them, a rotting piece of cloth, a rusted frying pan with a hole in the bottom, the shard of a mirror that once reflected living faces. Now there are no voices at all, only the wind blowing, the deep, smothering silence of snow, or the rain pelting my flesh back into the earth from which I was raised.
I can’t remember how long it’s been since all I had were my memories. But even they are leaving me. I have almost forgotten the words to the alobados, the Latin responses of the mass, even the rosary.
My santos are long gone, San Antonio, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, San Miguel and Jesus Crucificado. And gone with the santos are the women who gave their hair to the santeros, changed their clothes, and draped them in purple for Lent, swept my floor, and kept me standing with their annual re-plastering. Oh, you should have seen the processions, the flowers, the candles! On feast days you could feel the heat there were so many candles. Can you smell the wax?
Here comes that hawk. He always perches on me, because from here we can both see far, although not so far as when I still had my modest steeple. But he never says anything. He is only looking for something to eat, and when I ask him if he has seen any sign of my people coming back he is irritable, and snaps “No! And you always ask the same thing.”
Yes, it’s true. And I asked his father and his grandfather the same thing. I have been watching the horizon for generations of hawks.
I tell myself, “It will begin with a dot in the landscape exactly where I watched them vanish so long ago, that precise spot I know in every season and time of day. It will not escape me. That dot that will grow larger gradually, until at last I will hear them urging the oxen on, “!Andale! !Haaaa! !Dale!”
November 6, 2016
I decided to give this talk at the tail end of the Mabel Dodge Lujan show.
Since then current events have escalated to the point that it’s been hard to keep my mind on Mabel. Anxiety is surging through the collective like a psychic tsunami. You can feel it in the air. The election, Standing Rock, the looming urgency of climate change. At the very moment when we most need to stand together to meet these challenges racism is dividing our country.
So who cares about Mabel? We already know everything there is to know about her anyway, down to the most intimate details of her life. Everybody knows she was an “American type,” that she lived a classical fantasy of her time. It isn’t news that her privilege allowed her to indulge the yearning for the very thing her class and country were destroying. Some call it imperialist nostalgia, the longing to possess what “progress” is making disappear.
It just so happens that the stage she helped make famous is my home town. I said stage, I meant just that. Taos, on the surface, became the background for a fantasy that morphed into our bread and butter. We became a stage set against which newcomers to our old plaza acted out the subjective experience of what it is like to be Anglo in this exotic, picturesque, colorful town. Those of us who literally built the stage set became part of the background for the carefully choreographed tourist experience.
Our stage set is now a cliché - the tri-cultural myth, the art colony, the pueblo, the Ranchos church, Indian dances, adobe architecture, mariachis, santos, katchina dolls and ethnic food have become marketable commodities. We became a poster child for the colonization of the arts.
Between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation there is a fine, permeable, moving line. It isn’t easy to pick your way with integrity and consciousness along this boundary. But the issue is emerging into the national dialogue. Taos is a microcosm of the evolving experiment in cultural diversity that is the real America. This is where we live, and it is on this ground where each one of us will personally be part of the problem or part of the solution. Diversity in itself is rich, exciting, beautiful and contributes to the quality of life, to progress and development and invention. But when there is injustice in diversity, when the distribution of power is unequal, cultural exchange becomes oppression of the weaker side.
To contribute to the growing sensitivity about colonization and appropriation of the arts I dressed for the occasion. Fashion is a field where this issue is beginning to manifest.
I wore this guatemalteco huipil that I bought for a few quetzals in the mercado of Guatemala City in the late 70’s. I will never know the name of the woman who wove this, I will never know how many hours she spent making it. I will never understand what these designs mean, what story they tell, I only know that it identifies her village. We didn’t really know at the time what the CIA-backed death squads were doing with our tax dollars in Guatemala. I found out in a horrible way. Under the mattress in my pension I found a sheet of newsprint with pictures of the tortured bodies of Maya men. Someone was trying to let the world know.
I can’t wear this huipil without wondering if the weaver is alive, or if hers was one of those villages wiped out with unspeakable cruelty and violence. Were those men whose mutilated bodies I saw one of her relatives? Women were killed for wearing huipiles that came from villages who resisted United Fruit’s takeover of indigenous land. That story was not in the tourist brochure.
The local tri-ethnic myth and the American Dream were not written by Native, Hispanic or Black people either. The official version of our history was and is being written by the dominant culture. But the distortions and lies of the media can no longer be hidden, and Standing Rock, Baltimore and the election have unmasked the racism that has always divided our country into different worlds.
We know now. Cell phones and social media have revealed the truth about the lives of people of color in our country. Live feeds from Standing Rock are going all over the world. White people are beginning to see what “others” have been living with all along. On a local level, our little town is beginning to have the same conversation. And I welcome and support it. I have been waiting a long time.
I have to say, that among all the arts organizations in Taos there is one that has done more than any other to stimulate and nourish this healthy and long over-due conversation. I compliment the Harwood for their contribution toward an authentic understanding of our complex history. The dismantling of unhealthy paradigms is painful, but it is a prerequisite for the building of a new one.
The SMU-UNM lectures at the Harwood, in my opinion, are not only fascinatingly interesting but they are making a solid contribution toward the well-being of this community. We can no longer afford, as a nation or a town, to ignore the voices of “other” cultures and races. The fantasy image of my town is being de-constructed by a new generation of scholars who are telling the story from the other side. The Harwood is providing the space for this to happen.
To ignore is to be willfully ignorant. And ignorance is a serious threat to the stability of our country. When the information is available ignorance is a choice. These lectures are online at taoslectures.com. If nothing else, take that home with you tonight – and listen to these lectures.
The Taos I grew up in consisted of parallel universes that did not mix socially, who occupied the same geographical space but were worlds apart. We did not go to the same places, belong to the same organizations, attend the same events, speak the same languages, and we had distinctly different lifestyles, belief systems and historical experiences. Every major historical event in our long history has a different version. If you think about it, we even live in different landscapes. Every mountain, river and landmark has a name in a different language, a different story. Taos is a segregated town, divided by a bloody and violent history that has left historical trauma in its wake.
I understand perfectly why the Pueblos guard their religious privacy, and they are smart to do so. Tourism is commercialized “otherness.” Where there is an imbalance of power and unequal control tourism reduces everything to market value, evaluates even the sacred in terms of what it can be used for, how it can be incorporated, developed, imitated, how it can inspire, decorate, be painted, written about, collected – in short, be consumed. When the dominant culture uses the word “culture” it means somebody else’s. And culture is a commodity.
Here is a story from the other side, a story about the santos or the Hispanic religious art of New Mexico.
Mary Austin, Millicent Rogers and Mabel were avid collectors of santos. They helped launch an effort to “save” the Native and Spanish arts, they set standards for “authenticity” and opened a lucrative market for the santos.
I was not only given permission but commanded to tell this story by Alberto Duran, long since deceased, a Penitente and a member of the morada of Arroyo Seco. He wanted me to tell everybody that a certain famous collector broke into their morada one night and stole their santos, and then came back the next night for the doors. That collection is now worth millions and is in a Santa Fe museum. That collector is a recognized “expert” on the santos.
Here comes another story:
The Taylor Museum in Colorado Springs also owns a huge collection of santos, and when I was working on the restoration of a life-sized chapel from Talpa installed in said museum, my daughter Shemai and I asked to see the collection. I wanted to make some sketches, and so we were time-locked downstairs in the temperature and humidity controlled environment for an hour.
There were hundreds of them, 3 – 4 deep on the shelves, they were beautiful! Life-sized Cristos crucificados, Cristos sepultados, bultos, retablos, matracas, carretas de la muerte. Some of them I had seen, probably in the moradas and santuarios where my father took me as a child. Hundreds of sacred objects, full of generations of prayers and tears made the room throb with power. I couldn’t draw, only scribble a few words.
I recently asked Shemai again what it had been like, and she said, “It was like being in a nuclear reactor. It was as if they were angry.”
I sifted through piles of old notebooks, and found this:
“We are locked down here in the dark where no one changes our clothes, no one lights candles or brings flowers. We hear nothing, only silence. No masses, no alobados or rosaries are chanted, we are not carried out in procession to bless the acequias in spring or to give thanks for the harvests. We do not witness to the burying of the dead, the baptisms or marriages of the living. We are locked down here in the dark far from our people. We cannot hear their prayers. We cannot help them!”
When a people’s arts - especially sacred objects – are degraded, stolen or coopted it is experienced as an invasion of the heart. Colonization of the arts is an intrusion of the last bastion of privacy – the conquest of inner spiritual territory.
The same objects, outside the context of the originating culture, are meaningless, inanimate and mute. Like this huipil. When cultural property is appropriated, let alone destroyed, by outsiders - it is a desecration. Artistic appropriation is part of the historical trauma of all conquered people. If you see the market flooded with a new ethnic style, objects or fad and you trace it back to its origin, you will probably find a gross injustice.
Those santos are safe in that basement, and obviously they were not safe in the santuarios, the churches and moradas where they came from. Even those buildings are barely kept standing by communities under tremendous economic pressure. Even if you are not Hispanic, a Catholic or a Penitente - can you empathize with our grief? Can you see the racism and insensitivity implicit in the story of our santos?
Can you see the racism implicit in the way Morton County Police and the National Guard treated the sacred object of the water protectors at Standing Rock? When their camp was raided and destroyed, when they were dragged out of sweat lodges, sprayed with mace, beaten with batons and arrested, sacred objects that had been passed on for hundreds of years were desecrated, crushed and broken. With all their possessions, eagle feathers also full of generations of tears and prayers were dumped by the roadside in a pile. This is the reality behind the stage set of the American Dream and has been since the beginning.
Mabel would have supported Standing Rock, but she would not have supported Tijerina or the return of the confiscated land grants.
Mabel’s contempt for the “sad and sorry lot” she called Spanish people was the overall attitude in the United States at the time. Willa Cather, part of her entourage, was virulently racist. And others in the community of intellectuals, writers and artists she helped plant here reflected the national atmosphere following the Mexican-American war. Her idealization of Native culture and her contempt for Hispanic culture show that racism can be selective. Or perhaps the idealization of another race is just another form of racism, since idealizing someone is also a way of depriving them of their authenticity, of stereotyping them. The myth of the Noble Savage pervaded her time, it was part of her “imperialist nostalgia.”
One of the good things Mabel did was support the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo. I totally supported that and Native rights in general. But power and privilege can make a lot of waves that are beneath the radar of those who make them. The impact Mabel and all she brought with her has had on Hispanics and Natives is an untold story.
According to my memory the relationship between the town and the Pueblo changed in my lifetime and Mabel’s. My father and one of my aunts were one of many Hispanics in their generation who spoke Tiwa. I have asked people from the village if Daddy could really talk and they have said he was pretty good. Men his age at the Pueblo also spoke Spanish. True, English was becoming the lengua franca of Taos by force, and we children were punished for speaking it at school. But adults and especially older people were often tri-lingual.
We used to spend time at the summer home of one of my father’s best friends above Taos Pueblo, and I don’t think my family was that unusual. But I do remember people saying things like, “Anglos like Indians better than Mexicans.” The Anglo championship for the return of Blue Lake contrasted with the Anglo indifference (and profit from) the loss of Hispanic land. This was not on Mabel’s radar, but it was not lost on Hispanics. A fragile, tentative relationship between the Pueblo and the town was affected. And although I don’t know the stories, in a community as small as Taos Pueblo, Mabel’s impact also had to have an effect. She had no friends or protégées among local people other than Tony.
In this context it’s easy to see why the Mabel Exhibit didn’t arouse much interest or participation among Native or Hispanic Taoseños. There is a growing awareness of the conspicuous absence of Hispanic participation in general in the local art community. I wonder how different things would be if Mabel had been as interested in Hispanic people and culture as she was in Indians. I am bemused by the power of Mabel’s eye – of the imperialist eye. She had the power to confer invisibility.
Mabel and Americanos rode into Taos on the Calvary of Manifest Destiny – it was a military conquest. By the time Mabel got here 80% of the land base that supported Spanish culture had already been lost, transforming what is still the majority of the population into landless cheap labor. The loss of the land grants did not arouse Mabel’s sympathy or that of the many refugees from Western Civilization that came in her wake. The rationale being that we stole it from the Indians anyway.
Besides, as one Anglo said to me, “Well, you weren’t DOING anything with it.” (Is this the same ideology that justifies putting a pipeline under the water supply of 18 million people?) In violation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo, signed in 1847 with Mexico, the new government confiscated all commonly held lands (a concept antagonistic to capitalism) converted them into Kit Carson National Forest and BLM land, and today the government is the biggest landowner in New Mexico. We are in effect a colony of the United States.
But now we are wondering if the land all over the planet is effectively owned by corporations, and we are worried what they will DO with it.
The evils of racism, poverty, addiction, suicide, crime, unemployment, poor health, high infant mortality, on and on. New Mexico has some of the worst statistics in the country. This is the reality behind the tri-cultural myth, the real world behind the stage set.
But the same conditions are becoming the reality increasingly visible behind the deteriorating stage set of the American Dream. The white working and x-middle class are furious that they must now live in conditions once reserved for people of color. Increasingly we are in the same boat.
A story; Years ago I gave a workshop on racism in Taos for women. I persuaded, bullied and begged Hispanic and Native friends and relatives to come and share their personal experiences of racism. Lots of Anglo women came. The 5 women of color sat in a tight circle in the center of the room, and I asked Anglos to sit on the outside and listen. I asked them not to interrupt. I did this because I knew my friends and relatives came from cultures where women are not necessarily used to speaking up, that language differences and accents might make them feel intimidated and that besides, this is a very hard thing to talk about.
Several Anglo women walked out immediately, insulted.
30 years later one of them apologized to me and said that now, after living all that time in Taos, she understands. And here I am still trying to make people realize that racism even exists.
But I don’t have 30 more years. And none of us do. If we wait another 30 years to address the core moral issues in this country, we will descend into chaos, violence and massive planetary destruction.
Mabel, her selective racism, and the impact it had on my hometown and the frightening racial divide in the whole country are part of the same story. It’s our story. If you are alive now at this moment in history it’s because you have a part to play in this story. You were born for this.
Well, now that everybody is depressed and uncomfortable and doesn’t know what to do – let me tell you that for the first time among the probably hundreds of talks I have given, I can end on a positive note.
I can say “Standing Rock.” Those words have power, don’t they? “Water is Life.” No long dissertations on climate change, imperialism and racism – “Water is Life.” Those words transcend race, class and species. “Water is Life.”
The indigenous-led global environmental movement has begun, and I am thankful I have lived long enough to see the power of non-violence and spiritual power reveal itself. I believe this is our last chance. Those who have suffered the longest from racism on this continent, it turns out, are the only ones who figured out how to unite us – “Water is Life.” And they are demonstrating the power of non-violence, of spiritual power.
This has never happened before, and it has inspired millions, it is powerful and important and we are part of this story.
They need our support, because if the flame lit at Standing Rock goes out, darkness, literally, will cover our world. We can’t let that happen. This is our country. The whole world is watching Standing Rock, hoping, praying for that flame.
If you can go, go. If you can’t - give money – every penny we collect tonight will go to the Standing Rock Defense Fund.
But that’s not all you can do. In another, actually more powerful and deeper way, you can contribute to the spiritual, heart-deep change that has to happen. It’s going to take personal soul-searching to heal the deepest wounds in our country. This generation didn’t invent racism, but we swim in it like fished do water. Join the Racism Dialogues, become an effective, educated ally in the struggle to bring us together. Don’t walk out on your sisters and brothers of color, but listen to our stories.
We have to stand together. We are opposing the most powerful entities on the planet, and all we have is numbers.