“The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages … the rude, fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him.” Theodore Roosevelt, The winning of the West, 1889 CE It was after dusk when Teddy came for us. His breath was thick and wet as it swept through the forest. Not even the coquis dared to chirp with him there, rummaging in the brush. I can still remember the wails of the trees as he flayed their barks, as he dismembered them limb by limb.
I was huddled with my family when his tongues slithered through cracks in our zinc roof, bored holes in the tarp that we hoped would shield us. Someone screamed when the roof caved in, splintered under the weight of a fallen yabisi. Its pale trunk cracked like bone beneath his invisible fist. Then, Teddy descended, jaws bared, his saliva oozing down on us in wicked rivulets.
Hands clasped, we pleaded to our creator for quick deaths. But death never came. Instead, as if our cemís had heard our prayers, Teddy’s voice caught in his throat. Silence. It was as if the engine of the cosmos had suddenly shuttered its industry, giving way to quiet entropy. And that’s when I remembered what the Gobernadora had said on the radio the night before, her warning not to trust the stillness. “No habrá paz en medio de la tormenta.”
When it was so quiet that I could hear my heart drumming in my ears, I clambered out of the wreckage. My sisters cursed at me for my foolishness, but soon they followed, curious. Where the roof had collapsed, bleached bark and serrated metal parted like the petals of a hideous flower to reveal him, grinning and gordo in the pallid sky. Below, the jungle had withered to a tangle of brown, as if his breath curled with unseen flame. A coconut palm whined and crashed. Its death echoed over the mountains, twisting into something that reminded me of laughter. I lifted my gaze to the sky to search for the face of the Taíno deity that legends say takes the shape of a storm, arms curling like serpents to set the clouds into a devastating spiral. Jurakán.
Teddy was the twentieth of twenty-two names randomly assigned for that year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But I like to think that he was named after the Teddy, the American conquistador, the last to lay claim to this little jewel in the Caribbean I call home. How fitting that he should be the one to usher in the end of American dominion here. Perhaps we should be grateful. Some pray that our new masters will be better caretakers of our land, but we jíbaros have our doubts.
I regret not taking Mandarin at university as we sift through the packages our new rulers airdrop for us. Bags of rice. Insulin. Antibiotics. Distilled water. Bioprinted protein powder. Will the Chinese be more sympathetic than their American or Spanish predecessors? They are not strangers to our suffering. They must remember when their people were sent here as laborers to work in the factories, that last ditch effort to save Spain’s crumbling empire with industry. Or when the Americans’ Chinese Exclusion Act uprooted thousands from their communities, leaving them few refuges other than our colonial backwater. What an irony that the ones the Spanish and the Americans spat on and called coolies ended up as our new landlords.
The US sold us off like a bad investment. But on the radio they said that the Americans were on the verge of bankruptcy, that the Chinese seized Puerto Rico as collateral for unpaid debts. The price for defaulting on too many climate loans. I applaud the Chinese for banking on our collective apathy to curb emissions to win out in the end. With this International Climate Bank, they hold all the cards now. Financing natural disaster recovery efforts. Cementing their global influence by sowing debt. Before Teddy, the talking heads said that their President should get it over with and declare himself Emperor. Emperor of what, I wonder? After COVID-19, Androvirus, the gigafires and heat domes, the Thwaites Ice Shelf and Teddy, who wants to rule a world that is half-underwater and half-scorched to a dustbowl?
After Teddy, I had to teach myself not to care about what happens beyond my shores, even if that is what I spent my life preparing to do. I ignore what I hear about the Yucatán, parched by chemical weapons into a desert by the madman elected to care for it. I ignore accounts of drones slaughtering civilians branded as ‘apostates’ in Siberia for opposing the Tsarina’s theocratic regime. I ignore the latest updates on this Sino-American cold war with many fronts, fought by many proxies. It feels silly, my dream of being a journalist, that noble reporter who covered these last days of ‘civilization.’ Teddy had other plans for me. Now I’m here in the mountains, weaving solar nets with my sisters.
“It’s like when I used to braid your hair, Vero,” my little sister Yuíza says, showing me how to entwine kapok fibers, strands of blue tarp, cables, copper filaments, bulbs and glittering fragments of solar panels. She hands me a basket of materials. Her dimples are little caverns that deepen with delight. Yuíza. Ever the optimist.
I set the basket on top of a ladder and begin to thread a mesh of fibers through the boughs of a gnarled fig tree. “Remember when I did your hair for your Quinceñeara?”
Anacaona bursts into laughter behind me. My elder twin, the serious one. Even she cracks at the memory. “How could anyone forget?”
Our mother was running late that day, like always. Deciding that the fifteen kilograms of arroz con gandules she had prepared wouldn’t be enough to feed the dozen people she was expecting, she went to the market at the last minute for more pork, plantains, breadfruit and God knows what else. Anacaona, our mother’s shadow, was recruited for the shopping trip, leaving Yuíza and I behind. What was I to do? The princesa needed to be ready for her big moment. I did what I could, which admittedly was far from adequate. I’ll never forget Mami’s screams of disgust upon her return, how she wrenched the comb from my hands as if it were a murder weapon. The arcane arts of the feminine have always eluded me.
“On second thought, maybe you can help Dagüao with the breakers,” Yuíza says gently, her black curls falling over her face as she peers down at me from a rooftop.
“It’s coming along.” Anacaona gestures toward the forest, eyes alight with pride as she repositions her ladder.
I help Dagüao with the labyrinth of switches and breakers he built behind the cancha, the ballcourt that has become our unofficial town square. He’s another genius like Yuíza. Which explains why they’ve been best friends since they could crawl. I remove a rusted screw and grab a cable to attach to the open switch when I catch an expression of alarm in Dagüao’s green eyes.
-Not that!- he signs, the pads of his index and middle fingers clamping to that of his thumb.
I make a circle with my fist over my heart to reply. -Sorry.-
Dagüao passes me the end of another cable wrapped around his shoulder. I socket it into place and retighten the screws. Dagüao grins with approval, tucking his black hair into an elastic tie. In his delicate smile lines and sharp cheekbones, I can see the ghost of his father’s face, an artisan and mechanic from Ponce who moved to our mountains to build a new life with others who could communicate in his language. Teddy took too many of us.
When you’re raised in the campo, hearing or not, you learn to sign if you want to understand what’s going on. In primary school we learned a bit of ASL. But our neighbors speak a regional dialect of their own, sometimes specific to families. Communication is not the most straightforward up here, but you get used to it — you have to. We hearing people regularly switch from Spanish to English to Spanglish to ASL and LSPR and ASLPRish and that resurrected Island Arawak that youth learn at summer camp.
Dagüao riffles through a shipping container filled with useful scrap, searching for solar batteries to attach to his contraption. I follow him with discarded cable shielding and copper thread and drop them into bins that he has meticulously labeled to keep our salvage organized.
In the months since Teddy, we became scavengers to survive. They don’t tell you that the aftermath of the storm is the worst part. They don’t tell you about the despairing nights, praying for help that never comes. About digging mass graves to bury the dead under the smog-choked skies of diesel generators. In the end, we endured as we always have. Like the petroglyphs of frogs and birds etched in boulders along our rivers. We endured. From the debris of our towns, we created this yucayeke, this mountain sanctuary that has served many generations of our ancestors, going back to those daring Taíno and Yoruba that settled here, to escape the reach of the Spanish crown that enslaved them.
But with our kerosene supply dwindling, we had to find a new way to keep the lights on. Even though Teddy’s Category 6 winds shattered most of the island’s solar panels, Yuíza schemed a way to remake the debris into something that might save us. For all that our isla lacks, we have sunshine in abundance. So we weave the reflective shards of solar panels with kapok fibers from our sacred ceiba trees. We stitch circuits into a meshwork that we drape over the branches. We make solar microgrids with life’s stringy filaments. We call them our nasa -- an Arawak word for the nets that our ancestors used to catch fish in our seas and rivers, when they were still teeming with life.
“Y la música?” Anacaona descends from the ladder, the glossy twists of her hair swaying past her hips. She crosses her arms, her broad shoulders and tall stature instantly commanding respect. “It’s too quiet.”
At her bidding, Don Brizuela wheels onto the scene, followed by his grandchildren, Alonsito and Enriquillo. They carry maracas, guiros, panderetas, and his twelve-stringed pride and joy, a cautro he named India Encantada, to honor his late wife. The children guide him onto the raised catwalk we built for him to get around the village, but he has already mastered the makeshift ramps.
“How about something more retro than Bad Bunny?” He chuckles beneath his threadbare sombrero. The band strikes up an old folk song called “Espérame En El Cielo.”
“Wait for me in heaven, my love, If you are the first of us to go, Wait for me, because soon, I will come, To where you are, beyond the sky. Between bales of cloud as soft as cotton. Where we will live again.”
Dagüao notices the tears in my eyes. His hands stack and then part like a square, lips curling to mirror my sorrow. -Sad?- I feign laughter as I sign, -Estoy bien.-
I tell him I’m fine but I’m not. None of us are. I pretend as I have every day since that wall of mud buried our house with Mami, Papi, and Abuela Serafína inside, the day we became orphans and my dreams for the future were washed away. The day our community’s survivors turned to us, the children of their deceased pastor, for leadership.
Anacaona’s nails gently scratch my shoulder. She has never been the sentimental type, but I recognize this warm gesture. She always knows what I’m feeling. It’s a twin power, our grandfather used to say. “Ready?”
Yuíza and Dagüao huddle in anticipation, eager to see if their mad science experiment will end in disaster or triumph. -Turn on the lights- they sign in unison. They look like magicians pulling rabbits out of hats.
We grab the ignition cord together, and the generator sputters to life.
The forest flickers. Like neon spiderwebs woven across the canopy, our solar nets activate. It’s as if a thousand fireflies are frozen in amber above our yucayeke, their light softening everything as dusk falls. The cheers are hesitant at first, skeptical even. But after a minute or so of uninterrupted power, I jump up to hug Anacaona, shouting in that excited way I used to when we were kids. Don Brizuela is drumming his pandereta. Dagüao kisses Yuíza. Alcimar stares up in disbelief, removing his cap. The children clap and cheer and some of them run to their tents to fetch tablets to charge, followed closely by the stray dogs that have become their protectors. Grateful to be able to read his book late into the evening, Don Mateo drops into his hammock. Doña Marta switches on the electric grill, her daughter already prepping iguana kebabs and toasted casabe for the celebration.
Anacaona tosses me one of our last medallas. I snap open the can with care, as if handling a prized vintage. Teddy taught me not to take small pleasures for granted. “Salud!” I say to her, raising my can to hers. Her eyes sparkle as we tip our cans to our lips. The drink is still sweet well after expiry.
“For the yucayeke!” She twirls in a circle with her can raised.
“I thought you didn’t like calling it that.”
“This isn’t Taíno summer camp, Vero. But I think grandfather would be proud of what we’ve built here. The nasa, the yucayeke.”
I take a swig from my can. “Oh, Abuelo Abey! I’m sure he’s looking up at us from hell right now. Yeah, that’s what you get for worshipping idols!” I shout, mimicking my mother’s angry exchanges with her eccentric father.
Anacaona chuckles and crushes her empty can. “Mami was too harsh on him. Never forgave him for naming me and hermanita after old Taíno chiefs.”
I grab Anacaona’s empty as I finish my own and toss them in the salvage bin. “I think she believed in that stuff once.” Our mother never stopped me from visiting Abuelo Abey’s bohio, where he showed me the striking faces of the elder gods etched in stone. I remember being frightened by their cavernous eyes, like the orbital sockets of skulls. “It unsettled her … the possibility that her God was only one of many.”
Anacaona scoffed. “Meanwhile our father and his mother were doing Santería in our basement. She let that slide. As long as they have the names of saints.” Anacaona searches the crowd, spotting Dagüao and Yuíza approaching from the grill. The smell that precedes them is smoky and delicious.
“Los pinchos están listos!” Yuíza passes me a stick of charred, greasy meat.
Dagüao smiles as his clenched fist drums his open palm. -Buen provecho.-
I nod gratefully, then devour Doña Marta’s famous pincho. As dusk falls on the mountains and the frogs begin to sing, we drink and feast on iguana kebabs, breadfruit fritters, and crumbly casabe. There is laughter. The children are playing gallitos in the cancha. They giggle and cheer as they toss algarroba seeds threaded through string.
For a moment I allow this contagion of hope to lift me up. Somehow we always find joy, even when everything is taken from us. Even when we live in rubble and so many of us have vanished. For a moment, all I can feel is the love and warmth radiating from the faces of my community. And then I remember the shadow that looms over it all.
As the night deepens, as the people drink and grow bolder, their joy will sour. Even after this miracle we built for them, they’ll whisper and jeer. They’ll laugh and point behind my back. Because they know who I was. And they hate this new me. Just like Mami and Papi. I feel it in my bones.
But tonight I am spared. One by one, every phone, tablet, and computer lights up. An SOS on the emergency alert system. Another crisis. Another opportunity to make a difference. They’ll be too busy needing me to judge.
E.G. Condé (he/him/Él) is a queer diasporic Boricua writer of speculative fiction. Condé is one of the creators of “Taínofuturism,” an emerging artistic genre that imagines a future of Indigenous renewal and decolonial liberation for Borikén (Puerto Rico) and the archipelagos of the Caribbean. His short fiction appears in Anthropology & Humanism, If There’s Anyone Left, Reckoning, EASST Review, Tree & Stone Literary Magazine, Sword & Sorcery, Solarpunk Magazine, and FABLE: An Anthology of Sci-Fi, Horror & The Supernatural. He is also an anthropologist of technology and digital sustainability advocate (as Steven Gonzalez Monserrate). When he isn’t conjuring up faraway universes, you might find him hiking through sand dunes or playing 2D JRPGs from the 1990s. Follow his writing at www.egconde.com or on social media via @CloudAnthro on Twitter.
Sordidez and Answers of Tainofuturism by Scott Russell Duncan
I hadn’t heard the word Tainofuturism until I attended a reading by E.G. Condé where he read the first chapter of the upcoming Sordidez. I was amazed. It told of a near future Boricua community turning to renewable technology and a renewed Taino culture to survive a disaster, a hurricane aptly named Teddy after the colonizing US president. I loved hearing about the homemade solar panels called nasa, an Arawak word for nets.
I had to read the novel and know what else Tainofuturism had to offer. I’ve read other kinds of native futurisms and have tried to help Chicanofuturism along. (Shameless Scott-futurist plug: buy all the copies of El Porvenir, ¡Ya!, submit to the Chicanofuturism anthology, look for my upcoming book Old California Strikes Back and, finally, my speculative collection in progress Mexpocalyptic Tales.)
I know that for colonized people tangling with the future raises many questions.
Anyone interested in what questions futurism can answer should read Sordidez. (There is even a glossary with Taino, Arawak, and Mayan words in the back). Condé describes people turning their indigenous roots and land and refining the world and seeking to bring it back with clean technology and inter-reliance. Sordidez is a good example for Chicanofuturism with which to seek connection and solidarity.
Sordidez or sordidness, is a reference to the people with memory loss from a weaponized virus during an ugly civil war. The dirty past we are tasked to deal with as the descendants of ancestors who fought and died against other ancestors who would better be called war criminals. Boricuas, like Chicanos, are the survivors of two colonial efforts and survival often means imposed or chosen sordid choices: we lose ourselves, our language, our singular voice, our history. We deal with the culture of survival and having only pieces of ourselves. How do we deal with the trauma, how do we find ourselves whole again as the word Tainofuturism promises with a future that includes native people and outlook?
Sordidez opens in the future with the character Vero who becomes the leader of a small community hanging on in a post-climate and war apocalyptic near future Puerto Rico. Rebuilding the community is inspired by the resurfacing of Tainismo to resist occupation after Puerto Rico is being sold off to China by the USA for past debts. People scavenge from abandoned mansions left by rich Americans and use native language Windtalker-style. After losses in the conflict, the main character Vero believes transphobia will prevent him from ever being truly accepted and leaves for the outside world promised by the UN. The story moves to a “Sordidez” community where people affected with memory loss in the Yucatan from a virus released in a war with a tyrant. The community struggles to deal with the trauma, loss of identity, and finding family as some figures seek vengeance. As the UN comes to occupy the land for control rather than aid, a figure emerges, Red Wolf, who is steeped in Mayan culture and seeks to lead her people. I was worried when Vero left…I’ve read many lauded books where the central character leaves and makes some side appearance. When Vero enters the story again in Sordidez, I was relieved. Condé does an excellent job of weaving in the characters we follow, with narrative importance, not for asides. The characters had great verisimilitude for future gente, and while reading, I always felt concern over what’s at stake and was excited to know what happens next. Condé carries out the writing advice I jokingly tell myself, “Take out all the boring parts.” Sordidez could have been needlessly longer, but instead it gives us what is important, what feels important, the after affects, the decisions and the giving ups or returns.
Sordidez is an instant classic that deals with issues many occupied and colonized people deal with: intolerance, trauma, loss of history, necessity to reclaim indigenous culture, the poisoning of land and climate disaster. Sordidez offers a future vision that, though broken like the present, has hope.
Ultimately, Sordidez blends narrative, visions, healing and resolutions, in several figures, all willing to transform for their people and offer mutual aid in a found familia.
Scott Russell Duncan is senior editor at Somos en escrito Literary Magazine and Press and was editor on the first Chicano sci-fi anthology, El Porvenir, ¡Ya!, which was a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. In 2016 his story “How My Hide Got Color” won San Francisco Litquake’s Short Story Contest. His nonfiction piece “Mexican American Psycho is in Your Dreams” won first place in the 2019 Solstice Literary Magazine Annual Literary Contest. He is at work on a collection of short stories called Mexpocalyptic Tales. His novel, Old California Strikes Back, a memoir of growing up Native/Xicano-Anglo and a fantastic tour reclaiming the myths of Mexican California, will be published in 2023 through FlowerSong Press.
"Jenette was a warrior, had walked the warrior’s path, even if it was wayward at times where she stumbled with bad judgment. Now in this final test for the Marine Corps, she had to muster all the ganas of every soldier in her family who served before her. In this moment her bones weren’t made of calcium and marrow, but of steel. They would be steel for as long as she needed to get what she wanted."
From Aliens: Vasquez
Review of Aliens: Vasquez
by Scott Duncan-Fernandez
There’s more Aliens out there—the franchise has put out more video games, comics, and books—but it's the connected Predator franchise movie Prey that has people talking about Native women characters and representation in sci-fi lately.
There's already been a famous bad ass brown woman in sci-fi—Jeanette Vasquez from the 80s movie Aliens. Some might point out the actress who played her wasn't a Chicana and the writer wasn't either. I recall some claiming she was a chola stereotype. My rewatch of Aliens as an adult showed the character was capable, brave, and dealt with typical racism despite her not being written or depicted by a Mexican American. Yet the character needed more.
V. Castro in Aliens: Vasquez gives Jeanette Vasquez a Chicana soul and a past and goes beyond a plastic sheen of culture. The story pulled me in hard on the life Jeanette Vasquez and then her daughter Leticia living on Earth and as tough Chicana marines in space. Not only does the character from the movie Aliens get a real deal Chicana soul in this book, the Aliens franchise gets a Chicano outlook. The way Vasquez sees the world, how she lives, and how she fights xenomorphs is filtered by who she is. She is a brown woman who is connected to a chain of warrior women, particularly the Soldaderas from the Mexican Revolution, whose coiled hairstyle was famously borrowed by Princess Leia.
The Aliens franchise has thematically been about women fighting patriarchy, dealing with the monstrousness of reproduction, sexuality, parenthood and inheritance of roles. As we all know Vasquez doesn't make it in Aliens, though tough to the end, and the book eventually hands her story off to her daughter, who also aspires to be an elite marine. Her corporate ladder climbing twin brother and she eventually meet up again on a mission involving the heads of the Weyland-Yutani corporation on a planet little is known about.
The life of these two women, Jeanette and her daughter, is a struggle against the system, a patriarchy like many stories in Aliens, but compounded by poverty and racism. Chicano culture comes through as they honor Santa Muerte in xenomorph constructions and make ofrendas and a native weapon, a macuahuitl out of xenomorph bodies.
The author V. Castro knows Aliens. There are allusions to other Aliens media throughout the book, some characters are ancestors, some places get mentioned. This is Jeanette and Leticia’s story, as much as Alien was Ripley’s story. Jeanette and her daughter have more against them, they are working class Chicanas, but they are tough, they inspire and finally represent in the way Chicanos want.
Aliens: Vasquez isn't Aliens with taco sauce packets. It's a Chicana story that everyone can appreciate. This is more than representation, this novel is one of our stories, both in space and on Earth, in the future, something us brown sci-fi nerds always want. Of course, I want more and want to see sequels of Aliens: Vasquez and more from V. Castro.
Aliens: Vasquez is available October 25, 2020
Scott Duncan-Fernandez a.k.a. Scott Russell Duncan’s fiction involves the mythic, the surreal, the abstract, in other words, the weird. He is Indigenous/Xicano/Anglo from California, Texas, and New Mexico and is senior editor at Somos en escrito Literary Magazine. In 2016 he won San Francisco Litquake’s Short Story Contest. His piece “Mexican American Psycho is in Your Dreams” won first place in the 2019 Solstice Literary Magazine Annual Literary Contest. His debut novel will be published with Flowersong Press in 2023.
V. Castro was born in San Antonio, Texas, to Mexican American parents. She’s been writing horror stories since she was a child, always fascinated by Mexican folklore and the urban legends of Texas. Castro now lives in the United Kingdom with her family, writing and traveling with her children.
Review of ChupaCabra Meets Billy the Kid, a Rudolfo Anaya Extra-Fiction Novel
By Armando Rendón
In Rudolfo Anaya’s latest book,ChupaCabra Meets Billy the Kid, science as in science-fiction gives way to the true fundamental forces of nature as he weaves a story that flashes back and forth in time. The title is misleading because it’s not really ChupaCabra, the goatsucker demon of Mexican lore, that meets Billy the Kid, a historical human artifact mythologized by Western writers of the purple prose, but a clash of realities. Obviously, the title suggests some weirdness going on. Is it fantasy, sci-fi, horror, a retro version of the time travel gimmick? Or is Rudy just pulling our collective leg? As with really good time-travel yarns, underlying the storyline are critical views of society, its social mores or disregard for humane values. I would say that in all the best science fiction I’ve read over half a century – that’s a lot of reading – writers generally conjure up the bad guys or create a social setting that contrasts with the narrator/author’s own time. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist reconfigures a chair with odd bells and whistles, powered by who knows what and travels thousands then tens of thousands of years into the future. It seems he never returned from his last trip, so the Traveler may still be out there. In a way, Anaya has come, I was going to say, full circle, but only half circle back to his highly acclaimed book, Bless Me, Ultima, which is on many reading lists of schools throughout the U.S. Ultima, the curandera who becomes a spiritual guide for Antonio, the young protagonist in the story, imbues the book with her other-worldly persona and a powerful aura of mysticism. To Anaya, his homeland is a mystical place, the mountains guardians of secrets and beauties found nowhere else, its rivers arteries of life in an otherwise harsh land, and a challenge to survival which his forebears have continually encountered for generations. I’ve caught a glimpse of these truths—seeing how mountain peaks jut up to cut off the horizon, finding a río at the bottom of a gorge by a glint of sun, leaning back a chair against a sun-warmed adobe wall... Anaya’s treatment here conveys the hardships of survival in the New Mexico of the latter 1800s into the early 1900s following the takeover by the U.S. government of half the territory of Mexico as a result of America’s invasion of Mexican territory beyond the Rio Bravo (Grande). Those hostilities ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. Yet, this book also celebrates the nuevomexicanos who survived for generations from the meager resources the earth grudgingly gave up. Their devotion to a religion which was increasingly remote resulted in the creation of homegrown zealots, los penitentes, a secretive society of men who preserved the religiosity of the communities through extreme exercises of penitence and sacrifice. The hard life of the early residents resulted in a resolute people, determined to survive in spite of the hardships faced every day. This is how I perceive nuevomexico, from readings (Anaya’s works and others) and conversations and the few times I’ve ventured into the state, traveling far up toward the headwaters of the Rio Grande in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. Out of this history evolved a few persons whom I got to know personally: Tomás Atencio, who created a literary headwaters in Dixon, co-founder of La Academia de la Nueva Raza and author of Resolana: A Chicano Pathway to Knowledge; Enriqueta Vasquez, who was one of the first Chicanas to publish a book on the Chicano Movement (Viva la Raza, 1974) and was part of founding the newspaper, El Grito del Norte, in 1968, about the same time that Quinto Sol Publications arose in Berkeley, which by the way was first to publish Bless Me, Ultima, and Con Safos out of East Los Angeles; Esteván Arellano, a writer and photographer, who drove me up into the mountains the time I met Atencio, and Reies Tijerina, who was a Tejano, but allied himself with and became the most prominent leader of the land grant movement in New Mexico. And Anaya. This sampling of people and experiences inform my reading of ChupaCaba Meets Billy the Kid. I say Anaya circled halfway back to Ultima, because the plot in this book depends heavily on tried and true sci-fi gimmicks, though the story is set in the middle of the Lincoln County War of 1878. A super deep state government unit, operating out of the infamous Area 51, called the C-Force, which also answers directly to the White House; an incredible experiment run by C-Force gone awry which combines the DNA of chupacabra and alien DNA (think Area 51) to produce a devilishly vicious though sometimes clownish hybrid called a Saytir; the good-old wormhole angle worms its way in somehow (well, I know but I’m not telling), and the time-lapping magical laptop (magical because it seems to have a solar powered charger in 1878) that functions for note taking and for checking emails from this now (2018). The reference to the White House, that is, to an actual living person is rare in science-fiction. But Anaya’s story is happening in real time—his book is fresh off the presses. The president has authority over the C-Force and its members are continually advising him. (Does the C stand for ChupaCabra or Chili? Is C-Force to blame for the direction of current events? Is the current president really a Saytir?) In other words, Anaya throws every quirky sci-fi accoutrement ever devised into the fray. You’ve got to love it. Something seemed to be lacking in the story for me as I started to read it, but then I met the aspiring writer protagonist, Rosa, who believes it is her mission to write the true story about Billy the Kid. The true story, “it’s what every writer wants,” she says, still queasy though from some of the not so savory action she’d seen so far. So, lots of background fact-gathering, laying the groundwork for the story, but little of the spiritual or otherworldly that could connect us to his earlier writings, especially Ultima. Yet, Ultima lies in wait in the background throughout the book. For example, look for the flashback to the movie of the Anaya classic. Rosa, the young person documenting all these events and characters, teams up with Billy the Kid, who mysteriously shows up at her new-found digs in 1878 New Mexico. A sort of platonic relationship ensues—Billy is a very approachable fellow with the young ladies even though rather reproachable otherwise. So how does Rosa end up in 1878? Rosa’s chief means of transportation is by horse, of course. She witnesses key events in Billy the Kid’s last few days and shares the lives of kind Mexican American hosts who give her food and shelter, even lend her a proper dress for a señorita to go to el baile, basically because she is friend of Bilito, the Kid. Armed with her laptop and with a lot of time on her hands, so to speak, as she battles writer’s block or rides shutgun next to the Kid, Anaya, I mean, Rosa, ponders a number of issues: the very notion of time, the role of literature in culture, what is driving her even to consider writing about this outlaw and what happened in a backwater of history 140 years ago, like who cares? Rosa suggests that there is far more to comprehend beyond what we see or seek to comprehend. “Time makes something new of us all,” Rosa tells Billy as the Kid’s own timeline draws to a close. Some of us have more time than others, she fails to add. Rosa, of course, knows Billy’s last day is approaching—but she can’t reveal that fact. After what seems like months living in this past world, Rosa begins to worry about how she is to return; there’s no ponderous circus balloon she can take to get back home. Exactly the point, because we want to find out what happened, she has to come back to our real “time” and tell us, but how does she get back? A low-rider spaceship with hydraulics powered by frijoles de la olla? No, chale! The force that bends space and time, Anaya tells us, is beyond quantum physics, string theory, time warps, marvelous spaceships powered by dilithium crystals to visit San Francisco Bay in the 1950s, let alone a barrio kid’s scooter that magically carries him back to historic moments in Chicano history. We know that somehow she made it back. All the while she has been recording what she sees and hears. At the end of the book, she has graciously provided a detailed timeline, “Rosa’s Notes and Observations,” downloaded from her laptop no doubt of what she saw, so that’s proof. But the question still remains, how? When we find out what that inexorable source of energy is, all falls into place. This is what Anaya is getting at. It’s what he has been writing about all his life. How we ourselves can be transported back in time, back to a transcendent period of our own. It’s so obvious when you read the book.
Armando Rendón is editor/founder of Somos en escrito Magazine, author of Chicano Manifesto (1971, 1996), and creator of Young Adult novels, including the four-part series, The Adventures of Noldo and his Magical Scooter, (2013-2016) and the latest Noldo novel, The Wizard of the Blue Hole (2018).
For an excerpt from ChupaCabra Meets Billy the Kid, a Rudolfo Anaya novel, the book was featured recently in Somos en escrito under the title, “I am becoming a recorder of history.” The book is available at ChupacabrabyAnaya.
“She is like Julia in every way.” Excerpt from The Book of Archives and Other Stories from the Mora Valley, New Mexicoby
A. Gabriel Melendez
OPENING TO A PREVIOUS LIFE
¿Qué somos en esta vida? Just what are we in this life? Un costal lleno de huesos, A sack full of bones. Y una cosa corrompida, And rotten stuffing. ¡Ay, ay, cuán amarga es la muerte Oh how bitter is death Y qué dulce fue la vida! And oh how sweet was life! —Miguel Casías, San Juan, New Mexico, July 7, 1989
Every day in Mora two or three new graves were dug to accommodate the victims of the previous day’s scourge. So many people had died in such a short time that in some precincts the people tired of opening new graves and they began to bury the dead one on top of the other. Enriqueta Vásquez fell sick with the illness on a cold January day. She had buried her husband and seen her father-in-law, an older sister, two uncles, an aunt, and three of her cousins buried in the span of the month and a half that the influenza had raged in the mountain valley. Enriqueta was Julia Pacheco de Steiner’s granddaughter, and people often talked about the striking resemblance she bore to her grandmother. Enriqueta was a young bride about whom people said, “She is like Julia in every way.” Later, when people tried to make sense of her death, they said that the reason Enriqueta had fallen so quickly was because she had been weakened by the birth of her second daughter. “She had not yet rested the forty days a new mother should before she was out burying her kin,” they said. Enriqueta’s second daughter was born in the first days of the influenza, and her birth brought hope and joy. Cándida had the blue eyes of her German great-grandfather and the soft dark skin of her mestiza great-grandmother. Enriqueta cradled the child in her arms and nursed her with the sweet milk of her breast in the amber light of the oil lamps that lit the rooms of her home. One Saturday afternoon, Enriqueta felt soreness in her shoulders and she retired to her bedroom even before the sun had gone down. She laid Cándida beside her in the bed and picked up her missal and prayed the Divine Praises in preparation for hearing Mass the next morning. She could not keep her eyes open and left off reading at the epistle for the first Sunday after Epiphany at the verses “Be patient in turbulence and persevering in prayer.” She slept until Cándida’s cries woke her. So deep was her sleep that at first she thought she had only napped, but her breasts were heavy with the night’s milk and she thought, “I must nurse Cándida.” At midmorning, Enriqueta began to shiver with chills and she complained of drafts through the house. Corina Lucero, the médica that attended her, did not let her up from bed, and Enriqueta slept soundly for several more hours. She awoke drenched in a copious sweat that had formed an outline of her delicate body on the sheets of her bed. On Sunday afternoon, Cándida began to show the first signs of having contracted her mother’s illness, and Corina Lucero had her crib moved to an adjoining room where she could better watch over the child. Cándida’s eyes had lost their natural brilliance and had dulled to the color of gray river rock. She cried and dozed in fits and spurts. The silver sliver of a waning moon hung over La Jicarita, and Cándida’s shrill cries threatened to rend the ice-blue sky of that January evening. At a quarter to seven on the morning of the second day, Enriqueta spoke, but her words confounded those around her. She looked at Corina and said, “Are you the devil?” and pointing at the darkened corners of the room, she continued, “And are they your consorts?” She rubbed her fist against her left eye and shouted, “This horrid smoke, it burns my eyes! Open the dampers on the stoves!” Then she fell into a deep coma and did not regain consciousness. The fever continued to consume mother and daughter, but try as Corina might, nothing she did quelled its progress. Neither the sponge baths, nor the paper-thin slices of potatoes to cool the forehead, nor the herb tea, nor the prayers to San Ramón broke the fever’s grip. At nine o’clock on Tuesday morning, Enriqueta’s breathing sounded like sand running through a sieve. Corina strained to hear a heartbeat. It was distant, like thunder in a snowstorm. The old woman advised the family: “Call the padre, Enriqueta is at the very edge of this life.” The Dutch priest, Padre Munnecom, was presiding over a funeral at Chacón in the upper valley and did not arrive till midafternoon. After giving Enriqueta the last rites, he said, “She is dead. Bury her quickly.” Before leaving, he inquired about the child’s health. Corina looked down at the floor and answered, “Gravely ill, she is very weak, Padre.” A delegation of penitentes came to bury Enriqueta. After praying over her, those hermanos who had known her grandmother as a young woman asked each other, “How can it be that one person can be reborn into life as another?” They did as the family asked and buried Enriqueta next to her grandmother, Julia Pacheco de Steiner. They lowered the simple wooden casket into the darkness of a fresh grave at the upper campo santo on the road to the village of El Oro. Enriqueta’s sister, Lourdes Paiz, her eyes swollen and red from days of mourning, had reached her wit’s end with worry and fatigue. That evening as the family gathered to console themselves and fortify their weary bodies with sweet breads and strong coffee, Lourdes lost her composure when the old woman Corina said in resignation, “It must be God’s will.” “Shut up, you old witch,” cried Lourdes, “if we didn’t have to depend on your foolish remedies and your useless hand-wringing, Enriqueta would be alive now! Look at the Americans,” she said, “their doctors keep them from such misery.” ’Mana Corina responded, “Child, the American doctors have their understanding of things and I have mine. But it seems that compassion is not a part of their science of things. Have you ever seen an Americano doctor cross the threshold of one of our homes? It is what we have, mi hija, foolish remedies, cure patches, and tea baths like those that cooled your old man Romaldo’s body when his skin peeled back from his flesh after the boiler exploded at Don Tito’s sawmill in Chacón.” When Lourdes was calm again, she said, “Forgive me, Corina. It’s just that these blows that life has dealt us have been so fierce. I did not mean to blame you. You have done what you could. When Cándida’s fever breaks, send her to me.” Lourdes continued, “I will raise her and she will not want for anything nor will she know what it is to be an orphan.” Cándida’s crying subsided, drifting into quiet sobs, then stopped altogether, but the fever would not break. Like her mother, she fell into a coma and her life grew fainter and fainter as the hours of the night pushed toward the new day. At seven the next morning, her tiny body wrenched in violent spasms and she coughed up a wad of mucus and coagulated blood. An hour later she was cold and her arms stiffened like the limbs of a doll. Her eyes were open, but she was dead. Cándida was dressed in a white gown. Corina placed a pair of brown shoes on her feet and on her head an ornate crown fashioned from an old piece of tin. Then she placed a branch of piñón wrapped with faded crepe paper and adorned with gourds for a staff at the child’s side. She was presented to her mourning family as an angelita, a little angel, because she had died without knowing either the stain of evil or the false joy of this world. All during Mass and during her Rosary, the villagers imagined Cándida’s soul winging its way to heaven along the shafts of sunlight that pierced the rolling winter clouds above them. ’Mana Cortina refused to follow the cortege to the cemetery and she turned back at the first stop. “This sickness be damned,” she cried as she touched Cándida, lying in the black cardboard casket, one last time. “Little messenger,” she whispered, “tell Almighty God in his Glory that his people suffer much upon this earth. Tell him, my child, in case He has forgotten us.” Lourdes Paiz asked that as a proper and fitting thing the infant Cándida be interred with her mother. Again the penitente brothers opened the grave they had closed only a day earlier. The wet earth sliced open like clay on a potter’s wheel until their shovels sounded hollow drumbeats upon Enriqueta’s pine coffin. The men heaved, grasping at the edges to pry back the coffin’s lid and deposit the infant daughter. In the dark pit they drew back the white shroud, their lanterns swinging high over Enriqueta’s face until they could see it clearly. “Ay, Dios,” came up the gasps of the men who were waist deep in the shallow grave. Enriqueta’s eyes were open and her face was contorted, her mouth agape as though locked in a silent scream. Her hands were not clasped upon her chest in peaceful repose, but were tangled in the long strands of Enriqueta’s raven black hair. Her fists were full of the tufts of hair she had torn from her head. “Ay, Dios mío,” those at the graveside shouted in horror as they stepped back, “Enriqueta was buried alive!”
Winter Burial at Los Hueros, 2014 John Warm Day Coming http://www.jonathanwarmday.com/
POR LA RENDIJA DE UNA VIDA PREVIA ¿Qué somos en esta vida? Un costal lleno de huesos, Y una cosa corrompida,
¡Ay, ay, cuán amarga es la muerte Y qué dulce fue la vida!
—Miguel Casías, San Juan, Nuevo México, 7 de julio de 1989
Cada día en Mora se sacaban dos o tres sepulcros más para acomodar las víctimas de la plaga del día antes. Tanta gente había muerto en tan poco tiempo que en algunos precintos los vivos se cansaron de abrir nuevos sepulcros y comenzaron a enterrar a los difuntos unos sobre otros. Enriqueta Vásquez se puso mala en un día frío de enero. Ella había enterrado a su esposo y había visto morir a su suegro, una hermana mayor, dos tíos, una tía y tres de sus primos hermanos en lo que iba del mes en el que la influenza había arrasado con los pueblerinos del valle. Enriqueta era la nieta de Julia Pacheco de Steiner, y la gente solía comentar el parecido asombroso que guardaba con su abuela. De Enriqueta, recién casada, decían, “Es la dijunta Julia en todo y por todo”. Más tarde cuando la gente se puso a averiguar la causa de su muerte, se aseguraba que se había enfermado tan repentinamente por la débil condición en que se hallaba tras el parto de su segunda hija: “No había descansado los cuarenta días del parto cuando ya andaba enterrando a sus parientes”. La segunda niña de Enriqueta había nacido en los primeros días de la influenza, y su llegada trajo esperanza y júbilo. Cándida tenía los ojos azules de su bisabuelo alemán y la tez blanda y morena de su bisabuela mestiza. A las tres semanas de nacida, Enriqueta la apechaba en brazos y la amamantaba con la dulce leche de su seno en la pálida luz de las lámparas de aceite que alumbraban las salas de la casa. Un sábado por la tarde, Enriqueta sintió un dolor en los hombros y se retiró a su cuarto a descansar antes de que el sol de aquella tarde cayera. Acostó a Cándida a su lado en el lecho de su cama y agarró su libro de oraciones y rezó las Divinas Alabanzas para prepararse para asistir a la Misa del día siguiente. No pudo resistir el sueño y dejó de leer la epístola del primer domingo después de la Epifanía a lo alto de los versos, “Tened paciencia en la turbulencia y preservad en la oración”. Durmió hasta que los lloriqueos de la niña la despertaron al alba. Tan rendida estaba al sueño que quiso creer que sólo había dormitado, pero sus pechos llenos con la leche de la noche la desmintieron. Pensó, “Tengo que amamantar a Cándida”. Unas horas después, Enriqueta sintió escalofríos y se quejó de las corrientes de aire que atravesaban la casa. Corina Lucero, la médica que la atendía, no quiso que se levantara para salir a Misa, y Enriqueta se volvió a acostar y durmió unas horas más. Cuando despertó, estaba empapada en un copioso sudor que había dejado perfilado su delicado cuerpo en las sábanas de su camalta. El domingo por la tarde, Cándida comenzó a dar indicios de que se había contagiado de la enfermedad de la mamá. Corina Lucero hizo que trasladaran la cuna de la niña a su cuarto para poder mejor ver de ella. Los ojos de Cándida perdieron su fulgor natural y se volvieron gris como las piedras boludas en el lecho del río. Cándida comenzó a llorar y a dar sobresaltos y estallidos. La astilla de una luna menguante colgaba sobre la cumbre de la Jicarita, y los chillidos de la niña amenazaban con rasgar la bóveda helada del cielo azul de aquella tarde de enero. A las siete menos cuarto de la mañana, Enriqueta habló, pero sus palabras trastornaron el pensamiento de los que la rodeaban. Miró a ’mana Corina y dijo, “¿Eres el diablo?”, y señalando con el dedo las sombras en las esquinas del cuarto, siguió maldiciendo, “Y aquellas son tus consortes?”. Se alisó el ojo izquierdo con su mano derecha y gritó, “¡Ay, qué feo humo! ¡Me arden los ojos! ¡Abran los apagadores de los fogones!”. Después se desmayó y no volvió en sí de nuevo. La calentura seguía consumiendo tanto a la madre como a la hija, y por más que Corina Lucero lo intentara, no pudo abatir su progreso. Ni los remojos, ni las rabanadas de papas que colocó en la frente de Julia, ni el té de estafiate, ni las oraciones a San Ramón pudieron contra aquella fiebre. A las nueve de la mañana el martes, el aliento raspaba como arena que cae por un cedazo. Corina quiso pulsar el latir de su corazón, pero se oía distante como truenos apagados por el peso de una gran nevada. La médica les dijo a los familiares, “Llamen al padre, Enriqueta vacila entre la vida y la muerte”. El párroco holandés, el Padre Munnecom, asistía a un funeral en Chacón, en el valle de arriba, y no llegó hasta después de mediodía. Después de darle los últimos auxilios a Enriqueta, les dijo a los presentes, “Está muerta. Entiérrenla”. Antes de irse preguntó por la niña. ’Mana Corina no alzaba la mirada del piso y respondió, “Malita, grave. Ella tampoco da de sí, Padre”. Una comisión de la hermandad de penitentes se encargó de abrir la sepultura de Enriqueta. Después de rezarle la encomendación del alma, aquellos que habían conocido a la abuela de Enriqueta en su mocedad se preguntaron unos a otros, “¿Cómo puede ser que una persona renazca en otra?”. Hicieron lo que la familia les había pedido y enterraron a Enri- queta a un lado de su abuela. Bajaron el ataúd de madera con cuidado, depositándolo en una sepultura recién cavada en el camposanto de arriba en el camino que sube al pueblo de El Oro. Lourdes Paiz, la hermana de Enriqueta, sus ojos hinchados y rojizos tras días enteras de congojas y duelo, estaba loca del dolor. Aquella tarde cuando se reunió la familia para conformarse y for- talecer sus cuerpos con tazas de espeso café y empanadas dulces, Lourdes perdió su compostura cuando oyó a ’mana Corina decir con resignación, “Será la voluntad de Dios”. “Se me calla, vieja bruja”, le gritó Lourdes Paiz, “si no tuviéramos que depender en tus inútiles remedios y el esdrujar de tus manos, Enriqueta estuviera buena y sana ’hora mismo.” “¿Que no ve a los americanos”, dijo, “sus dotores los apartan de esta miseria?”. ’Mana Corina le respondió, “Mira, hija, los americanos tienen su cono- cimiento y yo tengo el mío. Pero parece que tendremos que esperar hasta que la compasión entre en su ciencia de las cosas. ¿A caso, has visto que pase un dotor americano por el umbral de una de nuestras casas? Esto es lo que tenemos, mi hija, remedios, parches y baños de té como los que entibiaron el cuerpo de tu viejo, Romaldo, cuando se le despellejaba la piel de la carne cuando explotó la vaporizador de la máquina de rajar de don Tito en Chacón”. Cuando Lourdes se repuso, le dijo, “Discúlpame, Corina. Pero es que estos golpes han sido tan brutales. No quise echarte la culpar. Sé que has hecho lo posible. Cuando se le pase la calentura a Cándida, mándamela a casa. Yo tendré cargo de que no le falte nada y la criaré y no sabrá lo que es ser huérfana”. Los lloriqueos de Cándida se fueron apagando y se tornaron en pucheros, pero no se le quitaba la calentura. Igual que su madre, se desmayó y su vida se hizo cada vez más tenue a medida que las horas de la noche avanzaban hacia el nuevo día. A las siete de la mañana, su pequeño cuerpo se acalambró y la niña vomitó una bola viscosa de sangre coagulada. Una hora más tarde su cuerpo estaba frío y sus bracitos se entumecieron como los de una muñeca. Sus ojos siguieron abiertos, pero estaba muerta. A Cándida se le vistió en una bata blanca. ’Mana Corina le calzó los pies con unos zapatitos marrones y le colocó una corona hecha de un pedazo de estaño en la cabeza. Luego puso a un lado de la niña la rama de un árbol de piñón envuelta en papel barato y adornada de guajes amarillos para que le sirviera de bastón. Se le presentó a la familia como una angelita porque había muerto sin conocer la mancha de maldad, ni había entrado en el retozo falso de este mundo. Durante la Misa y durante el Rosario, los aldeanos se imaginaban que el alma de Cándida volaba al cielo, subiendo por los rayos de luz que perforaban las nubes revueltas que pasaban por encima. ’Mana Corina no quiso acompañar el cortejo al camposanto y se volvió en el primer descanso. “Malahaya esta enfermedá”, sollozaba al tocar por vez última el diminutivo cuerpo de Cándida que yacía en un ataúd hecho de cartón negro. “Linda angelita, mandataria nuestra”, dijo, “dile a mi Tata Dios que en su reino ’stá, dile que su gente sufre demasiadas penas sobre la tierra. Díselo, niña, por si se ha olvidado de nosotros” Lourdes Paiz pidió que como justo y propio se enterrara a la niña Cándida con su madre en la misma sepultura. Otra vez los hermanos penitentes abrieron el sepulcro que acababan de cerrar la tarde antes. La tierra húmeda se rebanaba como barro en las manos del alfarero hasta que sus palas vinieron a sonar huecos golpecitos sobre el cajón de pino abeto de Enriqueta. Los hombres se esforzaban asiéndose de las orillas para levantar la tapadera y para depositar a la hija infanta. Corrieron a un lado el sudario blanco, columpiando sus faroles en alto sobre la fosa oscura hasta que el rostro de Enriqueta se dejó ver por completo. “Ay, Dios mío”, se oyeron los quejidos de los hombres que estaban parados a media rodilla en el pozo. Los ojos de Enriqueta estaban abiertos y su cara estaba torcida, su boca estaba abierta, asida en un alarido sigiloso. Las manos de la difunta no yacían sobre su pecho en actitud de paz y reposo, sino que estaban enmarañados en los bucles de su lindo y negro cabello. Tenía los puños llenos de los mechones de pelo que se había arrancado de la cabeza. “¡Ay, Dios mío”, dijeron los que rodeaban la fosa, al tambolearse hacia atrás, “Enriqueta fue enterrada viva!”.
San Juan Bautista de Los Hueros Chapel in Mora County
Sit and Listen a review by Scott Duncan-Fernandez
The last few years have been good for books on the Northern New Mexican region. In 2015 out came Farolito, a poetry chapbook on elder abuse set in Mora by Karen S. Cordova. Last year, 2017, came the wonderful book about penitentes, El Hermano by Carmen Baca (featured on Somos en escrito along with her latest book set similarly,Las Mujeres Misteriosas) and The Book of Archives by Gabriel Melendez, a finalist for the International Latino Award.
The Book of Archives is a novella of vignettes based around oral history of the hispano people of Mora, New Mexico. It is a dual language book, the novella first in English, then in Spanish, New Mexican Spanish that is, known for retaining some archaic usages.
Dr. Melendez has already written books on persevering New Mexican literature and culture—check out his book The Writings of Eusebio Chacón, a literary figure part of a literary renaissance in Las Vegas, New Mexico in the 1880s, something almost lost to history.
The Book of Archives takes on quite a lot—to create a book of oral tales and histories of Mora county metaphorically through the fictional book of archives, even more metaphorically destroyed by the US bombardment of Mora for its part in the Taos Revolt. What was that, the Taos Revolt? You mean the US bombed the town of Mora and burned all its ranches? If you ask these questions, it exemplifies one of the needs for a book such as The Book of Archives. Quickly, as the motif of the book of archives relates, the Taos revolt arose from New Mexicans interested in resisting the US invasion as, deceived by a paid off Mexican governor, they found themselves already occupied and offered no resistance. The likes of Kit Carson marched on to California, where he burned native villages and Californio ranches. Pueblos and hispanos attacked Americans in the New Mexican colony and then the soldiers upon their return. The US army took revenge and bombed Mora and burned everyone’s house and ranch. And here we get to the fictional book of archives. The book which recorded our history and tales was hit by an American cannonball, sending pages to the wind. The Book of Archives attempts to recreate a record of the things the US has decimated—our history, our memory, our stories.
My grandfather’s side, Fernandezes, as well as Pachecos and Arguellos, are from Mora. Many of the families talked about in The Book of Archives would be my distant and not too distant relatives. Some of the tales are familiar and some are rather pan-hispano, Juan Tonto or Stupid John for pochos such as myself. Mora is a place of high altitude, around 7,000 feet, enough for a coastal person like myself (cowabunga) to draw an extra breath while walking the family ranch. I remember going to Mora for family reunions and visits since 1977 (I can remember being quite young). Sparsely populated, many ranches and sheep, which have now given way to those Alpaca-monsters. The Mora accent is singsong. I joke it sounds like singsong Mexican with movie Apache. Men of my grandfather’s generation spoke rather curt, but when I think of Mora I think of some of the kindest people who love jokes and throwing parties (hey, I’ve always been a visiting relative, your mileage may vary). And you always have to eat. While Mora is an out of the way place, it and its inhabitants have figured in Chicano literature. Fray Chavez, often called the godfather of Chicano literature, grew up in Mora and became an important historian and genealogist of New Mexico. Some of his stories display some of the not so great aspects of the hispano character, but more on that later, as it comes up wonderfully in The Book of Archives. Mora is a beautiful place. It’s full of traditional houses and churches, wooded mountains, grassy hills and antelope, as well. The Book of Archives gives a good sense of place and the earliest histories of Mora being a stopover place and how native people and hispanos in the early 1800s finally made something more permanent there. Comancheros, villains in such books as Lonesome Dove, have never been more than impoverished New Mexicans who sought out Comanches to trade for their buffalo hides, booty from their raids, and unfortunately captives--slaves. Though out of the way, trade routes to New Mexico have always been important and fictionalized (take a look at the bandoliered Jawas as they trade robot-captives on la frontera of Tatooine).
Mora is still a rural place, though I recall in the 1970s, you could only see the ranch house and the original shack my great great grandfather built on Rancho Fernandez. Now that house burned down and they built a new one for my great aunt Maclovia before she passed away along with another house on the ranch and several neighbors. Rural existence is tough, you can’t pay your land tax in sheep, so many people go far to look for work. There are many land issues and displacements going on today as gringos having finally considered the land there valuable enough to buy up and have put the community described in The Book of Archives at risk of dissolution.
Melendez seems to have gleaned many documents and spoken to many people for the history of Mora. Perforce many Chicano books are postmodern (thanks to Dr. Melendez for spelling it out), Old Testament-like mixes of legends, myths, letters and histories.
The Book of Archives is even more so as it includes notes from tax documents, land titles, military reports, as well as the aforementioned myths and histories, including those within recent memory of family history (the adopted Quintana who was raised by Carmen and Mama Clarita comes to mind).
Many pieces contain some sadness, some can be even terrible—hispanos of the area survived the US invasion, hunger, influenza and poverty. While The Books of Archivesis mostly realistic, like Cien años de soledad, what is fantastic moves further away as the stories approach the modern era, save for some potential Santo Niño sightings and speaking on the Niño de Atocha, and the Blue Nun towards the end. Witches become spoken of less as everyone thinks they must have left the valley until on old man gets accused in the newspaper of hecheria.
Several story lines and characters repeat, though most stories are not too connected, but all are set in the town of Mora, the area, and the mountain of Jicarita. The beautiful Maria appears in several tales, along with the sad tale of her granddaughter. Old Man Vilmas and the Black Poet Garcia, two New Mexican folk tale figures, who seem to be preternaturally old, appear in tales and perform the traditional entertainment of arguing until the radio causes people to forget all about them.
The length varies from vignette to vignette, which seems another very Chicano form,House on Mango Street and Drink Cultura come to mind. Perhaps a people who suffer with the dangers of erasement and lack of representation exist in fragments and authors pick these pieces up and shine them up to present to us readers to draw a wholeness from. Moving from the long to the short to the shorter and the long makes for an engaging read—as well as the variance of people and topics. It’s a collection of flash fiction and short stories that make a novel, or create the sense of a novel.
Many things written on Northern New Mexico seem either to decry our insistence for Spanishness or go through many tangles and hoops to support it. Denise Chavez speaks of it on her father’s side in her memoir, A Taco Testimony. Fray Angelico Chavez came from Mora. His characters go through long, tortuous explanations on how they are Spanish. For some reason, native blood and mestizoness gets disowned. The movement didn’t miss Mora, but aside from self-hate, the US invasion caused many a hispano in Tejas, Colorado, California, and even indios, to declare themselves hispanos puros so they could own land and not be hunted, as our Indian brothers and sisters were literally. I also see it as something cultural…out on the frontier, you were on the one side culturally or the other, though these things got knotted and tangled, as someone with the last name of Duncan can tell you. Melendez addresses this Spanish issue and is probably one of the best you’ll find in Chicano or Latin American literature dealing with it (this kind of thing isn’t limited to Northern New Mexico). A man whose grandmother was a Comanche captive goes about declaring his pure Spanish blood and looks the fool (he even tells the beautiful Maria that he will overlook her imperfect blood in light of her beauty).
Dr. Melendez has done the amazing, he has made a wonderful book that amasses functions and stories like stone hedge gathers ley lines: He has created a book of archives, giving this place in northern New Mexico a history, and validates our existence, our tales, records family histories, and keeps the memories, and moreover acknowledges and helps preserve the New Mexican brand of Spanish. This is a book for anyone who likes stories, but for Latinos it functions as an elder who remembers and will tell you all, if you would just sit and listen.
Jonathan Warm Day, a native of Taos Pueblo, learned painting from his mother, Eva Mirabal, an artist herself who had been a student at the Santa Fe Indian School during its artistic renaissance under the direction of Dorothy Dunn. After graduating from Taos High School, Warm Day attended Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, then studied art at the University of New Mexico. His paintings are included in several important collections and have been exhibited in various galleries. Warm Day lives in Taos with his two daughters, Carly and Jade, both high school athletes. He makes his living as an artist and storyteller. Visit his website at http://www.jonathanwarmday.com/
Scott Russell Duncan, a.k.a. Scott Duncan-Fernandez, recently completed The Ramona Diary of SRD, a memoir of growing up Chicano-Anglo and a fantastical tour reclaiming the myths of Spanish California. Scott’s fiction involves the mythic, the surreal, the abstract, in other words, the weird. Scott received his MFA from Mills College in Oakland, California where he now lives and writes. He is an assistant editor at Somos en escrito. See more about his work and publications on Scott’s website https://scottrussellduncan.com/
The next morning, Good Friday, found me in bed with a high fever. The chill that permeated my body had increased during the night, but anxious to join the Hermanos at the morada, I struggled to rise, only to fall back weakly against my pillow. My grandmother, who was drinking coffee with my mother in the kitchen, came to the doorway. Silhouetted in the rays of the sun in the window behind her, she seemed enveloped in a cloak of white. My fears of the night were dispelled, there was no bandage, no limp to her walk; and in the light of day I chided myself for my foolishness, convinced that my fever had caused such disturbing thoughts.
That my abuela was here was no accident, no inexplicable coincidence to agitate my imaginings. For she knew that I had become a novicio the night before, and as médica, she had come to see how I fared. She moved to my side with a jar of her remedio, turned me to my side to rub the romerillo, or silver sage, on my back, and then tucked the quilts around me once again without a word.
My mother placed a mug of warm broth in my hands, brushing a gentle hand over my cheek and pulling a chair by my bed for my gramma before she left for the church with my aunt. A few of the women would give the capilla a light cleaning before covering the saints with cloaks of black this morning to symbolize the dark day of Christ’s death. They would remain concealed until Easter morning, the day of His resurrection.
Settling herself comfortably, gramma took from her apron pocket a small kerchief with a trailing thread and proceeded to continue her embroidery on its edge, the needle whipping in and out of the intricate design with a delicate, almost birdlike fluttering of her hands. I sipped the warm soup watching her, waiting for her to speak. I knew I had inherited my physical appearance from her, the small, thin stature, the nose, and her humor. Had I also inherited a mental power I didn’t understand, or want, from my beloved grandmother?
Before I could ponder the question further, before I could think of a way to phrase my question without hurting the feelings of the tiny woman seated beside me, she spoke.
“You have a gift.”
Her words revived my concerns that the warm broth had begun to dispel.
She looked up from her embroidery. Although this was one time I wished I could turn away, I forced myself to look into her eyes. Bright with tears, hers held a mixture of sadness and regret. When she blinked the drops away and smiled softly at me, there was also pleasure and expectation in their depths.
“The gift of sight,” she began, “is strong in our family though inherited by some, not all, through the generations. And,” she added, “while some seemed only to possess a strong sense of intuition, there were others who had the power to know other’s thoughts, especially of people with whom they were close.
“I will tell you a story, hijo, a cuento of a young girl you know well.” Putting her embroidery aside, she settled back into the pillow at her back and continued.
“When this girl was very young, she began to have disturbing dreams, dreams which frightened her because in the days that followed, they would almost always come true. More and more often as she grew, the dreams plagued her. And her abuelito, the only one who believed her, died before he could explain the gift she had inherited from him. She learned to keep the dreams secret because whenever she told anyone, they looked at her as if she were loca. And people, ignorant and afraid, had started to think she was either crazy or a witch.
Years passed, until one night she saw her father in her dream and knew what real fear was. In her vision her father was being dragged by horses in the field he was plowing, his leg entangled in the reins behind the arado.”
She paused, taking her sack of punche from her pocket to roll a cigarette.
I squirmed restlessly on the bed. From past experience, I knew that it was an effort in futility to urge her on, for if prodded to finish a cuento before she decided she wanted to, she was known to teach me a longer lesson in patience, sometimes making me wait for days, or until I had even forgotten the beginnings of a story and her teasing reminder would set me off, begging for the end.
I had to hand it to my abuelita; she knew how to build up the suspense in her stories like no one else. I was forced to wait as she took a laboriously long time rolling her smoke, her eyes twinkling with mirth at my discomfort.
“Where was I?” she asked, striking a wooden match on the sole of her shoe.
“Oh, yes, the dream.” Puffing a small stream of smoke, she continued, “The next morning, much to her dismay, the girl’s father had already begun to plow the fields when she awoke. Without breakfast, the girl ran out of the house, straight to the field.”
When she paused to puff her cigarette again, I could have screamed from the suspense; it was killing me. “Now, the neighbors had honey bees,” she reminisced, “and the hives were just across the river. For some reason, I never knew why, they swarmed—and the girl’s father with his horses were right in their path. It was a good thing the girl got there when she did, for her father, strong though he was, was already struggling to keep the horses from running away with the plow. When she looked down, the girl saw that the end of one of the reins had tangled around her father’s leg, just like in her dream. And just as the panicked horses took off, shaking the bees from their heads, she jumped forward, unwrapping the rein just in the nick of time to save her father from a very bad injury—perhaps even death.”
Gramma puffed at her cigarette a moment before she added, “That was the day the girl finally realized that her dreams were not the curse she had thought they were all along, for years having been afraid that perhaps she was a witch and that she had dark powers from the devil. They were forewarnings, a gift from God, and she had learned to read their meaning to help others.”
Putting her cigarette out, she looked at me closely, searching my eyes for understanding. “Sí,” she said quietly, “I have been called bruja many times, hijo, but only by the ignorant or the envious, God help them. They do not know that what I have is a gift from God and that I have learned to use my gift to avisar or to give consejo to those I see in my dreams.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that no matter what happened in the future, I would never suspect my abuelita of being a witch again. And I understood that my father possessed a different gift, a power to read my thoughts and to respond in the voice of my conscience to guide me in the journey of life. But at the same time, I was troubled. Hadn’t I also inherited such a gift, a power to see or hear things others didn’t?
I knew she picked up the apprehension in my eyes, for my gramma said softly, “No te preocupes. Do not be worried, hijo mío. Instead, thank the Lord that you have something not many people do and learn to use your gift to help yourself and to help others if you’re able. And if your friends question your intuition, you do what your conciencia tells you. If they are real amigos, they will look to you for consejo. Advise them well. If they are not, then you will have to live with their suspicions and their accusations just as I have. And though it will be hard, you will have to learn to leave them to their own consciences.”
I nodded, and we sat in companionable silence for a while. My gramma took up her embroidery again as my mind digested the importance of her story, her counsel. I knew that I would have to find within myself the strength to overcome my disquiet, to listen and watch for any avisos in the future, to use my gift of intuition wisely.
Suddenly remembering what I had seen the night before, I asked, “Do you believe there really are witches?”
“¿Por qué?” she asked, looking at me quizzically.
I described our encounter with the ball of fire and what Berto had done as it had fled.
She nodded, “There are many, including myself, who have seen them. And since there is no explanation for the balls of fire, there are many who believe that they are witches. No one knows for sure. But it has been a long time that any have been seen around here.”
“What do you believe?” I asked, a little uneasy about her answer.
“I believe that there is a power of good, which is God. But the Bible tells us that there is also a power of evil. Just as Dios gives His children gifts which help them to live as good Cristianos, then so could el Diablo guide those he chooses with the powers of darkness.”
She crossed herself before she looked at me for a moment. “That you saw one during la Cuaresma disturbs me. This is one of the most sacred seasons of the year. If it was a bruja or some other work of el Diablo, then they seem to have no fear that this is Lent, and today is Viernes Santo, the day our Savior died.”
“What could it mean?” I whispered.
The heavy silence of our thoughts spoke volumes, for we both knew that this afternoon La Procesión de Sangre de Cristo, the procession of the Blood of Christ, in which a chosen Hermano would carry the crucifix from the morada on his back, would be enacted. And even though the Penitente would not be crucified, the re-enactment of the most sorrowful day in the life of our Savior would take its toll on the Brother who played the crucial role. I wondered if it would be the Hermano who had portrayed Christ the night before in la Procesión de la Santa Cruz.
Procesión de la Semana Santa. José on the left, carrying la bandera; Miguel's house in the background.
Before either of us could speak, my mother rushed into the house, bringing with her a bit of news that brought an unwelcome confirmation and a bit of relief to our uneasy thoughts. A neighbor found the Lunática sprawled unconscious and bleeding from her head outside her house. He had summoned her hired hand to transport her to the doctor in Las Vegas.
“What do you think happened to her?” my mother asked, looking from my grandmother to me and back at her again.
My abuela’s face mirrored my thoughts: a bruja! Could the one who had protested the most loudly that she was surrounded by witches and lunatics in fact be a witch herself? Could Berto’s rock have met its mark on the floating ball of fire, leaving in its stead a wound in a witch that would cause her death?
I knew that neither my abuela nor I wished the woman harm, yet I saw in her eyes the question I felt in my heart. If the woman died, then would the significance of the ball of fire we suspected be dispelled by her own death?
Unable to rest and unable to sleep, I rose when Berto appeared at my door about noon, sent to see if I was well enough to go to the morada before the procession began. At first my mother protested, having heard of my induction from my father earlier that morning. But rising unsteadily, I assured her that I felt better and that if los Hermanos had sent for me, surely I was needed at the morada. Physically, it was the truth, for my chills had subsided and I was no longer dizzy, but my mind whirled with questions and an impending sense of doom.
Concerned about how Berto would react if he heard of what had happened to the Lunática from someone else, I broke the news to him gently. Though I tried to convince him that we didn’t know whether the woman was only an innocent recluse who had fallen, perhaps even attacked by a thief (which was unheard of in our community), I heard the doubt in my own voice and saw the disbelief in his eyes. Berto remained convinced that the woman was a witch and that she had been injured by his hand, the hand which had cast the stone.
He ran his fingers through his shock of hair again and again, upset about her probable revenge. I, too, worried for Filiberto, remembering my grandmother’s words.
When we arrived at the morada, the Hermanos were resting beneath the shady cottonwoods outside. I went from one to the other exchanging greetings, touched by their concern. My father beckoned to me, moving a little away from the others so we could speak in private. He asked if I was up to the long hours ahead.
After I assured him I felt fine, he told me what had been decided during the morning in my absence.
When he told me who would be the Cristo in the procession of the afternoon, I frowned. My Tío Daniel who had been chosen for the honored role the night before had asked for and received permission to again portray Christ in the reenactment of His walk to Monte Calvario. I needed to tell my father about the premonition of impending death I sensed, but there was no way to explain without beginning with the ball of fire the boys and I had encountered the night before. So I took a deep breath, plunged in, watching his eyes widen when I told him what Abuela and I had discussed, and finished with the account of the neighbor woman’s mysterious injury. I breathlessly waited for his reaction.
He took it all in, quiet with thought before he spoke. “I am glad that your abuela explained about what it is to be a gifted member of this familia,” he said, “for from now on you will listen more closely to your intuition to guide you on the right path in life.”
“But that’s just it,” I blurted, “I have a queer feeling about what gramma said about someone dying. As much as I don’t like that lady for how she treated gramma, I don’t wish her dead, but if she does die, at least that might mean Tío Daniel won’t.”
“Perhaps Mamá is right,” he said. “I trust her judgment,” he added, laying a hand on my shoulder, “as I also trust yours.”
He stood, and I felt a surge of pride that he spoke to me as one man to another.
I waited for him to say that the procession to follow would be canceled or that he would put it to a vote of all the Hermanos, but when he spoke I knew that it wasn’t something he had the power to do. The rites and rituals of the Penitente Brotherhood were clear, and the reenactment I dreaded would proceed as usual.
“We will do what we must,” he said with determination, “and we will pray that Daniel will not be the one who has to die with Cristo tonight.”
We walked together back into the morada where the rest of los Hermanos were in prayer. The window, covered with a dark cloth, let no welcome warmth or light into the room. In the chill of the thick adobe walls there were only the flickering flames of candles to shed a wavering glow on the altar and the men kneeling before it. As we joined them, I took the crucifix I had finished carving, painted black the day before, and placed it among those of my Brothers and the small covered santo Pedro had carved.
Kneeling, I waited for the peace I always felt when I prayed there. I longed for the solace I would have received if I were able to look into the face of the Savior. But every retablo, every santo, was covered in shrouds of black. I felt a sense of loss, of foreboding—until I closed my eyes. From the dark recesses of my mind the face of Christ emerged, filling me with strength to face whatever might occur.
It was a little before two o’clock when we emerged from the morada, blinking our eyes in the welcome light of the sun, warming our stiff bodies in its rays as we were surrounded by the friends and relatives who had come to join our procession. Women bustled into the cocina with pots of food while others entered the prayer room for a moment of contemplation before we began.
I greeted my mother and grandmother with a hug, reluctant to let either of them go, for in their arms I felt the comforting reassurance of my youth. I found myself close to tears, realizing that the innocence of my childhood was lost to me, only to be remembered in their embrace with the bittersweet knowledge that I had willingly forsaken the child within me and let the man in me emerge when I took the vows of a novicio.
Collecting myself as best I could with the tumultuous emotions and frightening premonition looming over my thoughts, I made my way over to the boys who were resting beneath the trees, knowing if anyone could take my mind off my worries, it would be the gang. Horacio was speaking as I joined them.
“My gramma told me a cuento once,” he said quietly. “She thinks it’s only a legend though, ’cause she never really heard of it happening in her lifetime.
Her own abuela told it to her when she was a girl. Do you wanna hear?”
Berto nodded. “Anything, if it’ll stop me from thinking about the bruja.”
We all looked at Berto sympathetically, wishing we could relieve him of the burden of his fears and knowing there was nothing we could do except keep his mind off them.
Horacio began, “Well, you know how Tío Daniel is going to play the Cristo and carry the cross on his shoulders in a while?”
“Don’t remind me,” I waved a hand at Horacio to continue when the boys’ confused looks turned on me. I was thinking of my uncle’s nightmares about the war and wondering if this was his penance for some unimaginable act.
“Anyway,” Horacio continued after looking at me askance, “my gramma told me that one of the descansos up there,” he pointed his chin to the mountains beyond the church, “is supposed to be a real grave, the grave of an Hermano who died while he was acting the part of Christ.”
We gasped. Pedro added, much to my discomfort, “It could be true, you know. I heard my papá and my grampo talking once, and they said that in the old days the one who played Cristo was really crucified on Viernes Santo, only instead of nails, they used ropes to tie him to the cross.”
I was unable to shake off the chills that rose up my spine. Though I noticed the others squirming as well, I knew my distress for my uncle was greater than theirs because they had no knowledge of my conversation with my grandmother.
“All I know is what gramma told me,” Horacio finished, leaning toward us. “She said that if it was true, then the Hermano who died would go straight to heaven. In those days, no one was allowed to witness the procession, but what was stranger was that the dead man’s shoes were left on his doorstep so that the family would know how he had died, and for a whole year no one but the Penitentes knew where they had buried him.”
We all took this bit of news in silence. I pictured the scene Horacio described and thanked the Lord silently that we didn’t do things the old way anymore, and then Pedro spoke up as if reading my mind.
“I’m glad we don’t do it that way anymore.”
We all agreed. However, as we rose to join the men already getting into formation, I saw the black crucifix carried on the shoulders of two Hermanos who emerged from the morada. The moment for which I had longed for so many years—and only today had come to dread—arrived. For the first time, I would take part in the procession of Penitentes, but the pride I felt was overshadowed by the knowledge that my uncle, whom I loved like an older brother, would be in the lead carrying the heavy cross. I knew my eyes would be upon him all the way. Coupled with my foreboding that someone would be dead before morning, my first procession became a penitence indeed.
I sighed heavily, lining up with Pedro at the rear of the group. As everyone who gathered to join the procesión took their places behind us, I was surprised to see Primo Victoriano, leaning heavily on his bordón, directly behind me with his wife, Prima Juanita. I noticed Berto and the others positioned behind him, ready in case he needed assistance.
I turned and offered the elderly man my hand. “If you get tired, everyone will understand if you have to stop,” I told him in a whisper.
“I will,” he promised. “I just had to come one last time, you understand?”
The longing in his withered face was enough to tell me that this might be the last Lent he would see in his lifetime, that this might be the last chance he had to join his Brothers before age or ill health took its toll.
I nodded in understanding, but I saw the weariness of his eyes, in the way he leaned on his cane, in the way his breath emerged from his mouth in short, tired gasps. “Don’t overtire yourself, primo,” I warned, but he only waved my concern away with a hand.
The procession began when my father’s voice rose to announce that this was the reenactment of the Passion of Christ. My Tío Daniel, the massive black cross on his shoulders, moved forward, setting the pace for us to follow.
“Oh—ohhh, imagen de Jesús doloroso para ejercitarse en el santo sacrificio de la misa como memoria que es de tan sacrosanta pasión,” my father intoned, telling us to imagine our dolorous Savior fulfilling His destiny in such a sacred sacrifice in our reenactment of the memory of such a sacrosanct passion.
I read along as the rest of the Hermanos joined in, my voice blending with the varied pitches of the men, rising and falling with each line. The music emerged as if from our very souls to waver and float around us as we spoke to our Savior in a somber hymn rather than with mere words. The very tone of our combined voices and the reverence with which we sang spoke volumes as our words conveyed how much we believed in the passion of our Savior.
My father’s words conveyed that Jesus had revealed many times to his faithful servants what was to follow. And though no one actually did the things to my uncle that my father told us, he paused with each recitation, and the weight of the words he spoke with such tremulous emotion made us feel that just by describing the terrible things done to Christ he felt them in his heart as he carried the symbolic cross.
Then the first time he stopped, Tío Daniel spoke loud enough for all to hear the words that indeed seemed to be the words of our Savior: “Primeramente me levantaron del suelo por la cuerda y por los cabellos viente y tres veses.” My uncle revealed, “First they lifted me from the floor by rope and from my hair twentythree times.”
As he resumed the pace for the procession to follow, my uncle paused twenty-one more times. His pace slowing with each pause, Daniel fought the trembling of his legs. I saw his shoulders bend under the cumbersome cross, symbolically weighing heavily in our hearts each time he staggered under its massive bulk. Even from where I stood, with twelve men before me, I heard his breath come more heavily, his voice emerged more tremulously, the words quaver as he described the countless terrors suffered by Christ in His passion.
“They gave me six thousand, six hundred, sixty-six lashings of the whip when they tied me to the column …. I fell on the earth seven times … before I fell five times on the road to Mount Calvary …. I lost one thousand twentyfive drops of blood.”
By the time we were halfway to the church, many of the women were sniffling, wiping their eyes with their kerchiefs. But the worst was yet to come as my uncle continued, weakened but undeterred in fulfilling his role.
“They gave me twenty punches to my face …. I had nineteen mortal injuries … they hit me in the chest and the head twenty-eight times …. I had seventy-two major wounds over the rest.”
By this time some of the women were weeping openly, and the smaller children, frightened beyond belief—I knew because I was at their age—began to sob quietly at their mothers’ distress. Primo Victoriano stumbled behind me, and I stepped back to grasp one elbow as Berto took the other. The determination in his face to reach the capilla, to finish the procesión as an Hermano one last time, was heart-wrenching. And as I took some of the weight off his feet with my support, I felt tears gather in my eyes.
“I had a thousand pricks from the crown of thorns on my head because I fell, and they replaced the crown many times,” my uncle’s weakened voice continued.
“I sighed one hundred nine times … they spat on me seventy-three times.”
The tears flowed down my face. I heard Primo Victoriano’s labored breaths at my side. I thanked God the procession had come to an end, for the words were too painful to bear, humbling our Christian souls to the core of our being.
“Those who followed me from the pueblo were two hundred thirty,” my uncle finished, “only three helped me …. I was thrown and dragged through barbs seventy-eight times.”
As we reached the capilla, my uncle was barely moving, his feet shuffling wearily in the dirt, his breathing labored. When he leaned precariously forward, the cross threatening to smash him into the earth, several women cried out in alarm. Leaping quickly to his aid, my father and Primo Esteban each grabbed an end of the beam lying on his shoulders, relieving him of his burden just as his knees buckled beneath him and my uncle fell to the ground on hands and knees.
When I saw him fall, his face grimaced in pain, my heart throbbed in fear that he could be gravely hurt, that my premonition of an impending death would come true. I would have rushed to his side but for Primo Victoriano, whose arm clutched mine tightly, his shoulder leaning heavily against me. If I left him, he too would fall.
All the women were now sobbing as they looked at my uncle, trying in vain to stifle their uncontrollable cries because of the children, who, too young to understand what we did, cried with distress and sympathy for their mothers’ tears. A few of los Hermanos rushed to help my uncle to his feet, supporting him as they took him into the church. Though he was exhausted, my tío appeared to be unhurt, and a collective sigh of relief shivered over us. The women calmed themselves and mothers or older sisters hushed children’s cries into soft whimpers.
Primo Victoriano continued to shake against me, his legs quaking with his effort to remain standing, his breathing heavy. Beginning to falter under his weight, Berto motioned for Pedro to help us, knowing that my scrawny frame wouldn’t be enough help to get the elderly man into the church. Relieving me quickly, they placed our primo’s arms over their shoulders, supporting his weight between them as they moved slowly into the capilla with his wife at their side. Following with Horacio and Tino, I heard Primo Victoriano mumble disappointedly at himself that he had no strength left to light the fire or the candles inside. Exchanging glances and nods, we hurried inside, so that when our Primo reached the door, I was busily feeding the flames of the kindling I had lit in the stove and
Horacio and Tino were moving from candle to candle quickly. Turning as he entered, I smiled, glad that we were able to relieve him in his duty now that he needed us. Primo Victoriano only nodded, but the gratitude in his eyes said it all before he allowed the boys to settle him comfortably in the pew nearest the stove.
When the Estaciones ended that evening, there was a silence unsurpassed by any service we had yet attended. I knew that for those who prayed with los Hermanos it was in part because of the anguish of witnessing la Procesión de Sangre de Cristo and the terrible sorrow of las Tinieblas that was to come back at the morada afterward. For Pedro and me, it was something more. We knelt with los Hermanos as novicios in the center aisle of the capilla as we made our slow and somber revolution of prayers and alabados around the retablos of the Stations of the Cross. I found my place in my faith, and it affected me as nothing before had done. It was awesome to contemplate.
When my father signaled that it was time for our return to the morada, I retrieved my black crucifix from the altar. I blew out a candle with a fervent prayer for my uncle’s health and took another taper with me to the door of the now darkened church. Spotting Primo Victoriano, supported between his wife and Berto’s mother, I went to say good night. Someone had gone for a wagon to take the elderly man home, Prima Cleofes explained, for he felt tired.
Prima Juanita clucked her tongue at her stubborn husband, but he didn’t need to say a word. The soft smile that lit his face told me that he had done what he had set out to do. He was content that he had accompanied his Brothers one last time, and he would toll the bell also for the last time that night before he would allow himself to be taken home.
When I saw los Hermanos taking their places in the center of the road, I bade him good night, telling him to rest and not to worry, I would be there to help him on Easter Sunday as well. In the soft glow of the lanterns and candles, his eyes grew moist.
Blinking back his tears, Primo Victoriano looked at me gravely. He said, “I will be here on Sunday, hermanito, and you will light the candles for me, but I will not see their light. I will not feel the warmth of the fire you will make.”
Confused by his cryptic message, I searched his eyes. From the quiet contentment and resoluteness of his gaze, a silent tear that rolled down his withered cheek and touched my heart. My respect and admiration for the elderly Hermano who had fulfilled his desire engulfed me. On impulse, I hugged him close for the first, and for what would also be the last, time in my life.
Carmen Bacataught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels in northern New Mexico where she lives, over the course of 36 years before retiring in 2014. She published her first novel in May 2017, El Hermano, a historical fiction based on herfather’s induction into the Penitente society and rise to El Hermano Mayor. The book is available from online booksellers. She has also published eight short pieces in online literary magazines and women’s blogs.
Capilla de Santa Rita, Penitente chapel near Chimayo, New Mexico Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA) Negative number: HP.2007.20.562
El Hermano: A living link to a way of spiritual survival
Review by Scott Duncan-Fernandez El Hermano, a first novel by Carmen Baca, brings to life through the story of a young boy in late 1920s New Mexico, the wonder of Los Penitentes, who have been painted by rumor and misconstrued in fiction as backwards and brutal, as cult rather than a humble brotherhood of Catholic men. El Hermano could have been the story of my own great-grandfather, a Penitente brother who died a few years before I was born and thus I know as little of him as the brotherhood to which he belonged. Both the shed on the family ranch and the chapel he built down the road where perhaps he carried out some brotherhood rites still stand and have been objects for reflection on his life and Los Penitentes for me for many years.
The valleys and mountains where northern nuevomexicanos or hispanos live can be out of the way, sparsely populated areas. Due to this remoteness the Penitente Brotherhood arose out of necessity. When Mexico gained independence in 1821, the priests were recalled to Spain, and communities like this farthest colony of New Mexico were faced with a long journey to seek absolution of sin. There were already traditions of lay brotherhoods dedicated to saints (and it is said some of them in the New Mexican colony were covers for Crypto-Judaism).
Men of the community took it upon themselves to absolve their own sins, so that they could address the sins of the community as well. Their activities included praying, procession, scourging and, at one time, electing a member to be crucified.
Los Penitentes have been a secretive and humble brotherhood. The secretiveness and perhaps lurid nature of the scourging and crucifixion had gained interest in the U.S. in the turn of the 20th century. Penitente practices were portrayed in Brave New World, and I recall as a teenager my Anglo classmates mocking the rituals. I chose not to mention to my classmates that my great-grandfather belonged to the brotherhood. Books on American cults, placed next to Ripley’s Believe It Not!, misconstrued the practices of the brotherhood and showed turn of the century anthropological photos of the crucifixion ritual that was no longer practiced.
One such book even had a “Fernandez Brother” chapter that depicted the “ghastly” activities of some of my relatives that took place more than a hundred years ago. While I have spoken to a Penitente brother and a santero, an artist who carves or paints traditional religious figures, who repaired their moradas, the small churches where the brotherhood worships, their responses rather than “secretive” seemed topics “too personal to discuss.” The brotherhood remains a practice that I have known little about.
There has been a need for humanizing countering the negativeportrayals of the brotherhood, which is a living tradition. And the novel El Hermano doesn’t indulge in the lurid portrayal of flagellation or crucifixion by the Penitentes and does an excellent job in portraying members of brotherhood as a religious people concerned for their community and their spiritual needs.
In the 1920s, the young boy, Jose, and his friends in between going to school and doing chores, wonder what the brotherhood is up to behind the walls of the moradas. They grow anxious as the time nears to join the brotherhood if they prove themselves worthy. Their spying gains the attention of Santa Sebastiana, the New Mexican version of La Muerte (or Santa Muerte), who warns them not to spy upon the brothers.
The boys in their nightly attempts to spy, see other apparitions, and a ball of flame that could be a witch. Their elders counsel them and tell them stories to help them dispel their fear of Santa Sebastiana (fear life and its chance to commit sin, they say) and their approaching adulthood and the spiritual responsibilities of being a part of Los Hermanos begin to take shape.
Earlier on, Jose also worries about the looks of his indigenous nose. He wonders if it is ugly though eventually he accepts it as many people in his family also possess the nose. Not only is it common for teenagers from everywhere to worry about their looks, mestizos worrying about their indigenous features often comes up in U.S. literature and in the journey to accept themselves.
My sister and I, very young and not realizing what we were doing, would accuse each other of having a nose more like mom’s and run to the mirror and push our hawkish flared native noses down to no avail. The nose moment is a good example that El Hermano is a serious book about serious issues—how to be good, whether to defy elders, how to live in the face of death, and faith—it may serve as a Young Adult book but isn’t limited to that genre.
El Hermano is also a historical book—set in the late 20s just before the Great Depression. (Jose says he and his family were already too poor to notice). Eventually, the story follows Jose into the war effort of World War II and to the 1970s. As one of the last hermanos in the valley, he must watch and endure as the order ends.
The rural New Mexican setting and the coming of age of a young boy might bring to mind Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima, but El Hermano is set farther north and is at least 10 years before the confusing times of young soldiers returning home from war and allows focus on the Penitentes. The boys are also different: unlike Antonio, Jose doesn’t question his Catholic faith and is overeager for his acceptance into the brotherhood.
Though characters in El Hermano do not challenge traditions overmuch or get involved in deadly conflicts, they have the conflict of concern for their souls and leading a good life. Though El Hermano searches for answers (and may have a witch), it concentrates more on day to day rural life rather than the many questions of survival and witches at odds with curanderas, as in Bless Me Ultima. The focus is on Los Hermanos and Jose’s eagerness to join them, which makes for a different though not less enjoyable story.
The writing of El Hermano is excellent, not overly ornate, but smooth and easy to read. The story is compelling, the tension of what the boys may find, what the vision of La Muerte means, keeps one reading. The acceleration of the story to tell the whole tale of the main character’s life outside the focus of events is done well, and Jose’s testimonial at the end as an older man wraps the story up nicely.
In the afterward, the author lifts the veil. After her father’s passing, as he was the last brother, she inherited her father’s trunk that contained everything used by the brotherhood for their rituals. It was a revelation for her and seemingly an impetus to share this story. Though the father’s local sect died out, the author has enabled us to see the brotherhood in a new, more honest light rather than as sideshow cultists and moreover honors and sets as examples her hispano forebears. One need not be hispano, Chicano, or Latino to appreciate this book, but for me as a nuevomexicano on the periphery of the Penitente Brotherhood, author Carmen Baca has revealed insights to traditions and a living link to those men who created a way of life for spiritual survival and provided a better understanding of a great-grandfather I have never met.
Scott Russell Duncan, a.k.a. Scott Duncan-Fernandez, recently completed The Ramona Diary of SRD, a memoir of growing up Chicano-Anglo and a fantastical tour reclaiming the myths of Spanish California. Scott’s fiction involves the mythic, the surreal, the abstract, in other words, the weird. Scott received his MFA from Mills College in Oakland, California, where he now lives and writes. He is an assistant editor at Somos en escrito. See more about his work and publications on Scott’s website scottrussellduncan.com.