Terry Mulert is an artist living in Cordova, one village down the mountain from Truchas. And he is a friend of mine. He’s one of the brightest people I know, with a fiercely analytical mind. He’s lived and farmed here for over two decades so his experience of place runs deep. He recently wrote a response to my post How to Open an Art Gallery (see previous post How to Open an Art Gallery) that I felt deserved a considered answer. This is my answer.
First, here is Terry’s letter to me:
“As much as I try to resist (you know you can block me on FB and your blog!), I cannot. Blogs are supposed to generate some reaction, I think, so I am an actor in that context.
Posting a blueprint for opening a gallery in Truchas seems innocent but to me shows insensitivity to the decades of conflict evident in that town regarding contentious relations between long-time established residents (some call them ‘locals,’ a term I find demeaning and a not-so-veiled characteristic of hegemonic patrimony) and more recently arrived residents (some call them ‘newcomers’ – an equally dissatisfying term for me, or worse appellations are applied).
Simply put, nuance and subtlety go a long way in nurturing healthy relationships in a highly charged and culturally politicized context. Aspects of economic opportunity, education and overall community health come into play. You might re-title your post “How to Perpetuate Conflict in a Rural Mountain Village.” I find that it flaunts the divide.
The median income in Rio Arriba county is about $19,000 per year. I know Truchas and Cordova fall well below that. The last census put Cordova at $13,000. Federal guidelines place official poverty level for a family of 4 at about $24,000 and it should be higher.
It’s complicated but at a quick glance, you can see the situation is absolutely dire. It is staggering to really think of it in terms of other factors such as utility costs, transportation costs, nutrition, health care and educational and employment opportunities. About 20% of Rio Arribans live in perpetual poverty and I know Truchas and Cordova are well above that mark. 16% of Rio Arribans have a Bachelor’s degree or higher though my colleague claims that number is way inflated. 12% are ‘white
The “How to open a gallery in Truchas” essay accompanied by pics of braised tuna and linguini with lobster sauce, not to mention images of grampo’s old adobe transformed into the essence of elegance…well, let’s just say I find it to be provocative.
I do not object to the gallery, the beauty, the lifestyle, the economic opportunity you have created for yourself, the world you have created… I object to the reproduction of a cultural divide perpetuated by the one dimensionality of this post. I am concerned by the reproduction of class conflict perpetuated here.
What ideology is at work? Whose culture? Whose history? Whose economy? I believe that your gallery in Truchas is not a neutral act, Jeane. It is a political, cultural and economic act. To what extent do we participate in the social arrangements, the social order of our communities?
I recently read a critique of liberal ideology (written by a neo-marxist) that the collective commitment to social, economic and educational progress is hindered by an inadequate sense of relationships to each other within our communities and without. I think artists have a responsibility just like other agents with special skills and abilities to truly explore the nature of social order.
I would like to respectfully suggest that we examine to what degree we as ‘intellectuals’ legitimate an economic and social stratification that becomes exclusive and elite rather than inclusive. I know you personally, Jeane. I know you are one of the most generous people on earth. At the same time, I cannot ignore the provocative nature of this post. It is such an important subject and one that I am very interested in.” -TM
First of all I want to thank Terry for his response to my post. It means a lot to me that he is regularly reading the blog and is engaged with it. Much of what he says is true—certainly the statistics are. But some of his assumptions about both the blog and me are not.
The first misunderstanding—a rather major one—is that my previous post was about how to open a gallery in Truchas, as Terry indicates a couple of times. It is actually about how to open a gallery in your own area—wherever you may live. As far as I know, all the artists living in Truchas who want to have their own galleries already do.
Secondly, my blog is not a political blog. In fact it is much lighter fare and its scope is limited by design. I write about what I know: my life as an artist, adding profiles of fellow artists, in the hopes we may inspire others. While I touch on the history of this place from time to time (see previous post A Little Mountain History) the focus of my site is simply an examination of my own life and experiences—its ups and its downs—what I do, how I do it. And, while I accept that there is some responsibility for the words I put out into the blogosphere, I truly don’t believe anything I’ve posted on my blog is capable of doing harm.
I, personally, think Terry should start his own blog to write about and cover the issues he is bringing up on mine. They are valid and interesting issues and Terry, clearly, has the knowledge to discuss them. If I have learned anything about writing a blog it is that the blogger must remain true to their own voice. My blog is my voice. It is impossible for me to be genuine using any other. I never set out to write about the conflict in these villages. It simply is not in me to do.
However, I live as respectfully and gently as I know how to do here. I consider it a privilege to be on this land and would never intentionally do anything to dishonor it. I get along well with my neighbors and have offered free art lessons to their children and grandchildren—one small thing I can do. I support the library and the clinic. I have participated in paying for certain water lines. I buy wood every year from my neighbor, Walter. His dream to live on his family’s land out against the land grant was realized, in part, because I brought electricity out to my home, allowing him to build his nearby. I hire friends and neighbors to do projects I can’t do, like fabricating and welding a gate for the back of my property, digging trenches with back hoes, grading my road, plowing it in winter. With permission, I have bought hay and grain to feed livestock when neighbors were in crisis. It’s true I don’t farm. I don’t grow alfalfa or raise my own meat. I don’t use my allotted surface water rights which is, perhaps, disrespectful of the land. But I’ve believed my farming neighbors needed it more. I live here in ways that I understand, that are inherent to me, that I am capable of. But that doesn’t mean I am disrespectful or that I cause harm.
As to our gallery, our landlord interviewed us and thought carefully before renting it out. Once he was assured that we would treat his family’s home with respect, he decided to give us a try. He’s been by many times since and is very happy with everything we’ve done and are doing. The rental of his property to us, provides him with some income and regular upkeep of his family’s home. His mother, who was born in this house, has come by for a tour. Standing in the main room, a smile growing on her lips, she said she wished her father was alive to see what we have done to honor their home. Others in the community have dropped in to say it does their hearts good to see this beautiful old place being brought back to life. They often stay to tell stories of times spent within these walls. I truly don’t see how what we are doing “flaunts the divide.”
Regarding poverty, yes, the villages are very, very poor. And, while our circumstances may be different, I live on a limited income too. I have no investments or pension plans. I don’t draw social security. Everything I had went into creating a life for myself here. Perhaps my “poverty” is, in some ways, a choice, but my neighbors understand and respect that I make do on limited means, too, and they don’t seem to judge me for my different circumstances.
I’ll admit that, in Terry’s context, I was at first embarrassed about my reference to our sumptuous meal at the Trading Post Cafe. This particular meal was a gift (although we do save up money to go there when we’re in Taos because it’s a special treat and we love it). But even in his context, I just can’t believe it’s wrong to sometimes enjoy an excellent meal out when we can, or to write about it on the blog. While it may point out different priorities, histories and circumstances (I don’t buy front loaders or tractors), are we really meant to live falsely—to pretend to be someone we’re not—out of an attempt to somehow equalize our situations? Is that really respectful? And does it do anybody any good? The audience that reads my blog is interested in things like what restaurants to try when they’re in the area, and restaurant owners and staff are endeavoring to make a living too.
In fact I write about local restaurants, galleries and non profits in the hope it may bring them some business. The fates of the people who have lived here for generations, those who continue to farm, are more tied to the land—to water—to how much snow and rain we get each year. That dictates whether or not they can grow enough grain to feed their animals. There is nothing I can do about that except continue to be the best neighbor I know how to be. While the blog does nothing to support the local farmer, it is my hope that it may, ultimately, bring income to my fellow working artists, shop keepers and restaurant people. This, in turn, could create new jobs for others who want to work within the villages. I am only one person and can only touch those things I am capable of touching.
I interviewed Lisa Trujillo of Centinela Traditional Arts about a year ago (see previous post Centinela Traditional Arts, Part 1). She married into a remarkable weaving family. Her husband, Irvin, is a seventh generation weaver and Lisa is, herself, now a master weaver. I want to excerpt a section of that interview which touches on the difficult issues Terry brings up:
“Lisa acknowledges the gift and the privilege of coming into such a rich legacy, and also the responsibility. It is Irvin’s family heritage and everything it stands for means so much. ‘He has extended family that ARE this place’, she says, and the fact that she’s the one who gets to live here when they’ve had to leave in order to earn their livings, weighs on her. ‘I am here, doing this thing,’ she says, ‘and it feels sacred in a different way than the creative process is. All these people put so much work into this land. They stayed here. They suffered here. There’s a responsibility to those people—both the people that have passed and the people that are still around—and I do take that seriously.’ She’s made choices that she’s hoping are OK: Her Spanish isn’t good, she’s not out there farming, she’s not pruning… But she is consciously bringing something of herself into the mix. ‘I think those of us who move in have to have a lot of respect, but there must be a balance too. You have to understand, but you also have to create this in your own way. It’s still me and I have to be a factor—-my history is a part of me and somehow the history of this place is part of me. I have to take everything and make it a complete and healthy whole. I have to be true to the place and the people and myself and my family and my own personal legacy. I have to make it real and I have to make it honest. I must respect my own heritage in order to make it authentic.’”
That’s exactly what I am trying to do.
Love to you all,