A few days ago Kim and I (see previous post A Very Mini Artist’s Colony in New Mexico) went in search of three old mountain villages in northern New Mexico, inspired by the books I’ve recently finished by Cleofas Jaramillo. A reader told me about them, just as he’d led me to Behind the Mountains, the book by Oliver LaFarge that inspired my trip to Rociada, NM last winter (see previous post A Journey to Rociada). I never credited him then but I want to thank Mark Mosher, now, for guiding me to a number of very stimulating books that have taken me to parts of New Mexico I doubt I would have found without them. I still have one of his recommendations, sitting unread, on Georgia O’Keeffe’s houses that I’m dying to get to. I bought it at the same time as the Jaramillo books because her husband’s family (and she also for a time) lived in O’Keeffe’s Abiqui home. Unlike Mark, I was unable (or unwilling?) to read all of the books at the same time although I imagine it could have opened up my sense of her people and, by extension, her.
These books, Romance of a Little Village Girl, Shadows of the Past and New Mexico Tasty Recipes, weren’t as easy to be sympathetic to as was Mr. LaFarge’s Behind the Mountains. But then Oliver LaFarge was a Pulitzer Price winning author whose work regularly appeared in the New Yorker. Cleofas was an elderly Spanish woman with, she admits, no training as a writer, and English as her second language, but with a passion to record a way of life that she saw disappearing.
While I sense LaFarge chose to edit his stories, making them more palatable to the sensibilities of his (and our) time (he published his book in the mid 1950s), Cleofas didn’t. She regularly refers to Indians as savages, the military as saviors, her family’s workers as peons, and from her tone I did wonder in what sense she was using the term. Did she mean an employee, an underling, a person somehow without standing, or worse, was she referring to forced labor, an indentured servant?
She recounts games and festivities, not shrinking back at all, that were unimaginably cruel to animals but were, within her day and culture, apparently the norm–games that had been unquestioningly passed down from her motherland, Spain. She also seemed to yearn for the attention she felt was her due, because of her station, but that was no longer recognized.
So she and her time were far less likable than the rather idealized characters portrayed by LaFarge in his book recounting his wife’s family’s experiences of the same time. He wrote about a sweet and slow time now lost forever. She a time of class and privilege that seemed to be collapsing into itself, likely due to those very inequities.
Still, I stayed with her because she was very simply and honestly recording her experience, unvarnished and raw, unedited. Married in 1898, she must have been growing up in these villages in the 1880’s. I wanted to know what it was really like and she told me in remarkable detail. It was a hard life, even for the elites.
She refers to Arroyo Hondo as the VALLEY of Arroyo Hondo, not the town that remains there today, perched on the shoulder of the canyon itself. She tells of three villages within the valley, but never gives their names. My sense was that these three villages were symbiotically linked somehow and in that way they were intimate, like one village.
I don’t think I ever found what she was describing on our drive. I know I was near. Of course there is the village of Arroyo Hondo and I imagine it is pretty central to the area she’s writing about. There is an old church in one small turn of the town…
… and some large stock watering ponds sprinkled here and there across the various pastures.
I passed the occasional old mud structure going back to the earth. I think these may be remnants of the villages she leaves unnamed.
On this day trip I didn’t witness her “… bowl scooped out between two canyons, bounded on the north and south by a double ridge of high hills… the basin, wider in the center, narrowing gradually towards the east and west ends, where the canyon gates close it.” It’s a description, I think, made of a beloved home that she felt needed few details because Arroyo Hondo’s villages must have been so well known during her day, at least in her heart. So I am left to wonder, where are these villages she describes?
But I did find the Rio Hondo River and drove the two miles steeply down, “…winding amid pillars of rock that rise in places like giant sentinels,” to where the Rio Hondo empties into the Rio Grande. And it is exactly as magnificent as she describes (so beautiful that I forgot to take pictures of it).
And this day trip has me pondering. I think maybe we each come here simply to add our energy to the great and grand mix that has existed and has been added to since the beginning of time. No small thing.
But, like the three villages of Arroyo Hondo, unless one knows what they’re looking for, solid, physical evidence of most of our lives will be erased from the face of the earth.
So I think it may all be about the love we share while we’re here, the forgiveness, the compassion, the imperfection; the ache that it is to be human. In fact I believe it is our own personal ache we are here to experience and I believe that is what we leave behind, what we give to the universe: our own experience of living through our human bodies. And there is nobody else who can do it exactly as I do, as you do. So in that way you and I are important. We matter. We all do.
And we are each as magnificent as the Arroyo Hondo where it meets the Rio Grande, equally powerful, each adding our personal experience to the collective whole, like the river flowing, giving its life blood to the land, to the larger river, to the sea. We merge our personal energy into the whole.
Love to you all,