In 1988 Robert Redford filmed The Milagro Beanfield War here in Truchas. I don’t know how many of you have read John Nichols’s book by the same name, but it is a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. I’ve been trying to paint a picture, on this blog, for those of you not from New Mexico, of what it’s like to live here. This book does that.
There is still evidence of the film around town. The lawyer/journalist’s house is on my road. No one lives in it but my neighbor, Wally, is fixing it up. I’m told we still have the fake bean plants in the library and “Ruby’s Body Shop & Pipe Queen” still shows on the front of an old adobe structure.
Milagro means miracle in Spanish. Milagros are also part of Hispanic folk culture: Little silver offerings in the shape of arms, legs, hearts, livestock, that people use as prayers to the Santos, addressing their particular needs, or which act as offerings of thanks for the correction of a problem. I was completely unaware of them before coming here. There is a very rich traditional culture in New Mexico that is all new to me that I believe you would find intriguing as well. It’s one of the reasons Redford wanted to make the movie and why he wanted to film it in one of these old villages.
As with much of the conquistadores’ Hispanic Catholicism that followed them into the New World, the custom of offering Milagros to the saints fit with Native American practices. The use of talismans, amulets and other tangible symbols, by Indians, as prayer aides and protection, is well documented. Perhaps it is one of the reasons these two cultures have found ways of coexisting here over the centuries, sharing similar religious practices, recognized or not. Partly because of the intermarriage of the Spanish and Indians, there has been a blending of traditions shaping practices indigenous to this place. I’m just finishing a book about Merlin that takes up this very custom of using little carved objects to communicate with the gods, this in the Dark Ages of Britain and Rome. Isn’t it fascinating how alike and connected we humans are and have been, over the oceans and across time?
The book and the movie are, in essence, about power struggles–between the rich and the poor, but also over water. New Mexico is one of the dry southwest states and water has always been a huge issue. Wars are fought over it, even today. There is a network of irrigation ditches, called acequias, which were dug by the Spanish in the 17th and 18th centuries throughout the entire state, that are still used today. Every spring the whole village participates in the cleaning of the ditches. Their use is overseen by a mayordomo whose job it is to regulate the flow of water to all the parcels of land. This is accomplished through a system of gates that are opened and closed to put water to the fields at scheduled times. In The Milagro Beanfield War, the village is dying because most of the water has been diverted to a large development. But one day a local man kicks a long-closed gate which brings water and life, once again, to his bean field. Ultimately his action brings life back to the town.
As part of the 20th anniversary edition of the movie, Robert Redford was interviewed about the making of the film. He speaks of the power of this land and the need to preserve it, of the old traditional people, and the triangle of cultures, Anglo, Spanish and Indian, that exist here. He discusses the area’s fascinating history and the remnants of history that remain in some of these remote villages in the mountains of northern New Mexico. He celebrates the mystery of this place and its people. Speaking of the locals he says, “Those people believe what they believe. They are the way they are. They’re quirky. They’re unpredictable. They’re in a land that is so powerful and magical there’s no way you can control it. This is real for these people. They do believe in ghosts. They believe the deceased come back and talk to them and bother them. There’s something in our culture that’s so rooted in reality it’s hard to accept those things.”
Before coming here, after having bought the land, when I was in the process of building my house, I would get scared sometimes. Everybody I knew thought I was crazy leaving my home and going to a tiny Spanish Land Grant village in the middle of nowhere by myself. But I felt guided to come here. So, when fear threatened to overtake me, I would play Robert Redford’s interview about this place to which I was coming and I would take comfort in his words that told of a miraculous, powerful land where people believe in magic as reality, and where John Nichols’s fairy tale joins with the mythology of this area and makes perfect sense.