How They Came to Be Here
The first Solución outsiders came in long columns. They were not very neat columns. They were jagged columns punctuated by rakes and oxen, loom parts, sacks of provisions, flour, castanets, carpeting, and window frames. That was about 1598 A.D. The people who formed and marched in these columns had arrived by boat in Mexico and then took the marginally hopeful road due north.
They brought with them the contents of damn near their whole houses on those boats from Spain. They carried hoes and plows and drove churro sheep, thousands of sheep, ahead of them. The sheep lost long tufts of wool along the way and thus left a bright notice of their passing. The off-white strands caught on cactus as the sheep missed the path or shied witlessly away from the deep rattling of some coiled snake or sniffed the odor of coyote spoor. And the sheep suffered from the journey every bit as much as did the people. Fleeces can be deceptive. A sheep unshorn may appear to be fluffy and fit. Thus, the woebegone creatures sheep looked healthy at the start of the trek. But after a few days of travel, they were actually quite withered about the flanks and ribs.
The people, unlike the sheep, came protected by Christian warriors and were hapless inheritors of a crusader mentality. The people, a fifth of them women, came dressed in handspun cloth and carrying crosses, lots of crosses, following the padres and the Christian soldiers. Sheep, priests, soldiers, ordinary men and women, pretty much in that order. It was a motley spectacle. As some dropped out, dead tired or dead, the people made cots of poles and blankets or simple wooden coffins for them. The still living were abjured for their weakness and pilloried for lack of faith. They were invited to follow as soon as possible, but only if they committed to praying without cease.
The others kept moving, plodding their way over Puebloan ancestral lands, desecrating kivas, ignoring sacred mountains and streams and dishonoring the places where spider woman lived, winds originated, and the sun set and rose. They stole adobe bricks from Puebloan homes and with them made unstable churches to mark their way and announce that their claim to the land was a Christian claim.
Somehow, their religion made them feel superior to others.
As they trudged along to the north, some made careless love amidst the prickles and the sand of night stops. Some walked miserably, remembering home and sweet grape wine and grandmothers of summer. Many were kind and good-willed but determined to make a new life, though not necessarily better, no matter at whose expense. They remained steadfastly ignorant of whose ground they’d stepped on and how it would all play out.
Some of what they carried with them was insidious, even invisible. They carried blood, mucous, the contents of their own intestines, and the saliva in their own mouths. In these they harbored parasites and pestilence that spread to the original inhabitants. Their animals devoured native plants and trampled garden plots.
And they brought something more. It was a mentality from which they never freed themselves. They never freed themselves because it was so much a part of them that they did not know it existed. It was, this mindset, a medieval attachment to order, mystery, miracle, and authority. When these people left their part of Europe, their villages were still in the dark ages. The new ones would be no different. The inhabitants of these isolated lands had learned, for centuries, to submit. Life, whether it might end today or tomorrow, was capricious. But order of the universe was stable and certain. They had learned over the centuries to know their place in that order. They had learned that you either have money or you don’t, you either have what you need to survive or you don’t. You don’t transform yourself or the world. You don’t make money. You can’t better your situation, at least not substantially. But your situation can get worse. When bad luck strikes, and it is always luck, it is not in consequence of one’s own shortcomings. One is forever guilty, but there is nothing to do about it. There is no point in self-examination. There is nothing to do but pray harder or beat oneself more frequently.
These were people who surrounded themselves with images and icons that held power, and they called upon that power for whatever little benefit they might imagine it could bring to themselves. Magic, they had come to believe, is as powerful as faith. Faith was perhaps useful, but there were so many other ways to get to heaven: interminable prayers; debasing oneself by accepting guilt for absolutely everything wrong in the world; crawling for miles to the sites of rumored miracles, usually the appearance of some apparition or another; scourging oneself with studded whips or cattails; leaving some money for masses in one’s honor. Besides, faith alone could so easily be seeded with doubt. Best not to count on it.
These were people for whom, it must be said, the renaissance did not happen. They, ensconced in the ravaged country side of Spain and then later in the high, isolated hills of New Mexico, did not hear of or see the humanizing messages that had sprouted in Florence and Venice and created Gods that had flesh and angels that had real emotion: Marys who could cry and Christs who could forgive. They had never heard of Da Vinci or seen the trembling giants carved by Michelangelo, titans caught by him, in the purest marble, midway in their struggle to escape from the stones of prejudice and superstition. They did not learn, ever, to question, to appreciate, to reckon, to inquire, or even to love very well.
And so with all their burdens and limitations, the newcomers pushed forward.
They ate all the corn the old original people had. Sometimes, they gave to the dispossessed beads in return. This could not compensate for the starvation, the violations, and the depredations done in the name of Christianity.
Not one of these travelers from Europe, not one, saw the faces lurking in the bosques. Those were the faces of the people who had fled from their homes to the mountains as the onslaughts continued. They abandoned their pueblos, fearing these invaders, believing them to be, as rumors and news of their imminent arrival preceded them, thieves and rogues.
No one even saw the signs in poplar trees and along the empty riverbanks, for those who had fled left signs everywhere hoping to warn the invaders away, at least, from their most sacred spots. No one imagined the terror that crept beside them night after night and stalked them on leather feet, for those who had fled left an invisible army to keep an eye on these newcomers and try to make them behave properly if they insisted on staying. These were the watchers. And they had patient faces that would both rail and laugh at the entrada and wait and wait, for centuries, if necessary, to make a point. Those of the invaders who settled on sacred land were in for a lot of trouble and they were never, ever, alone. The watchers never let them out of their sights.
With the original inhabitants of the land either routed, starved out, killed or simply missing from their abandoned villages, it was easy for the intruders to imagine that the land was not ever really populated, was raw and waiting for them to take possession of it. A fiction was developed as the old inhabitants became literally and figuratively more invisible to the newcomers. This fiction was that the land of North America was truly empty and largely unpopulated before the coming of the Europeans. This fiction, boldly stated, suggested that even if there were people, they were heathen wanderers who had no real right to the land, never really used it. This fiction was restated for literally hundreds of years so that even as late as the early nineteenth century maps were still in circulation that had little indication of the native people who lived or had lived west of the Mississippi. Those maps were copied and recopied, and fueled huge demographic shifts: Americans and Europeans in pursuit of all that free and open land. Maps and journals and letters written to the folks back home perpetuated the notion that no one of consequence lived in this land before the surveyors came and plotted it, the homesteaders claimed their bits, and the trains came bringing more and more people to fill in this “wasted” space.
That fictional landscape might seem an ideal setting for a story to the casual, uncritical reader. If the landscape were really empty, one could, after all, fill it with any creatures and beings that suited a writer’s fancy. But my story is not fiction. I’m an anthropologist. I don’t write fiction.
Where is Solución and what has all this to do with it? Anthropologists are trained to protect the identity of the places we study as well as that of our informants. We change the names of towns and the names of our informants. And we don’t give away precise geographical information. So I can’t tell you exactly where Solución is or, rather, was. I can tell you that Solución is somewhere in the American southwest and it had its beginnings long ago, shortly after the people in the long columns with the sheep and soldiers began to establish small farming villages.
But I can and must tell you that the place where Solución was built by the invaders was, of course, decidedly not empty land. It was a populated area with abundant gardens and a multitude of hills and caves and underwater springs that were considered quite sacred by its native inhabitants. This is perhaps the most critical thing you should understand because the founders of Solución got this wrong. It was their biggest mistake. Yes, the land where Solución was established had been fully occupied by mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, houses and crops, and languages and histories. The Puebloan ancestors lived well for thousands of years before the Spanish weavers and their sheep came. And, as in other places where they were displaced, there were watchers, always watchers, who stood by looking at the villagers, causing them to close their shutters and look over their shoulders, and who came out gleefully at night to knock on doors and call out like night owls and cause gates to creak and dogs to bark for generations and generations after the weavers arrived. The watchers regularly placed misery in chili fields and mistakes in rugs. They pulled up root crops and caused spots on apples. They broke weft strings over and over and left the backs of weavers aching and permanently bent. They made corn meal wormy. Tamales spoiled too quickly in coolers bound for sale in super market parking lots. Boxes of potatoes from Colorado, traded for beans and meant to last the long, cold mountain winters, sprouted too early at the bidding of these wraiths. Crab spiders dropped from the lintels of kitchen doors and bit long suffering housewives hard on their cheeks causing ferocious welts. These people, these ancients, didn’t forget easily, and they laughed among themselves and made everyone in Solución cranky by the end of the day with all their irritating tricks interferences.
They did little needling things and some bigger really nasty things. For example, they sawed off Oñate’s right foot. Well, not the real Oñate’s real foot. It was the foot of a bigger than life-size bronze-on-horseback of the cruel conquistador who claimed New Mexico for Spain and cut off the right feet of two dozen young men of Acoma whom he forced into servitude. Sawing off the statues foot was a clear message that nobody missed.
Solución, you should know, was a place with wonderful, musical names sprinkled over it like powdered sugar on sweet cakes of the anunciación: Ortegas, Vigils, and Sanchez. These names are due honor and remembering. They are the names of good, hard working people. Their histories go back to the heart of Spain and the heartache of the fanaticism of Cardinal Guzman’s Holy Inquisition. They are people who were brave and who in spite of all their cultural and historical baggage earnestly wanted better lives for themselves and their children. They under took frightening but hopeful journeys to the New World in ships laden with those looms and sheep I’ve described. They were people who trekked, with their owners, up the Rio Grande along the dry riverbed and across the sun bright deserts and along the Camino Real to claim their land grants and escape their own inevitable persecution in Europe. As if their lives could be worse. They came to plant those often ill fated fields of chilies and their beans and corn, all crops that they learned about quickly upon their arrival. They came to dig irrigation ditches and labor until they were bent and old and all for very little return. There is no fault here. They just didn’t understand their sins and they didn’t know that the land was not free after all. They paid for it over and over for centuries.
They paid in odd ways. And the stories people told me about what happened to them over the centuries were simply incredible. Believe me, it wasn’t always so easy for me to accept what I’ve got to tell you. I was trained to look at the world of phenomena objectively. I was trained not to value one thing over another. I was trained to watch and report. I was trained to keep my distance. I was trained to be a really good anthropologist. So I listened and watched and did not, at first, judge. And, as I was taught, I kept my distance. But I was not prepared to simply observe and dispassionately keep my distance from some of the more bizarre things I was told about and saw with my own eyes. At first, I laid it all to coincidence, tricks, and to the highly developed imaginations of culturally insulated people who just had a lot of bad luck. I am a logical person. But I have been convinced that what I have seen and experienced in this village is real. I believe in logic and the rational, observable world. I believe that everything has a reasonable explanation. But I’ve learned in my work here that there are some things that just don’t fit the categories I grew up with and can’t be explained by scientific theoretical frameworks.
By the way, I suppose you could call me a kind of watcher too. It’s just that I was a very visible watcher with a Ph.D. and with an agenda quite different from that of the other watchers. Now, at the end of my career, my role has changed from watcher to initiated witness with a responsibility, ultimately, to speak of what I was told, what I saw and what I knew during all the years I’ve been coming to the southwest