Thought and Language On the River: A Pandemia Chronicle

I was surprised to learn that my thoughts about New Mexico and its troubled relationship with its “Hispanic” heritage begin with my memories of a psychology class during my graduate studies in special education. In Oregon. About a Russian dissident before dissidents were uncool and, you know, thrown onto a Siberian tundra (come to think of it, still true). Trips have a way of tripping you into early lights fantastic. But it’s worth it.

Shaman at Gran Quivira Pueblo confronting Friar Alonso Benavides when the entire pueblo agreed to become Christian [You’re] “so crazy . . . whipping each other like madmen spilling blood . . .and that’s the way you want it, so that these people would also be fools!” Sadly, everybody laughed and the Friar felt vindicated. They shoulda paid attention.

Here I was circa 1987. Or so. I was mildly interested in the psych class, in the middle of a 6th life with yet another personal crisis . . . .yeah, let’s just go on. I don’t remember the instructor, which is a true tragedy because she really changed my intellectual life by making us read a somewhat obscure book about a somewhat obscure early Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygotsky and his seminal work Thought and Language (translated from the Russian, “Myslenie e Rech”, which actually means “thinking and speaking” an important distinction) and introduced by a Russian scholar, Alex Kozulin (who now resides in Jerusalem. Won’t hold it against him). All those caveats are really important if you are to avoid some of the later more distorted versions. . . .

Yes, I know, so what has that got to do with the price of tea in China? Not much, but it does have to do with the price of European erasure of multiple peoples and their languages in the early Southwest. Words like “Christian” can seem so appealing until, well, some friar starts whipping himself and asking you to emulate him (see photo above).

How Language and Culture are Synonymous

You see, Vygotsky’s singular essential contribution was that thought (thinking) and language (speaking) are intimately tied directly to each other. That our intellect is governed by our experiences as we learn to talk, projecting inward; outer speech begets inner speech begets, well, thoughts–intellect, it’s all a product of action.

I remember almost literally devouring Vygotsky’s words. It led me to other theories regarding culture and language, which I will just suffice to state: language and culture are synonymous. Yes, they are the same thing. Language is a product of experience, culture is a product of experience. When you experience something, eventually you or someone who already knows, will tell you what to call it, how to say it, when to use it, and most important, how to remember it.

In the Americas long before Europeans, people here were finding ways to help each other do all kinds of things, hunt, gather, tell a friend that she likes somebody and then they giggle. Humans, we not only have a need to live, we need to tell somebody about it because we don’t really live alone. This was certainly true of the deserts, plains, and forests across what is now Texas, northern Mexico, Al-buh-kirkee (see previous post). They lived along rivers mostly but it was a long way from each other’s habitaciones, so, when they talked to each other, it had to make sense to those around them. Communication wasn’t initially meant to be built from a common binary numeric logic but to tell somebody else where the deer are as opposed to bringing home some sage along with the meat. . . among other things.

A Zone of Proximal Development: Or, Telling ’em What They Want to Hear

Which is why when Europeans, well, first, Spaniards but then all the others, were so impressed–dismayed–that there were hundreds of languages abounding all around what they believed was now their land. So, imagine poor Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, let’s say Frankie for short (he won’t mind now or, you know, it won’t matter). Here he is searching for the Seven Cities of Cíbola, the lost cities of gold and he comes up to the folk that had told Markie Mark Niza (Friar Marcos de Niza) from an earlier “expedition” in unintelligible proto-Tanoan speaking through a translator in early Keres that, “yeah, I think you’ll find Cíbola over there across the great ‘ocean of . . . .’ except only someone who speaks Towa knows about it, so, you should go down the river and talk to them”. . . . Long story short, Frankie and kids end up in Kansas (maybe) looking for some great city called “Quivira” after losing themselves across the Llano Estacado, the great “ocean” being a sea of seemingly endless prairie that all of a sudden descends into canyons along rivers.

Oh, and killing the poor schmoe who agreed to take them, “taking one for the team” so these nasty guys in armor, leather, and horses they wouldn’t even eat for food would get out of their village hair. Yes, probably not all that comical and likely really more dire, but this part of history really sucks, so, it’s best to tell it this way.

Suffice to say that the well-spoken singularly Spanish speakers really didn’t know what to do with all those languages and cultures, so, they decided that, for census and recordkeeping purposes, “let’s just say they’re all pueblos. ‘Cause they all live in adobe huts and settlements.” Maybe not enough said, but it helps. You know, for Chuckie’s sake back in Spain (that’s King Carlos V).

Hidden Languages, Hidden People

There were hundreds of pueblos all along the Rio Grande and other rivers, the Chaco, the Puerco, a lot. And and equally lot of languages/culture. In the recent past, there are 19 extant pueblos in New Mexico, comprising language groups of Tano-Kiowa (Tiwa, Tewa, Towa) and Keresan. However, each of these pueblos have distinct languages, the farther from each other, the less common they are to each other. In addition, are the “Ancestral Puebloans” along the Chaco Canyon; who were known earlier as the “Anazasi”–itself a Navajo name for them, “ancient enemies” (you can see the problem with the term). Many of the earlier peoples, including those in the direct area of Albuquerque are simply lost and the languages spoken, therefore, their specific cultures gone.

It wasn’t a simple process of attrition. Earlier this week, I went to a nature preserve called Bosque del Apache, which is not a preserve of the Apache but which is situated on the land of the Piros people who inhabited that part of the Rio Grande River. Eventually, this people were forced by Spanish disease and Apache raids to leave their homes and join other pueblos. With the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680 where all the different peoples along the river coordinated attacks that destroyed the hated missions built atop their ancestral homes and drove the Spanish out, the Piro were forcibly taken with the defeated Spanish to what is now El Paso. They never returned.

This kind of destruction happened even more acutely when the Spanish eventually returned in 1692 and re-conquered the region putting to death many leaders and destroying many pueblos in their eventual establishment of both Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In Santa Fe, the central downtown plaza was the site of executions for leaders of the subsequent revolt after the Spanish returned. In Albuquerque, land grants were issued, Estancias and later Plazas created where pueblos were once present. In other places, earlier pueblos, were subsumed into later ones such as the Pecos people who became a part of the Jemez Pueblo. Or how many Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Keres along the Rio Grande joined other peoples including the Diné (Navajo), Zuni, Apache, and Kiowa west and east on the plains and deserts. Different languages/cultures eventually became, well, different and newer languages/cultures. New experience begets new language, which begets new thinking. It just doesn’t always happen for good reasons.

I also visited the ruins of pueblos of the Salinas Missions, Abó and Gran Quivira (seems Frankie should have stayed put a little longer). These two, part of a trio with Quarai village were sites of salt trade before the coming of the Spanish and which were then usurped into Spanish missions.

In these “pueblos”, trade and sharing of ideas and experiences occurred across centuries that likely made the people increasingly open to possibilities. Although they of course had their conflicts (largely poorly understood and only accessible through the minds of Catholic friars or conquistadores), it is likely that when the next “trader/medicine man”, like Alonso de Benavides, Portuguese Friar of the Spanish Crown came to pueblo it’s not surprising that the people of Quivira, Abó, and Quarai were impressed enough to convert to Christianity and laugh at their trusted shaman who thought they were fools. And, thus, began the slow unfortunate, never inexorable, but deliberate descent into . . . heaven.

The term “Pueblo” acutely erases much history and the eradication of many people who spoke to each other and used cultural traditions described in their languages. Today, “Puebloan” becomes alternately a call to unity and to the acquiescence to accept lost identities subsumed into a “native population”. Some may consider this unifying principle a positive opportunity to bring peoples together in an otherwise atomizing existence. And, yes, there is an advantage to it albeit born of centuries rooted in oppression and eradication by continuous waves of European layering over the sherds, sands, adobe blocks, and bones of dead or dying cultures. . . .languages. Many are beginning to reassert that unity born of oppression is not as advantageous as unity born of recognition not just in common histories but alternate and diverse experiences. The unifying center now becomes a rejection of the past as represented by the warriors and “shamans” of the Catholic church who forcibly subsumed whole peoples and their languages/cultures.

What Was Didn’t Have to Be And It Doesn’t Have to Follow

In some ways, it is too bad that the road to finding more democratic and liberational solutions (as opposed to “liberal”, which may or may not liberate depending on what it describes) should have to come in upending centuries of oppression when it comes to the children of rape and slavery (that’s Brown and Black people in case you didn’t already guess). Even the myopic version of “progress” didn’t have to come by so many people dying and their thinking–words, languages; cultures–destroyed. That what we have today came by that road is not an argument but an observation.

Historically, it was unnecessary except to those who believe progress is measured in developing multiple ways to obviate natural experience. We simply do not know if “technology” had to arrive on silicon and in binary numbers converted into bits that result in the type you are reading and not in some organic medium based in bio-electricity for instance.

Here’s a word you should emblaze in your psyche, teleology. And, while you’re at it, inscribe reification too. When we say that “American progress” had to come through the eradication of Indian people, we are engaging in a teleological argument, it happened, therefore, it had to happen, or what happened next wouldn’t have happened. . . .Self-serving, huh?

And, when we speak of, say, a two-party system or, you know, White-based cultural standards as being “American”, we are reifying what exists and comparing every other actual American experience by an arbitrary standard rooted in, well, who won. Up to now, anyway.

I think Douglas Adams put it well,

“Anything that happens, happens. Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen. Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again.
It doesn’t necessarily do it in chronological order, though.”

(From Mostly Harmless, Book 5 of his best-selling trilogy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

In the Beginning Was the Word

I bet you think I got that title from the Bible, huh? No. It comes from Vygotsky (see? You shoulda known I’d get back to that). In speaking about words, Vygotsky thinks of them not as teleological or reified objects; cat isn’t just Tabby or, you know “Vygostsky” (the name of a friend’s pet I used to know) nor is it some greater thing as “feline’ denoting a more biological speciation. It is, was, ok, will be too, a sign. A signal upon which actions occur and which describe earlier actions (who knows what those are, we weren’t there when it was first “denoted”).

For example–to get back to the subject here–Anasazi was a longtime word naming people who are now called “Ancestral Puebloans” centered around the Chaco Canyon “pueblos”. The Diné, whom we used to name “Navajo” called these people Anasazi, which the Spanish adopted glossing over the translation meaning “ancient enemies”. Get it? See? A word connotes much more than a name. Another example, Comanche is a word taken from the Utes by the Spanish to mean “People who are always fighting us”. The beginning of a word is not its name; but its deed. It’s implication. Its reason for existence. And it is based in every single element of action and perception–prejudice and bias–that we imbue it to tell the world what it is we’ve experienced and, therefore, finally, think.

So, my word–my bias–is to describe myself as Chicano; a politically based term rooted in my experiences. It leads me to inscribe the world with a commitment to uphold neither my European nor my Indian roots, but my existential roots traversing multiple worlds; accepted in some manner and rejected in others.

It reminds me a bit of that scene in Young Guns the movie with Emilio Ésteves as Billy the Kid where he and Doc (Kieffer Sutherland) are behind a rock outnumbered by a posse and he says grinning, “excitin’ ain’t it?” Exhilarating in the glory of your moment, ignorant of the real danger that lurks around you. Or, you know, when Edward James Olmos in the movie Selena complains to his daughter that “the Mexicans hate us ’cause we’re too Anglo and the Anglos hate us ’cause we’re too Mexican. . .it’s exhausting!”

Walls in Glass, Rivers Telling Lifetimes

My journey through Al-buh-kirkee and Niew Mex-uh-Co has been a study in words I’ve always taken for granted, Pueblo, Anasazi , parks, nature preserve, Rio Grande. . . .Manuel. When I look at the river, it’s no longer about how polluted it is nor how tame it’s become against flooding. It’s a highway through multiple histories, forgotten lives, unknown tragedies; inexorably streaming to a sea absorbing all the blood and pain, love, and exultation. They–the river and all the people that it met–make me different somehow even though I only lived upon it for a short time, just two lifetimes. And met her once again–for the first time–during my ninth.

The sun shines opaquely through warped glass this Sunday afternoon, a bit like the enlightenment you think you see when you look deep into your history. You see the brightness, feel the warmth in the afternoon sheltered by Lime Green walls and desert prints. Knowing that so much is yet to learn once you walk out the door into the sun.

“Excitin’, ain’t it?”

Grand River–People and Hearts At the Banks : A Pandemia Chronicle

It’s a grand river in that it is long cutting through the heart of a state, two countries, and of history. It was never meant to be more than a place where people could settle, live their lives, nourish from the waters squeezed from the snow of mountains and the rain that graced the land along the way. People live along its banks, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other. History turned it into borders and the places everyone across the years would covet.

I’ve spent some time in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Al -buh kirkee, Niehw Mex a Coh. It’s tempting to correct the locals, and the tourists from overr yonderr and say the word correctly Albukehrrkeh with, you know, that lilty Spanish/Mexican accent that the writers on Saturday Night Live like to mock when gringos try to say it, or even a fluent Spanish TV reporter might do when “reporting live from Isleta (eeslet-tah) Nuevo Mehico”, I’m Manuel Barrrrerra”. And we’d all be appropriately cognizant of our “cultural relevance” in knowing how to say Latino names and places. Except, of course, that Spanish is also a language of oppression and Al-buh-kirkee is just the name of some guy from Spain, the then (1706) Viceroy Francisco Fernandez de la Cuervo, the eighth Duque (that’s Duke to y’all) De Alburquerque of Spain. The extra “r” isn’t a typo, Duke Al-buh-kirkee was really Duque de AlbuRquerque. You can imagine how difficult it is for an Anglo mouth to wrap itself around all those “rs”, so, hence, Al-buh-kirkee. . . . You’d think you could say, the “rest is history”, but . . . .not quite.

You see, Albuquerque, like New Mexico (I’ll leave you to your pronunciations as you like), has history deeper, and hidden, in among all the cultural “Hispanic” relevance. It is a town commissioned by Europeans atop multiple generations of villages, pueblos, that lived along the river, the Rio Grande. Like all the places I have visited on this journey, “Paleo-Indians” were here nearly 12,000 years before our present. They and their descendants were ancient long before the Spanish came. They had evolved into more “modern” cultures over thousands of years by the year 1540, when the colonizer/”explorer” Francisco Vasquez de Coronado came to see if there were cities of gold lyin’ around for him to claim.

New Mexico is a place of ancient origins, from Clovis to Las Huertas Canyon near Bernalillo, it is the site for evidence of the earliest known settled peoples (sorry, can’t really make myself say “Paleo-Indians” too much longer) in the northern part of the “Americas”. There are earlier sites further south in Patagonia near Chile, but the people known as the “Clovis culture” and “Folsom people” were the first respectively evident here. I can see why the state claims itself to be the “land of enchantment”. In many respects, history, actual history and not just that of the European incursion, began here.

In New Mexico, much of the early peoples existed in multiple cultures with many languages. Albuquerque is a rich case in point that is too often centered in the existence of the “pueblo” Indians. in truth, all along the middle Rio Grande River flowing through Albuquerque, various peoples existed. In the heart of this city, those people who lived here called themselves Tigua or Tiwa. And these people were evident from south to the north, east and west, all Tewa/Tiwa/Tigua. They were called Pueblo because the Spanish grouped them into people who lived in settled places, often in adobe structures on the banks of the Rio Grande, or the Chaco, or the Galisteo. What is common about these people is something more basic, they lived along rivers.

Rivers and Rifts

When I arrived in Albuquerque, I was drawn first to the river, the Rio Grande. The same river around which I grew up in South Texas, but now much further north; I’ll call her “Rio”. Rio begins in Colorado, her heart drawn from the mountain snowmelt of the Rocky Mountains. But if Colorado holds her heart, the greater portion of its north runs like an artery through the heart of New Mexico, granting life and providing home to the early peoples of this land. It is here where Rio’s journey really gets interesting. You see, she is a product truly of a land that was in process of growing, spreading, building and becoming truly . . .grand. Rio evolved in what is a “rift valley” a spreading zone of the continent filled by the waters flowing through it. I can understand how it was a place that grew civilizations by so many people.

It seems so narrow and petty to think that “civilization” only came with people in armor plating, unknown diseases, astride animals descended from those who once inhabited this very land. What they brought of value, horses, were in fact originated from here, what they found of value, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, great stores of silver that fueled the growth of economics, also from here. And what they uniquely brought was not industry, but arrogance and want, that somehow they could “advance” this world, inhabited as early as their own European descendants, and decided to call it “new”.

The Pueblos Beneath

All throughout Albuquerque, the history that was here is largely hidden. Where once there were pueblos, there were then mercedes reales (royal gifts), land grants given to pay Spanish soldiers and colonists for their efforts to grow the Spanish empire, from there were “estancias”, smaller divisions of land inherited by the children of the “original” landholders. And still later, victors of later wars, with Mexico and then the Civil War, gained access to lands from those who had bet wrongly and supported the other side. You wouldn’t know that this enchanted land actually belonged to no one but was one that provided so many mercedes naturales to those who came just to find their place in the sun, along a river.

In my searching to understand who were the original people, where the pueblos actually were, I found very little. It seems that much of the history of the early people is based on the now smaller number of existing pueblos, mostly outside of the cities. When I walked along the Rio Grande Paseo Del Bosque Trail, there were notes about the existence of pueblos along the river’s banks.

But there was scant evidence of these early settlements.

I was able to find a helpful document about one of the “plazas” that were early Spanish settlements, “LOS RANCHOS PLAZA (LA 46638): Test Excavations at a Spanish Colonial Settlement in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, 1996–1997″ by Kathryn Sargeant and her colleagues (2005). Their report documented the layered history of early Albuquerque.

Now, I’m sure that there may be other such documents available. But what was revealing from this paper is how sparse the evidence of early Spanish settlements and the even rarer evidence documenting the early pueblos here. To this day, of the existing number of pueblos, many of their locations in this area are documented as ‘lost” only referenced that they were identified by early colonists but unknown where they are.

I went to the site of the former “Los Ranchos” settlement where thousands of pre-Spanish artifacts and dwellings were reported by Sargeant, et al. (2005). A very different place. It’s clear that history in Albuquerque is considered primarily about ‘Hispanic heritage” and while early peoples are identified in the culture and history, prominence is given to those that survived and the richness of their ubiquity throughout the landscape seems relegated to one of mystery and magic, enchantment. Rock art is appreciated, but who these people really were and how they lived seems all but forgotten, or ensconced in a singular cultural entity, “pueblo”.

People on the Banks–Connected by a River

I think I would have liked the river people here. They must have been very different than the story that is told about them. I can imagine them earlier hunting and gathering the natural bounty on and around the river (many of the native fish are long gone and much of the other fauna too). Then they changed their culture to one of agriculture stemming from their trade with southern and northern people. Corn and beans in particular from what was Meso-America (indeed, there are places around the area with the name “Aztec”). They traded up and down a river, connecting with other river people east and west. To them, a river was a place of unity despite all their likely differences. A place to come together and to learn what could be learned. They wrote on rocks about their experiences turning their experiences into stories that today seem mystical. I’m sure they built their own versions of a spiritual world. How could they not in a place with such mountains, forests, sunsets, and dawns? And, it is likely that they had their conflicts, especially in times of scarcity; droughts and flooding all along a river.

So, yes, I think I would have liked them, which is to say I would have argued philosophically with them, debated about many issues of the day, maybe even united with them to overthrow oppressors. Which is to say that they struggled with being human–frail and haughty, superstitious and logical. Just like us.

A Tree Grows in the River

I have to ask myself why I chose to describe New Mexico by what lays hidden underneath its sincerely held pride as an enchanted place with such a rich multi-layered heritage. After all, I am not from here. Who am I to question a collective wisdom written so eloquently and respectful of all their differences? I think it is because this history sounds like what it is we want to hear. Respect the legacy of an earlier era, earlier people and the equanimity in examining all past sins as having made “us” (well, they) stronger. That acknowledging a past of pain is just that, the past. And now the body politic is that much more reflective of a “common” history.

It’s that urge to equanimity–a curious word describing composure and calmness in a space of turmoil recognizing both the good and bad of terrible experience–that bristles on me like a pine cone I have stepped upon in bare feet, without the protection of a sturdy insulated shoe.

It’s been so easy for me to “find the good” in all the pain and ardor I’ve experienced; what I have meted out and what I have taken. My journey has been one of hopeful discovery for what really must have happened out here. In the wilderness.

But it has also been to discover that what has lain underneath my own layers. Not to explain them away but to understand the pain and tribulation in the choices I have made that have led me here. By myself. When so many other paths I could have taken and been so much more content. Why it is that contentedness has never been enough? Why the pain across the ages for those who were never heard or just ignored is such a preoccupation? it’s not as if I have not been heard, I have. It’s not as if the chance to “excel” did not present itself, it certainly did. . . . Those were never what I really wanted.

I think the story (ies) I must tell are to delve below the layers, beneath respect for “growth and change”, our eventual “getting there”. To accept my impatience with . . . equanimity and to regain . . .honesty. We can’t have things become “all good” if we don’t recognize how really bad we’ve been. How dishonest we have been even when we never told a single lie because we weren’t honest with . . . . well, because I wasn’t honest with myself.

The world has really got to change. We can’t keep accepting “all the bad with the good”. We really have to stop mixing things like that and thinking “shades of grey” are just the cost of being human. Being human cannot be just about mistakes. At some point, we have to get it right.

Maybe I can’t do that for the world. But maybe . . . .

I think that my journey has been like a tree in winter. Leafless, swaying with the winter winds, blanketed by snow, dampened by the rain like tears. A raw, barefoot exposure to a season in discontent so that I can feel the sun when it comes in warmth despite the cold. When love and springtime come, I’ll become clothed because I had the roots and trunk, the base integrity of soul to stand, be naked and be honest. To make each year count. Just so I can give shade to those who come. In smiles and laughter.

Palo Duro Canyon–No Winners But Great Loss–A Pandemia Chronicle

Approximate Battle Site in the Upper Palo Duro Canyon

I entered Palo Duro Canyon not realizing how vast it is. It’s considered the “Grand Canyon of Texas” and is, in fact, second only in size to the actual Grand Canyon. It’s origins are humble, a sandy Palo Duro Creek, a stream atop the Llano Estacado converging with another creek, the Tierra Blanca (“White Land” meant to describe the limestone upon which it flows–Really). Together they form the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River that has formed the canyon through the Caprock Escarpment of the Llano. It was a “yawning chasm” largely unknown to Europeans until 1874 meticulously etching a place of refuge for anyone adept enough to find it, at the edge of what seemed like a vast unyielding plain. The Canyon has been continuously inhabited for over 10,000 years and known to the Spanish as a result of the Coronado expedition who came across it in 1541 when the Apache inhabited it. It was mapped by the U.S. Army in 1852 but was under Comanche and Kiowa control until the “Red River War”.

From the time of the Comanche rise in the late 1600’s, Palo Duro was a place well known only to the Comanche and their Comanchero suppliers and not suspected as their refuge. To be sure, it wasn’t the Army that found this redoubt of the Comanche, but by a combination of Black Seminole Scouts who encountered the Comanche on the Pecos River and Tonkawa scouts, Indians known for tracking and who had aided the U.S. and the Texas Republic over many years because of their enmity with all those who had displaced them from their lands in Oklahoma through their resulting migration into south central Texas. The Comanche were not the ones to displace them, that was the Apache. By the time of the U.S. campaign, the Tonkawa had been well emplaced as U.S. scouts. This despite having been herded into reservations, ironically back in their ancestral lands of Oklahoma.

A Great Loss, Not Really a War

It was called the Red River War in which the Comanche were defeated by overwhelming U.S. military force. A narrative written convincingly to the ears of Texans. As distant from reality as the the real fear it hides. Texans, well, those who’ve tried to dominate it, wear bravado on their sleeves and write them on the historical markers all along the highways. It assuages not their guilt but their trauma of a period where their helplessness was given respite by the luck of treachery, decimation by disease, and the orchestrated destruction of the buffalo. It was a war in name only and a battle that was largely unfought. And, even in surprise, all the Anglo could do is further poison the Comanche well of sustenance, destroying their stores, killing their horses–that way the Comanche couldn’t steal them back, because the Army knew the Comanche could–and leaving the Comanche to roam horseless and starving on the plains. With no buffalo herds and the dead of winter coming, the result was all but written long before, Ranald MacKenzie entered the Palo Duro.

When MacKenzie’s army came upon the camps at Palo Duro, they found a village led by Quanah Parker and a host of Comanche, Kiowa, and Souther Cheyenne. The Quahaddi never thought the Army would find them here, it had long been a place hidden in plain sight protected by the great canyon walls and labyrinthine meandering of this Red River fork. The Army took the village by surprise, but despite that, the Comanche/Kiowa/Cheyenne conducted a rearguard defense to protect the retreat of the elderly, women, and children. Indeed, as they Indians scaled the canyon walls, they proved to give deadly fire on the U..S. soldiers preventing them from killing many or taking prisoners. Although successful in preventing slaughter, their defense meant that they would relinquish the village and their large stores of buffalo meat, lodging travel equipment (lodgepoles and teepee hides), and, worst of all, their over 1400 horses astride which they were largely invincible but without them wholly helpless. They escaped but on foot across the plains, it was only a matter of time before they would have to accept defeat.

Historical Treachery Made in Anglo Destiny

Two groups that facilitated the Anglo victory over the Plains people were Black Seminole along with the African-American ex-slave “Buffalo Soldiers” and the host of Indian scouts that helped to find the Indian resistance. This was historically true in the so-called Indian wars. At Palo Duro, it took the great tracking skill of the Tonkawa scouts, long enlisted to support the Army, to find the largely hidden village. This pattern in using cultural-geographic “informants” marked ultimately the military demise of the ever-decreasing forces of Indian resistance, first to Spanish colonial ventures and then successive Anglo incursions from the Texas Republic to the U.S. Army. Along with the largely (but not completely) unintended unwitting infestation and death by European disease, the many peoples who inhabited the “Americas” were eradicated in great numbers and then sytematically defeated militarily through the exploitation of enmity between different peoples born largely of their own histories of struggle to coexist. It is a form of historical treachery, comprehensible but nonetheless ultimately self-defeating. One can only imagine how an Indian people could play such a role in hunting other Indian people but whatever the justification, the result would be the final defeat of Indian people to withstand the onslaught of “Manifest Destiny” through the Southern Great Plains and the “opening” of the West to White settlement. History is all too often prescient only in hindsight and the toll for its advance is paid by the defeated.

And, of course, this historical treachery was greatly effective in a context where disease reduced once great numbers and great civilizations and the actions of the “victors” in destroying the means of subsistence. In the case of the Comanche and the people of the Plains, it was the systematic destruction of the buffalo herds that formed their lifestyle and their sustenance.

My Journey’s Encounter with Palo Duro

I hadn’t understood what Palo Duro really was until I came here. Of course, I’d read much about it. Most of what I’ve written above comes from the accounts of S.C. Gwynne in his ” Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History” along with Pekka Hämäläinen‘s “Comanche Empire”, popularized for easy access with the help of Wikipedia.

What I didn’t expect is to see its immensity. It is a national park with a multitude of hiking trails and ways to expore including it’s own lodge for visitors and a “glamping” site to accommodate “luxury” camping. It is a site of natural wonder in which the past is greatly hidden or romanticized, a “glamping” experience obscuring the demarcation between one historical civilization process of early peoples in what was a new land and the disruption brought by much later immigrants claiming for their own the land through decimation and destruction inconsiderate to those who had come before.

Seeing all of this had to have an effect. I see the predecessors to my own history and the layers stacked one upon the other, obscured by recreational pursuits, destructive new industries, unremarkable stripmall towns . . . and incomplete histories marked in brief highway markers. Much like the layers across my multiple lifetimes in pursuit of identity, love, meaning, career, and happiness. Driving down the roads, I see myself riding into history and the features of discovery, struggle, desire for one’s place under a sun, and the predictable but not inevitable result crossing, sometimes intruding, into other’s lives.

I come closer to understanding what my life of “layers” has been by uncovering the layers that reside in the histories of all the people that preceded those around me, from those formed like my own dual DNA, Indio and European, and all of those others who comprise the product of our common history, its struggles, its sadness, denouement, joy, and hope.

I’m not sure we have understood that what was forseeable did not really have to be. We can blame what happened on what we didn’t know. It simply isn’t true. There was much to learn from the genesis of Western democracy in understanding our need for human solidarity. As much as there was to learn from the tendency of early peoples to enslave and subjugate in the development of the societies and cultures of the “Americas” before the European devastation. That neither of “us” ever heeded either caution is to me a chosen ignorance albeit written in the longness of history. Seen only with a paltry hindsight and one which we now must so directly attend. Yes, it could have been different. But therein lies the seed of hope. That it could have been different means that it remains possible to do different now.

And, as for me, what comes to mind is that “ain’t none of us clean” and by ourselves, we each may not bring the world to its great resolution, but we each, I, can understand that seeing all the devastation, all the destruction, all the anger these so easily engage is always a choice. We, I, can choose. We may have to fight to bring about a better world. But we can choose to fight with better tools, not by ourselves to save others, but to assure that all of us is brought into a different history. The destruction of a hateful society based in violence, bred in anger is so greatly needed. But the destruction of people never has to be the goal.

Yes, all I say here is naive and I am as much a realist; I am not alone in determining what may eventually be the answer. I do believe that when the “great gettin’ up morning” finally comes, we’ll find that what made the difference is our desire to be each of us worthy, each of us happy, each of us free. That from each of us we gave our best and to each of us we gave our all.

El Llano Estacado–Blanco Canyon, White River: A Pandemia Chronicle

By from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:EvaK using CommonsHelper., Public Domain,

I arrived in what is now Lubbock, Texas, the latest “stake” of history that’s settled over the layers of existence that is the “staked plain”, the Llano Estacado. The term “estacado” usually means “stockaded” or “pallisaded” and refers to the fortress-like rise of the escarpments at the edges of this formation. The “stake” refers to how earlier inhabitants would mark the llano with stakes of various types to guide their way.

For a flat, desolate, seemingly featureless plain of what was a shallow sea millions of years ago, so much has happened in its nearest past. Geographically, the Llano crosses Texas on the west in the “Panhandle through the Permian Basin and somewhat fusing with the Edwards Plateau, another raised flat land that reaches near to Austin and San Antonio. In the east of New Mexico, the Llano ends with the Mescalero Escarpment near Roswell. But this region represents a larger whole merging the histories of western Texas –Oklahoma, and the respective eastern corners New Mexico and Colorado and the western parts of Oklahoma and Kansas; what was the domain of the Comanche. These states claim a portion of what would otherwise be one geologic and geopraphic unity.

Once the sea dried, it became home to a multitude of floral and faunal migrations mxed in with homegrown indigenous plants and creatures; the first layer, the first “stake”. It seems inevitable that all these creatures great and small would be followed by a second stake, human immigrants. Although it is not likely that humans came only via a landbridge “Ellis Island” to the north, a great many did and they proliferated multiple cultures and civilizations. It also seems that the first act of these early peoples was to help along the clearing of the large mammals that once ruled unobstructed. They didn’t do so with disease, but they did fashion spearpoints and a desire to survive, to colonize. After all, the entire area was truly “despoblado”, inhabited only by . . . .food and the materials for shelter.

The third stake on this flat unified plain came with the development of a host of simple to greatly sophisticated cultures; Jumano/Chisos, Anasazi/Pueblo, Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, many others. All of these interacted with others to the east and further west. In their midst entered the Apache, Ute, Kiowa, and an almost inconsequential group of ostracized Shoshone known to themselves as the Nermernuh, to the Ute, kimantsi–“people who alway fight us” or “enemy”–and which the Spanish eventually formed into their tongue as Comanche. The Comanche highlight the fourth stake to this flat land, Mesa, buttressed by eroded canyons that made the land appear like a “palisaded” steppe, “estacado”.

If you watch and listen as you drive through this featureful expanse, you can feel the layers speaking in emotions, from the bones of camels, elephant ancestors, giant sloths, and especially ancient horses and bison to the laughter of Juman/Chiso/Pueblo children and the laments of expelled Shoshone for their lot in trying to eke out a living, unwanted and on foot, atop a sea of grass and succulent buffalo steaks galloping all too fast to catch.

It took a fifth stake, the Spanish, to change history, They brought along the descendants of the earlier horses, those now extinct in the Americas but from whom horses first evolved. There is some belief that horses have remained here and to many Indian people there is a view that rests within their collective memory. What is undeniable is that what the Spanish took for granted as transportation, the Nermernuh/Kimantsi/Comanche learned to prize above all else as their salvation; the ships that would carry them across the seas of grass and the harvest of its bounty. For 250 years, the Comanche sat astride the Llano Estacado holding back the Spanish, French, Mexicans, Texans, and Americans. Until the buffalo were gone and then so were the Comanche. A few other layers have come since then but this journey is about understanding what came before the layers that have obscured a deeper past, a deeper origin.

Ancient Lakes, Ancient (Mega) Fauna

Lubbock Lake is a dried former lake where prehistoric flora and fauna and of human layering in the land can be found through every period of human history for at least 12,000 years. The lake was part of a meander of the Yellow House Draw itself a former part of the Brazos River. It served as a water source until the 1930’s and when the city of Lubbock tried to dredge it to revive access to the underground springs, they were unsuccesful but in the process uncovered the layers of different peoples who “staked” their claim to life on this land. Layers on layers of cultures and the fossilized bones of earlier extinct megafauna like the bison antiquus, the predecessor to the the “American buffalo” (bison bison). Those layers, stakes, begin with the bison and their contemporary megafauna, the mammoth/mastodon, giant sloths, horses, camels, lions, tigers (sabre-toothed) and short-faced bears (yeah, you know you want to say “oh my!” Go ahead).

Long before bison bison, the ancestors of the favored resource of the Comanche and other people of the Great Plains in North “America”, there was bison antiquus. B. Antiquus existed 125,000 to 14,500 years before the present (BP) along with other pleistocene megafauna and that finally disappeared from the Americas around 11,000 to 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.

There is some controversy about how the megafauna died off, but my favorite paleontologist, Timothy Flannery makes a compelling argument for the final demise of the megafauna as a result not of changing climate, but of the human migration that followed on the heels, or hooves, of these now extinct animals.

Buffalo weren’t just food for the early immigrants of this continent, their social, and eventual poltical, economy rested in the existence of these “Target runs” on hooves. One can see why early people built their lifestyle and subsistence around them.

Contrasting Blanco and White

Blanco Canyon is an ever-widening erosion in the Llano Estacado originating out of the steppe from the White River. it is interesting to note the difference in language to denote the same color, “Blanco” and “White”. I’m not sure why this distinction is made, but the metaphor is all too poignant when you consider its history. For, the first battle between the Comanche, led by their last warrior chief, Quannah Parker, and the Anglo, and Black, U.S. Army under Ranald MacKenzie was fought here. Well, to call it a battle is to give the army too much credit, they were largely routed resulting in MacKenzie receiving a debilitating and lifelong painful leg wound. One which would mark him psychologically as well as debilitate him physically from then on. The Comanche surprised the fledgling army unit, stole their horses, and the soldiers barely managed to survive with their lives. Some didn’t. For MacKenzie, it was a learning experience that he used effetively, eventually copying Comanche tactics to his credit and that led to their own surprise attack at Palo Duro Canyon that eventually broke the back of the Comanche resistance. A compelling account of this campaign and the life of Quannah Parker can be found in S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon.

I visited Blanco Canyon at the White River to fnd that it was now a rest stop and visitor center on U.S. Highway 82 about 34 miles southeast of Lubbock. I was struck by the great effort that was spent in stamping (another word for “staking”) the presence of the State of Texas all over this rest area. From well adorned stone walls and large picnic tables with the Texas star in the center all through and even down to the White River to the multiple flat rock viewing platforms, it seemed like the State wanted to make sure every inch of that space, arguably a space of military failure for Texas and budding “America”, was staked out as a place of honor. Indeed, reading the account of the “battle” on the Texas road marker (above), the reported account does its best to obscure that the Army was caught by surprise and that they were routed into a retreat.

The account of history by historians takes pains to leave little doubt that this space was now owned by the eventual victors from Comanche “terror”. It set in context to me the name of the river, like a metaphor for the coming staking of this majestic land as ceded to its new owners, themselves a “river” of White for generations to come. It is something I have recognized, especially among anglo Texans throughout history, to do their best to stamp out any evidence of earlier failures and assure their claim to supremacy. It is a vindictive effort at vindication of their perceived power over history.

Erosion and Recovery of Truth Along the Staked Plains

In both cases of Lubbock Lake and of Blanco Canyon, layers of earlier life and the lives of people in history have been revealed with the passage of time either through the eroding landscape showing who was there and their mark upon the land or by the stamping of a layer to hide what had happened, shoving “under the rug” a failure to establish a more hidden truth; that not every result was a pristine march of victory. That march is layered in a half truth of eventual military victory when the truth is that the Comanche were ultimately defeated not by military prowess alone but with the added success of White poachers that destroyed the buffalo herds–to call them “hunters” is to stretch the meaning given the relatively easy work one can do to ride up to buffalo and shoot them. That along with the weakening of the Comanche by disease like all other early peoples.

Layers of the truth are removed over time. Like a river cuts what seems like a flat interminable plain into canyons revealing all the history layered one on top of the other, I have found revealed my own different layers. From the fears at the bottom of a recurring dream to a search not for a single “heart of the matter” but the kernels of a seeded heart nurtured by the richness of the many different lives I’ve lived; the stamping of passion, intellectual growth, and lost memories that brought me pain as well as wonder. Layers that can only be seen when riding through distant histories of long dead ancestors and the reflections on my own history as the sands upon the winds, and the miles, go by.

I am roughly halfway through what I am sure is just one stage of a curious journey into time. And what motivates my heart. I fight the anxiousness to reach completion. It’s better to savor the very time I am takng. Tomorrow is a day best known before its passing. Today was a good day. To remember.

Odessa (Texas): What Time Fills–A Pandemia Chronicle

I’m not really sure why I decided to stay over in Odessa. It was meant to shorten my trip between the Big Bend and Lubbock. The majesty of Big Bend and its centrality to the Comanche territory was–is–a hard act to follow. So many thousands of years of forgotten history and so many thousands of people who had inhabited and commanded in the “uninhabited” Santiago and Chisos Mountains. And then the brief but deadly entry of Spanish, Mexican, and Texas colonists. It seems logical now that my travel to the Big Bend would take me to the beginning; up the Comanche Trail

Odessa is situated as a part of the vast sea of grasslands that is the Permian Basin and now the sight of large oil reserves. Odessa’s origins are unremarkable as a cattle watering stop and shipping point named by the Russian workers who came to build it (appearing much like the steppes of their native home of Odessa in souther Russia). The Comanche roamed this territory hunting buffalo and, of course, as the road they took on their way to the south through the Big Bend and north to their home grounds at the base of the adjoining Llano Estacado in places like Blanco Canyon and Yellow House Canyon around what is now Lubbock, Texas. The Comanche hunted here because of the buffalo migration route. Near the Odessa city center is a “Buffalo Wallow”, what used to be a large depression in the ground where buffalo during their migration would lie and roll around in the dirt to rid themselves of parasites and their winter fur. Today, the buffalo wallow is gone and in its place is an artificial lake and a children’s garden. And lots of duck, geese, pigeons and blackbirds. The wallow has been filled by time and the city’s runoff.

A Meteor Crater Filled by Time

As I was coming up on Odessa, I spied a sign for the “Odessa Meteor Crater”. . .You know I had to go.

It turns out that about 20,000 years ago, a relatively small metallic metorite struck the unassuming grasslands and Wham! Instant, literal, dust bowl; when a meteorite strikes, it creates a fine powder of “rock flour” from the shattered sandstone. Over time, the crater has filled with sand and plants to create only the outline of the impression in the dust. For some time, researchers thought they would find a solid core of the metal but it appears that the metorite broke up and created a several craters close in from the main one. There is a shaft where people dug deeper to the center of the impact, but they never found the “heart”.

A Time Filled With Life

Somehow, I found a metaphor in this meteor story. I sometimes feel that on this journey, I am searching for the “heart of the matter”, that one big piece that will explain my life, my universe, my everything–those of you who know about Douglas Adams will likely get the reference, my search for the question to the answer, which, of course, is 42. I think that just like the pointlessness to Adams’ query, the question, or the answer, may not reside in the mythical heart that I’ve been seeking to find. Perhaps, just like the multiple fragments of Odessa’s meteor(ite(s)), there never was a single heart, especially at impact with the vagaries of life? Perhaps, instead there have been different little pieces and they reside within the several lives I’ve lived, Hippie football player, musician come antiwar activist, revolutionary socialist, dancer, singer (again), teacher of children with disabiliites,, research scholar, husband, father, teacher of teachers, singer/dancer/narrator, student of history and time. And, just like time has a way of filling impact craters, especially in places as ephemeral as sandstone on the prairie, or humans, perhaps the craters in our heart are filled with the accumulation of time’s . . . markers. Perhaps I should spend my time seeking out the kernels that are at the center of each of these remarkable moments in my historical timeline?

I think this journey took me to Odessa to understand that just like me, the Comanche have had many pieces of a full heart. They cannot possibly be just the fierce warriors the world has chosen to focus upon them. Anymore than cruel conquistadores simply meant to bring destruction to the world.

History, at least the kind we’re used to reading, and studying about, has a way of making the lives that have been lived in two-dimensional characters, sometimes full-blown portraits, sometimes caricatures, always just a painting if sometimes even in film. We think about history in the deeds that were done, the reasons, the pretexts, even the contexts, but always just about what is salient.

I wonder if we are really to learn from history, we might want to see the less salient, the more mundane, the comedy, the frailty in our character? I thought about that as I wondered what it was to be at a buffalo wallow? Is there something we can know about the lives of buffalo; other than, you know, dinner? Is there something about a Comanche warrior that is salient in what might have been the mundane, or in the times when they may have failed in what they did best? Is my journey just a set of places I have come to visit, or is it also when I tried to find something meaningful when all there was was a meaningless drive across a vast sea of nothingness, stabbed by oil pumps? And then to come upon a metor(ite(s)) crater filled by time and a wallow, now filled by city runoff, where long dead fleas once died a rather silly death from a beast rollin’ in the prairie dust?


So, imagine a couple of Comanche hunters looking to get a few easy kills sneaking up on some buffalo contentedly scratching themselves on the ground, all happy, snortin’ away. Maybe flickin’ a few fleas at one of their partners, “Flea fight!”, fur all flyin in the lazy afternoon sun. The two Comanche, let’s say they’re named the equivalent of “Joe” and “Hector”, see it’s their lucky day, “Yeah, we got lunch for about 3 months” Joe says. “Let’s get up close so we don’t miss, we’re kinda short on arrows”. Hector snorts, “Yeah, you really need to stop wastin’ ’em on the damn Spaniards, just let ’em go next time so they can bring back more horses”. “Yeah, ok, but we need to get these buffalo right now! “C’mon!” said Joe as he started to crawl up close to the wallowing buffalo. “Don’t get so damn close, you’ll spook ’em!” Hector warned. “Nah, just c’mon” said Joe. And, as Joe got closer, the dust started to get a little thick, “Ahh (he tried to hold it quietly)”, “Ahihhh…”, “CHOOO!” he sneezed. . . . . . Years later, Joe finally took a wife and had a few children. One of the boys, while taking a bath in one of the springs with dad noticed this somewhat large holey scar at the top of his dad’s butt crack. “Wow, what happened there, dad?” “It’s an old battle scar when some Spaniard tried to sneak up on me” Joe said. “Hey, dad. Some of the other kids saw some buffalo out in this hole rollin’ around in the dirt, can we go hunt ’em?!” “Leave the damn buffalo hunting for the experts, son. ‘Fore you know it, fleas and fur can get all up in your nose. Just let ’em play .. . . “

I’m just sayin’ that nobody seems to think Comanches did anything but steal horses, kill settlers, and kidnap people. Fearsome warriors, adept at hunting. All that had to happen with a few life lessons. Somehow!

“Los Despoblados” Riding on the Trail of Fears: A Pandemia Chronicle

The Spanish Named These Lighter Outcrops “Caballos”–Horses. They seem to run across the rocks.

To the Spanish and Mexico, the area of the Chihuahuan desert on the Rio Grande was uninhabited, “despoblado”. To the Texans and U.S. Army, with the help of the “Buffalo Soldiers”, it was a land that needed to be cleared of its native inhabitants so that it could finally become populated by “real people”. It’s interesting to note that today, the Big Bend area of West Texas remains despoblado, except from tourists, researchers, and state park personnel, all of whom are focused on the wonder of a land and its former inhabitants, those despoblados who began inhabiting this area 8,000 years ago.

Basket Makers to Ghosts

Nancy Edwards (1968), a young high school student in Marfa, Texas described the first inhabitants of the Big Bend as “the Basketmakers . . .men [sic] of Asia and possibly came across the Bering Strait thousands of years ago”. Today, these basketmakers are now known as “Paleo-Indians” and were here between 8,000 to 6,500 BCE. Personally, I like Nancy’s description of “basketmakers”. Paleo-Indians sounds a bit like folk who might hunt and gather for uncooked food at Whole Foods more than a people living a subsistence lifestyle before the “dawn of time”. I like the idea that they made baskets. Seems like they might have been Salt of the Earth. This despite the likelihood that they contributed to the demise of the large megafauna of the post-glacial period according to Timothy Flannery in his excellent book, The Eternal Frontier.

Eventually, these people evolved into more distinct groups whom the Spanish called “Jumano” who built adobe huts and grew a range of plants such as corn and squash or collected plants like mesquite beans and hunted small animals. They represented “America’s” first immigrants from which all the major nations and peoples that built civilizations, or just baskets, on this continent before Europeans came. The Big Bend was a wilderness upon which history was written in spearpoints, bone tools, pots, and, yes, baskets not to mention pictographs (see previous post on Del Rio) long before history was ever recorded by, well, our current predecessors (you might guess at what descriptors I used for Europeans before I decided it’s time to stop pressing the point).

I took the roundabout route through Big Bend that took me first to Panther Junction at the northeastern edge of the Chisos Mountain range and then to Terlingua back to Alpine, Texas. The Chisos range is wholly enclosed within in the Big Bend park and is loosely a southern part of the Rocky Mountains. It represents the core of what was a much larger volcanic “mound” that has eroded into its present shape. It is a majestic range of mountains named after the Chisos people, one of the Jumanos who inhabited the “Despoblado” region. Chisos refers to this people but is also believed to be their name for “ghosts” or short for “hechizos”, the Spanish name for “enchanted”. In either case, the ghosts of the “uninhabited” land seem to remain.

A Trail of Fears

Later, the Jumano were, mostly forcefully, incorporated into other people who encroached upon them like the Apache and the Comanche. The Big Bend is best known historically as a major branch of the “Comanche Trail” who by the early 1800s had largely displaced the Apache. The Comanche rode into northern Mexico on raids for horses and people. Phyllis Duncan called it the “Trail of Fears”. The Comanche ruled the southern plains largely because of their unparalled skill in using horses to hunt and garner horses and people from other tribes, like the Jumano and from the Spanish or, later, Texans. The Persimmon Gap was their route to and from Mexico. Driving through the Persimmon Gap had a certain poignancy today.

Driving A Lonely Path Into the Wilderness

I undertook this journey to uncover a history of the past and to examine my own. Driving through this, for me, newer history took me someplace I didn’t expect to see. I am acutely aware of my precariousness as I’ve driven, first through the familiar path to Brownsville and my “fortress”of fortitude, South Padre and now into places I had never been. I know that driving through the midlands of Iowa, Missouri (well just a piece of it) , Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas is a great danger in a time of unparalled plague, among people alternatively doing their best or at times greatly irresponsible in putting themselves and others at risk.

I drove today through history in the midst of history in the making. As I write, I note how Los Angeles County in the State of California has begun to ration the use of oxygen to only people with a chance likely to survive as coronavirus cases swell and overwhelm hospitals and their staffs. I am aware with few exceptions, every state of the Union remains at alarming levels. I travel knowing that at any moment, someone with asymptomatic infection may cross my path. In addition to seeing wondrous mountain ranges, “seeing ghosts” of peoples oft forgotten by “history”, I spend my days deciding do I dare go inside a gas station to use their bathroom, deciding whether to go inside a restaurant and eat something more healthy than a breakfast burrito from McDonald’s (I so far decide the latter, just too much risk)? And, what of the people serving me through that drive-thru window? Are they working sick? Not to mention entering a hotel (eventually I’ll try to find an AirBnB for a longer stay with its own set of risks) or a public restroom (so far, I’ve found these safer, or at least I think so in my mind 🙂 ).

I am quite aware of these and then remember that my life at “home” in Minnesota was just as frightful, despite for different reasons.

The world remains in grave danger and I really don’t believe it matters where we are. It’s best, at least for me, to recognize the “Four Agreements” (Drawn and adapted from Ruiz) reconciled for my travels through Pandemia:

Be impeccable with my word; tell myself the truth, be honest, and know what it is you are doing

Take nothing personally; people act as they will, doing the best they can to be intelligent. They are not trying to hurt you and you must expect from them only what they appear able to do. This one has been especially challenging for me, hence, why I am on these travels.

Make no assumptions; A friend you trust can make mistakes, it’s best to own your own safety and not cede it to others. Among others, do not assume they think or act like you despite their seeming agreement with you.

Do the best you can; be as safe as you know how to be within the choices you have made. It may not be enough, but it will be what you must do.

And, just like every human effort, the above is fraught with unforeseen dishonesty, personal perceptions you cannot avoid, unassuming assumptions, and only as good as you are able.

Today, in a time of history making–the State of Georgia hangs so many things in this country in the balance despite the flawed belief that a new government will be all that good. Today as history records some of our gravest mistakes in judgement compounded over years that threaten our entire planet, the ghosts of people largely ignored by history, who made baskets, sought their solitude beneath groves of palm trees, those who fought and tried their best to stave off annihilation, all of them speak to me. In the winds and sunlight gleaming on snow inside a forest made of rocks. They tell me that, despite the risk, and your possible demise (sorry about that, brother), it is good you came to say hello, honor our presence. It’s all we ever asked. We were lonely and, well, it was good you visited.

I think that I’ve been lonely all this time. Just like them. It was good I came to visit that part of me. Despite the danger, it was best I came face to face. I’m not sure what I do with that. Not yet. But I am here. And I will do my best. To come home.

(San Felipe) Del Rio To Alpine: A Pandemia Chronicle

I have been to most parts of Texas in my life, but never to the Big Bend area of the Rio Grande River. I thus left Brownsville to begin what is the least known part of my journey. It begins with a trip to Del Rio, Texas. My route took me close to some earlier memories, like Kingsville and through Cotulla. Going through Kingsville took me back to to a time in the 70’s as a young anti-war and Chicano activist. I was hitchhiking home to Brownsville for what, I don’t remember. But as I was thumbing my way through Kingsville, I was stopped and detained by Kingsville police ostensibly for hitchhiking. It was illegal to do so on a public highway, but the incident seemed a bit unusual since there were many people doing just that on most days in and out of the Valley. Somehow I reached my mom and she along with her companion, a man named Leonel, “Noni”, Garza came to get me (I was only about 20-21 at the time and with few resources or contacts; what can I say). What was unusual was that there is no record of this “detainment” (aka, arrest). It was not the last time I was “detained” on different occasions during my youthful career as a revolutionary radical activist. Among these included having police visit my apartment and speak to my roommates (I wasn’t there at the time, on the road, you guessed it, hitchhiking to activist conferences), detatined for traffic violations in Houston and a little later in Chicago and a curious set of incidents during a journalistic tour of Texas with a couple of fellow reporters for the Militant newspaper reporting on the “Raza Unida Party”, an organization that was centered in Crystal City, Texas, which of course took me through Cotulla. I am today unsure if all this activity (along with others in different parts of the country) was a result of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), a program with far-reaching coordination with local law enforcement agencies that targeted antiwar, Black, Brown, and other poltical activists. My experiences were rather mild compared to what was happening to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and activists around the Black Panther and Young Lords Parties, but COINTELPRO was a pervasive counterintelligence operation in the radical movements of the time. . . Maybe. Or, maybe I just engaged in a lot of legally questionable traffic and hitchhiking activity deserving to be called on it. It just seems there should be some record of all this scofflawing.

Like I said, leaving from Brownsville through the upper reaches of South Texas took me through some memories.

To be sure, I skipped over that part of my memories and proceeded to Del Rio. What we know today as Del Rio, Texas began, well, for Europeans it began as San Felipe Del Rio a small enclave of Spanish colonists (they liked to call themselves explorers at that point in time) who settled on the (north) eastern side of the Rio Grande from their main colony, Ciudad Acuña directly opposite on the (south) western side. in truth, the region had been inhabited by native people for over 10 000 years before the “Joneses” (“Cortezes”?) came to (build a) town. You know, on top of everybody who had been living there all along. We know this to be true because today we’ve learned how the history of indigenous people was drawn on the many pictographs within the caves and rock walls all around the Rio Grande and Devil’s River. Once the Spanish and subsequently, Anglos of the Texas Republic, not to mention, Mexicans and “Americans” (yeah, still have the problem with the broad stroke designation for the U.S.) came to town, one has to wonder why the vistors/explorers/colonists were continuaully in a state of surprise and incredulity when Jumano (those were the ones before the Spanish), Apache, and Comanche would try to get them off what they believed was their land the one way native people could get their message across; kill them. As many as they could, wherever they could, however they could. I mean, what part of “get out or I’m gonna burn your face while you’re still living” did they not understand?

Especially, since all those unwanted guests kept standing up in front of them with some proclamation about how they–the native people, that is—would have to convert to Christianity, or, grow corn or something or they would either be annihilated or enslaved to mine silver. Or grow cotton, whatever. And (!) proclaiming so in Spanish, or English (whatever), ’cause what the hell, don’t you foreigners in your own land not understand the King’s English, er Spanish?

So, San Felipe Del Rio, named for that King the Spanish who wanted the Jumano/Apache/Comanche (whatever) to submit, became, finally (!), a place. Hence, “someplace between here and Mexico”. Now, hundreds of years later, the “Barrio San Felipe” is a cultural center portraying the “Latino” heritage of the “Hispanic”, Mexican-American–c’mon now, Chicano–people. I was struck by the cultural trappings of the Barrio proper situated behind an Arc and surrounded by neighborhoods telling of significant poverty “across the tracks” from the rest of the city.

This cultural framework, of course, is situated, as we “Raza” are, within a history of oppression beginning with our existence as the product of rape and assimilation into “Hispanic” culture and then successive additional racism from the advent of “Texas” and then “America”. Our focus on the European part of our “culture”, a denigration of who we are in my view, began in the disintegration and subsequent extermination of our native roots, all but obscured by our adoption of the Spanish “heritage” in our blood.

The chief symbol of this layered history is, of course, a bridge.

If we cannot end the time of bridges as the closed gates they’ve become, I will do my best to open them. If it be just a sound that’s drowned in the cacophony of the wind. Perhaps the effort will give the sun and winds a bit more strength.

Alpine At the Gate

I’m now here in Alpine, at the gate of the Big Bend. I’m weary, but excited to see what else I haven’t seen. My day was full of great sites, among the unevenness of history and this land, once named for native people, but has come to be so different. I can only hope that the winds and flowing streams will see a better law “West of the Pecos” and a better, farther “past” where palm trees witness better times.