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.

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