Monday, December 6, 2010

Here in New Mexico

The picture above is of the ruins of some nameless motel in Mountainair, a little town nestled at the foot of the Manzano Mountains. I took the picture in the summer of 2008 when I stopped there for... something... I don't remember what, and got captivated by all the images of what was and what is that are sprinked through the town and round about. There are ruins. Everywhere. Some of them dating back many centuries, both to the Spanish Era, and well before it. What's called the "Salt Mission Pueblos" stand in a kind of forlorn majesty, what they used to be detectable in the masses and shapes of the ruined pueblo quarters and the colonial era churches still standing, all built from the carefully laid reddish sandstone that is everywhere around the area. They were abandoned in the 1600's when starvation due to drought and Apache and Kiowa raids from the south and the east made it unproductive to stay. The populations went over the mountians and fused with the pueblos to the west, and when the Pueblo Revolt came in 1680, these pueblos, so they say, did not join in.

So. The Salt Mission Pueblos sat, century after century, abandoned. But because they are made of stone -- at least in part -- they do not melt back into the soil the way adobe ruins do. They "flake" away. The stucco falls off the walls, roofs collapse, wood members rot, the freeze-thaw cycle causes bits and pieces of the constructions to flake away into dust or shards that litter the ground everywhere.

Their ruin is much like that of Chaco, in other words, though smaller of course, and for the most part much newer. But still, we're talking centuries. And centuries. And centuries.

Many of the descendants of the builders of the Salt Mission Pueblos are still living in the pueblos on the west side of the mountains, particularly at Isleta, but there are other locations their ancestors settled. These ancestors in turn claimed to be the descendants of those who built Chaco and the other spectacular ruins farther to the west. While some, particularly the Navajo, dispute their claim, most archaeologists and anthropologists accept it. It makes sense. There was drought and misery to the west. Migrating east, the peoples found good places to settle along the Rio Grande, and their descendants live there still.

Which is remarkable given the history of the place. But that's as it is, and that's the way it has been, and that's the way it will be.

Living poor, living well, living happy, with plenty of time and plenty of room for rivalries and feuds, laughter and ceremonials, loves and foolishness, creativity and abandonment. Forward, back, and stay right in place, all at once.

Yes, fundamentally it's a tribal society, deeply rooted in place and time, in ancestry and lines of descent, in family, in clan, and in the three general groupings of New Mexicans: Anglo, Spanish, and Indian. Years ago a colleague came out to California from New Mexico where she had been a fundraiser for one of the major arts organizations. She was from DC, and she'd worked for years at the NEA before she moved out to NM and started dealing with Things As The Are Here. She was, she said, appalled at what she found, because she said, the society in New Mexico was the most racist she had ever encountered, including the Jim Crow South. Now, I wondered about that. Whatever did she mean?

Well, you have your three grand groups, Anglos, Spanish and Indians, and they all hate each other.

I see. Hmm. Is that right?

They live in their own hermetically sealed communities, never interacting with anyone else.

Are you kidding? They're interacting all the time.

They're at each others throats, she said.

Well. Sometimes, I said.

No, she insisted, it's that way all the time, and just try to get Anglos to fund Spanish arts or Indian arts; it can't be done.

Of course it can, I said. It's done all the time. Just in ways you might not recognize.

Another collegaue went out to New Mexico a few years later, having heard that it wasn't that bad and there were opportunities for a charming young man like him, and sure enough, he was picked up by one of the Cultural outfits in Santa Fe to be assistant marketing director, and he left in disgust and outrage within two years, because he found the same sort of ethnic/barriers in support systems, and he couldn't break through them.

"Why did you think you had to?" I asked, noncommittally.

"They can't survive in their own little pockets and closets and perspectives; it's for their own good to get them to break through."

Oh. I see.

"For their own good." I get it. I pointed out that the broader divisions and the finer division have been a basis for culture and society in New Mexico for centuries and maybe, just maybe, New Mexicans like it like that.

"But it is so discriminatory!"

Well, yes. It is. For the individual. But as groups, the broader and finer divisions within New Mexico seem to get along with one another pretty well, and there is little open "warfare" between them most of the time. In fact, there is much mutual cooperation on many issues and projects, and a really high degree of mutual respect, at least in public. No, the cultures aren't "integrated" according to ideals set in much of the rest of the country in the '50s and '60s, but then each culture is very proud of its independence, and its ability to be independent, to contribute to the whole, and to get along more or less well.

"Integration" is not the objective here. Independence and survival within that independent -- yet interdependent -- framework is the objective. Despite many, many ups and downs over the centuries -- and all the ruins that litter New Mexico -- it's worked pretty well.

(Not to be too coy, but there are plenty of efforts by a strident minority, mostly Libertarian cultists, to blow it all up. Nihilism is everywhere.)

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