Sunday, August 4, 2013

Missing the Old Guy At Chimayó; Then Up to Dixon for the Recuerdos of Another Old Guy

El Santuario de Chimayó from Wikimedia Commons


I'll say.

We don't often travel very far from home base here in the Estancia Valley, partly because we only have one vehicle, and it's old, and if it breaks down out in the middle of nowhere, we're screwed. Well, someone will help of course, but still.

[A note on that "someone will help" line. When we got back to our little neck of the woods late last night, we noticed sheriff with its lights flashing and a police car were at the park in town, and as we got closer, we noticed an ambulance with its back door open and someone being treated inside. Just barely visible in the dark -- and it is dark out here in the country -- nearby was the silhouette of a helicopter, the kind that chopper patients to the hospitals Albuquerque throughout the day and night.  Emergency services at the ready. When I had a flat tire outside of Socorro one time the people who helped were AMAZING, and when I offered some money for their assistance, they absolutely refused. They said they were just doing what had to be done and didn't expect to profit from it. "Angels," my wife calls them.]

Sometimes we go off on adventures far from home, out to the Bosque del Apache, or to Los Alamos, or wherever, and yesterday we went off on a junket to Chimayó, and then way up the road to Dixon, which truthfully we didn't even remember existed based on the one time we'd been up to Taos decades ago.

We haven't been to Chimayó in at least fifteen years, probably closer to twenty, but because it is sort of on the way, and we really did want to see The Old Guy (Father Roca) at least once more before he passes on to his reward, we thought it wise to visit the Santuario on the way to Dixon where we planned to attend a staged reading of a new play based on the works of another Old Guy we've come to know and enjoy, Nasario Garcia.

Father Roca greeted us at the door to the Santuario when we visited that time before, and he was so warm and welcoming and helpful and open that he made it seem like we had (finally) arrived at the place we were meant to be. There weren't a lot of people at the pilgrimage site that day, so he walked us around and showed us some of the features of the little chapel and the graveyard in front, encouraged us to take a little vial of holy water with us and visit the sanctuary of the Holy Dirt. Take some if we wanted. If we had any questions, he would be available. We were welcome to look around, to pray, or simply to observe. God's home was our home. The only restriction was that we were not to take any pictures inside the chapel. "Take all the pictures you want outside!"

Father Roca gave me a look the way priests are wont to do: "Are you Catholic, my son?" I said no. I'm so heavily lapsed, it doesn't even count any more. "May God's loving kindness bring you home, my son." Father Roca made a furtive sign of the cross over my forehead.

"Father," I said, "you might be struck dumb for blessing an apostate like me." He smiled the biggest smile for such a little man. "I do it all the time, my son. So far, in his wisdom and power, God hasn't shut me up. Enjoy your stay." 

 "Thank you, Father." What else could I say?

It was a truly mystical and magical encounter that has stayed with me ever since. I've met and known many priests, but none like him. Not even close. We went quietly around the inside of the little church, imbibing the spirit of the primitive New Mexico style carvings and paintings of saints and savior, quite taken with it really. The church is old but by no means ancient by New Mexico standards, parts dating from the early 1800's no earlier, as the necessity for a santuario on the site wasn't recognized until Bernardo Abeyta had a vision of a cross returning to the site where it had been found earlier, the site where it had been left by a "mysterious stranger" years before, a site where the Indians had long been collecting healing dirt for curative and sacred purposes.

And so, after some spiritual trial, a chapel was started in 1813, and after much physical trial, it was completed in 1816 on the Abeyta property near the Santa Cruz river in the Chimayó Valley, where El Santuario de Chimayó is today one of the major pilgrimage sites in all of Catlick-dom.

The site has certainly changed since we were there the last time, fifteen or twenty years ago. The church is still the same -- well, mostly -- but the rest of the pilgrimage site is almost completely different, much grander for such a simple little place, grander and more expansive, with an extraordinary welcome center, featuring gorgeous statuary and other art, and a pilgrimage site now encompassing all sorts of subsidiary chapels and locations for prayer and contemplation, a veritable garden oasis, art everywhere, and with more and more of this section of the town being incorporated into the Master Plan of the Santuario.

Oh yes, they have one, and they're quite proud of it.

I'm ambivalent to say the least.

I'd read that Father Roca had retired some time back, but he still spent much of his time at the little Santuario and around about, greeting visitors, chatting merrily, and offering his kindness (and no doubt his furtive blessings). We didn't see him, however, and the new priest, Father Jimenez, apparently doesn't greet anyone, though he was there and came out of his cubicle from time to time, ignoring pilgrims and visitors alike, surrounded by bustling Church Women, yakking with them in perfect, lilting Castilian. It was a joy to hear him, but unfortunately he appeared to be uninterested in visitors. No doubt God had called him to a higher purpose, the way God does.

I asked one of the Church Women about Father Roca, and she said, "He just turned 95 last week, and yes, he's doing well. Did you see him?"

I said that no, unfortunately not, we didn't see him anywhere. She said he'd probably left for the day as he doesn't usually stay past 3:00pm or so, and here it was nearly 5:00pm. But there was going to be a reception and celebration of his 70th year of priesthood at the Holy Family church in town on the 15th. Maybe we'd want to go to that. She was sure that Father Roca would want us to attend if we could. Who knows, he might even remember us! Or (shh) he might pretend to. She said, "He is so funny sometimes." And yes, we had to agree.

We do have a tentative event to attend on the 15th at the Cochiti Pueblo, but because it is on the way and a good deal earlier in the day, perhaps, just maybe, we'll make it back to Chimayó for Father Roca's celebration at 7:00pm.

Even though I am still as lapsed as ever.

We missed the Old Guy at Chimayó this time, but we had a wonderful, curative, healing time just the same, and then it was time to head up the Taos Canyon to Dixon, where we'd never been but had heard there was to be a reading of a new play based on the works of Viejito Nasario Garcia who we have come to know rather well it seems, as we've encountered him any number of times over the last few months and we have come to call each other by first names and compadre. Yes, well, it's New Mexico and some people become your oldest and dearest friends even before you've met them for the first time. For whatever reason, viejitos and Indios have become those kinds of friends, even more so than Anglos, but some Anglos, too, have befriended us, as we have befriended them.

It was Hispanic Culture Day in Dixon, how nice. Everyone there was Anglo, it seemed, and the entertainment featured when we arrived was a couple of Anglo musicians doing Merle Haggard and Randy Travis numbers among some original compositions. It was funny. Oh, there were a few Hispanics off in the corners, noting with some alarm, I thought, all these Anglos celebrating Hispanic Culture with country music, but what the heck.

We were starving, so we went to the sector labeled "food" and ordered up combination plates of burritos and posole with green chile that were really, really good, and we sat and ate and drank jicama and limonade and listened to mostly country music while we waited for the reading to begin. The artistic director of the theater came and chatted with us for a while. "Where are you from?" "New Mexico. The Estancia Valley." "Oh. Where is that, exactly?" "Way -- way -- south of here." "It must have been quite a trip for you guys." "Well, yes. It was. But it was a nice drive, and a nice day for a drive, too." "Yes, the storms have held off today. We're loving it. Glad you could make it out all this way!"


It was actually quite a nice place, this Toolshed in Dixon, relatively new, and pleasantly put together, just off the road to Taos, so it's not really out in the middle of nowhere the way we thought it might be.

But it was sort of strange that practically everybody there for Hispanic Culture Day, the Second Annual to boot, was as Anglo as I am, and there was nothing visible or hearable that was Hispanic in any way except the food -- which was prepared and served by a couple of sisters who appeared quite Scandinavian to me. But the food was excellent, so I won't complain.

But the reading of When the Stars Trembled in Rio Puerco. (video link to first reading in July).. well, even that... no, I won't say it wasn't Hispanic, because it was, most definitely, but the woman who wrote the script and who's putting the show together, Shebana Coehlo, despite her Portuguese last name was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, and is as East Indian as can be. Which is not to fault her -- please -- but merely to make note of how things are and how things go. It's New Mexico.

I've presented a hundred or so staged readings over the years, some of them better than others, but they are all part of a new works development process that is really necessary for the benefit of the work and for the audience. This one was really quite special, even more so because I had nothing to do with it except to attend and comment when the time came.

The freedom that allows me is pleasing to say the least.

Nasario collected stories from the Old Ones (last night, they were even called fantasmas, ghosts) of his former home in the Rio Puerco Valley south of Cuba for many years, and those stories formed the bulk of his literary and academic work until his retirement from UNM some years ago. His collections of stories and his intimate familiarity with the people and places the stories refer to have become standard works for students of Old New Mexico, what used to be but now, mostly, is no more.

Nasario maintains that the Hispanic culture of Northern New Mexico that he grew up with has "disappeared," whereas I say it's changed but by no means has it disappeared. It hasn't disappeared in part because he himself has preserved so many of the stories of Old, and they live through his books and the memories of so many people alive today. Those who left the Rio Puerco Valley when time was, moving to Bernalillo and Albuquerque because the water dried up and there was no way to make a living along the Rio Puerco any more, carried the culture with them though they modified it as they became integrated with the societies they were joining, societies which weren't really that foreign in any case, although the stories of many of those who were forced to move from their traditional Hispanic communities to the city because of the drought in the 1950's (as Nasario was and as were many of those who lived in the traditional communities of the East Mountains) are stories of intense and lasting culture shock.

Yes, I know -- somewhat -- what that's like.

But I adapted, as did so many others, including Nasario, and here we are today, telling our tales.

Same with the Indians and many of those Anglos and Cowboys as well.

The culture -- the cultures -- aren't the same as they used to be, that's for dang-sure, but they aren't gone.  They have become, in my view, internalized. The ground state, if you will, from which the modern culture(s) of New Mexico spring.

I'm sure we could sit on the portal and go round and round about this for hours.

At any rate, the reading last night showed what I think is enormous potential. The script was written by Coehlo with the obvious enthusiastic participation of Nasario in what appears to be a true collaborative fashion. Coehlo has an extensive project in mind which she calls Recuerdos Vivos New Mexico of which last night's reading was just the first part. The stories were well selected and nicely -- very nicely -- rendered by a skilled cast that was obviously deeply into and moved by the stories themselves. Their ability to bring them to life was nigh-on to magical.

If I have any criticisms of the piece it is that Nasario's character participation was less than it could have been. Nasario himself is a superb story-teller in his own right, with extraordinary tales of his own recuerdos from times gone by that I thought should be considered for greater inclusion in this work. Instead, the conceit of this play is that the character "Nasario" is an invisible and silent presence listening to the stories, copying them down or recording them (we don't know, because we can't see him) as fulfillment of a pledge he made when he was a child, a pledge to "remember."

When I commented that I'd like to see more of "Nasario" the character in it, Nasario the man -- who is quite deaf at this point in his life -- misheard me and thought I was asking whether he was working on his own stories for publication/presentation. Which of course he is. I certainly didn't mind the diversion of topic because it gave him a chance to talk about his more recent works which are almost all his stories told his way. And they are, in my view, wonderful.  He got to tell some of those stories before the evening was over, too. So the audience was doubly moved, I think, both by the recuerdos  of the Viejitos, and by hearing his own tales from those days gone by.

It turned out to be a highly rewarding evening.

[Because I have some errands that must get done today, I'll post this without links for the time being, but I hope to get some included by later today or tomorrow.]

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