Above: Author Nasario García.
THOMAS WOLFE MAY HAVE BELIEVED that you can’t go home again, but I disagree. If the dominoes fall just right, I believe that you can relive your past. I know, because I have. This is the story of my days of yore in the Río Puerco Valley, southeast of Chaco Canyon.
Years ago, my wife and I departed for Spain, where I spent the 1964–65 academic year taking doctoral courses (cursos monográficos) at the University of Granada. Our arrival coincided with the Lenten season. The solemn candlelit processions at dusk throughout town, women wearing black mantillas, and men carrying religious floats called pasos in honor of local santos reminded me of worshippers in my boyhood village of Guadalupe (aka Ojo del Padre), where they paraded the Virgen de Guadalupe during Holy Week. In the Albaicín, the old Moorish section of Granada where we resided, I heard a cante jondo, a deep song. It sounded sorrowful and poignant, like the alabados that were sung in the Río Puerco Valley when someone had died.
These memories surprised me. In 1945, I had left the valley, still a boy, and rarely thought of it again. Now, in Spain, I had an epiphany. A love affair with my homeland (patria chica) was rekindled as two worlds, far from each other, blended together.
In its heyday, my valley comprised four flourishing communities: San Luis, Cabezón, Casa Salazar, and Guadalupe. Each one boasted an ironclad and proud identity. Now the forlorn placitas are ghost towns where adobe homes gently melt into the earth. San Luis, which is closest to NM 550, about 45 miles northwest of Bernalillo, shows signs of life, but the mobile and modern-style homes clash dramatically with the local environment and the few adobe structures that remain.
The Río Puerco Valley experienced two settlements. The first took place in Navajo country in the 1760s, after Spanish governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín approved several grazing grants. The second occurred 100 years later, when a wave of new settlers like my paternal grandparents’ families ventured away from Albuquerque and its environs. By the 1950s, relentless droughts and controversial issues such as government-imposed grazing restrictions sounded the death knell.
Even before then, my parents found living off the land tenuous at best. Like countless other poor and uneducated farmers and ranchers, they weighed their precarious situation: five children to feed and clothe; no water for crops. In 1945, we packed our meager belongings in Dad’s old clunker (carrito) and moved to an unfamiliar place called Martíneztown, in Albuquerque. Our future hung very much in the balance, but somehow we survived inner-city life in a one-room dwelling until we built our home in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.
I was elated to leave behind the hardscrabble life. On more than one occasion, I had wondered if a better way existed beyond the picturesque landscape that had surrounded us—especially during those frigid winters when I wrapped gunnysacks around my high-top shoes and secured them with baling wire for protection from the snow. I had tired of eating pinto beans, red chile, corn, and flour tortillas—my mom’s delicious cooking notwithstanding. I yearned for a new life, a new beginning, and a new adventure. I dared to dream my way across an ocean.
I RETURNED FROM SPAIN in 1965, still remembering those precious Lenten moments that were awakened in the motherland (madre patria). Now I longed to see once again the Río Puerco Valley. One summer day, I hopped in my car and maneuvered the winding dirt roads, up and down hills, creating a trail of dust, until I came upon the llano. Stark blue volcanic peaks unfurled before my eyes. The majestic Cabezón Peak, known as Black Rock among our benevolent Navajo neighbors, stood proudly. Looming on the horizon were the prominent Twin Peaks (Cerros Cuates)—Cerro Santa Clara and Cerro Guadalupe. Little by little, the countryside where long ago I had enjoyed freedom of movement on my horse, Bayito, came alive as if to welcome me back. Alas, the wildlife was gone. Still, the arroyos, peaks, foothills, and buttes, the imposing Mesa Prieta, and the forbidden Mesa Encantada, which my paternal grandmother said held witches, seemed to speak to me in their beautiful topographical language. The Spanish names that I could still roll off my tongue with ease brought the landscape closer to my heart and soul. The roaring waters of the Río Puerco catapulted me back to those innocent and impish years when my cousins and I dared the fast-moving current to catch us following a thunderstorm.
Not far in the distance, I could see my modest two-room adobe casita. I traversed the Cañada del Camino, a ravine once populated with prairie dogs that wiggled their tails like windup toys whenever I galloped by on Bayito. Their playful squeaks as they retreated to their underground lairs triggered a lullaby of animal sounds. In my bank of memories, I heard cows lowing, sheep bleating, horses whinnying, rattlesnakes hissing, coyotes howling at the bright moon, the mockingbirds singing with the lonesome turtledoves at dawn.
Above: The iconic outline of Cabezón Peak marks the backdrop of the rugged Río Puerco Valley.
I could hear and even feel the gentle desert breezes glide across the ravine. But a sudden and eerie silence enveloped me as I neared my casita, its windows shuttered. I peeked through the keyhole and viewed the kitchen where Mom taught me how to mend my socks and embroider dish towels. It was empty, with only Dad’s lonely kerosene lantern (farol) dangling from a viga. He had refused to take it to Los Ranchos. Once I asked him why. “The farol is to remind me,” he said, “of the light that it provided us through dark and good times. So let it be. Allí que se quede.” Later, somebody stole it!
I ambled next door to my grandparents’ deserted home, climbed onto the portal, creaked open the wooden door that hung gingerly from one hinge, and went in the kitchen. Though Grandma Lale’s decorative black-and-silver woodstove was gone, I could visualize where she baked her anise-flavored sweet rolls (molletes) and roasted the piñon nuts that I shelled for her Christmas empanaditas. I tiptoed across the creaky boards and entered the bedroom. There, as if time had stood still, was Grandma’s nicho, where she kept her statue of Nuestro Señor de Esquípulas, a black Christ to whom she prayed and whom she often punished by standing him on his head, face to the wall, for not bringing rain to the thirsty crops.
The most breathtaking moment ensued as I stepped back onto the portal. An incredible image of Grandpa Lolo appeared before my eyes. He sat in his wicker rocking chair smoking a White Owl cigar, his Sunday morning ritual while gazing at his cornfields, patches of pinto beans and pumpkins, and plots of cantaloupes and watermelons—his hard work’s reward.
I departed a tad nostalgic and anxious to learn about my grandparents’ pioneering lives. In 1968, I obtained a reel-to-reel tape recorder and headed to Martíneztown, where they lived. Grandpa Lolo, 96, his eyesight and hearing failing, was a bit reticent. Grandma Lale (Lolo and Lale were their nicknames) was younger and more sprightly. Soon, both rejoiced at reminiscing about both the good and taxing times. Their delightful remembrances inspired me to interview other old-timers, including my father. The kaleidoscope of stories they conjured was phenomenal—personal tragedies, witchcraft and the supernatural, pranks and humor, the clandestine brewing of moonshine (mula), unscrupulous politicians, plus family customs and traditions.
Forty years later, I hear the stories still: of car lights cascading down a mystical mesa, the sign of a devil in our midst; of Luciano Sánchez, who, as a small boy, saw his grandmother, an aunt and uncle, and their two children perish in the influenza of 1918 and of the local gravedigger, too ill to work, so that all five bodies shared one plot; of the father who plunged into the roiling waters of the Río Puerco to save his little boy, trapped in a whirlpool after being swept from his horse. Both drowned. The son was found days later, downstream and perched high on a tree branch after the waters receded.
Not every old-timer’s story spoke of hardship. There were rollicking tales of stealing a bride on her wedding day for a modest ransom that, of course, went to help the newlyweds. And there were spooky tales. Each fall, my cousins and I joined Grandma Lale in Grandpa Lolo’s corral to shuck corn and listen to Grandma’s tales of a talking doll with sharp teeth and long fingernails near Mesa Encantada, and of La Mamona, the enigmatic snake that could suck a cow’s udder dry. Grandpa Lolo told magical stories of a flying bat that puffed on a cigarette to glow in the dark. My uncle Antonio, who had a hand-operated corn grinder, provided the bass line to my grandparents’ storytelling sonata.
Come winter, Mom and Dad shared their own tales with us around the kitchen table. El Coruco, an alluring place not far from our home, occupied center stage. Dad told about balls of fire that frolicked at dusk on the nearby foothills. In the dead of night, hooting owls disguised as witches coupled with what Mom called evil spirits (las cosas malas), adding to the crescendo of the paranormal. Transfixed, we children heard rattling chains from supernatural creatures.
I still visit my beloved Río Puerco Valley. Recently, upon leaving, I felt both joy and sadness. I envisioned my boyhood’s wonderland as a sepulcher without its people, yet an inner voice of reassurance told me that, whether we care to remember the past or not, the past surely will remember us. After all is said and done, there is nothing more powerful and lasting than one’s roots and sense of place, our querencia, from whence we can draw strength and inspiration for whatever uncharted journeys we undertake, or that await us without warning. This is my querencia, my Río Puerco Valley.