Evelina Zuni Lucero
The Southwest, all of the Southwest, is my home. It has been the home of my pueblo people for untold generations. It's home in a way no other American other than America's indigenous people can know. The Southwest is mystical, charming, enchanting. It is infused with spirituality, with a mysterious ambiance and varying landscapes, a combination of harsh deserts, plains, mountains, valleys, mesas and plateaus, a combination of allure, like a complex woman whose beauty goes beyond physical appearance.
Just as my ancestors sustained their souls by connection to the land, my soul, my inspiration to write is sustained by the whole of the Southwest. The possibilities for plots, for what could be, are ripe, ready for the picking in New Mexico where the past is as close to us as the modern Intel Corporation with its computer chips is to the future. Where La Llorona walks along the ditchbanks looking for her children the way Crimestoppers is looking for the missing child walking home from the neighbor's home in Santa Fe. Where Isleta grandmothers warn of Kah-slu-slee, the mythical giant who eats misbehaving children even as strands of Carlos Santana's warning to children of monsters under the bed seeps out of low rider vehicles in Albuquerque's Hispanic South Valley. Where people search the night skies of Roswell for UFOs with the same fervency and faith that Catholic pilgrims trek to the old church at Chimayo for miracle cures in the dirt. Where Christ appears in tortillas and a stranger with hooves where feet should be, dresses in a three-piece suit and offers winning tips to gamblers in the Indian casinos like the devil bargaining for their soul. Where a recent Republican governor one supported Indian gaming and advocated the legalization of marijuana to the ire of his political party, even going so far as to once include heroin in the deal. Where Pueblo people emerged out of the waters of Si-pa-pu even as the atomic bomb was birthed in the Jemez Mountains.
Where else but Nuevo Mexico, the land of enchantment, would all this be possible?
We're on dry land that was once the bottom of an ancient sea - a sea that I can feel ebbing and flowing in my blood to which I respond like the tide to the moon. A long ago ocean is not hard to imagine. Each day we move along what once was the bottom of an ancient seabed, looking up through layers of time at the blue skies, which sometimes are an unbroken stretch of turquoise blue and sometimes are filled with towering, dazzling-white thunderheads. There's something primordial in an ancient ocean, something similar to the womb and the beginning of time, the creation of the universe, the birth of stars.
People who conceive of themselves as emerging from the earth conceive of themselves as being one with the land; they see the earth as mother. It's an affectionate bonding to the land that differs dramatically from, that can't even be compared to, other people's concept of themselves. In a sense, the people of emergence are the land. They're one with the land from the beginning, journeying from Si-pa-pu through land, through time and space.
The New Mexico I know leaps easily into my fiction. A twist here, a spin there, the past co-exists with the present; a gap of 500 years is a mere drop in the bucket in Pueblo time. If you're not confined by the illusion of boundaries, nothing is too hard to believe. A tribal casino built for the benefit of one person? Why not? As the narrator in a novel I am working on about Indian gaming tells it in a chapter entitled "Historia de Manana":
In 1991, our tribe went Bingo and eventually the whole nine yards of Indian gambling: video machines, slots, cards, dice, roulette, keno, everything short of horse races and cock fights out back.
All because my cousin Elsie needed a job.
It was as simple as that. Our tribal gaming enterprise, one mired in a tangle of legalities, was established solely for one person.
The official mandate was given voice:
We must provide employment opportunities for our people! Tribal council members solemnly nodded at one another.
I so move!
As the secretary bent over her notebook to dutifully record the motion in the minutes, council members leaned in closer. For Elsie, they whispered.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1541, a Native of unknown tribal origins called the Turk had the Intruders from the south, from beyond the great waters, chasing across the eastern plains of what is now called New Mexico. The land earlier has had names in Spanish and before that, more ancient names in Indian languages. Even the Turk had a name of his own, with which the Intruders couldn't be bothered. The Turk was so called because, to them, he resembled one. If they had asked, he would have told them he had many names, was known by many native peoples, known throughout time. In his current circumstances, the Turk had been taken captive at Pecos Pueblo from amongst the people of the plains. He was a talker, relying on his wits to get him out of the trouble his mouth got him into in the first place.
At first the capitán of the soldiers on reconnaissance was only interested in talking to the aged cacique of Pecos Pueblo and his able assistant, a strapping, commanding young man. The two leaders had extended hospitality to the Spaniards and brought them to their settlement on the east plains. The captain had no time for a lowly captive Indio; that is, not until the Turk told him what he wanted to hear. There exists a land to the east, Quivera, a kingdom filled with treasures and wealth, he said. In the finest tradition of his trade, the Turk spread open both hands, showed a yellow stone in the palm of one, closed both hands again, put them behind his back, and again brought forth his closed fists. El capitán pointed at one and when the Turk opened the fist, a finespun dream, reminiscent of the Aztec riches, appeared before the captain, captivating him with all he desired. The hot sands beneath his feet turned to gold.
To the average person, these two events are seemingly unrelated, separated by hundreds of years in time. But as Elsie tells it, the job made to order for her actually was part of a cycle set into motion long ago. Four hundred fifty years ago to be exact, practically yesterday in Pueblo time.
The Southwest has been the meeting place of many peoples, many cultures over time. There's been strains, blends, re-figurations, adjustments, much like the tensions before, during and after an earthquake. How can one reconcile the differences in world views and concepts of time suggested by cultural expressions, such as "in a New York minute" and "time is money," on one hand, and "time immemorial" and "long ago," on the other? Not very easily. Seeing things from another culture's point of view is not easy; accepting the other's point of view is even harder.
I add another twist to my story, and The Turk, the Indio who lured Coronado and his men on a wild goose hunt for gold in 1541, becomes a prophet who foresaw Indian casinos as another good trick. Elsie dreams of the conflicts between cultures and the Turk's visions of the future:
Elsie tossed in her sleep [dreaming of] another Tiguex pueblo, another fierce battle. The Spanish army suffered heavy casualties. A soldier, Cervantes, stood guard over the Turk who had been placed in seclusion during the uprising.
"Five soldiers are dead at Moho, including a captain," the Turk told Cervantes in a flat tone. "It was the captain well favored by the men, wasn't it?"
At his words, Cervantes stiffened, for that very day, Captain Ovando had been seized by the Indians and dragged into a tower porthole and killed, and four others had been fatally wounded. But Cervantes fervently denied anyone had been killed. The Turk remarked he knew it was a fact and didn't need anyone's corroboration. Curious of how the Turk came by this information, Cervantes hid to spy on him. The Turk, his back hunched over, intently gazed into a pottery bowl of water set before him on the dirt floor. Creeping closer, peering over the Turk's shoulder, Cervantes made out a blur of movement on the water's surface. Looking inside the bowl, the guard saw soldiers, Indios, and horses swirling in the water as if in an eddy. Cervantes gasped. Even as he stared in amazement, the water became cloudy, and the Turk covered the bowl with a piece of cloth.
As Cervantes backed off, startled, the Turk calmly said, "It's not yours to know."
The dream scenes recurred night after night. In some of Elsie's dreams, the Turk dreamed of his death at the hands of the angry soldiers. And he often dreamed of Quivera Palace. Not the one he made up, but the one of the reservation hills of the future.
He had frequently watched the soldiers gamble at card games. Tribal peoples often feasted and gambled freely, so he was intrigued by a new form of gambling. When the officers were present, the men quietly played games of first or triumph, which involved no wagers for horses and saddles; in the officers' absence, the soldiers played betting games with great earnestness and intensity of emotion (the very games the officers played amongst themselves). Dice was another pleasurable, furtive diversion which the Turk watched with avid interest. While he didn't understand the reason for it, he deduced that some games were frowned upon though the men derived their greatest pleasure from them.
For me, this is what literature, what storytelling is all about - taking the discordances of life and working them out. The one thing you can be sure of is nothing stays the same. There's land erosion, receding of an ocean, destruction of a habitat or species, destruction of a way of life. Stories, too, must change, stay alive, retain meaning over time. So must culture, language, traditions, art. Then they nourish and sustain people. Writing is a struggle, a journey on the way to understanding, to acceptance of what can't be changed, to learn that the real growth is in the struggle, and having journeyed through those realizations, to emerge transformed, whole and beautiful.
One morning in particular, Elsie emerged through layers of dreams; she struggled to rise to consciousness. The effort turned strenuous as if she was buried in sand; her limbs grew heavy, immovable, her tongue thick, mouth dry. Her lungs burned. Her very efforts to move seemed to draw her deeper and heightened her panic. Exhausted, she ceased struggling and immediately experienced a release, a warm, strangely pleasant sensation of being in a mucky, swirling substance like quicksand that pushed her up.
When she awoke from this last dream, she came to see me.
"The state's not going to win," Elsie told me, her voice full of confidence. She was referring to the current state of affairs in Indian gaming. In the last legislative session, state legislators and the governor battled over the legality of the gaming compacts the governor had signed with the tribes. The power struggle had been taken to court where the ruling went against the tribes, who were now appealing the decision which declared the compacts invalid. The whole gaming issue was stalled as everyone awaited the appeals court to issue a decision. In this election year, everyone was striking a pose.
"Legislators and the attorney general are fighting this tooth and nail. What makes you so sure the state won't win? " I asked out of idle curiosity. I was a little envious of Elsie's dreams. The most I've ever experienced has been deja vu-that little isolated warp in time and space that leaves me wondering what's really going on, if things don't happen over and over with only the names and dates changed to protect the ignorant.
"It's not in the cards. Not in the stars," she responded, her voice matter of fact. "I used to just have a feeling, but now it's more like I know."
I heard the conviction in her voice. Who was I to question it? Strange, mysterious things do still happen, even in the face of Western empirical science which states that if something can't be proved using scientific methods then it's not so. But not everything in life is for us to know, which is why I can accept everything Elsie has told me. Life is a mystery, full of twists and turns. Most people in New Mexico understand this. Everyone in the state is looking for mystery and miracles: in tortillas, in dirt, in the dry air, in the night sky over Roswell. Even in the spin of the slots. Who knows why the long ago people suddenly up and left Chaco Canyon as if a nuclear attack had been signaled, and everyone dropped what they were doing to head for the bomb shelters. Okay, maybe it was a meteorite. Usually, I'm a rational person. A journalist asking, Who, What, When, Where, Why, How? Can I quote you on that? Rarely do I accept people's stories at face value. Everyone has their own version of the truth.
But believing her story was not the point; with Elsie, it never was. She simply told it like it was, and with a shrug of her shoulders left it to you.
"We'll see," I said.
"Four hundred and fifty-plus years and we're still doing the same dance. Mark my words," she said.
It is an irony in life that sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. Because we are still doing the same dance, my soul sometimes becomes grieved, shriveled up like an apricot laid out to dry in the hot sun. Native Americans, no matter their age, gender, level of income, or background, are 2 times as likely to suffer violence than all other Americans. Seven out of ten violent assaults against Indians are committed by a non-Indian. We are in prison in rates grossly disproportionate to our population, a rate 38 percent higher than the national average. We will be incarcerated for longer periods of time and receive harsher penalties than whites for similar crimes. Rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, poverty, high school drop out, suicides are sky high.
Facts and harsh realities like these that every Native American must acknowledge, if not live with, are not the stuff of plots in the latest murder mystery novel set on a New Mexico Indian reservation. In those books written by Anglo writers, Native Americans are witty and clever, full of ancient wisdom and ready for encounters with Skinwalkers and other Indian supernaturals that non-Indians find exotic and convenient as literary devices to lend a ring of authenticity to their books. In actuality, the real authenticity of Native life is ignored.
It's funny, but of all the things I could possibly have learned in graduate school, of all the things I could possibly remember, what stays with me is what I was told by another graduate student, a Chicana writer. The context of the conversation, I forget. Her words, I remember. She told me, "Evelina, tell the truth. A writer must tell the truth."
So it's in this challenge that my voice comes alive, my soul recharges. I rise to the challenge, because who, if not a Native American, is going to point out the aforementioned unpleasantries? How, despite these setbacks, these Third World conditions and human rights abuses, there is beauty in Indian people, in their voices. There is strength, and humor and irony aplenty: How many Americans know that canned commodity pineapples are the sweetest delight, better even than Dole's finest? So splendid and sublime, they once became the bartering token for video games among Isleta youth. One can of commodity pineapples in exchange for a three-day loan of the latest video game.
I weave a web of socio-political-economic factors, time, space, and place. This web is intricate, multi-dimensional, tight with tension, motives, passions. There's a pattern. Only in looking back at what once was do you understand where you are now, where you've been, where you're heading.
The stories are everywhere. Every landmark I see in the four directions has a story to it. Every person I meet has a story reflected in their eyes or etched in facial lines, and a tale to tell of where they've been, where they're at and where they're going. I keep my eyes wide open, my ears attuned and I hear them everywhere, even on the evening news. Sometimes they come back with memory so that my characters are everyone I've ever known and because of that, they're also no one I've ever known. In a work in progress entitled "Clouds in My Coffee," what the narrator shares comes out of my cumulative experience and memories and stories I've heard:
Our home was located west of the village below a rounded mesa of volcanic rock; further beyond was rangeland and the place where the stillborn infants are buried, the little ones said to send the rain. The old man nicknamed Weatherman, now dead many years, had lived further west of us in the home closest to the mesa.
Weatherman used to say, "Early this morning when I went outside to greet the sun, I heard them again - those little ones - in the hills singing and dancing. It's going to rain." The amazing thing was the rain would come, which is how he came by his name. The old guy used to sit at his kitchen table with a blue-speckled tin cup filled with steaming coffee turned milky brown like the river because he added so much evaporated milk to it. His hands were roughened and gnarled, and his index finger, yellowed by cigarette smoke, barely fit through the cup handle. Staring into his cup like he was watching Doppler radar - in this sense, years ahead of his peers, the early 1960's tv weather forecasters - he'd pronounce the coming of the rain. Every time the clouds came in from the west, piled high, bellies full of rain, I thought of him.
For the people of emergence, the Southwest isn't a commodity. It can't be packaged, captured, duplicated. It's not for sale in any shape or form. It's not a slogan or a symbol. It's the intersection of people, place and time. It's soul; it's spirit; it's home. It's culture; it's history; it's story.
And so I write, drawing inspiration from the very air I breathe which sometimes, I swear, has the faint smell of an ocean. And on a sleepless summer night when plots, characters and possibilities are budding in my head, I swear I hear the lapping of water as ancient ocean waves rise and fall. With my eyes wide open, I see them, rising and falling, and falling and rising, before they recede with the red tide of the morning sun.
Unpublished, Keynote Speaker, Southwest Symposium 2001, University of New Mexico, March 23, 2001. © 2001 - 2004 Evelina Zuni Lucero
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