June 13, 2011 at 11:07 AM

Wild to the Heart # 2

One of the most notorious events occurred when the inhabitants of Acoma pueblo revolted unsuccessfully against the Spanish...

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The Southwest is a land full of apparent contradictions, which when allowed their own shape and form, hold the possibility of complementing each other to highlight the uniqueness of each. Bright green leaves of cottonwood trees unfurl against the coffee-brown of earthen cliffs; trampolines sit in front of centuries-old adobe homes; wooden crosses draped with flowers and stuffed animals, descansos (places of rest) with names like Garcia, Martinez, and Vigil carved into them, dot the roads to mark where people were killed in automobile accidents and create oases of beauty to honor tragedy; Native men dressed in U.S. military camouflage escort their wives and daughters robed in native Zuni dress; and Anglos drive Hummers with “Save the Environment” bumper stickers.

 

In her book Belonging: A Culture of Place (2009), bell hooks writes that wherever she goes in the United States, she finds that many people feel no sense of place and that modern life is “too much.” This “too muchness creates a wilderness of spirit, the everyday anguish that shapes the habits of being for those who are lost, wandering, searching.” While this may be the case for much of the world, in the Southwest our “too muchness” revolves not around no sense of place, but such a deep sense of personal place that these connections work to cement the borders that divide. “Our senses of who are, our identities, are inextricably interwoven with place…Our identity narratives tell about what we stand for, why we are as we are, and hint at what we might

become,” write Barbara Comber and Pat Thomson in Critical Literacy Finds a “Place” (2001), as they explore the relationships between critical literacy and place and find that when critical literacy is integrated into the our ways of thinking, fissures are created in the impenetrability of these borders to allow in more expansive thoughts and potential of what we might become. The multiple identity narratives of place shift from social, cultural, and political expectations to bind people into specific roles and become an opportunity to discover, name, question, and expand upon. In areas of a deep sense of place, experiencing the world through this lens opens possibilities of understanding and change where definitions of limitation previously existed.

 

The Native people of the Southwest have called this area home for thousands of years. Here, the many groups of people lived, gardened, gave birth, warred, and built stunning cities and communities linked to the position of the stars. As in all humanity, there were times of peace, times of war, gods and goddesses, and threading it all, the individual daily breaths of men, women, and children. Spanish conquistadors arrived to seek the Seven Cities of Gold and to convert souls to Christianity, seeking to end indigenous idols, matrilineal rhythms, and Native languages along the way. “This isn’t a history of Spanish men or of Indian men,” writes Ramón Gutiérrez, “of their battles triumphs and defeats. It is a history of the complex web of interactions between men and women, young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, Spaniard and Indian, all of whom fundamentally depended on each other for their own self-definition.”

 

One of the most notorious events occurred when the inhabitants of Acoma pueblo revolted unsuccessfully against the Spanish, and Don Juan de Oñate ordered the right foot cut off every man who had participated in the revolt (Seefeldt, 2005). More than 300 years later, a bronze statue representing Don Juan de Oñate was erected in front of the visitor’s center in Alcalde, New Mexico. Three-and-a-half years later the statue was discovered missing its right foot - it had been removed with a power grinder.

 

And then arrived the Anglos - explorers, traders, merchants, and soldiers. And with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, what had been northern Mexico became part of the United States. “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” say today’s Mexican American descendants. Scholar Laura Gómez posits that, rather than the traditional term “Hispanic” that many northern New Mexicans prefer, she and others whose families have lived in New Mexico since before the Treaty of Guadalupe are Mexican Americans, as Mexican was the exclusive term used during the 18th and 19th centuries. She asks why the Mexican legacy has been downplayed in favor of an emphasis on Spanish, rather than Mexican, heritage and writes that this preference evolved out of the intense anti-Mexican racism of the 1800s, and whether one now self-identifies as Hispanic or Mexican American is a political statement (Gomez, 2007).

 

When northern Mexico became part of the United States and all of its Mexican inhabitants were thereby nationalized, what evolved over the next centuries was a situation where Mexican Americans were considered “white” legally, but not socially. And while the racism Anglos brought with them to the Southwest was directed at both Mexican and Native Americans, by considering Mexican Americans “white,” but not Native Americans, Anglos effectively divided these two native potential allies.

 

And there is the most recent group to add to the complexities of our land, Mexican immigrants. Driven by economic hardships in their country, Mexican nationals have come to the United States in ever-increasing numbers. In 1970, less than 20% of Mexicans living in the United States were born in Mexico. Currently this number stands at 50%, increasing each year, many now living, undocumented, in the United States. “I walked barefoot through miles of desert in the pitch of night to get here,” my friend, and recent immigrant, Alejandra told me. “I lost my shoes crossing the river. My husband carried me on his back as long as he could, but we had to walk many miles, so I walked. And then the coyotes (people paid to cross Mexicans across the border

into the United States)…You hear so many awful stories. It was terrifying. Horrible.”

 

Now Alejandra lives here with her family, hoping to create in the United States a stable future that is impossible in Mexico. Anti-immigrant sentiment among Anglos rises as the economic situation in the U.S. deteriorates. And many U.S. citizens never stop to think about the factors that would drive someone from a land they never wanted to leave. Tensions flare along the borders of all interactions between the groups, including between native New Mexicans of Mexican American origin and recent Mexican immigrants—one group striving to maintain their historic roots and another seeking to grow them. The racism Mexican Americans have endured from Anglos over the centuries is now turned toward the new immigrants.

 

And yet people from all groups intermarried, raised children, and loved. Acts of kindness and beauty uncaptured by history float everywhere around us.

 

Communal racism, violence, and bloodshed, interwoven with individual experiences of

understanding and love, defined the primary interactions between these three cultural groups for hundreds of years, with atrocities committed by and against all. Native Americans hold the original honor of calling this land their soul’s home. Mexican Americans have lived here for generations and centuries and feel a blood connection to this space. It is brought to Anglos’ attention daily, that while many who choose to live here are economically successful and may love this space, they do not have the roots of their Native and Mexican American neighbors and are resented for their presence.

 

This shared history has created yet another contradiction within our landscape for each - a deep love of place and a sense of exile within one’s homeland.

 

In Pedagogy of the Heart (1997), Paulo Freire writes, “Suffering exile implies recognizing that one has left his or her context of origin; it means experiencing bitterness, the clarity of a cloudy place where one must make right moves to get through. Exile cannot be suffered when it is all pain and pessimism. Exile cannot be suffered when it is all reason. One suffers exile when his or her conscious body, reason, and feeling - one’s whole body - is touched…To have a project for the future, I do not live only in the past. Rather, I exist in the present and prepare myself for the possible return.”

 

So what happens when one combines a deep sense of place with a sense of exile within one’s own home? What happens when one combines a desire to create a deep sense of place— walking the line to create a place of hope and future for one’s children—while at the same time expending tremendous amounts of energy on trying to be invisible, as for undocumented immigrants, whose families live under the constant pressure and fear of discovery and deportation? We feel the ghosts of these events and ways of thinking, as all of what was said and done seeps up through the past to color the present in every aspect of social and political life.

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