Friday, July 18, 2014

Yearning To Breathe Free

Mayela is visiting us from Mexico. In Puerto Vallarta, we hired her last fall through an agency to play and speak Spanish with Elizabeth a couple of times a week after school. Pam took a special liking to her and invited her to join us in the mountains for a few weeks.

So now she's here, bunking in the trailer like all our guests. It's her first time in the U.S. To get here, she had to fly from Vallarta to Dallas, then catch a connecting flight to El Paso, where Pam drove to meet her for the two-hour drive to Ruidoso.

I was worried about how things might go at the Border Patrol checkpoint about a half hour north of El Paso. They always ask us if we're U.S. citizens and then wave us through. Now, I fretted, Pam's going to say no and point to Mayela, and then they'll also notice our Jalisco license plates and then the sniffer dogs will snap to defcon 3.

But it turned out the heartburn was actually in Dallas. When Mayela handed over her passport and the visa she'd had to travel six hours to Guadalajara to apply for, a 30-minute interrogation ensued regarding who bought her ticket, how much money she was carrying, how she planned to pay the expenses of her visit, where she was going, etc.

The agent wasn't satisfied with her answers and escorted her to a room, where she sat for the best part of an hour with other bewildered and anxious detainees. Finally another agent called her out for a few more surly questions and then abruptly told her she could go. By that time she was in danger of missing her El Paso connection but ran all the way to the gate and just made it.

So, welcome to the land of the free and the home of the brave, except that's not really the face we're turning toward our southern neighbors these days.

Mayela's story didn't really surprise us very much. But since she arrived we've all been a little stunned by the escalating fear and fury now being directed at the Honduran and Guatemalan children crossing the border and throwing themselves on the mercy of U.S. immigration authorities.

It isn't the opposition to admitting these kids that's deplorable. Reasonable people can differ over exactly what should be done with them now that they're here. It's the nasty and irrational tone of the vigilantes who gather, some with guns, to deny temporary sanctuary in their towns to these refugees.

Most of the protestors are probably nice enough people who may have the grace to be embarrassed some day by what they're saying and doing on cable news. But for now, they seem to have convinced themselves that their government is giving up the country to an army of conniving little Artful Dodgers intent on stealing a golden ticket to the good life.

I wish they'd spare a moment to reflect on what it would take to make them send their own children off alone to run a thousand-mile gauntlet of drug dealers, sex traffickers and other predators for the off chance of gaining access to the homelessness, unemployment and the ever-more-niggardly public assistance that await them in an unfriendly distant land.

I'm sure they'd realize that it would take more desperation than they've ever seen in one place themselves, that their own homeland would have to be a hellhole of dead-end misery to make them do it.

And I'd like to think that if they achieved this degree of insight, the hand they extended toward these vulnerable and innocent fugitives on their doorstep would be gentle, even if for most of them the hand may turn out to be empty.

Mayela goes home next week to get ready for her next year of college. She has a good home, a stable family and hopes for a career in psychology. Her country is no hellhole, although judging from a couple of hair raising stories she's told us from personal experience, she has no illusions about it.

Thanks to her border crossing and her glimpses of recent headlines, she now has fewer illusions about our country too.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Holy Water

We just got home from a short trailer trip to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. As we trundled our way across the Tularosa basin, still 50 miles away, we could see Sierra Blanca looming to the southeast.

The peak has been a navigation aid to wayfarers for as many millennia as people have lived here, and it still works for us. Wreathed in dark thunderclouds yesterday, the mountain looked every inch the sacred giver and sustainer of life that Apache theology says it is.

According to one account, this was the place where White Painted Woman gave birth to two sons, Child of Water and Killer of Enemies. They grew up and killed the monsters of the earth so human beings could live long and prosper.

In another version I came across, White Painted Woman and Killer of Enemies were brother and sister on the mountain. Killer of Enemies was supposed to hunt for their food, but every time he killed an animal, a supernatural being known as Owl Man Giant would swoop down and carry it off.

The pair were starving and might have died. But help arrived in the form of a thunderstorm. It was the spirit called Life Giver. Nine months later, White Painted Woman gave birth to Child of Water, who grew up and slew Owl Man Giant.

That cleared the way for Child of Water and his mother and uncle to create the world as we know it.

Spirit Dancers, also sometimes called Crown Dancers, don elaborate headdresses and invoke these entities regularly at Apache gatherings. The beliefs that surround White Painted Woman and her family tell the tribe everything it needs to know about the origin and meaning of the world, the place in it of mankind, and the right way for people to live in harmony with each other and all creatures great and small.

Of course we Judeo-Christians just have to shake our heads at these pagan superstitions. Okay, we'll grant you Life Giver, as long as he's actually the one and only god we ourselves worship. But as for the rest, check out Genesis for the real creation story, starring Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with their trickster snake and his apple.

Haha, I'm kidding. But I was surprised to learn that until quite recently the federal government didn't even recognize Indian beliefs and rituals as religion for First Amendment purposes. The teachings and the dances were interfered with or banned outright by officials who oversaw life on the reservations.

Then in 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which essentially affirms that the "free exercise" clause applies as much to Crown Dancers as it does to an Easter sunrise service.

The language of the Bill of Rights seems reasonably clear to me, but it has always been the case that if you're a member of any of the disfavored minorities the Constitution was designed to protect, you need something extra that says it protects you too. Otherwise it doesn't.

There are some Indians who say that the 1978 law came too late, that even though the old ways are being kept alive by new generations, they are not and never will be the same.

Up on Sierra Blanca there is a profitable ski lodge and a forest products business. Both were controversial among Apache people when they were launched. Elders warned that the tribe was selling out the sacred mountain for money.

But others argued that this was the way in an inhospitable modern world that the mountain could continue to nurture the people, and they prevailed. Part of the birthright of Apaches is now a share of the income from tribal enterprises.

The thunderclouds that hid the mountain yesterday as we drove through Carrizozo toward home arrived at our cabin about the same time we did and dropped buckets of much-needed rain on our thirsty forest.

I understand a check arrives monthly at every reservation home, courtesy of Sierra Blanca. It wouldn't be unreasonable for a Mescalero believer to wonder what the Garden of Eden has done for us lately.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Private Celebration

The town of Ruidoso is virtually surrounded by the reservation of the Mescalero Apaches. We've both been coming here since we were kids in Texas and living here part time for nearly three years, but we've never done more than drive through the reservation on the way to someplace else.

We finally fixed that on Saturday when we accepted the tribe's public invitation to its annual Ceremonial and Rodeo.

There aren't many opportunities for outsiders to observe life on the reservation. Gawkers aren't welcome and even just driving through tribal lands is discouraged on anything other than Highway 70 or the road that leads past the Inn of the Mountain Gods, the tribe's hotel-casino.

But the ceremonial is a multi-day event over the July 4 holiday weekend in which the people gather for a big communal celebration and seem proud to put some of their culture on display for any visitors who might want to come and watch.

The Mescalero seem to have had better luck than some other tribes when Indians across the west were being forced onto reservations. They were granted much of what they considered their ancestral territory, including Sierra Blanca or White Mountain.

The 12,000-foot peak, highest ground in southern New Mexico, is said to be held sacred by the tribe, which now runs a popular ski resort near the top. The gondolas operate year round, and we ride up now and then for the eye-popping views of the Tularosa basin, including distant White Sands and the scorched badlands to the west known locally as the malpais.

The Apache ceremonial arena and the separate rodeo grounds are located near the village of Mescalero, a cluster of buildings comprised of the tribal offices, a general store, a school, a couple of churches and some social services agencies.

Most of the 5,000 residents, including some from other tribes, live in housing hidden along the roads that snake through the forests and meadows miles away from the village. The Mescalero invited Lipan and Chiricahua Apaches, plains Indians who endured forced relocation to Oklahoma and Texas, to join them in the mountains a century or so ago.

We entered the grounds, passed by a small area of vendor stalls and refreshment stands, and took seats in the grandstand. On the right hand side of the grounds was a tall structure like a teepee, except that instead of hide or canvas it was covered with green-leafed branches. A small fire smoldered inside. The announcer said it played an important part in the festivities but didn't explain what it was.

Nearby were rows of small square enclosures for storage or cooking, also specially prepared for the occasion, framed with poles and covered with branches.

Half a dozen men sat under an awning and chanted to a steady beat of rawhide drums, a sound familiar to anyone who's watched western movies. In the dusty arena, some couples locked arms and did a rhythmic stamping two-step which the announcer told us was "social dancing."

Later there were "gourd dances," which looked much the same except that the men and women danced in separate lines, men in front. A few of the dancers wore traditional Apache dress, but most were in ordinary western clothing and boots, accessorized in some cases with eagle feathers, shawls and jewelry. A few white people danced too. I presumed they worked for agencies or tribal businesses and were asked to dance as a sign of appreciation or friendship.

I have no photo to show you because as you'll see on the ticket below we were asked firmly not to make recordings of any kind. This was a private event intended for the eyes and ears of those who took the trouble to come in person.

The announcer let us know that a principal purpose of the ceremonial was as a coming of age celebration for five girls, whose families would now be serving lunch. Everyone was welcome to eat, no charge.

We queued up with a couple of hundred others at one of several food lines, staffed by taciturn round-faced ladies who looked like the cooks. There was fried flatbread covered in beans topped with cheese, lettuce and tomatoes and a slice of melon, all as tasty as it could be without a trace of salt or any other spice.

At the end of the line, a young girl dressed exactly like the one in the photo above handed me a cup of lemonade.

"Your costume is very beautiful," I said. She looked down at her moccasins and waited for me to move along.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Renaissance Hillbilly

The cabin across the street from us in Ruidoso is a vacation rental, and when the guests include kids close to Elizabeth’s age we beckon them over to play on her swing set.

This week’s visitors were a couple from Midland with a little boy and girl, plus the mom’s parents from a rural area near the Texas-Arkansas border. When the little boy answered Elizabeth’s call, he brought along his granddad.

That’s not him in the picture, but he was definitely a real life specimen of the Duck Dynasty breed. Short, bandy-legged and muscular, he was a lot more presentable than the showbiz hillbillies. He wore pressed jeans, fancy roper boots made of some exotic leather and a crisp camouflage t-shirt and matching baseball cap.

While his grandson and Elizabeth played happily with her sand toys, he regaled me for nearly two hours with a stream of consciousness monologue unlike anything I’d ever heard before. We sat down on a pair of tree stump seats to watch the kids, and he began as if we’d already been talking for an hour.

“Yeah, I told muh wife when we git back home I’m gonna go in to the parts store and git a buncha fan belts and hoses and spark plugs and go to work on muh truck.”

He was a reasonably good looking guy, nearly bald under the cap and with a neatly trimmed gray goatee, but I noticed his lower lip and chin were grotesquely distended. 

I presumed that was why his nasal backwoods twang was sometimes so badly mangled that I couldn’t make out what he was saying. But about ten minutes into his soliloquy he turned discreetly to one side and allowed a brown gobbet of spittle to dribble onto my pine needles. I realized it wasn’t a deformity, it was only a wad of snuff, though maybe a little too much.

He told me his old truck back home is important to him because he uses it to haul a trailer containing his spotted mules and a metal carriage that he drives on trail rides. He breeds the mules. The wagon has been in his family for three generations, but he described a number of innovations he’s made to it with his acetylene torch. 

He had a picture of it on his cell phone. The seats were covered with a tarp, because he explained they were leather buckets salvaged from an old Dodge Charger.

His parents threw him out of the house at age 13. “I was b-a-a-ad,” he admitted. Later he was an alcoholic, although he said he’s licked that problem and only drinks beer now. He's back living near his parents and they often drink beer and reminisce agreeably about how bad he was when he drank too much.

One time a friend offered him a case of beer if he’d do a favor, and he did it. But the case of beer turned out to be Bud Lime, which he considered undrinkable and saved in a special cooler for when people asked him for a beer.

He cashes in his empties at a recycling center but likes to crush the cans first because they weigh more that way. “Ah’m goin’ on the Internet when I git home to git the specs for a can crusher I saw that ah’m gonna make myself,” he told me. He described how it would work and seemed to know what he was talking about. Except the part about how much the cans weigh afterward.

The little boy’s father came over in bermuda shorts and flipflops. He took a stump on the other side of the swingset. Once he was satisfied his son was doing fine, he quickly retreated to the rental. I felt like I was taking one for somebody else’s team.

The granddad didn’t acknowledge the son-in-law, but went on talking about how he drives a truck for the school district and spends the rest of his time tending to his 440 acres, a small herd of cattle and the kennel where he breeds pit bulls with Rhodesian ridgebacks and some kind of Cajun hunting dog I never heard of.

“People say pit bulls is vicious,” he said, “but ah tell mah dogs to watch them babies, and ah guarantee you if anybody comes near ‘em they’ll tear him up!”

When he’s not using them as babysitters, he takes the dogs out hunting for the feral tusked pigs that breed copiously in the thick brush around his place. He uses a brace of automatic pistols and a sawed-off shotgun because you often don’t see the beasts until it’s too late to raise a long gun.

He’s a pretty good shot at close quarters. One time his wife got him out of his recliner to kill a rabid skunk outside the house. He selected a .22 caliber rifle from his arsenal and tried to shoot the skunk with one hand. He only knocked off its tail and made it madder, so he took proper aim and got it in the head on second try. “Skunk brains flyin’ ever’where,” he said.

He found some lye soap at a gift shop in the village that he says he’ll take home to wash off skunk stink. He gets sprayed fairly regularly when he’s out chasing the razorbacks. The boutique soap he got here was cheaper than he can get it at home, where some farm lady is the only source and takes advantage.

If the pigs aren’t too old and stringy, he and his wife butcher them and put them in the freezer. He hasn’t bought pork in years.

I haven’t told you the half of it. It was a pretty tedious afternoon for someone like me who likes to get a word in edgewise now and then. But if the Apocalypse comes, I’m going to wish this versatile, self-reliant guy lived next door to me and owed me some favors.