"Papá! Acá! Hi, caballo!" A grandmother riding the Albuquerque BioPark train with her daughter and four grandchildren tried to get the youngest boy's attention. About 4, he was sitting exactly as the bench seat indicated, facing the center of the train car. He couldn't see a thing over the opposite seat, since his little legs didn't reach the seat edge and his spiky-topped head didn't reach the top of the seat back. As a result, he had the sort of sourpuss expression that dared me to make him smile. And I did. I also played peekaboo with his baby sister for much of the 25-minute ride through the zoo and botanical garden, raising and lowering my polarized sunglasses as she waited intently for my eyes to reappear.
It was the Spanish that got my attention, though. I hadn't realized until that moment, when we came around a curve and found the horse corral ahead, that I had been unconsciously translating the hum and buzz around me for most of the day. I studied the language for 10 years, even minoring in it in college, but I never did immersion work, so the fact is, yo entiendo mucho más que yo hablo. I understand much more than I speak.
Spending the most important part of my childhood in rural communities in northern California and Nevada, I heard Spanish with a particular Mexican lilt on a daily basis. My classmates were first-generation Americans and migrant workers' kids. Not to mention the children of Paiute and Shoshone who had lived on the land since long before any Europeans knew the place existed.
Those voices were why I chose Spanish over French years later and a continent away. But when I learned the language, the only accents I heard were the Spanish of my East Coast teachers: Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban. Fast Spanish. Voices that fell harsh on my ears, like New York commuters over California surfers.
The warm, drawn out drawl of the Spanish in New Mexico rolls along, just as smooth as the English in Texas. The English in New Mexico is deceiving, though. It's tight and precise, native in cadence, Texan in texture, Californian in tone, with a bit of Spanish thrown in for good measure.
Walking through the Albuquerque Museum and the nearby Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, I found out a little bit about why there's such openness and ease across the cultures in this city, despite its absurdly high crime rates. The Spanish began making incursions into the area in 1540, fully 80 years before the Mayflower landed in New England. They made contact with the residents of some 19 different lands within relatively close proximity, not all of whom shared a language or culture. After 140 years of Spanish influence and an accompanying deterioration in relations, the residents of those "pueblos" banded together and successfully pushed the Spanish out of the region. It took years for the Spanish to return, and when they did, they largely took a different approach to the native population, interacting with them more as respected adversaries and potential allies. When the Spanish eventually ceded the territory to Mexico and a new federalist government came to power in 1824, it gave native residents citizenship. However, when the United States took on the territory less than 25 years later, those rights were stripped.
I've never understood the urge to separate people from one another. I am, I know, more a child of the Far West than anywhere else. Days after my museum jaunt, I was deep in thought as I drove over the ridges and passes of the Sandia Mountains and on through the state's central desert and eastern grassland, I found myself resenting that I had to leave this arid, beautiful place in shades of tan, scented with desert sage.
My newly acquired thunderbird bracelet lay soft on my wrist. As I glanced down at it, I remembered the artist's expression as he described the symbolism, his open, joyful laugh as I revealed my current nomadic state, and the way he grew intent as he asked about the book I'm writing. I thought of the warmth of his handshake, the way he gazed far beyond the tourists as he thought, and the gesture he made as he processed the potential impact of telling a specific person's story. It's a motion every cowboy-and-Indian movie has tried to capture, but they've all gotten wrong. That forward flash of two fingers alongside the eye indicates an inner vision.
I thought back across my travels so far these last weeks. Two countries and some 23 states. Here and there, hints of the people who called this land home while my ancestors were still hoeing fields in Sweden, Ireland, Scotland and England. Across the Southwest and southern Plains, their footprints are hard to miss. For the most part, the boundaries are marked by small signs in transportation green or service brown. In some, the appearance of project houses gives away the game, while others could be any small town anywhere. In the space of about two days on a straight road, I drove through parts of the Navajo Nation, Acoma and Laguna Pueblos, and Arapaho, Kickapoo, Iowa, Sac and Fox, Pawnee, Muscogee/Creek, and Osage Nations.
Spanish teachers always say that pueblo means town. And it's true. But the word comes from the Latin root that means people. A pueblo is a place where people are; in fact, it is the people. What would we do differently if we really understood that? It's right there if we have the courage, and take the time, to see.