Its Own Culture

The Zia, Symbol of New Mexico

Not too many states can be said to have their own culture. I, for one, couldn’t say anything about the state in which I was born—Ohio—except that it’s mostly featureless with some rolling hills. And as for distinguishing it from Michigan, Indiana, or Pennsylvania, forget about it! Even California doesn’t quite have its own culture: It has several of them coexisting within its 164,000 square miles. But New Mexico is a different story altogether. Its capital, Santa Fe, was settled in 1610 and is the highest state capital in the U.S.

When I used to visit New Mexico in the 1980s (with Chaco Canyon my main destination), I was told by residents never to refer to the Hispanic people as Mexicans, but as Spanish. They claim descent not from the people south of the Rio Grande so much as from the conquistadores who quelled them. Their cuisine resembles Mexican food only in certain dishes, most of their cuisine being unique to the region.

Now, as I prepare for my trip there next month, I am beginning to discover it has its own literature. Both Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima and John Nichols’s The Milagro Beanfield War (and no, I never saw the movie) are set in the northeastern part of the state among the rural Spanish population. I am reading the latter book now, and find it marvelously entertaining, as in this passage about the local sheriff and his wife:

The one real fight Bernabé and Carolina had had in their life together occurred because of the saints. It had been an abnormally dry year (every other year in Milagro was an abnormally dry year, alternating with all those abnormally wet years), and so one day, during the Death of the Fruit ree blossoms time, Carolina carried their San Isidro out into the back field asking it to rain on their cucumbers. Well, sure enough, it raines all right, then the rain turned to snow, and the snow turned into a blizzard, so Carolina ran outside with their Santo Niño de Atocha, begging him to queer the blizzard before the cucumbers and the fruit trees were destroyed, and so the blizzard stopped and it began to rain again and the rain froze and tree branches fell down onto everything, and some cows Bernabé had up in the canyon froze to death. Whereupon suddenly, gnashing his teeth so hard little pieces of porcelain literally spewed from his mouth, the sheriff jumped up and grabbed an armload of her saints and threw them into the holocaust. Carolina shrieked, plunged into the storm, retrieved her precious little statues, and cried for three days.

I have been laughing since I started reading The Milagro Beanfield War and look forward to four more days of guffawing.