Josna Rege

30. Land of Enchantment

In 1970s, Stories, United States on March 26, 2010 at 12:41 pm

In the late 1970s Andrew and I lived in New Mexico for ten months, with Michael. It was the first time I had stayed anywhere else in the United States for an extended period of time, and we nearly didn’t return to Massachusetts, because New Mexico truly is the Land of Enchantment.

In Albuquerque, complete strangers acknowledged each other as they passed. Walking through Harvard Square on my return to Massachusetts, I was approached by three men in succession before I realized that I had been inadvertently doing something that was dangerous in the East: meeting people’s eyes and smiling.

After Massachusetts, New Mexico was another country. At the time, it had been a state for less than 70 years, and more than half of its population was made up of Hispanics or Latinos (mostly Chicano or Mexican) and Native Americans (mostly Navajo and Pueblo). Today Hispanics make up 45 percent of New Mexico’s population and Native Americans nearly ten percent. The population density was also very low. In the late seventies the state had little more than a million residents, with nearly half of them living, like us, in Greater Albuquerque. Once beyond the straggling subdivisions of that fast-growing city, one could drive for long stretches without passing another vehicle.  (The empty roads and the distances between towns caused people to drive extremely fast, though, and the state’s motor vehicle fatality rate was staggering.)

No doubt there was tension between “Anglos” from Back East and native New Mexicans, whether Indian, Chicano, or Anglo themselves. Most, though not all, of the Anglos in the state came from elsewhere,  though as soon as they had settled they claimed New Mexico as their own and looked askance at newcomers. But New Mexico was a state of mind, no matter where a person came from. I remember having been there barely six months when newcomers from Back East embarrassed us with what already seemed to us to be their frenetic need to talk, and to talk first (I should know), words rushing out of their mouths as if they could not hold them back, while the Indians in the room suffered them in wry silence.

New Mexico is a place of stark and awe-inspiring beauty. Working in Albuquerque, we could make only infrequent trips to other parts of the state—Roswell, the lava flow near Carrizozo, Carlsbad Caverns and Sitting Bull Falls, the Gila Wilderness, Mount Taylor (where we helped organize an event to protect the mountain, and Bonnie Raitt sang), and Bluewater Lake State Park (where I don’t remember a lake, but met my first tarantula, up close). I had never lived in a desert climate before, and the hot, dry days and cool nights filled me with energy. Nothing grew unless one watered, and in this land of little rain (I had been assigned to read Mary Austin’s book in college, but couldn’t imagine it until I lived there) an overnight sprinkling caused an irruption of green where the day before there had been only dust. We took our clothes to a solar laundromat in the University of New Mexico neighborhood where we lived. Never again have I felt so righteous doing laundry. Back home with the wash, I would hang it on the line, where it would blow bone-dry in the time it took me to make and drink a cup of tea.

Large areas of the state were owned by the U.S. military. New Mexico was the site of the Manhattan Project’s secret facility created to build the first nuclear bomb (Los Alamos), the first nuclear explosion (Alamogordo, July 16, 1945), and the proposed massive nuclear waste facility (WIPP, or Waste Isolation Pilot Plant), to be located near the Carlsbad Caverns). It was a dangerous place and we were in a uranium-mining boom. On Interstate 40 near Grants (Uranium Capital of the World), in the shadow of the sacred Mount Taylor, we drove behind trucks carrying raw yellowcake, covered only with tarps, the deadly dust blowing loose in the wind. When we found a working Geiger counter at the Sunday Market, we took it to Grants; mine shafts vented unfiltered into open spaces where children played, and the radiation levels were off the charts.

We were cash-poor in New Mexico but we lived like kings. We bought fifty-pound bags of pinto beans, red chile powder from the Sunday Market, packs of corn tortillas, and avocados. Friends who worked at a raw-milk dairy gave us gallon jars of fresh yoghurt with a six-inch layer of  cream on top, heavenly-light. Tostadas and beans were our staple, but for rare treats, we made roasted, peeled, stuffed, and batter-fried chile rellenos, topped with sour cream. When we could afford to eat out, we finished our meal with sopapillas, warm, bite-size pillows of lightly fried pastry, spread with honey.

Our adobe house-building friends Connie and Danny were renting a farmhouse in Corrales, on the outskirts of Albuquerque. It was an old apple orchard, and in the shade afforded by the fruit trees someone had planted asparagus, which had flourished and spread. As tenants, one of Connie and Danny’s daily chores was picking the asparagus before the sun rose too high and the stalks grew too tall and woody. One enchanted morning we joined them, bringing in a heaping basketful of the mottled-green stalks with their delicate tips, then chopping and blending them into a huge batch of cream-of-asparagus soup.

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  1. Jojo
    I read this earlier when you posted it, but had been too busy to reply/comment.So many threads you touch on here, but my favorite is the 100 pound of pinto beans (sitting on the back porch of the Dartmouth House). I think about this often when I think about trying to stay one step ahead of hunger. Not something I have worried about seriously in a long time. It was like money in the bank only better. Another related thought is brought to mind when you talk about the Multi-Cultural nature of NM. This is a very local nuiance, but when we talk about Mexican Food down here we are really talking about New Mexican Food that is a happy result of the combination of the Spanish/Hispanic culture’s food and the local Native American culture’s food in particular the thing we call (Red) Chili. This thick red sauce made from Chili powder or Chili pods with little else besides some water and liberal amounts of garlic is only available here in NM (unless you make it yourself). Whenever i think about relocating which is not too often I think about how much I would miss having some good Red.
    Today 4/2/10 is Pete and Velma’s 6oth Wedding anniversary, and last night we celebrated Aly’s 21st B-Day (a day late)
    Love
    Michael

    • Thank you for these thoughts, Michael. I love red chili, too. (I think I spelled it wrong: is “chile” the vegetable and “chili” the powder?). An essential part of every New Mexican’s identity seems to be whether they are a green or a red chili person. Whenever someone comes back from the Southwest with a fresh pack of chili powder for us, I get the same secure feeling as when the cupboard is stocked with a batch of really good tea.
      Happy 21st to Aly, and Congratulations, Dad! I’ve written to your parents–10 years since we all celebrated their 50th! Love, Jo

  2. “Never again have I felt so righteous doing laundry. Back home with the wash, I would hang it on the line, where it would blow bone-dry in the time it took me to make and drink a cup of tea.”

    I love this whole piece. It makes me wish to go to New Mexico again…I too found it to be a magical place but I was only there for a week or two. And the detail about being approached by men in harvard square. I remember that too. that’s when I realized that rochester was more midwestern than east coast–at least in that way…

  3. Ah, New Mexico, I loved it too. Do you know, Sejal, we almost didn’t return to the East. Thank you for your comments. That solar laundry was wonderful; don’t suppose it would work here, somehow, although one would think that in the last 30+ years there would have been major advances in technology that would enable better long-term storage of solar capacity to see us through our grey periods.
    I’d love to overlap in Rochester someday, so that you could give me the insider’s eye-view of your hometown. Did I tell you that I have a cousin there?

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