Surrounding Communities (Towns and Pueblos) (174)

On June 6th, 2015 I was asked to give a short talk to the Voces de Santa Fe group at the Rancho de Chimayo regarding my experience growing up in both Los Alamos and Chimayo… below is a version of the story I shared.
 
 
Dual Citizenship…  
 
I was born a poor brown boy… that was my story anyway. Like most folks, I have my version of “not fitting in”.  You know, that box that gives your existence meaning and a feeling of belonging. What is curious is that by growing up in both Los Alamos (“the Atomic City”) and in Chimayo (what I think of as the “land that time forgot”), I was gifted the opportunity to create my own box to fit into.
 
Los Alamos was created in the 1940’s to develop a weapon of mass destruction – to end a war; while Chimayo was created around 1740 as Spain was colonizing the New World. Ranked at #1, Los Alamos County per capita income in 2011 was $60,719; in contrast, Rio Arriba County came in at #28 with $28,888.  This meant that the lifestyles of my childhood communities were very different.  
 
As a first generation Los Alamosan, I would grow up learning English, and as an 8th generation Chimayoso, I would understand Spanish well enough to know what my parents were bickering about and to explain to my first grade teacher what a “nina” was… as in madrina or godmother.  
 
Los Alamos was less than 20 years old when I was born on the second floor of the utilitarian, ‘50’s Government-style architecture of LAMC. Within days, I was whisked away to the more than 200 year old, verdant Spanish settlement of Chimayo. My parents worked in Los Alamos, so, like other families from the valley, they enrolled my siblings and me in school there as well.
 
With a daily commute between the two towns I developed a regular rhythm, navigating the Yin and the Yang. Veredas, acequias, arroyos, milpas and huertas vs. streetlights, sidewalks, gutters, overpasses and crosswalks.  All I knew growing up was that between these two radically different worlds, I felt different than my friends on “the Hill” and different from my cousins in “the Valley” – not quite fitting in to either one and kind of faking it in both… “I’m smart and witty too! Let me show you!” – “I’m tough and macho too! Let me show you!”
 
…Which one was my community, my lifestyle?
 
It was all a lot to consider for a little boy who with his button-down gingham short-sleeved shirt, pressed blue-jeans and one silver-filled incisor, tried to blend in to the sea of blond-haired, blue-eyed “peers”. I had two very different audiences to manage and had so many questions without clear answers.  I mean really, from David Hackenberry to tia Mercedes, Zora Slade to primo Jose Inez, Starr Caswell to grandma Francisquita.  You get the picture… motas de leche (natillas) to shrimp curry, panocha to chicken-fried steak, chaquegue to fruit-loops!  …and the list goes on. I lived in a magical world where each had no idea of how the other lived. (note: the only Mercedes’ in Los Alamos had hood ornaments; and it wasn’t until freshman year at college that I learned that if someone’s last name was Goldberg that they were Jewish.)
 
In one world, academics was the oracle at which we worshiped; in the other, a hole in the ground with “holy dirt” is where we knelt.  Cutting edge science vs. the centuries old sacred traditions of ritual and deep faith.  Fully equipped modern medical center vs. a battered bread-box with herbs, oils, pastes and potions. Polio shots vs. a forehead covered with potato slices soaked in vinegar for a fever. One holy catholic and apostolic church for the 2,000 descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors vs. a minimum of 12 different houses of worship in a town of 10,000 residents of mid-western, New England and European descent. In one world they were splitting atoms! And in the other they were splitting pinon!  I mean really… could two towns be any more different?
 
It was easy to feel like one lifestyle was better than the other.  And again, I didn’t know which one was mine…
 
With 45 first cousins, family was front and center.  I remember being shocked hearing from one of my classmates that one of their grandparents had passed away – the day before – and their parents were traveling back East for the “wake”.  But!  …they didn’t go with them!  While in Chimayo, a death in the family meant a rosary (or two!), a funeral and interment attended by hundreds of extended family members; and we did not go back to school until the day after the funeral. Who were these heartless peers?
 
We didn’t have a lot of money, but I remember we had milk, eggs, meat and dry cleaning trucks stop by regularly to deliver these goods/services to our door-step.  Also, I remember my mother making sure that we used store-bought shampoo on our heads, not hand soap like some of my cousins; I guess they couldn’t afford shampoo so they used the home-made lye-based soap on their hair, making it dull and heavy.  We’d visit relatives with no indoor plumbing and packed-dirt floors.  Overnight stays on mattresses and pillows made of striped cloth stuffed with wool.  Why didn’t they just go to SEARS or JCPenny to buy these things like we did?  Were we rich?  
 
On the Hill, where financial wealth was front and center, it was again a very different story. My classmates got “allowances” for doing nothing!  My siblings and cousins did chores and got nothing! At some point, I was invited to go over to my friend’s house in Barranca Mesa after school… As we entered his home, he asked, “want to see MY room?”. I didn’t understand the question – your own room! You don’t share with your brothers and sisters!?  My four siblings and I slept in the same room in a combination of a double-bed, cot and sleeping bag on a colchon…  then he asked, “want to watch MY television or listen to MY stereo?” (stereos that were likely MADE by their fathers!  Heath Kits I believe they were called.) And the phone!  The Kid’s Line!  I had never imagined any of this. It was actually very difficult to make any sense out of it all.  Don’t TVs belong in the living room for crying out loud!? Were we poor?  
 
In the Valley, I would “assitir el marano” in the morning and then commute up to the Hill for school and in my “everyday living” class learn how to sew an apron and bake “refrigerator cookies”.  I played tenor sax in the concert, stage and marching bands during the week and was an altar boy on Sundays.  I’d have swimming class in the high school indoor pool and then sleep at my tia Mercedes’ and pee in an empty coffee can in the back porch at night (I didn’t pee in the pool though – ewww.)  Summer weekends would be spent hoeing the huerta and arrimando tierra en la milpa; while my friends went to the YMCA or to their private neighborhood pool to play or work as a lifeguard.
 
In one world, I felt not worthy, in the other I was accused of being “too good”.  In Los Alamos there was mostly covert discrimination against the Valley folks and in Chimayo, it was easy to feel that we were outcasts – deserters of our tribe.  In the junior high locker room a “gringo” refered to someone as a “spic”, noticed I was there and apologized. I said it was “OK” – I didn’t even know what it meant! I was terrified that it might mean “fag” – I knew what that meant.  It really would not have been at all surprising to have developed some version of multiple-personality disorder. …“And the people, and the people, and the people!” Am I Victor or Victór!
 
…Who am I?
 
Recently, over dinner with a new friend, I was discussing the strange dichotomy in which I was created, mentioning that I had found it impossible to find a box to fit-in anywhere.  He said that he had a similar upbringing growing up as a Native American and that he finally landed in cherishing the gift of being able to create a new unique box in which we can fit in everywhere!  That is really what has happened all along.  Instead of feeling left out or ignored, I have had the luxury of learning the gift of empathy for all kinds of people with many ways of living. There is no better or worse lifestyle. They’re just different. We’re either compassionate or we’re not.
 
I listen for the thread from which I can connect.  A “background of relatedness” I’ve heard it called. The richness that is my life was created by the struggle in the search for myself. I am my rich community, my heritage, my classmates, my neighbors, my education, my faith, my tradition, my ancestors.  And of course, none of it is mine; it’s ours.  And we’re all the better for it.
 
I live each day in deep gratitude for my experiences and the deep connections I feel for my friends, family, community and physical and spiritual worlds I call The Hill and The Valley.  
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