A serialized novel and podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato
The following is Chapter Nine of a serialized novel and podcast. Start at Chapter One.
One of the most fascinating things about my grandparents was their obsession with the supernatural world. My grandpa grew up on an Indian Pueblo and my grandma in a small Hispanic Village. Thus, they combined to cull the superstitions of two worlds. My parents scoffed at their crazy ideas but I loved it when they would tell their strange stories. Since they used sign language to weave their tales, the dramatics were sometimes overwhelming. Their eyes would widen and their arms would sweep the room as they brought their myths to life. It was incredible to watch these amazing performances.
I was recruited as the translator for the neighbors who would come by in the evenings with hot tortillas and fruit preserves. Everyone sat spellbound, absorbed by the wondrous yarns that I was the mouthpiece for. At the end of my summer visit when I had to return home, the neighbors wore long faces because they knew that these nights were coming to an end.
One of the legends that my grandfather held on to most tightly to was that of buried gold around the Chimayo area. Many stories had been passed down about vast Spanish riches that had been hidden by greedy soldiers who did not want to report the wealth to the Spanish Crown so that they could someday return and keep it for themselves. For one reason or another, perhaps untimely death in battle or at sea, many of the treasures were never claimed and remained hidden through the centuries waiting for a lucky seeker.
My grandfather believed that some of these riches might be buried right on his own property. After all, wasn’t it as good a place as any? Besides, he had the right to scar his own landscape up as much as he wanted to. He was forever digging vast pits in random spots around the farm until the place resembled the surface of the moon with craters everywhere. He was convinced that the next shovelful of dirt would expose an ancient trunk that would make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. Even though he had been fruitlessly digging for years, he never lost his faith or enthusiasm. I often accompanied him as we dug in the fading dusk and it was not long before I also caught the fever.
He communicated to me with an exaggerated digging motion which meant, “Dig faster, dig faster.”
Then he would wipe his brow dramatically mocking me in no uncertain terms, “You’re not tired yet are you?”
I would lie in bed at night totally exhausted with grains of earth spilling out of my hair onto my pillow. I dreamed of glittering, yellow bars of gold, peeping out from the rich, brown soil.
Besides the stories about the weeping woman “La Llarona,” my grandparents told tales about a wide array of supernatural occurrences that took place in their northern New Mexico village. Brujos and Brujas played a big part in Chimayo folklore. Witchcraft was rumored to be practiced in both the Pueblo Indian and Hispanic cultures where it manifested itself in different ways. Hispanic witches often took on the altered form of fireballs that would travel at great speed across the landscape. I remember my grandmother pointing excitedly toward the horizon to what looked like a round, rolling flame as it lit up the dark hills. She declared with certainty that it was a bruja on her way to some unholy congregation.
My grandmother was always vigilant to protect me from el mal ojo or the evil eye. She explained to me that this was one of the most common forms of witchcraft practiced in northern New Mexico. She had seen many perfectly healthy children and adults suddenly become ill and start wasting away after being cursed by just one look from a powerful bruja.
Indian witches often transformed themselves into animals of various sorts such as bears, coyotes, mountain lions, or birds depending on what spirits they were aligned with.
My grandfather told a story about his encounter with an Indian brujo when he was a young boy. When he was twelve-years-old he was given permission to go on his first hunting trip with his uncle, Juan. Late on the second afternoon of the hunt, Juan climbed a small hill near a camp spot that had been selected for that evening. As he ascended, he spotted a magnificent mountain lion sitting contemplatively on a large rock near the top of the hill just as the sun was setting. As he cautiously edged closer, he noticed something unusual about the animal. The orange rays that fell on the beautiful cat caused a bright glint to reflect off its neck. Juan was almost blinded by the glare. He squinted and raised his hand to his eyes as he crouched behind a piñon tree. In wonder, he realized that the mountain lion was wearing an ornate necklace. It was silver with turquoise stones of a very distinctive pale green color.
Suddenly the cat turned its head in Juan’s direction, sensing his presence. With a fierce roar, the creature sprang to its feet with eyes radiating fury and teeth gleaming. Juan raised his rifle just as the mountain lion was about to spring. He pulled the trigger and the cat let out a blood-curdling cry of pain and fell backward. It staggered to its feet and ran into the hills. Juan turned and scampered back toward the hunting party.
As my grandfather continued recounting his tale, his eyes widened and his body mimicked a wounded cat.
When the hunters returned to the Pueblo, Juan heard about a suspected brujo who had been shot in the chest and lay dying. This Indian was well known to be a shape-shifter. Juan grew suspicious and went to visit the wounded man. His heart leapt when he approached the injured man’s bedside. He recognized the same silver and turquoise necklace draped around his bloody chest. He quickly made the sign of the cross and hurried away.
My mom and dad felt that my grandparent’s superstitions sometimes went a bit too far. For example, my parents were perturbed that they refused to use one of the perfectly good rooms in their house because of their belief that the room was haunted. The room was fully furnished but was never entered. It was kept as a shrine of sorts to my grandmother’s sister, Pablita. She often visited my grandparents before she passed away from a sudden illness.
My grandparents described a number of unusual events that took place in the room where Pablita would stay when it was too late to travel home or the weather was bad. Sometimes when they entered the room, they caught a strong whiff of the lilac perfume that Pablita wore. They took this to mean that her spirit was present and had come for a visit. Candles often would be light without explanation. At other times a cold breeze would blow through the room even on the mildest days. More than once, the perfectly pressed bedspread was discovered to be rumpled in the morning as if someone had been lying down on the bed.
All of this convinced Eli and Rosella that Pablita’s spirit still came for regular visits and they honored her by keeping the room ready and pristine. Some people might have chalked all of this up to my grandparents’ overactive imagination but having personally witnessed these indications of Pablita’s presence, I was thoroughly convinced.
Another aspect of my grandparents’ vivid imaginations extended to the manner in which they interpreted the Catholic faith. They comfortably blended Christian and Indian mysticism into their own unique belief system. They possessed a devout reverence for the Virgin Mary in the form of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who had appeared to Juan Diego, a Mexican Indian farmer in 1531. I would venture to guess that if one was to construct a hierarchy of divine entities, Our Lady would be the strong favorite in northern New Mexico followed by Jesus running a distant second.
Santos also played a large role in my grandparents’ devotions. Santos were carved religious figures of Catholic saints that sat in a designated shrine in the house surrounded by candles. Many houses in Chimayo had santos. They were usually carved from the soft wood of the cottonwood tree. These santos were highly personalized and believers fashioned wardrobes for them and even wigs made of human hair. The most famous of these was “La Conquistadora,” the object of devotion and adoration during the annual Santa Fe Fiesta. Don Diego De Vargas who had recaptured Santa Fe in 1692 following the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 had credited La Conquistadora with his success and the citizens of Santa Fe continued to show their gratitude by honoring her annually.
Perhaps the most important role santos played was in their perceived ability to intercede for worshipers. For example, Santa Barbara had the power to protect against lightening strikes. San Isidro assisted farmers with their crops, and San Ramón Nanato assisted women in child birth. The common problem of locating a lost item could be remedied by praying to San Cristobal.
Santos were rewarded for answering requests with new wardrobes, gifts, and prayers of thanks. If requests went unheeded, a santo might be punished by turning its face to the wall or by being stored in a trunk. They often played an important role in village religious celebrations when they were brought out of their homes to be displayed and paraded around town.
A more secular aspect of Chimayo culture that I was exposed to during my visits to my grandparents’ farm were the dances that took place during the summer. They were one of the few modes of socialization that people had in the community. These dances allowed everyone to get together every couple of weeks to laugh, interact or look for romance. A wide range of Chimayo folks attended the get-togethers. Mothers and fathers would pull up to the community center hall in pick-up trucks and kids would pile out of the bed in back. Surly teenagers eyed each other competitively, trying to ascertain a pecking order. The boys were always ready to fight at the drop of a hat or hop into souped-up cars and drag race on the interstate. The teen girls clustered in circles, giggling in their tight jeans, skirts, and heavy make-up. To the dismay of the teens, the charged, dangerous atmosphere they tried to create was substantially diffused by the hordes of children that ran through the building playing tag and hide-and-go-seek.
Men and women would break off into segregated groups at first, the men standing outside smoking cigarettes and discussing the weather, cars, and crops while the women spread gossip like wildfire and set up dishes at the potluck table.
After an hour or so, the band began to play and a few couples made their way to the dance floor to sway cheek-to-cheek. The music was provided by local groups like the Blue Ventures or Little Joe and La Familia. They played a combination of rancheras, cumbias, Tex-Mex, country, and fifties rock 'n’ roll.
There were usually about a hundred people at these dances that were sponsored by the village fire department. The $1.00 admission was used to pay the band and any extra went into a holiday fund to help the needy with food and utility bills. The older folks dressed in western outfits consisting of jeans, boots, neatly pressed flannel shirts and cotton blouses. The teens tended toward black leather or zoot-suit pachuco outfits. Despite the diversity, everyone always had a good time. It seemed that every band played “La Bamba” which inevitably morphed into “Twist and Shout” and finally “El Rancho Grande.”