Elvis Romero and the Cosmic White Corvette: ‘Eli and the Black Horse’

- August 7, 2012

A serialized novel and podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato

The following is Chapter Eight of a serialized novel. Start at Chapter One.

I began spending more of my time with my Grandpa and Grandma Romero as I grew older. My abuelo and abuela on my dad’s side were unique in one important way; they were both deaf and mute. They met at the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe in their teens and married in their early twenties, eventually raising three children despite their challenges.

My grandfather, Eli was well known as an expert bricklayer and carpenter and his services were always in demand. He possessed such an affable, engaging personality that everyone he worked for fell in love with him. No one minded the extra time it took to write down what they needed him to do. Anyone who worked with Eli long enough found themselves becoming proficient in sign language. He loved to teach others how to sign and he did so with such enthusiasm and good humor that he became Santa Fe’s unofficial ambassador for the deaf community.

My grandma, Rosella was even more of a social butterfly. Her greatest joy in life was going to the wildest bars in town and dancing the night away. The fact that Eli didn’t care much for dancing didn’t cramp her style. She didn’t let a little inconvenience like being deaf stand in the way of her passion either. She felt the vibrations of the music which were especially loud at The Burro Alley Cantina and by watching other dancers, she was able to get the rhythm and let it take her away. She became especially enthusiastic after a couple of rum and cokes which she was also very fond of. More than once, my dad received a call from Vincente, the bartender that went something like this:

 “Hey Gilbert, this is Vince down at the bar. You might want to come by and pick up your mother. I just want to be sure that she gets home okay. “

With the innate talent that children have for learning new languages, I was soon proficient in sign language and I could converse with my grandparents quite easily. They lived thirty miles north of Santa Fe in the little village of Chimayo.  My grandfather also had a piece of land in nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo. He was a full-blooded San Ildefonso Tewa Indian. He’d grown up on the Pueblo before he was sent to the New Mexico School for the Deaf after losing his hearing. He met my grandma at the school and after they married, they stayed in Santa Fe for a time, still living on the school grounds and residing in separate dormitories until they had saved enough money to fix up a small adobe house on five acres of land that Rosella’s Tia Flora had lived on before she passed away. Over the years, Eli added several rooms and they made a tidy homestead with gardens, cows, horses, goats, and a chicken coop. This is where my father grew up along with his brother Roberto and his sister Lucinda.

My grandfather made sure that I was aware of the Indian side of my “mestizo” heritage. He was proud of his Indian blood. He had been raised on the Pueblo until he lost his hearing after falling from a horse when he was eleven-years-old. After the accident he suddenly became part of the deaf culture and his world changed dramatically when he was sent to the state deaf school in Santa Fe.

Eli’s father, Santiago Romero was a stern, quiet man. He was a tall, strong Indian with long, black braided hair and a dark, ruddy face. From an early age, he got my grandpa involved in the Pueblo’s ceremonial dances.

Grandpa’s mother Juanita was a short, plump woman with a contagious laugh.

She could often be found shaping and designing her pottery or building fires with small sticks in the adobe orno she used to cure the beautiful pieces she made in the traditional San Ildefonso style. Juanita was skilled in the popular “black-on–black” pottery that was so sought after by collectors. This type of Pueblo pottery had been made world famous by Maria Martinez, who perfected the technique of her ancestors. One of Maria’s shiny, black pots had sold for $75,000 to a European collector. Juanita had the good fortune to have learned her ancient craft from Maria directly. Although her work never sold for anywhere near the prices that Maria commanded, Juanita’s income was a welcome supplement to the family’s resources.

Grandpa Eli grew up a happy child in the small Pueblo of about 150 people which sat next to the sacred Black Mesa that loomed just to the north. However, everything suddenly changed one day when Eli and his best friend Tomás decided to hop on the back of a jittery, black horse that Eli’s uncle had traded for with an Indian from San Juan Pueblo.

Eli was familiar with this type of horse having grown up around them all his life. However, it turned out that he was no match for this devil with the snorting nostrils. The boys jumped on the horse whooping and laughing until it bucked and kicked through the dry timbers of the corral. Eli and Tomás clutched on to its mane for dear life. Tomás tumbled to the ground almost immediately but somehow Eli managed to hang on as they careened through the main plaza of the Pueblo. Everyone stared in amazement at the unusual sight. Finally, the horse arched its back and with a mighty heave, it launched Eli into the sky and he sailed through the bright blue morning for what seemed like an eternity. He landed in a heap against a giant, 200-year-old cottonwood tree that stood in the middle of the Plaza. The liberated fiend turned on its heels and flew like the wind into the mountains never to be seen again.

 A couple of Pueblo men carried him carefully to his house unsure if he would survive. He lingered in a coma for the rest of the day. His mother sat by his bedside and sobbed,

“My poor little boy, we must pray to the spirits and the ancestors; Father, go get the medicine man.”

 She closely monitored his shallow breathing and recited healing prayers.

Nightfall descended and a full moon rose over the Pueblo. Eli remained in a deep sleep. Toward midnight, his mother noticed a fluttering of his eyelashes. She wiped his face with a wet cloth and lifted his head slightly so that he could sip some tea brewed from the healing osha root. Eli slowly began to focus on the flickering candle next to his bed.

His mother called, “Come quick, I think he’s waking up,” to the family who were holding a vigil in the next room.

They crowded in around his bed and peered down, relieved that he was alive. Eli looked up at the concerned faces and forced a weak smile. Only then did he notice that something was very different. As his eyes scanned the room he realized that even though lips were moving, he heard was no sound, only a profound silence. He couldn’t hear the shuffling of feet on the floor or the rustling of his blankets. The constant chirping of the crickets was absent. The whole world was quiet. Eli slowly raised his hand and pointed to his ear. Only then did they realize that something was wrong. His mother’s expression turned from relief to worry.

His father shouted at him in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli can you hear me? “  He clapped his hands above him but nothing penetrated the cocoon of silence. Eli’s life would never be the same again.

After a great deal of thought, it was decided that Eli would be best served if he left the Pueblo and attended the School for the Deaf in Santa Fe. The doctors told his parents that he would never regain his hearing. At the deaf school he would learn sign language and the skills necessary to lead a fuller life. The idea of having to leave his beloved Pueblo and move into a dormitory was traumatic for Eli. He was surrounded by children from across New Mexico who because of illness, injury or from birth were living in a silent world just like him.

Eli’s naturally gregarious nature helped him to eventually adjust to his new environment and soon he was thriving and rapidly learning to sign. Eli’s parents visited him when they could and he was sometimes able to spend a weekend back at the Pueblo. However, after a time, Eli began to see the school as his permanent home. He felt more comfortable in an environment where everyone was like himself. He remained at the school for several years until he met his future wife and they were able to leave to start a life of their own. Still, the Pueblo would always make up a strong part of his identity

My grandfather felt it was very important that I knew that the San Ildefonso Pueblo people were Tewa Indians.  The Tewa name for the Pueblo was “Powohgeoweenge” which translates into “where the water cuts through.”

The Pueblo had been established in the late 1500s by Indian farmers who irrigated water from the Pojoaque River. When they had their first contact with the Spaniards, San Ildefonso was one of the largest Tewa Pueblos. This interaction with the Spanish ultimately proved disastrous.

In 1680 San Ildefonso joined forces with other Pueblos to drive the Spanish out of New Mexico in the great Pueblo Revolt. However, this success was temporary. Later conflicts along with smallpox and the Spanish Flu eventually brought the Pueblo to its knees and reduced it’s population to a meager 100 survivors by the early 1900s. This was the beleaguered Pueblo that my grandfather was born into. Despite their near extinction, the proud San Ildefonso people had tenaciously clung to their traditions and ceremonies, the highlights being the ceremonial dances and feast days.

Grandfather made it a point to let my parents know well in advance when the feast days were coming up.  It was always of the highest priority that I accompany him. Not school or any other activities were of sufficient importance to supplement these plans.

I always joined my grandfather on the night before the Feast Days began in late January and we would attend the Pueblo’s Firelight Procession. I’d stand next to him with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders shivering in the sharp, winter air. A great procession would descend on the Plaza against a backdrop of glowing fires spread throughout the Pueblo. It was awe-inspiring to watch the painted, feathered dancers move like shadows in a dream. I would fall asleep with the sounds of drums resonating in my ears.

The next day the Comanche dances took place. The dancers came into the Plaza from the direction of the rectangular Kiva. They formed in long lines along the buildings on the north side of the Plaza. The dancers had long, slender pole banners that they held like lances as they approached. The lines would then break up into groups of four and begin imitating the drills of old American Calvary units. All of this was done with great drama and abandon which was completely out of character for the usually conservative Pueblo people. My grandfather told me that he thought that they secretly admired the Comanche’s freedom to ride around, invade towns, and yell and act like madmen, rather than living the mundane life of farmers.

What I looked forward to the most were the Animal Dances. The dancers were painted black and wore feathers and horns to embody the animals they were portraying. Their eyes were wide and wild beneath their painted masks. They danced in files with buffalo dancers, elk dancers, and maidens dancing side by side. The dancers leaned forward on two sticks with their rumps in the air and their bells jingling. The great buffalo songs echoed through the Pueblo in long, sad notes and distant, haunting calls. My grandfather reminded me often that the dances were not just entertainment but were actually prayers of thankfulness and an appreciation of life. Most importantly, they were the mainstay of the Pueblo’s cultural identity.