Home, Part I

My journey as a writer and as a human being has been a long search for home.

I have moved twenty-three times since graduating from high school and leaving my parents’ home in Deming, New Mexico in 1990. Twenty-three moves in twenty years. Wigglesworth G-31 in Harvard Yard; 19 Partridge Street in Belize City; 1140 ½ 11th St., Albuquerque, New Mexico; my brother and sister-in-law’s guestroom in El Paso; Casa Perla Mar on Mártires de Tacubaya in Oaxaca City;a house on top of a hill in Lachigoló, Oaxaca; a casita in Albuquerque’s Old Town; a traveling family’s home in Algodones.

In January 2009, two weeks before my 36th birthday, I signed a one-year lease with the Castle Apartments, midway between Old Town and Downtown Albuquerque. #36 was a beautiful unit in a beautiful building, with wood floors, high ceilings, large east and west-facing windows in my living room, a courtyard, and a fruitless plum tree outside my second-floor window. For the first time since leaving the U.S. to pursue a Fulbright project in southern Mexico five years earlier, I took two decades of journals out of storage and put them on the top shelf of the bookcase my parents had held for me in my old bedroom; I bought stoneware plates and cups that evoked for me the West Mesa at dusk, a gritty black set against a blue wall, colors made of earthy materials, plucked from the land and ground in stone.

I set up my writing desk to overlook the plum tree and decorated a corkboard with black and white photos of my grandpa in his baseball uniform, my grandma next to a hibiscus as big as her open hand, a postcard from Wally Lamb thanking me for my book Malinche’s Daughter, and other totems and talismans to get me through the writing of Vessels, a memoir-in-progress about the aftermath of my grandpa’s service in World War II.

I clipped images of hands, cottonwoods, the Río Grande and its acequias, and stored them in a steamer trunk under a framed print of Diego Rivera’s “Flower Vendor,” a gift from a former teacher who had treated me to a New York City excursion to see the Splendors of Mexico exhibit my first year of college. The print had traveled with me from Boston to Albuquerque to Deming to El Paso and back to Burque, and in addition to magazine images I would turn into collage or greeting cards, the trunk housed handmade gifts from my nieces and nephews, writing workshop supplies, and a school memory book, thick with report cards, signed school pictures of friends, and newspaper clippings from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

On my father’s side, I am a tenth-generation New Mexican. Our people are from Peralta, Valencia County, New Mexico. Generations ago, longer ago than anyone alive can remember living or even hearing about, we were sheepherders, heirs to land granted by the Spanish crown in the 1600s. (There is a much longer discussion here about whose land it was for the Spaniards to give. I’ll address this in a later post.) I don’t know how or why the Oteros left Peralta; if our land, like that of so many others, was taken after 1848, when the government changed from Mexican to gringo hands, if we were forced to leave home because the shift to a cash economy happened too quickly for us to accumulate the kind of wealth that could be exchanged in a simple transaction, rather than worked and cultivated over seasons.

I only know that by the time I came along, we were from Deming, three hours southwest of Peralta, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border where Pancho Villa invaded the U.S. in 1916; our food came from the Safeway on Main, and our animals were a mutt named Gidget and—for a brief time—two goldfish from Ben Franklin I redeemed with my coupon for ordering a McDonalds Filet-o-Fish sandwich.

Only the white ranchers who lived on the outskirts of town raised cattle and cultivated crops–onions, chile, and cotton. They hired Mexican day laborers who crossed the border from Palomas to Columbus and were transported to the fields on yellow school buses. My family owned only the house where we lived and the dusty plot it sat on, soil that refused to yield the soft green lawn my mother dreamed of and worked against hope and logic to cultivate, finally giving up and acquiescing to a xeriscaped yard of desert willows, wood chips, and crushed river rocks.

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 10:00 am  Comments (12)  

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great to read this sister. Made me miss New Mexico.

  2. Your words have an uncanny way of painting realism as abstract as any Andrew Wyeth. Stunning. Thank you!

  3. Thank you cousin! I enjoyed this and am looking forward to part II!

  4. Oh Michelle- congrats on the launch of your beautiful blog. Keep writing! Write often!

  5. Love it!!!!

  6. I was sorry to see the post end – I can’t wait to read the next one. Thank you for sharing your writing with us!

  7. Thank you mija, anxiously awaiting the next entry.

  8. I’m happy for you and happy for me–what a pleasure to read you although to hear about the fire and your losses is really difficult. I’m glad you’re enjoying the valley. We’ve watch it change and change and change in our 40+ yrs. here (and we’re newcomers!) You will, too. And, I hope, you & Henry will make the changes for the better.

  9. Hi Michelle,

    We met at AWP through Caro and Rich a few years back. Oteros of Valencia county? Some are still around. Los Lunas and los Oteros are a big part of the cultural landscape of home.

    Land grants are a peculiar part of our history. I bet we’re related through some means. My family Los Mirabeles were sheep herders and then cattle ranchers in what was Valencia county when it estended to Grants…

    Thanks for the post. I’ll add your blog to my blog roll.

    • Josette,
      I remember attending the teen writing workshop you did with Carolina at the BBF a few years ago. I still use the exercise “My mountains are… My river is…”
      Los Arvizus y los Oteros…there aren’t too many of us. Yes, we probably are familia.
      Gracias for adding my blog to your blog roll. I’d love to check out your blog. What’s the link?

  10. Michelle, It just pleases me so to see what talent you have and to see what you have accomplished in your life. Many blessings to you my friend.

    • Gracias, Yvonne.
      That means a lot to me coming from the friend who used to wade with me through a plastic swimming pool on Elmer and Bert’s back porch. Te agradezco.

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