How poetry and conversation helped one writer unearth Northern New Mexico stories
by Karen Vargas
We begin with the land. We emerge from the earth of our mother, and our bodies will be returned to earth. We are the land. -Joy Harjo
Behind my grandmother’s house is a field where we used to play and search for pottery shards from old Apache and Comanche camps. Beyond that field is an old, dried-up acequia. When my mother and her siblings were children, they were forced to learn English. Their first language was Spanish: my grandmother knew little English, and my grandfather refused to speak it in favor of Tiwa and Spanish. The kids would play in the ditch and make up stories about pirates on great seas with what little they knew of the foreign language. They learned this new language through stories, and they learned it through the land.
They called the old acequia “The Boat,” and it’s still there, but you might miss it entirely if you didn’t grow up here. To this day, I still call that dry ditch “The Boat” as a way of remembering the story of the difficult journey my family took when they were made to cross over the unfamiliar and dark seas of their assimilation.
Someone new to this place might not think twice about that shallow depression in the land. They wouldn’t know that it once ran with water to irrigate crops that fed families who lived further downfield. They wouldn’t know about the ojito further upstream, where we filled empty plastic gallon milk jugs with drinking water for my grandparents each week. They wouldn’t know about the children who learned new language by making stories out of water. As children, we didn’t understand the significance of the designs on the broken pottery we found, who made the pots, and who carried them. We understood their importance because our mother told us not to touch them. I always wondered what those pots made of earth might have carried. Now I know that they carry stories.
How are we connected to this place? How do we tell our stories informed by the different histories and the landscape of dry high desert and jutting rocks, with its steep mountains and deep canyon walls? How does this particular landscape influence our individual stories?
For The Poetic Farm Project, I conducted writing workshops to better understand the relationship between the land and storytelling in the Upper Rio Grande (URG) in northern New Mexico. I also spoke with local farmers, storytellers, and poets about their connection to this place where we live. I focused primarily on written stories for the workshops while acknowledging that storytelling in this place existed long before the written word arrived, in the form of song, dance, and the visual art of the traditional communities of people of Indigenous and mixed-Indigenous descent. Therefore, the written word might be considered a newer and potentially less evolved form of storytelling from the perspective of the traditional communities here. In my own family, my mother’s generation was the first to learn to read and write but only in English. When I was a child growing up here in the sixties and seventies, we rarely heard English spoken. The dominant languages were Tewa, Tiwa, and Spanish. This loss of language is a sweeping change that has occurred over a very short time and is also a big part of our stories.
The Tewa scholar Gregory Cajete from Santa Clara Pueblo advocates for curriculum and storytelling through the land. Traditionally, and currently, the Upper Rio Grande consists primarily of many different Indigenous and Indo-Hispano communities settled along its waterways. Here in the high desert, many of our stories center around water—its sacredness and scarcity. In the 1970s, the population here doubled in size, straining the demand for water. The scarcity and sacredness of water in the high desert direct our lives and informs our storytelling. ¡El agua es la vida! as the old saying goes:Water is life. One day we will be buried here, too, just like our ancestors, adding our own unique stories to this soil.
I conducted multigenerational writing workshops in the mountains, near waterways, and on ancestral farmlands. I developed prompts specific to the various cultures, traditional ecologies, agriculture, and native foods and plants in the region. The writing prompts aimed to both educate and stimulate a deeper conversation and connection with the land. We also read authors with ties to the Upper Rio Grande—Leslie Marmon Silko, Rudolfo Anaya, John Nichols, and Jimmy Santiago Baca, to name a few—as we worked to explore and understand our place in this landscape and the various ways we can connect with it through story.
Early one morning in late June, I took seven writers to the Rio Grande Gorge. We hiked about a mile out on the west rim trail, the river rushing 800 feet below us, deep inside the canyon. We looked east across the gorge toward the rising sun for a clear view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains shadowing the Taos Pueblo at dawn, less than twenty miles away. To the north, we could see all the way to Colorado and the 14,000-foot snowcapped Blanca Peak of the southern Rockies. To the south, the jagged edges of the Rio Grande’s canyon walls dipped in elevation, snaking out of sight toward the sacred Black Mesa plateau, visible eighty miles off in the distance. The landscape here is wide open and immense and feels as if it could consume you, as if it is in charge.
Because it is in charge, and we can’t forget this.
It was still cool, but in a few short hours, the slight breeze would slow to a dead heat, and by late morning, the monsoon rains would move in, clouds erupting overhead. In these vast skies, we could see multiple weather patterns in every direction: black thunderhead clouds to the north, rain over the mountains to the east, and sunny blue skies to the south.
We padded along the trail through the scent of sage and saw bighorn sheep grazing in the near distance. We made sure to avoid the occasional black tarantula migrating south, crossing the dirt path in front of our feet. Waxwings and warblers called and swooped above as we moved close—but not too close—to the edge of the canyon. We finally settled in a field of pitted and porous lava rock, each of us finding a small boulder to sit on—the perfect spot to take in our surroundings and write.
Write about what you see here in the landscape, the relationship between the mountain and the river, I suggested to the writers. Think of a person you have a relationship with: one of you is stable, immovable, sturdy like the mountain, and the other is wild, unpredictable, and flows through life like the river. Consider the relationship between these two types of people. How do they relate to one another? What happens in that place between them, like this place where we are sitting between the mountain and the river?
…swallows on the chiseled steppes tucked between folds of sharp basalt caressed by the upward drafts from cool river water flowing over millennia of sediment washing downstream, carrying away the toil of the elements, breaking down the elemental rocks into micaceous clays to be collected downstream by those whose hands seek earth to mold, to re-sculpt the eruption, not of ore but emotion bubbling up, overflowing into stories…
Alma kept quiet as she dried the dishes used for this morning’s breakfast. The tiny sink could barely hold [them], some made with barro from Rio Conchos. Alma didn’t know why Merced hung on to them…. “They remind Leandro of his mother,” Merced said when Alma asked why she didn’t throw them out…The blue and black agave baked into the smaller dish was chipped, while the bigger one held a crack that ran through it like a river.
The mountain and the river guided our writing that day. We connected to our own stories through the land with pen and paper, history, memory, emotion, and texture.
I loved learning from different writers about how integral the land is to our stories, and I also wanted to understand this connection from the perspective of farmers and other people who work closely with the land in the different communities of the Upper Rio Grande. Through my interviews, I discovered that our stories start with place, and that place can mean very different things to people. Inherently, since childhood, I have understood the connection between the land and story andthat each place has its own intelligence and its own stories. I understood this from my own perspective, but as a writer/folklorist, I wanted to hear about the relationship between land and story from other perspectives.
Melanie Kirby, originally from Tortugas Pueblo in southern New Mexico, has worked in service of the bees and the agricultural communities of the Upper Rio Grande for over two decades. For Melanie, bees are like seeds. “Each bee has its own story, each seed has its own story, you and I have our own story that’s been sculpted over millennia.”
From the bees, Melanie has learned the importance of the communal effort of the hive. “The bees have taught me that being of service can be really fulfilling. The story I want to share with the world revolves around amplifying the concerns of those who help pollinate food and forage from farms to forest lands.”
Tiana Suazo, a farmer and educator from Taos Pueblo and the director of The Red Willow Gardens and Healing Center, works with youth to keep their agricultural traditions alive while providing healthy traditional foods to local communities. I was fortunate to receive a farm share from Taos Pueblo the first year they were offered. The food was fresh and beautiful and was the same food that was grown in my grandmother’s garden: beans, chile, corn, and squash, all of my favorites. When she was working in the garden, pulling weeds, she said she began thinking about the roots of the generational trauma communities in the Upper Rio Grande face. Those roots were colonization and more recently, tourism and gentrification—all of which work to sever people from the land. We talked about how we often pain and anger because of this trauma and that certain activities can help us start to let go. “It was really transformative for me spending days in the garden, weeding and planting,” Tiana said.
Under the apple trees in his front yard, the author John Nichols told me about the politics of water here. Nichols has lived and worked as a writer and farmer in the Taos Valley for over fifty years. When he first arrived, he wrote articles for The New Mexico Review “about Taos Pueblo’s [fight to regain] their Blue Lake land … about bomb experimentation at Los Alamos … and about the people in Taos all during the 1970s fighting a conservancy district.” The stories he heard from local people about the fight for water rights in the Upper Rio Grande inspired him to write The Milagro Beanfield War in 1974. “Everything begins with the land,” he said. “You can’t have a story without place.”
Jamie Figueroa, author of the novel Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer, set in a fictional Santa Fe, talked to me about how tourism can also erase a place and its stories. “People have been coming to New Mexico for a very long time, I’m thinking about folks who come to Santa Fe and Taos. [They] come with these ideas of what it is to be here and what this place is, and then create these stories as if they are ‘discovering’ this place, as if this place is just beginning to exist alongside their own personal experience and ‘discovery’ of it. They do this without a lot of consciousness around how their perception of this place and their own context is informing all that they write, [while] there are necessary narratives of this place that are not included enough.”
On another day, I walked the Acequia Madre (the “Mother Ditch”) with Don Bustos, an Indo-Hispano acequia farmer. With his dog, we traced the same dirt path through the cottonwood and aspen trees his ancestors walked for four hundred years before him. When he stopped to divert water from the Santa Cruz River to the acequia to nourish farmers’ fields, I was bearing witness to a tradition passed down through story and action over centuries. We talked about his spiritual connection with his ancestors who had walked that same path. “As you’re walking, you can feel it; you can feel all the old folks who walked it.” And we walked in their footsteps that day.
Back in Taos, I spent an afternoon with my cousin, Miguel Santistevan, a farmer and educator and the owner of Sol Feliz Farms, land that once belonged to his grandparents. As kids, we spent a lot of time between the old adobe homes that our grandfathers had helped each other build, which are just a short distance apart. We recounted stories of the melon his grandmother grew next to the ditch that ran further down through our Mana Carlota’s orchard of apricot and peach trees. The old wooden bench, still on the side of her house, that our Mano Belisandro built and where our grandmothers gathered to make lye soap in a large pot over a small fire. We talked about the inherently racist inequalities of the water laws in our state that still do not fully support communities of traditional Pueblo and Hispano subsistence farmers.
We talked about many things that day, standing on opposite sides of the acequia, as he opened the compuerta to release water into his field of corn, amaranth, and buckwheat. He told me about the “s” shaped diversion coming off the acequia his grandfather hand-dug to slow the rush of water to the field. “I had changed it and made it run straight; I thought I was doing the right thing,” he laughed, “but the water flowed too heavily. The old folks knew what they were doing. I had to put it back to the way it had been before.”
People with longevity in a place are the people who understand that place the best. The stories of people with deep roots in the Upper Rio Grande who continue to work closely to nurture the land are the most important stories I know of this place. These stories are important to us because, for generations, our ancestors have been buried in this soil like seeds. Our job is to remember, nourish, and honor the land where their spirits and stories still live. When we walk above their bones, they reach up like the bright green tendrils beneath orange squash blossoms and grab us. They’re always trying to get our attention; they want to make sure we’re still listening. They want to be sure we’re still telling their stories.
My mother was born and buried here, like the many generations of our ancestors before us. I see her reflected daily in this high desert landscape that I call home. She comes to life in the rivers and in the late spring rains during the monsoon season, playing in the “Boat,” walking the acequia. There she is, her hands rooting in the dirt. Even her name is tethered to the land—Fabiola, like fava, like the bean. She is part of the sustenance cultivated for centuries in this place. She’s inseparable from the land, more alive now than ever, and she has asked me to tell you these stories.
 From When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. 2020. Edited by Jo Harjo. W. W. Norton & Company.
 In “Following the Manito Trail: A Tale of Two Querencias” (from Querencia: Reflections on the New Mexico Homeland, edited by Vanessa Fonseca-Chávez, et al., University of New Mexico Press, 2020), Levi Romero writes: “The word ‘manito’ is a derivative of the word ‘hermanito,’ little brother. It is a term of endearment and it was common for people to refer to one another as Mano or Mana, short for hermano or hermana — Mano Juan, Mano Fidel, Mana Bersabé, Mana Juanita. Rubén Cobos’s A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish defines manito/ta (los Manitos) as a term applied by Mexican immigrants to New Mexican Hispanics. Some of the latter, however, found the term used with derogatory connotations. At times, they were ridiculed for speaking in the Spanish dialect of northern New Mexico and for carrying on with traditions and customs that seemed foreign to others. They were the Manitos, after all, different and unique in their culture.”
Karen Vargas is a native of northern New Mexico. Her poetry and short stories have been published in Epoch, Catamaran Literary Reader, Drinking from the Stream, La Palabra: The Word Is A Woman series and a number of other books and literary journals. She has been the recipient of a Taos Resident Writers Award and a Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation Residency. She attends the Institute of American Indian Arts in the Creative Writing Program. Karen was the recipient of a 2021 SFA Plain View Fellowship, which funded this project and essay.