So, I came, I saw, I hung out, I left because I was out of money. I need to expand that into ten double spaced pages somehow. My four-year foray into El Norte Seco Grande should provide me with more than enough to talk about when it comes to Southwestern culture. You would think.
What did I do for those four years? Let's see...
I hung out with some very interesting, very rich Anglos from the eastern US.
I hosted penniless pilgrims from Oregon, California and the east.
I went to six or seven hundred movies.* I'm sure one of them was about the Southwest, but I can't remember which one.
I hung out in Los Alamos a bunch because my then-girlfriend lived there. Los Alamos is a hot bed of Anglo culture (or cultural sterility) because when the Anglos built it in the forties there was virtually nothing there (that was the point). It's not like they moved in and blended cultures with the natives; they moved in and blended with the trees.
I attended, even hosted** (if you can believe that) dozens of get-togethers with folks (almost entirely Anglos) interested in eastern philosophies. We're talking eastern as in Buddhism, Hinduism, Advaita here. New Jersey has yet, to my knowledge, to export much in the way of philosophy.***
I took Sanskrit classes at the community college in Santa Fe from some guy named Gary who was a linguist by training but a classical station DJ by trade and in Taos from an interesting dude by the name of Nicholai Bachman. I turned out to be a bit of a heretic. The Bachman crowd held that Sanskrit was a sacred language and that you could become spiritually enlightened simply**** by studying it. Gary, on the other hand, held that Sanskrit was the mother of all languages (not a universal precept, I don't think) and a linguistic wonder for that reason, but his approach was technical and historical, not spiritual. I found Gary's academic approach much more interesting, spiritual clod that I was (and still am).
Oh, and get this: My first job in the area was working for a Sikh owned company in Española where I was the only one in the office who didn't wear a turban and a white tunic. Some of these people even went to lunch with swords and kirtans (ornate dagger-type things) hanging from their belts. Weird, cross-cultural, other-worldly? Yes. Southwestern? Not really. Not unless you happen to know that the Sikh community has a fairly long history in the area. Still, it doesn't compete with the native history (1000-2000 years) or the Spanish (400-500 years).
In short, I don't feel like I really took part in Southwestern culture. More like I practiced trendy, New Age, Anglo culture in the Southwest. I could have done pretty much exactly the same in northern California, Austin or Asheville, North Carolina.
I couldn't help brushing up against Southwestern culture; I was soaking in it. Many of the people I worked with at my second job were umpteenth generation Hispanics whose families had lived on their land for hundreds of years. Their culture was certainly different from mine. They didn't live in grand haciendas; mostly they lived in double-wides on a couple of acres their parents or grandparents had given them when they got married. Their economic situations were different from most that you see or hear about on TV or in Time magazine. Technically, they were poor, but they owned or nearly owned their homes, still grew a substantial portion of their food and day-care was accomplished by grandparents and aunts and cousins who lived just down the road. They didn't have much money, but they didn't need much. Much of their discretionary income was spent on monster trucks and large tricked-out automobiles. But this wasn't universally true. Some were undeniably poor, others had a spouse with a $50K/yr. job at Los Alamos and were as "American middle class" as anyone else I ever met.
And Santa Fe to me was magical. A lot of people think Santa Fe is passé nowadays, gone totally touristy and commercial and such. The New Age rich from the east seeking the "enchanted life" more often opt for Taos or Sedona these days. The part I liked was the ancient neighborhoods that barely anyone even knows about. You turn down some dirt ally off of a minor street and twist and turn through the cottonwoods till you come to a group of adobe haciendas older than dirt.***** These places have big rooms with brick floors and the little igloo-shaped fireplaces in every corner and the old fashioned viga and latia roofs. They have a way of feeling like "home" to me. Of course they're worth upward of a million dollars each and the upkeep is tremendous, so they are the exclusive domain of the "already rich". I only got to visit. It was a weird combination of somehow feeling like I "belonged" there, but knowing without a doubt that, economically, I certainly did not "belong".
I don't own a single piece of silver and turquoise jewelry. My Swiss Army watch comprises my entire jewelry collection. I don't have a single piece of native pottery. I have a cheap Brazilian pot from Jackelope that was made by someone who was certainly a native of somewhere. I have a painting of an adobe hacienda by a guy named Mark Funk. Does that count?
Maybe I could write a paper on how to immerse yourself in a distinct culture for years and years and not have any of it stick. I've lived here so long I feel like a native and I think natives are traditionally oblivious to the steaming, seething "culture" that surrounds them.
I have been assimilated. Resistance would have been futile and there was none. Now I just have to remember what the deal was.
*I bought season passes to the art theater in Santa Fe that got me in for about three dollars a shot and I went at least three times a week.
**It's getting hard for me to believe it, but it did happen, I'm pretty sure.
***I don't know, does The Sopranos count?
****Yeah, right. For an English speaker who left all knowledge of the parts of speech on the floor of his six grade classroom, there was nothing simple about it. I couldn't believe how structured and organized Sanskrit was. There didn't seem to be an exception to the "rule" for every adherence to the "rule" as there are in other languages. It seemed to be architected very purposefully. It almost appeared that other languages had devolved from Sankrit rather than than evolved from it. They had a silent letter in their alphbet, but that letter was unpronounceable and never used. That's my idea of a silent letter. It was the twelve tenses of every verb that got to me.
*****OK, if you want to be literal, I guess they were exactly as old as dirt.