The Heritage of Mata Ortiz

Las Cruces is in America’s Borderland with Mexico. We are staying in fact in Old Mesilla, where the Gadsden Purchase was signed that defined the geographical border between the two countries. But the cultural border is a matter of shading. Thanks to the guidance of our friends Rich and Naida we just spent a few days south of the border in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico. We drove through the ugly steel barrier wall west of El Paso, where Rich navigated the bureaucratic intricacies of taking a car into Mexico. In an instant we passed from a world of English speakers flavored with Spanish to one of Spanish tinged with English.

More importantly, we were in the Chihuahua Desert of mesquite, yucca, sandy soil, and vestigial grasses. This is the true “wall” separating the peoples of the north and south. Thousands of human remains have bleached out in these searing lands. Our car cruised along with the occasional truck and SUV shielded from the struggle of life around us. Just for the record, the Mexican semi-trailers were as polite and professional as any truckers in the States, signaling when it was safe to pass and observing all the “señales” (not the “seniles,” as Rich joked).

Nuevo Casas Grandes lies in the foothills of the Sierre Madre Orientale, Mexico’s southern extension of the Rockies. The original “Great Houses” lie a few miles west, in the village of Paquimè, site of the UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological Zone. Anchored by a fine museum, the archaeological park gives ruins-1-web us a physical sense of the former 1700-room pueblo nestled on a knoll overlooking the river valley below. From about 1000 to 1340 AD several thousands of people lived here, farming and trading with groups to the south and north. The low walls reconstructed on the old foundations tell of multi-storey dwellings, hot and cold running water (yes!), ritual offerings (birds, it seems), and everyday life. Their life together ended catastrophically with an invasion and total destruction of the city.

When archaeologists began unearthing man-pot-ed-webthe lower layers of the site they came across marvelous pottery adorned with sophisticated imagery. It was these pots and designs that inspired a local potter, Juan Quezada, to begin creating pottery in the nearby village of Mata Ortiz. Entranced, collectors from near and far have made it one of the most popular pieces of local craft in the Southwest. The next day, we headed out of Casas Grandes for this famous little pottery center.

On the way, Rich took us on a slight detour through the town of Colonia Juarez, settled by Mormon refugees from Utah in the late 19th century. Seemingly air-lifted out of any mid-western town, the two-storey homes filled in a grid of neat streets in this tidy agricultural community. Most amazingly, a gleaming white temple overlooked the town, the juarez-mormon-templeangel Moroni blowing his golden horn on its pinnacle. Yes, folks, Salt Lake City has a satellite in rural Mexico amongst the indigenous mestizo Catholicism all around it.

A few miles away the Hacienda de San Diego of Luis Tarrazas (1829-1923) broods in dereliction like a Western movie set. Certainly the richest man in Chihuahua in his day, Tarrazas built this enormous palace, with extensive housing for laborers, animals, and supplies, at the turn of the 19th century. Today, a few families live in portions of the old buildings, machinery lies among the ruined walls, and some livestock munch placidly amidst the ruins. This was clearly the “Giant” of its day, now passed into legend and, for some, nostalgia, though its culture was overturned by the Mexican Revolution that sought to destroy the old hacienda system. I could feel that there were many voices murmuring in the weeds and broken doors, whispering to me about the overthrow of the oppressive wealthy. The breezes are still taking away their words like seeds across the lands, across the borders.


A railroad snaked its way into the tiny town of Mata Ortiz and left a depot that is now the town’s art co-op, displaying some of its famous pots. It seemed we were the only tourists that day, so people stopped their pickups in the streets and hailed us from a roadside stand, inviting us to see their pots, buy some at a price you couldn’t find up north. A little girl, accompanied by her mother and grandmother, held a little pot in her hand, inviting us to buy it. Her sweet, inquisitive face is still haunting me.

Her little hands cover


            the little pot

            her mother made

            holding it the way

            her little town is held

            within the hands

            of the Sierra Madre

            shining in her eyes.

Her dusty town is built

            on pottery

            with intricate designs

            of lines and circles

            wrested from a broken heritage

            redeemed by dreams


            like the little pot

            the little girl

            her big dreams

            her open eyes.

 pot-top-ed-web           Around the corner someone was renovating an adobe home in veneration of Frida Kahlo, whose life story and work have become ever more lustrous over the years. Its chromium blue walls shouted down the dirt street to a home where we actually bought a beautiful pot by the nephew of Juan Quezada. The purchase of a beautiful work of art in the home of the maker is now almost an act of religious veneration for a world of work and life ground down by global technology. If you want to know more about Mata Ortiz, you can download for free a Kindl publication, Mata Ortiz Pottery Buyer’s Guide: The Earth’s Bounty into your Home’s Beauty, by Philip Stover, with complete information on getting there. Ignore all walls and visit this remarkable village!

As if to complete a circle of pots from the past to the present, Rich and Naida took us up into the Sierra Madre to the Cueva de la Olla (“Cave of the Jar”). Located at the end of a jarring dirt trail well off the highway, the cueva is overseen today by Señor Lamiro from jar-cave-ed-webhis little visitor’s cabin at the foot of a rocky canyon whose rim has been carved by wind and rain into camels, eagles, and faces. In an overhang above us the ancient pueblo dwellers had constructed a huge storage container sheltered from the elements and most marauders of the time. Here we had, once again, not the eyes, not the faces, not the voices of the human beings who dwelled here, but only the work of their hands in mud, straw, and stone.

It was a day that asked us, How do we take possession of our past to make a pot to hold our future? How do hands and minds and voices still construct a world at home with nature and the human beings that give a shape to love? We now have some beautiful pots that invite us to these questions. The next day we swept back across the desert to the ugly testimonies of walls that seek to silence such a conversation.



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Petroglyphs at Three Rivers


Images of lizards



                        stuck full of arrows


                                                                        and faces

                        shaped like moons

            were seared into

                                                the blackened surfaces

                                    of jumbled boulders

As if


            the earth

            become a man

            had showered magmic marbles

            in a heap

            upon the desert floor


As if

            the hands of human beings

            were fire and wind,


            on the dark face of time.


(The Petroglyphs at Three Rivers, New Mexico, are located in the Tularosa Basin, just east of the White Sands Missile Range)


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O Sacred Head



In the Organ Mountains

            the head of a canyon

            often weeps

            among the desolated trees.

It’s a sacred place

            where the earth’s ribs

            wounded by heat

            and violent force

            rise up

            and the heavens rain down

            seeping into the splintered rock

            bringing life

            into the stony soil.

bar-canyon-tree-webFrom the Bar Canyon near Las Cruces, NM


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Looking for America

We have been on the road again. In a moment when our country seems to have lost its way, this is one way to try to find the “real” America that can be known through face-to-face encounters, smelling the air, walking the ground, and looking around at the expanse and intricate connection of people and things. We are desperate for encounters without media-tion.

We wound down from the Smokies, through road cuts brown with sleeping kudzu, to the banks of the Tennessee River where the Cherokee crossed on the Trail of Tears, expelled by President Jackson’s supporters 175 years ago. Today a river of trucks flows past the flanks of Lookout Mountain. Though expelled, Native Americans left their names on rivers, mountains, dwelling places and sacred groves—Nantahala, Chattanooga, Ocowee, Tellico, and Tuscaloosa, where we stopped to spend the night. A nearby graveyard beckoned us with its name of “Nature Garden,” but we only found a barren hillock longing for care, pining to be a place of peace for memory and connection. The land is burdened with uncared-for memories, dark as well as hopeful, held by the living as well as the dead.

In the restaurant both black and white as well as recent immigrants are eating at the tables served by high school kids struggling to learn the unspoken rules of table  etiquette and service. The colors have changed, the ladder of wealth has not.

The next day I look out to see a sign for James E. Chaney Drive in Meridian, Mississippi. My mind flashes back to 1964, when I was teaching at Philander Smith College in Little Rock and heard that he had been murdered up the road in Philadelphia along with Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman as they were helping people gain their voting rights. How many now remember? Yet there is his name, like those of the Cherokee, Seminole, and Choctaw. Some remember their ultimately victorious struggle against the mendacious villainy that held their people in its grip.

And there is Medgar Evers Drive in Newton and the airport bearing his name in Jackson. Here are precious handholds in the climb we have not finished. We may slip, but their spirit catches us, holds us up, keeps us moving when a fashionable despair besets us.

In Vicksburg, as we near the Mississippi River, our GPS leads us to El Sombrero for a lunch. More than a lunch stop, it is a gaudy, over-the-top mélange of mosaic walls, carvings, festive lights, and welcoming faces. We are in a bit of Mexico, reminding us of craftsmanship, hospitality, and good food unencumbered by the walls that some might build to keep us from our common humanity. Yes, in Vicksburg. Come on down!

On our third day we reach the jam-packed roads of Dallas and Fort Worth, where the woods of the East give way to the plains of the West. We are here for a visit to the art museums of Fort Worth—the Kimbell, the Amon Carter, the Modern, and Sid Richardson’s Gallery of Remingtons and Russells. But there is more. This is the two-week extravaganza of the annual Stock Show, where ranchers from far and wide come to see the latest on the hoof, on the wheel, and on the stage. Ten-gallon hats and fancy boots are formal wear. Parking is like searching for a mouse in the dark. But we manage to join the flow looking at Monet and a treasure lode of art from every time and place, drawn by oil wealth, beckoning our world to wider horizons and deeper sensibilities.

That night, in a humming restaurant in the arts district, we watch a dinner date between a fresh young man, surely from a ranching county, I surmise, swimming in a conversation with a lovely lass whose parents might have come from India or farther back from Africa. I can’t see the color of their eyes as they laugh, look away, and search for a possible future together. They are in the New World. It is still happening in America.

As I wander through the concrete fortress housing “modern art,” I see a field of color, form, and strange dismemberment. I think about how it makes of me an outsider. It is expression of the Other, the sojourner, the orphan, the fragmented world we struggle now to put together, instructions gone or in a foreign script, the purpose of the thing obscure. Perhaps sometimes it succeeds in capturing our world, or at least our suffering. It seems to be a funeral rather than a celebration. We leave relieved to find nearby, yes, in Fort Worth, a tranquil Japanese Garden.

That’s right, if you ever get to Fort Worth, make sure you visit the Japanese Garden—four acres of planted serenity. Ponds connected by meandering streams are filled with gaping koi, asking for a crumb from your hand. It is a land at rest, singing, murmuring, giving brides and grooms a launching place for life together in the yin and yang of life. This is America, too. It was Sunday, We had church.

We head west with the morning commuters massed against us on the other side. Suburban homes give way to scrubby mesquite. The prickly pear appears among the dry yucca. Cattle meander among the bushes and the grasses. It’s Texas. But it’s not empty. The next four hundred miles are a revelation to our Eastern eyes.

But first, let me tell you how I lost and found my AMEX credit card. At a forlorn gas station the sun and sandy wind had baked the screen on the pump so I could hardly read it. Maybe in my confusion I left it there. Seven miles down the road we turned back. It’s not at the pump. I walk inside, a look of credit-card-loss on my face. “I think I dropped…” “Your credit card?” smiled a young man beyond the counter. “We just found it on the floor. Must have dropped out of your pocket.” He didn’t ask for proof as he handed it to me. A man’s face is his word, his hand an emblem of sincerity. I was touching bedrock. The real person.

Texas is the country’s leader in wind power. We had heard that Texas-sized claim somewhere, but it is a different matter to drive into the center of the slowly flailing arms, mile on mile, squeezing

Wind and Oil

Wind and Oil

power out of the invisible wind. At Sweetwater, the welcome sign is painted on an enormous blade of a turbine. Sweet water indeed. Among the fields now stretching into New Mexico, traditional oil pumps still bow down before the ground, extracting disappearing black gold while the endless air swims by the blades above.

That white stuff showing up on the edge of the road is cotton, now picked by giant harvesters that compress it into cargo-container bales. It goes on for miles of non-empty space. At one point a sign casually announces “No gas for 135 miles.” Plan ahead, as if no one would stop to help you, which, of course, they would.

That night we reach Artesia, New Mexico, a place we visited three years ago. We returned because it has devoted oil and gas wealth to public art, parks, and scholarships for their high school students. Here is where the American polis still struggles to survive. It is a place (10,000 to 15,000 people) where face-to-face conversation, debate, and argument in pursuit of a visible and tangible common good can get a voice. It is in these largely disappearing small towns where generations of Americans learned the practices of self-government, of civil cooperation, of a law knitting people together though divided by family, clan, religion, class, and ethnicity. It’s a town still knit together by the Bulldog mascot of the High School. But not without tensions. A heartfelt personal Christian piety competes with aspirations of civil unity. A refinery’s sweet and sulphurous smell reminds us of the price of fossil fuel dependence.

The public art of ranchers, rustlers, and vaqueros fashions forth a memory knit with craftsmanship and art. At the new public library, a huge mural has been

Artesia Public Library

Artesia Public Library

installed rescued from a building in Houston at great expense. Here again, it presents an image of romantic memory in among the rows of books about Islam and Judaism, Aztecs and Apaches, ranchers and prospectors, geology and energy. It is another kind of church where we can deal with our memories, visions, fears, ignorance and aspirations.

On our last day we crawl south at the customary 75 miles an hour and on through Carlsbad, waving to the caverns where I had stood alone and awed three years ago. The sun and wind have conspired to strip away the vegetative flesh on earth’s bare bones, revealing the skeleton of planetary life. This was once a reef along an inland sea 200 million years ago. Now it towers above us, shedding fossilized remains down slopes to

El Capitan, Guadalupe National Park

El Capitan, Guadalupe National Park

the floor below. A national park stewards a portion of this vast escarpment. We take a walk to see the ruins of a stagecoach stop impudently erected for a year of service before the Civil War and railroads erased its claim—only 25 days of continuous travel from St. Louis to San Francisco.

There is only 100 miles of desert to El Paso, void of cellphone service but not, surprisingly, of trucks and cars. The ride is interrupted by signs pointing to perhaps mythical places. A dilapidated café of sorts interrupts the monotony, a Trump sign in the dirt outside, announcing that yes, we are open.

That night we rejoin the eternal Interstate and find our way back to our casita in old Mesilla, nestled on the Rio Grande beside Las Cruces, ready for another month of exploration in a “known unknown.” This too, is America. Perhaps, even, unmediated.


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