Review: 'Ghosts of the Land' captures contradictions of Northern New Mexico

GHOSTS OF THE LAND by David Roybal, David Roybal Communications, 188 pages, $15

Author David Roybal calls his most recent book, Ghosts of the Land, a historical novella. Its main characters are fictional but interwoven with them are characters who are familiar historical figures.

The book is two separate stories. In one, the protagonist is Río Arriba County Sheriff Jimmy Silva, who is investigating the murder of an elderly rancher. In the background is the long-time struggle of descendants of Spanish and Mexican settlers to have their land grants returned to them.

In the book’s other thread, reporter Mark Rivera is looking into the background of a candidate for U.S. President. (Perhaps Rivera is modeled after the author, a former editorial page editor and columnist for this paper.)

In Ghosts of the Land, scenes move back and forth between New Mexico and Mexico. The author says he wants to show how interconnected the two sides of the border have been for centuries.

He includes something of himself in many of the book’s characters, from the newspaper reporter who is chasing a story that never pans out to the Norteño farmer who knew land grant activist Reies López Tijerina.

Roybal, who grew up in Española, began his reporting career in high school covering sports for the Española bureau of The Santa Fe New Mexican. He was hired to report on local games, but his editor, as editors tend to do, expanded his beat by sending him to events as far away as Dulce and Tierra Amarilla.

Roybal went on to study journalism and sociology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. “But it was Jim Maldonado who taught me journalism, not NMSU.”

All those experiences are woven into this novella.

The chapters about Mexico are interesting, insofar as they explore the difficulty of chasing down a news story and the way promising tips often lead to dead ends.

The sheriff’s story has more depth. It examines the state’s uneasy peace among Hispanics, Native Americans, and Anglos. It delves into what it means to be an outsider, either moving in from another state or feeling displaced in one’s own homeland.

Silva appears to be modeled on mystery writer Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, a man who loves his native land and respects the foibles of the citizens he protects. Silva was born and bred in Río Arriba County, son of a retired couple who are some of the best characters in the book. Dolores and Tomás Silva help paint a vivid picture of the area.

“The couple, for the most part, was a reasonable representation of the region’s older generation. They molded their lives around family, religion and a reluctance to challenge the thinking and practices of those who came before them. It was a path that preserved both valuable wisdom and destructive prejudices.”

Dolores is the kind of Norteña who will take nonsense from no one, not even a sheriff.

The other woman in Silva’s life is Cindy Ferris, a relatively recent transplant who owns the Riverside Café. She is an outsider, as are all Anglos, no matter how long they have lived in the northern mountains and valleys. Her struggles with not belonging are sad, but inevitable as she has no roots in the area.

Another Anglo character is Undersheriff Jeff Foster. Although raised in Río Arriba, he is still an outsider and has been in the county long enough to realize he will never completely understand the region and its people.

Filemón Manzanares, an old-time land-grant activist, accurately describes the feelings of locals about those who have recently moved to the state: “Más y más van entrando. They keep coming in to take over what we have and to tell us what to do. They run things in Santa Fe now. They run things in Taos. Pretty soon they’re going to run things in Española too. … The further north they come, the more they take away from us. Dicen que we’re backwards. They want us to be like them.”

Historic land grant activist Reies López Tijerina plays a big part in the book, not in person but with issues and controversies he ignited back in the 1960s.

As for other historical characters, Roybal includes pithy and not-always-kind descriptions.

For example, he writes that former Gov. Gary Johnson “was convinced that government did little more than get in the way of people’s ability to appreciate their possessions.”

Roybal includes unflattering stories about politicians that only a newspaper reporter would remember. He describes how Barack Obama was terribly late to a 2008 campaign rally in Española, but Rio Arriban voters forgave him.

Sheriff Silva’s story comes to a sudden and violent end, followed by a depressing real life account of politics in the years after the fictional sheriff no longer held office.

Reading the book, it is easy to see how deeply Roybal loves the region but is aggravated by local events.

This is the author’s sixth book. He specializes in biographies. Next on his list is one about Florence Jaramillo, owner of Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante.

If Roybal writes another book, he should feature photos he shot in Río Arriba county during the 1960s and ’70s, including portraits of Tijerina and fellow Alianza Federal de Mercedes activists taken for The New Mexican and Democratic Party boss Emilio Naranjo. Additional images by Roybal of boarded-up stores and derelict homes in what the author calls “gasping” villages tell more about the region than words can. Roybal understands Northern New Mexico, and readers should look forward to more of his publications.

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