The village of Chimayó in northern New Mexico is a landscape painting, a crimson ristra, an arroyo filled with trash, a vintage car, a quality of light, a white cross on a red hill, a discarded syringe, a memory, a vision. Chimayó is the dusty roads, the rusted cars half-buried in the riverbank, the adobes and the doublewides, the snarling dogs, the raps and rancheras, the fields of chile, the abandoned apple orchards, the bright plastic flowers decorating the cemeteries and descansos, the weaving shops where tourists stop on their way to the humble Catholic church where pilgrims pray in front of a violent cross.
Chimayó’s older families have lived here for generations, ever since the Spanish came up from Mexico. All the others, the Anglos and Mexicans, are newcomers who ambled into the valley over the past fifty or so years, ignorant of its curses and charms. The aboriginal inhabitants, the Indians, live nearby on the reservations but not in Chimayó itself, except in the bones of Chimayosos and in their blood.
Autumn through spring the school bus picks up children in the morning, as the adults climb into their cars and head up the hill to Los Alamos where they work in the laboratories, or down the valley to Santa Fe where they disappear into offices as bank tellers, clerks, and government workers. They carry their coffee in insulated cups, sipping it as they drive, listening to the local news and gossip on the radio. When the rush hour is over, Chimayó becomes itself again — serene and magical. Its true life returns.
An old farmer clears away the debris that has collected around his irrigation head gate — a beer can, a Styrofoam cup, an empty pack of cigarettes — then opens his gate at the appointed time to let the water onto his fields. He goes to work with his shovel, using clumps of mud to channel the water where he wants it to go, watering his corn, his chiles, his alfalfa. This irrigation ditch, this acequia, is roughly three hundred years old, dating back to the early 18th century when Spanish pioneers founded Chimayó. It functions just the same now as then, although the farmer has a new gate made of two cinder blocks and a scrap of plywood; a foot of old garden hose nailed to the plywood on each end forms a loop for a handle.
On a cold autumn morning a group of men gather in a cow pasture for a matanza. A herd of twenty cows are huddled together, chewing and waiting, their breath as thick as smoke. The men start a fire and prepare their knives. They converge on the herd and cull out one young bull by running and shouting and waving their arms. When he is caught and held with ropes, a rifle shot to the head buckles the bull’s knees, and he drops to the ground, dead. The shot scatters a flock of blackbirds, chattering atop the cottonwoods. The men drain the bull’s blood, then clean it and butcher it, throwing some steaks and organs onto a makeshift grill. The hot juices sizzle as they drip into the fire.
Pilgrims and tourists flock to the Santuario to visit the iconic chapel. They leave there with a bit of holy dirt, a powder known for its power to heal, mined from the red hills of Chimayó. A few discarded crutches, eye patches, and testimonials bear witness to the legendary healing properties of the dirt: Today the legend lives on, as durable as that of La Llorona. Clutching their gift shop treasures — a milagro, a packet of red chile powder or piñon nuts — the sightseers get back on their tour bus for the short drive to Rancho de Chimayó to eat enchiladas or carne adovada.
Unlike the postcard villages of New Mexico, Chimayó has no central plaza. Its shops and houses are scattered about like the first fat drops of rain on a dry day. Forget the fantasy of a leafy plaza where people gather to talk and stroll about; let go of the desire to linger on a warm summer evening while a band plays canciones. This is not Chimayó.
Chimayó is not a movie set. It is not an illusion but an undisguised reality. The past, with all its deeds and misdeeds, its knowledge and secrets, burns through to the present. The dead live on in stories and memories. The living dance on the graves of their ancestors and dream of those yet to come.