The 'Real' New Mexico

as seen by Jim Sagel

From "New Mexico's Best"

By Richard Mahler

The late Jim Sagel lived in the Espanola Valley of northern New Mexico from the early 1970s until his untimely death in the late 1990s, working as an educator, translator and writer. An Anglo transplant from Colorado, he taught himself to read, write and speak Spanish after marrying into the family of local weaver Teresa Archuleta. "I wanted to protect myself from my in-laws," he joked. "After I learned the language, "I became fascinated with the stories that my suegros (in-laws) were telling. I started writing them down-and creating stories of my own."

For more than 20 years Sagel wrote, in both Spanish and English, about the Espanola Valley. His poems and short stories won numerous awards, including Cuba's prestigious Premio Casa, the Latin American equivalent of the Pulitzer. In his opinion, wandering is the best way to see the "real northern New Mexico." In Sagel's words:

"From the first time I crossed the New Mexico state line, I decided to wander. There is something about the grandfatherly mountains, the isolated adobe villages and meandering arroyos that immediately invited me off the map. More than a quarter of a century later I continued to cruise the back roads of my adopted home, not unlike that first 'lowrider,' Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus), who discovered much more than he was looking for.

"These aimless trips down Frost's 'untaken road' have led me to the most austere and remarkably beautiful landscapes-likewise, they have brought me into contact with the most hospitable and civilized people in the nation, the Nuevo Mexicanos of the small villages and pueblos who truly mean it when they say, 'Mi casa es tu casa,' even after so many have taken them literally and taken over their land.

"Wandering is what inspired the following selection from my manuscript of 'road love poems' to New Mexico, "Unexpected Turn":

"Pass with care," the sign cautions, but you need no reminding as you pass by a butte brooding over stegosauras hills. You know that the next turn always promises to be unexpected, a ponderosa laid open by lightning, a herd of cattle sleek as a Brahman vision, a lake tremulous with trout. This is a land where the sky intoxicates the eye and history gossips in the willows lining the river. It's the lost roads that lead to the desert gardens; you miss your turn and end up finding your way.

"You turn your eyes to the ridge above the pueblo and gaze at the deer dancers descending in the frozen dawn. You turn on the wooden dance floor in your lover's arms, as the musicos play the valses their grandfathers learned from their grandfathers. You turn a hoe over in the mud to make the adobes for the home you are already plastering in your dreams.

"You turn your head just long enough for the abuelo, the grotesque and guffawing trickster, to steal your hat, leaving you to squint at the Matachines dancing their marked ritual. You turn over in your hands the santo that has emerged from the root of a cottonwood tree; you trace the water serpent coiled around a pot burnished black as an unbroken memory.

"Once you have known this land, you will always turn back. Like the exiled lover who could sense his lover combing her hair from a thousand miles away, you will always hear the drum pounding in your pulse, the Llorana weeping in your inner ear, the sand cranes flapping their wings alongside the river in your blood. Once you have taken the unexpected turn, you will never again pass without caring."

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