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New Mexico - The Land of My Father

This past week, I traveled with my father to the little town of Tularosa in New Mexico. My dad was born there back in 1929. As a kid, I used visit to there with my family for summer vacations. I remember visiting some of the old timers in their adobe huts. I had all kinds of family there: aunts, uncles, second cousins. Now, that generation is gone and the folks of my dad’s generation have become the old timers. In hitting the road with my dad, I wanted to photograph some of these folks - before they too are gone…

Here’s a photo of my dad outside what used to be an old bar. As we we stood there, he told me the story of how he used to sell booze to the Indians at this very spot. Back in the 30’s, it was illegal to sell liquor to Indians. Once, he almost got caught which would have resulted in a one-way ticket to reform school (he was 12) and a life with no good future. The guy he sold the liquor to got caught and ended up going to jail. All day, my dad waited for the sheriff to arrest him. He never came, but the scare was enough to end his small-time bootlegging career.

Tularosa is a sleepy town of about 3,000 about 100 miles north of El Paso. Not much has changed since my dad left here in 1946. It’s got an old main street that has seen better days.

My family has a lot of history here. My great-great grandfather, Perfecto Telles, was among the founders of the town in the 1850’s. In fact, he helped to build the town church, Santa Rita. It’s still in use. If you’re wondering where everyone is on a Sunday morning - they’re at the church.

This is the old school, now being turned into a museum. It was here that one of the seminal moments of my dad’s life took place. Back then, the Hispanos were not allowed to speak Spanish in school. Then, much as now, the Hispanos - native New Mexicans for hundreds of years - were poor while the more recent arrivals, the Tejanos, had the wealth and the power. Basically, the Hispanos were second class citizens in the land they had developed. (Of course, the Indians had it worse off, but that’s another story.)

One day, a senator came to the school to talk to the students. To everyone’s amazement, he spoke in Spanish to them. He promised that the kid who got all A’s would get to go to Naval Academy. Right there, my dad, already a good student, vowed to get the good grades. He never did go to the naval school, but he did end up at UCLA en route to his career as a college professor. The first in his family to go to college - but not the last. All of his kids have graduated from college. But for that defining moment, I could be another Tularosa local working at the Dollar General.

Here’s the school:

From Tularosa, it was a short trip to Carrizozo an even smaller town about 45 miles to the north. It’s not far from the Trinity test site where the scientists from Los Alamos exploded the first atomic bomb early in the morning of July 2, 1945. My dad actually saw the light from the bomb when it went off. It looked like the glow of lightning striking in the mountains. He thought it was odd though that the lightning was coming from the wrong direction. The light lasted about five or six seconds and then faded away. Not long after, a nearby town had a bunch of cattle on display that had turned white from the radiation.

Not sure what these two little nooses represent. I suppose they’re just the local color that you’ll only find in little towns that time and the desert stand have done their best to reclaim.

My grandfather, Sylvestre Mireles, worked in this building back when it was Zeigler’s Drugstore. He died back in 1929 - before my dad was born. Let’s just say that the Great Depression was especially tough growing up in a poor town with no dad. On a previous trip, I photographed the adobe hut where my grandfather died at 24 years of age. It was used as a stable at the time though it’s since fallen down. He died of a bleeding ulcer - apparently it was an awful scene with blood all over. I can only imagine my poor grandmother - young, pregnant, widowed and overwhelmed by the awfulness of the moment.

Now that my pops is retired, he’s taken to researching the family history. In his research, he’s discovered family ties to Billy the Kid - who lived and achieved notoriety in the area. So, he’s taken a turn into Billy the Kid lore and into debunking what he sees as some of the myths of his life - and death. Many of the books written about him claim that he killed “ten Mexicans” and was a murderous thug. Actually, he was well liked by the local Hispanos. He spoke fluent Spanish and dated his share of the local girls. It was the Hispanos who actually came to his aid during his time on the run.

We toured through the New Mexico countryside in search of old timers who’s parents or grandparents knew Billy the Kid or had some connection to him. Our tour guide was a friend of my dad’s, Godfrey Chavez.

Many times, I’ve driven through the boonies, stopping to photograph some falling down shack with worn wood and faded paint and wondering what fate befell the long since gone inhabitants. As we drove along the desolate back roads, Godfrey would point out some old shack and comment about who used to live there and what they did. His memories helped bring the buildings to life. The Oteros used to live here:

After driving for about an hour with only seeing two cars, we got to a little settlement consisting of a few old trailers and old homes. We met with a 92 year old logger who was still going strong. He lived alone with a pot-belly stove for warmth and no electronics (though he had electricity). Toothless, but tough, he showed us a photo of him with his great-grandson. The old man had just cut down a huge tree up in the mountains. So, I photographed him with his chainsaw.

I forget how this fellow was related to the Billy the Kid story. His grand-father also had a connection to our family though he isn’t related. He fought in World War II. You could see that the memory was painful. He didn’t want to talk about it other than to mention that afterwards, he threw away his uniform and all of his medals. Sometimes photos tell stories that the subjects can’t put into words.

This softspoken grandfather, Jimmy, lives in the shadow of the Capitan mountains which is where Billy the Kid rode to after escaping from jail and killing two deputies in the process. Jimmy’s a rancher with goats and cows. Even in the best of circumstances, ranching in the desolate, semi-desert landscape of New Mexico is hardscrabble and isolated.

Here’s his granddaughter:

After that, we headed up north, driving along old Route 66.

We sat down with two old timers who were in the middle of an evening whisky and beer drinking session. In the short time we were there, they put away enough booze to put me under the table a few times over. Judging from the plastic bottle the whisky came in, I suspect there was one helluva hangover to follow. These guys were in their 80’s but their grip was strong from a life of working with their hands.

This oldster’s great-grandfather adopted my great-grandfather. It’s a convoluted story, but apparently my great-grandfather was born “illegitimo” - which, in the custom of the day, was noted on his birth certificate - and was given up by his mom and her husband who was, unfortunately, not his father. That man was Cipio Salazar, who, incidentally, broke the chains off of Billy the Kid after he escaped from jail and killed two deputies in the process..

I’m not sure how this fellow tied into the whole program, but my dad interviewed him about his family history. He has a small archery shop in Tularosa. He’s the state champ for bow hunting and makes his own bows from hickory and arrows using turkey feathers for the fletching and obsidian for the tips.

On the flight back, my dad and I weren’t able to sit next to each other. As I walked back to the bathroom, I noticed him staring intently out the window. I saw myself in that moment. Like him, my nose is usually stuck to the airplane window, curious about the world below.

John

11 Responses to “New Mexico - The Land of My Father”

  1. [ b ] Says:

    great stuff john! some of the best work i’ve seen from you.

  2. Charo Says:

    Wow, John, thank you so much for sharing this. I can’t stop looking at these portraits and reading the stories. I would *love* to see more.

  3. Christa Says:

    Whoa!… John these are great - so moving and just breathtaking. I want a print!!! :)

  4. Donna Says:

    Hi John, I really enjoyed reading this post. It brought back many memories from my visits to New Mexico and the discoveries that I made. Thanks for sharing the wonderful photos and the beautiful stories from your trip.

  5. Araxi Says:

    WOW!!! Absolutely incredible both the stories and the photographs. And what a wonderful journey to take with your dad. Well done. Your families future generations will certainly thank you, and thank you for sharing it with all of us out here in blog land.

  6. Richard Says:

    just come across this John, great images and a wonderful story…

  7. Eddie Bojorquez (Studio 512) Says:

    John…as a collection, this is one of my favorite sets I think I’ve seen you shoot. You are such a gifted story teller - and your words aren’t bad either.
    -E

  8. Tony Bisson Says:

    Deep.

  9. Anne Archer Says:

    Hi there…I Googled for hunting bows, but found your page about New Mexico - The Land of My Father…and have to say thanks. nice read.

  10. John Mireles » Blog Archive » Souvenir from New Mexico Says:

    [...] my “In the Land of My Father” trip to New Mexico. I posted photos and wrote about it in this blog post. I printed many of the photos that I shot and my dad sent them off to the folks that we visited. [...]

  11. Therese Says:

    Super images. My mom was born in Tularosa in 1919….as well as most of her siblings. She was born Duran and married Baca. Very curious, on my paternal side, father’s father, Carmen Saturnino Baca (born in La Luz) also “worked” with Billy the Kid. Thanks for sharing about the “Land of your Father”.

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