I had a free day. Yet, Santa Fe turned out to be so tiny that apart from exploring its museums and churches thoroughly, the main sights could be covered in an hour or so. The city was constructed around a central plaza of distinct Spaniard design. Buildings in the downtown area were built up using adobe. Unlike its Bolivian counterparts, the adobe was covered up here with an adhesive layer that made them waterproof and gave them distinctively roundish borders. Eerily, the overall effect was pretty. Was Santa Fe the stage of a George Lucas film about a far, far away galaxy?
"Excuse me, to which culture do you belong to?" I asked a senior woman sitting on a rag next to the first municipality building by the main plaza. She was selling knick-knacks. Her merchandise was advertised as belonging to the "pueblo."
"I am pueblo," she said with a smile, she reached out for a few rings, hoping to nail down a sale.
"‘Pueblo’ is Spanish for ‘village’ and ‘people,’" I said, ignoring the tacky souvenirs. Then, I insisted, "What’s your cultural background? Which language did your ancestors speak?" With beautiful high cheekbones, small eyes irradiating life, and black hair despite her age, I had no doubt she had a background of millennia in the area.
"They spoke Spanish; this is the ‘pueblo’ area." She was referring to the nineteen tribes of northern New Mexico that were now called "pueblo." It was obvious she didn’t know beyond that. Later I found this time and again. For many modern Americans, the area originally belonged to the Spaniards and Spanish was the original language of the people.
Of course, reality was different. Franciscan Friars entered what is now New Mexico only in 1598 as part of a group of Mexican colonists that were migrating from Mexico City. In 1610, Santa Fe was founded together with a church on the basilica’s actual location, just next to the plaza. Founded as Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi), the city’s main Catholic church is named the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. This imposing stone structure is the exception in adobe-oriented Santa Fe. It truly stands out from its flat surroundings. In 1630, a larger church replaced the original one; the latter was destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Spaniards returned in 1693, but the building of a new church was delayed until 1714. This adobe church was named in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe’s Patron Saint. The Chapel of Our Lady La Conquistadora is the only part of this church still in existence; it is dedicated to an image brought in 1625 from Spain. The statue is considered to be the oldest representation of the Virgin Mary in the US.
Next morning, Lewis appeared at the hotel’s lobby with his family. He had a young wife and four little girls. He was about my age, and if clothed differently, he would have resembled the archetypal ultra-orthodox Jew. His bushy beard didn’t help to dissipate this impression.
While driving to his home, Lewis performed the best evasive driving I had seen. Random turns at high speed took us round and round, around Santa Fe. In that complex maze of long, curvy streets, such driving could only call attention. If somebody was chasing us, he would have had an easy task, since we were raising enough dust to be seen from faraway. I was fascinated. How could I ask if this was a joke? Later on, once I learned the streets’ layout I confirmed my initial feeling. Lewis didn’t drive through even close to the shortest way. It had been his daring attempt to evade… nothing.
"Is somebody chasing us?" I asked while holding tight the vehicle’s door.
In that hot afternoon, the streets were empty. The ubiquitous surveillance cameras were probably focused on desert mirages. Lewis was sweating profusely, concentrating all his impressive intellectual powers on the road.
"I’m making sure they’re not," he answered with a proud smile.
"Thank you, I appreciate your concern. By the way, where did you learn to drive like this?" This was crucial; as far as I knew he didn’t have any substantial background with the governmental organizations that could teach him these skills.
Suddenly, Lewis was intensely interested on the horizon; so interested that he forgot to answer.
Once at his home, I was given a small room. In the following weeks, I found certain discrepancies between what I had been told in Bolivia and the reality here. He edited a newspaper, but it was a free one given away at public places. His work as editor meant mainly that he was responsible to accept paid advertisements. He published a short column in it. The editorial published booklets and distributed them in adjacent areas; nearby Albuquerque was their limit to the south, Espanola to the north. Even I wasn’t interested in publishing with them.
That evening he invited me to meet a group of activists he frequented. They met at a Methodist church near downtown. Around ten people sat in a circle and talked in low voices. There were no tables between them; coffee was available at a corner of the room. While preparing a cup, I couldn’t help but notice they were talking about Hurricane Katrina, which had hit the American coast the previous August. They were complaining of the unpreparedness of the American government. Overall, 1836 had died, 135 went missing; most of the victims were from Louisiana.
"Do you know that before hitting the USA, Katrina crossed Cuba? Do you know how many died there?" I asked them, while balancing my coffee and grabbing a seat, all at the same time. Lewis became oddly alert.
"No," several voices said at once.
"Zero. The Cuban government evacuated in time the areas to be affected."
Lewis didn’t let me talk afterwards. He interrupted me every time I began saying something. It was the last time I was invited to such an event, despite my comment having been obviously welcomed by all other participants.
(Excerpt from The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem; the book reads independently of Part I, The Cross of Bethlehem - The Memoirs of a Refugee.)
The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.