to, there are some bands that make me wish I'd
been. It's the music, the attitude and the surrounding
Here are some tunes that make me think of that
part of the US, and there's a story below.
Texas and New Mexico: arid desert, ZZ Top, the blues and UFOs
The borderlands of Texas and New Mexico are an Anglo-Hispanic world where the scenery is widescreen and the culture has deep roots
John Phillip Santos
Saturday 22 June 2013
Kitchen Mesa, Abiquiu, New Mexico View larger picture
The Jemez mountains, New Mexico. Photograph: 167/Ocean/Corbis. Click on the magnifying glass icon for a larger view of this image
Take a break from the American mammon groove during your walkabout in the United States and wend your way to the south-western borderlands. Slowly traverse a swath of terrain between Austin and the environs of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, out to the ancient ruins of Chaco Canyon.
These are lands of America's other origin story, taking you into the deep time of the new world. This route moves through the deserts, austere and verdant landscapes, mostly wild and unpopulated, an itinerary with ample promise of getting lost, travelling in time and undergoing inadvertent epiphanies.
Texas and New Mexico have deep-rooted, large and rapidly growing Hispanic populations (Texas 38.1%, New Mexico 46.7%, in the 2010 census), and both are "majority minority" (an oxymoron much in use), indicating that a majority of people are from non-white ethnic groups. You're a majority, but you're still minority.
This reconquista has brought a tide of new, transforming ways of understanding our history and this very geography, that lately is attracting artists and visionaries from all parts.
This is my widescreen homeland, encompassing my birthplace (San Antonio, Texas) and my longtime spiritual refuge (the Jemez wilderness of north-west New Mexico), a land I've long harboured an inexplicable sense of belonging to. I first sensed this attraction travelling there with my family as a 14-year-old. Coming from parched south Texas, north-western New Mexico seemed impossibly alpine, its primordial forests fragrant, mysterious and sheltering.
El Santuario de Chimay, Chimayo, New Mexico El Santuario de Chimay, New Mexico Photograph: Arnold Drapkin/ZUMA Press/Corbis
Jose Limón, the director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, calls the region "Greater Mexico", preponderantly Hispanic and uniquely forged in all the epics of North America – indigenous genesis, the conquest and colonisation of Mexico, myriad migrations and the revolutionary birth of the United States.
The Texas state capital of Austin (only founded in the 1830s) sits on the fault line separating Anglo and Hispano worlds, ever touting its difference, if still harbouring a wariness of fully embracing all things Mexicano.
Growing up in San Antonio (founded in 1718), the comparatively rural redoubt of shipwrecked Texan Mexicanidad, Austin was our Athens up the road, an eclectic gathering place where auspicious hippy world wisdom was dependably in foment. Then, it was the prophetic psychedelia of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators rock band; the searing postmodern blues of Townes Van Zandt. The sounds and words of ZZ Top and Willie Nelson, blues-y, rebellious and rough-hewn, were ubiquitous, familiar and fitting for the time.
In the summer of 1979, making a pilgrimage to the now long-gone venue of the new Austin sound, the Armadillo World Headquarters, it was Talking Heads (Fear of Music tour), with the B-52s opening. The world was changing. These days, at Waterloo Records you might hear the psychotropic songcraft of Davíd Garza on the sound system, mantric drone rock from The Black Angels, or the post-punk siren songs of Alejandro Escovedo or Spoon.
Austin's hardscrabble Texas Hill Country setting belies its blessed geographic location, a city conjured over the Edwards limestone aquifer, filtering precious rainwater into a vast underground reservoir. In such an arid, unforgiving land, cooling springs abound, from Barton Springs in the city to Krause Springs in nearby Spicewood (don't miss Opie's Barbecue there).
An hour west is the 6m-year-old Enchanted Rock, a massive, pale-pink granite pluton dome with peaks jutting out from a sandy valley of mesquite trees. It beggars belief the first time you see it; many say it's a sacred place.
We climbed and circled the hoary igneous batholith like it was David's Jerusalem or the very Ka'bah. The vista spans miles in every direction, surveying tiny mesquite stands, specks of cattle, a few dusty ranch houses in the distance. If you're not a poet when you climb it, you might be one when you descend.
For my family, San Antonio was the cradle of antiquity, a secret Mexican city, on American soil. It was founded in the last push of the Spanish colonisation of Mexico, early in the 18th century. A constellation of beautifully restored missions on the modern city's Southside echoes these distant origins. The legendary Alamo, living testimony to how badly an immigration policy can go awry, was itself a Spanish mission.
During the Chicano movement, activists and intellectuals reclaimed Texas and New Mexico as Aztlán, the mythical land from which the Aztecs came, an old homeland rediscovered. San Antonio imparted a different way of being American, open to identities emerging from the deep time of these lands – indigenous, Hispanic, Anglo and beyond.
UFO festival in Roswell, New Mexico UFO festival in Roswell, New Mexico Photograph: Ted Soqui/Sygma/Corbis
My preferred road to New Mexico is Highway 90, through Castroville, Hondo (full of Santos family members), and Uvalde, careening then into the astounding desolation of West Texas. Past Del Rio, there's Seminole Canyon State Park, where you must hike down into the deep canyon to view ancient, indigenous stone wall paintings depicting a people in pilgrimage. It's testimony to how long people have journeyed across these lands, long before there was a border to be policed.
Marfa has become a cultural destination of late: hipsters heading out there as if the tap water gives you visions. I don't get it. There's a great radio station (KRTS), bookstore and a cafe next door with a fantastic green chilli, but I prefer to head south to visit Presidio and Ojinaga, which is on both the US and Mexican sides of the border.
From there, I climb into the nearby mountains to Chinati Hot Springs, an exalted desert oasis. On an open plain, you can soak in a stone tub fed by a steaming geothermal spring under the vast, glimmering heavens, meteors streaking by.
Spaniards ventured into the lands that became New Mexico in the late 16th century, searching for mythical cities of gold. Santa Fe was founded in 1609, Albuquerque 1691. A sense of the mythical is there today. Nearing Albuquerque, there's Alamogordo, where the first nuclear bomb was tested in 1945, or Roswell, where in 1947 extraterrestrial visitors famously scuppered a flying saucer in the desert.