During his Master Class at the NSN Conference, Joe Hayes gave the participants the opportunity to turn a New Mexican Spanish folktale “El becerro” into a story we could use. As we encountered the story, Joe stressed the importance of understanding as much as possible about the culture to which a story belongs.
As I thought about this, I realized that there are three levels of understanding. The first is that of a teller within the culture, part of the “family.” The second is that of a teller who is close to the culture, a “neighbor.” The third is that of a teller who is relatively unfamiliar with the culture, the “friendly stranger.” Since Joe encouraged me to work with this story, I’m going to discuss the different strategies that tellers at each level of understanding might use with “El beccero.”
The words el becerro mean “the calf.” The story begins with a widow and the old man who is her neighbor. She has sent her cows into the mountains for the summer. When she wants meat, she sends her son to the old man to borrow a calf which she promises to pay back when her own cows return in the fall. Here we are, one paragraph into the story, and we already have one big question:
Why are the widow’s cows in the mountains?
If this were my “family” story, told by my own grandparent, I wouldn’t have to ask this question. If my family were lucky enough to still hold a grazing permit, I’d know cows who spent their summers in the mountains. Furthermore, I would have heard the stories about the tangled history of land and water use in northern New Mexico. I could easily make this story my own, though I might want to do some research on land and water use.
In the case of El becarro, I am not “family”, I am a “neighbor.” I grew up and lived about half my adult life I northern New Mexico and I’ve met cows in the mountains. I remember well a young bull standing in the center of a dirt road in the Jemez. He defied our 1957 Chevy Carryall until my father shifted the truck into compound low and nudged the beast into backing away. Even as a child, I understood that this was somebody’s cow, grazing where the summer thunderstorms keep the high mountains green. It is easier to take the cows to the grass than bring the grass to the cows. But I knew nothing of the history of land and water use in the area. A storyteller who is a “friendly stranger” might know nothing about the need to move the cows to the grass.
To understand the situation in “El beccero,” neighbor and stranger alike need to learn more about land grants. In their book River of Traps William DeBuys and Alex Harris touch on the history of a typical land grant, that of Las Trampas. In 1751, the governor of New Mexico, acting as the representative of the King of Spain granted a parcel of land south of Taos to twelve inter-related families. These settlers built their houses and church around a walled plaza and called their new home Las Trampas. Each family held plots of irrigated farmland in the river valley. It is worth noting that the rights to the water were connected to the land, not to the family that farmed that land. The resources of the forest and mountains included in the Las Trampas Land Grant were used communally. Since not enough rain fell in the valley to support large pastures or hayfields, the cattle went up in the mountains of the land grant during the summer. (Timber was also harvested from the land grant forests.) The story of “El beccero” holds an echo of the time when the people of northern New Mexico had the right to graze their cattle in their own mountains.
That all changed after 1848. The original Treaty of Guadalupe promised to the land and water rights of the citizens of Mexico who had so abruptly become part of the United States, but this promise was soon forgotten. The newcomers neither understood nor respected the communal aspects of land grants and the locals’ grazing rights were slowly chipped away. Much of the old land grand territory has become Forest Service lands. “La Floresta” and its grazing permits are not loved by the people who still live on the land that was their ancestors. (For more about that see The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols. The movie is good. The book is better.)
It’s taken an entire blog post to clear up one question. It’s a good thing research is fun! We’ll continue this exploration in my next blog post.
When I was a student at the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute, I was all about the crafting and telling of my stories. What story would I “do” next? How would I make that story uniquely and perfectly mine?
Then I met an old man from New Mexico, a cheerful old man wearing a hat that proclaimed him to be a World War II veteran. When I told him I was studying to be a storyteller (yes, I was that serious about myself then), he said “I have a story for you.”
He had grown up in a tiny town far out on the plains, almost to Texas. His family owned a few acres, ran a few cows, lived a simple life. He had been hardly more than a boy when he fell in love with the prettiest girl in town.
The old man described her to me in great detail. Long dark hair, shining eyes, a beautiful smile framed with dimples. But her father was a businessman. She was “too good” for the son of a small farmer. When World War II broke out, the boy, like many others in his generation, left school, lied about his age, and enlisted in the Army.
After the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at the University of New Mexico. He became an engineer, married, had children, and worked for the Highway Department. There was never reason to return home. The old folks were dead, the family had sold the land, the younger generation was in Albuquerque, Denver, Los Angeles.
An ordinary story of an ordinary life until …
He found himself driving through Northeastern New Mexico, near his old home. And he started wondering about that girl, the one he had loved from afar. He pulled off the highway, down the dirt road towards the old general store. It was, as he had expected, long-deserted. with the old gas pumps rusting in the sun. He turned the car around in the shade of a cottonwood tree and glanced up at the house where the girl had lived.
There were curtains in the windows, toys in the yard. He sat in his car wondering – was she still there? Were those her grandchildren’s toys in the yard? What did she look like now?
An old woman walked onto the porch. He knew her at once, perhaps from the tilt of her head. Yet she was utterly different. More worn, more twisted by life than he could have imagined she would be.
She glanced at him, a stranger sitting in a strange car not far from her house. Her eyes narrowed in slight suspicion, no recognition.
He turned the key in the ignition, put the car in gear and drove away. “I was afraid,” he told me. “I didn’t want her to see me the way I saw her.”
For years I wondered what to do with this story. It wasn’t mine to tell. It wouldn’t be mine to tell until I found my experience with the story, my “world turns upside down” place, my “new normal.”
And this is the “new normal” – crafting, learning, and performing is not at the heart of story. Community is. Story is the way to reach out, to share and to make connections, even brief ones in a waiting room. That only happens when I listen!