There are times when I let this research thing get out of hand. During the first part of August I went to New Mexico just to see if there are still cows in the mountains. (Well – not really. I went for the green chile cheeseburgers at Blakes, but I kept an eye out for the cows!)
The New Mexico Department of Transportation even posted signs to show me where to look! I took this picture along NM 502, near the Valles Caldera National Preserve where there were, indeed cows, grazing for the summer, just like in El beccero.
The Preserve covers almost 90,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains. As its name implies, it encompasses a great bowl of a caldera, formed when a pair of volcanic domes collapsed over a million years ago. The resulting valley is filled with forested hills laced with rich meadows.
Old maps call this area Valle de los Bacas, memorializing a use of the land for communal grazing that began during the late 1700’s. The ranching families who owned the Valle after New Mexico became part of the United States also ran cattle in those meadows during the summer. The Forest Service management of the Valle as a National Preserve still includes a limited grazing program. (All this is covered in Kurt Anschuetz and Thomas Merlan’s More than a Scenic Landscape: Valles Caldera National Preserve Land Use History published by the United States Forest Service in 2007.)
The widow’s calf could well have been grazing in the Valle when she wanted beef. When she sends her son to borrow a calf, she refers to her neighbor as a compadre.
In this story, what does compadre really mean?
The word is often translated as “companion” but there is another meaning, one that sheds more light on the relationship between the neighbors in the story. “Compadre” can also mean either “father of my godchild,” or “my child’s godfather.” (The feminine version of this term is comadre.) The traditional relationship between parents and godparents is one of promises made and obligations met. This is part of what weaves a community together. The neighbor had every reason to “lend” the widow a calf. He also had every reason to expect that she would provide him with an equivalent beast at the end of summer.
Unfortunately the widow died before the cattle returned from the mountains. Worse, her son refused to pay the debt. An awareness of the compadre relationship makes it clear that this is a shocking violation, especially since the villagers of Northern New Mexico usually didn’t own more than a few cows for their personal use. The old man had a problem. He needed that cow, but he didn’t want to make an enemy. As deBuys and Harris observe in River of Traps “Having an enemy in a city or town is no guarantee of excitement…not so in a village.” He had to convince the woman’s son to pay her debt without setting off a lasting feud.
Next up: adding another character to the story (and I won’t go to New Mexico this time)