Today is the day Benjie Chávez and his family will leave the town of Guadalupe behind. Far from the land of the eagle and the nopal, they travel west to find a new home of opportunity. But adapting to the big, impersonal city of Albuquerque is no easy task. As both life and death come to the barrio, a blind seer named Crispin arrives in the Chávezes’ world. At first everyone dismisses his stories about an elusive place called Aztlán as the ramblings of an old man. But gradually, they come to realize that he can see what they cannot.
With his potent blend of earthy prose and magic realism, bestselling author Rudolfo Anaya excavates his country’s legends to tell a spellbinding story of myth and migration, love and loss. Heart of Atzlán is a hopeful and heartbreaking novel about people in search of the shimmering mirage of a better life—and the land that keeps calling them back.
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Heart of Aztlan
By Rudolfo Anaya
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 Rudolfo A. Anaya
All rights reserved.
Benjie carefully finished rolling his cigarette, then he leaned back and admired it. Lately he didn't have any money for drugstore cigarettes. He struck the match with his thumb nail and held it to the twisted end of the cigarette. He inhaled deeply. It tasted good. He opened his lips and ringlets of smoke floated lazily towards the ceiling of the outhouse. He couldn't remember the first cigarette he had smoked while sitting on the rough, wooden toilet seat, but he knew this would be his last.
Today they were leaving Guadalupe.
He closed his eyes and listened to the buzzing of the large, black fly that flew around his head. Life in the small town of Guadalupe was like the summer drone of the fly, he thought, it was monotonous; it never changed. He was glad they were leaving. He was fourteen, and already he felt he had done everything there was to do in Guadalupe: play pool at the Eight Ball, drink beer by the lake, fight at the Saturday night dances, and on the last day of school he had taken Consuelo beneath the bridge and scored his first piece. Some consolation, he reflected. She cried and said he had ruined her and now they would have to get married. It scared him. He had seen the other vatos go down the same path, which led to marriage, getting a job pumping gas at one of the stations, and watching your wife get fat year after year. He didn't want that. He wanted to be a part of the excitement and adventure he sensed in the letters his brother Roberto wrote from Albuquerque.
Life beyond the hills that surrounded Guadalupe had always intrigued him. Once they had left the water-enclosed city and traveled east to visit relatives in Tucumcari and he had treasured the strange sights he had seen there. The people were different, and their language and customs seemed different. And of course he had been to Las Vegas in the north, and to the old village of Las Pasturas in the south, the deserted pueblo whose crumbling adobe walls held so many of the memories of their past. But today they were breaking the confines of the hills and the river valley, and they were moving westward, out of the llano, past the mountains that were but a shadow in the horizon. Tonight they would be in Albuquerque, in a new time and in a new place.
He sang with joy.
"Benjamin!" He heard his mother call him.
Benjie leaned forward and peered through a crack in the weathered boards. He saw his brother Jason standing by the woodpile. He stood like a statue molded from the earth of the llano, silhouetted like a brown Indian against the blue turquoise sky.
... the sky was like a turtle, the old Indian had said, and the sun a white deer that raced it every day.
Jason's brown chest heaved and glistened with sweat. He was strong, quiet and a year older than Benjie. The women admired his handsomeness. His aunts and his mother's comrades and the women from the town who came to visit all commented on his handsome features; they said he would grow up to be a fine man. Sometimes Benjie felt jealous.
Ah! What the hell, Benjie thought, I'll show them who's the real man in the city. He turned his gaze up the road where a truck raised a cloud of dust. It was don José, the man who was coming to buy their land. In a few minutes their father would sign the paper and the Chávez ranchito at the edge of town would be no more. He took the last drag from his cigarette and dropped it down the hole. He flipped through the worn pages of the Sears Roebuck catalog and tore a few and crumpled them.
Goodbye Guadalupe, he smiled.
"Benjamín!" His mother called again. He walked out of the outhouse, zipping his pants. He looked up at the glaring, white sun. Damn, it was hot already!
"Mamá is calling," Jason said. Sometimes they spoke in Spanish, which was the language of their people, and sometimes they spoke in English, which was the tongue they adopted in school; and so they moved in and out of the reality which was the essence of each language.
"Yeah, I heard," Benjie answered. He walked to the woodpile and looked at the neat stack Jason had chopped. "Why did you waste your time chopping wood, Jason, you know we ain't ever going to use it—"
Jason shrugged. "Somebody will come along and use it," he answered. Benjie shook his head. It was one of those things Jason learned from the Indian, he thought. "Come on," Jason smiled at his perplexed brother, "I think mamá wants us to be with papá. It won't be easy for him to leave his land." He put on his shirt and together they walked around the side of the house where their father stood talking to don José.
"It's the best price I can give you for your ranchito, Clemente, I swear by God Almighty, it's the best offer I can make!" Don José trembled and wiped his sweating face.
"There is no justice in dealing in land," Clemente shook his head. "You offer me Judas money for my three acres, for a home I built from this very earth with my bare hands, for a well blasted a foot at a time out of the hard earth so that I might have water for the jardín and the animals—You offer me nothing, just enough to pay off my debts, then there is nothing left. When I sell my land I will be cast adrift, there will be no place left to return to, no home to come back to—" He felt the words choking in his throat. He turned and looked at his wife for support and she nodded for him to sign. She understood there was no turning back. He took the contract from don José. His soul and his heart were in the earth, and he knew that when he signed he would be cutting the strings of that attachment. It was like setting adrift on an unknown, uncharted ocean. He tried to understand the necessity of selling the land, to understand that the move would provide his children a new future in a new place, but that did not lessen the pain he felt as the roots of his soul pulled away and severed themselves from the earth which had nurtured his life.
He felt like cursing and crying out the pain he felt. ¡Hijo de la chingada, he cried inside, pero cómo me duele el corazón!
He looked at his sons and knew there would be nothing left to pass on to them. Without the land the relationship a man created with the earth would be lost, old customs and traditions would fall by the wayside, and they would be like wandering gypsies without a homeland where they might anchor their spirit. But he had to go because there was no work in Guadalupe, and because he had to be the leader in helping to create a new future for his familia. He was not the first to leave, many of his vecinos and compadres had already left to make a new life in the bigger cities of Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and many had gone as far west as California. The people were dispersed, but as they left each one secretly vowed to return to the sacred land of his birth and heritage.
La sagrada tierra ...
Clemente clenched his teeth and swore, "I will come back, someday—"
Don José chuckled. "They all say that, Clemente, but they don't return. I bought Baca's rancho by the river and he moved to Santa Fe and drank himself to death, I hear, and his sons became marijuanos and they're all in the pinta now. And I bought Luna's place and they say he moved his familia to California, but no one has heard from him since. It is as if the cities swallow them up. But I will tell you what really happens, Clemente. They find work in the cities, and if they are lucky they buy a home, and then they begin to change. Yes, they change and they forget the land," he scowled. "Oh, sure, they talk a lot about returning, but they never do, because they have forgotten. You will see, Clemente, you will forget too—"
"¡Desgraciado!" Clemente cursed. He snatched the pen and signed the contract. "There," he pushed the paper at don José, "it is done, but if you think the earth can be transferred on a piece of paper then you are crazy! It will abide long after this piece of paper is dust, and my love and memory of it will also survive. How can I forget," he shook his head and pointed south to the llano of Las Pasturas, "my parents are buried in this holy ground," he whispered.
"Dios los bendiga." He heard his wife's blessing.
He crossed his forehead and added softly, "And my brother Guillermo sleeps beneath the grass of the llano—murdered by that pinche tejano who couldn't keep his wife home! And," he whispered even more softly, "my son, my flesh and blood, rests in the campo santo at Las Pasturas—"
He could not talk anymore; he was afraid his voice would quiver.
"¡Adelita!" He called his wife and she stepped forward and signed.
"It is done," she said boldly.
Don José surveyed the signatures. "Clemente y Adelita Chávez," he read their names aloud. "Sí," he nodded, "it is done." He reached for a bottle under his soiled jacket, opened it and handed it to Clemente. He had bought and sold land for a long time, and he understood what the separation meant to a man like Clemente. They both took long drinks of the warm, red wine.
"Clemente," don José mumbled, "I wish you luck in Albuquerque. I meant no disrespect, hombre, I only spoke of what I have seen happen. The sons grow to be men, they forget the old ways—"
Clemente nodded. He understood what the old man said. It was that fear of losing the stability he had always known that had kept him from making the move many years before. He had seen the changes and troubles that befell those up-rooted people who had left the land of their birth, and it had made him afraid. But without a job the debts had mounted until there was no more credit, and as his family grew they became more and more insistent about trying life elsewhere.
"¡Adiós! ¡Buena suerte!" Don José called, and his old truck rumbled away, back towards the town.
"It was necessary," Clemente shrugged. He squatted, picked up a handful of earth and let it sift through his fingers. "Somehow we began to lose the land a long time ago. The tejano came, the barbed wire came, the new laws came. A few survived, but death came and took so many of our family in such a short time—" He shook his head. "The three of us could have made it, Guillermo and Moisés and I, we could have made it, but after Guillermo was murdered it seemed that Moisés and I weren't strong enough to hold on—"
He felt his wife touch his shoulder. "You did not fail us, Clemente. It was Moisés who squandered away the ranch after el abuelo Chávez died. He drank and gambled away everything the Chávez family had worked for. We can be thankful that we still have our familia around us, Clemente. It is for them that we move, it is for them that we make the sacrifice."
She had witnessed the dissolution of the Chávez family after the grandfather Chávez died. Without his guiding hand to run the ranch, Moisés lost everything in less than a year's time, and Guillermo was tragically killed over a woman who was not worth one of his poems, or one of his enchanting smiles. So to save her familia Adelita had forced Clemente to salvage what little he could and move to Guadalupe where there was schooling available for her children. Now her daughters were grown, Juanita had just graduated from high school and Ana would finish in a year. They argued that opportunity and their future lay in the bigger city, and she agreed. She implored and finally convinced Clemente that the move was for the good of the family, and because a great deal of his faith rested in keeping his familia together he consented to pull up his roots and move.
"Sí, it is for the family," Clemente agreed. He stood and looked at the land and then he turned his gaze heavenward.
The sun hung like a gold medallion in the blue sky.
A cool breeze blew from the south and cooled his skin. Its soft caress evoked memories of the day he buried his son. He remembered every detail of that sorrowful day. He remembered the squeaking of the horse-drawn wagons that brought the mourners to the lonely grave in the llano, he remembered the faces of his vecinos and compadres as they lowered the casket into the grave, and he recalled the last rites of the priest. He remembered how the mourners parted, as it if were a part of a play well rehearsed, as he led the horse that had trampled and killed his oldest son to the edge of the grave. His compadre Campos had handed him the pistol. There was a flash of fire, then the loud report of the pistol echoing across the llano, like the sound of a tolling bell.
Campanas del llano ... ¡Gnítenme piedras su secreto!
The horse buckled and tumbled into the fresh grave, then his compadres helped him fill the grave and plant a small piñon tree over it.
Yes, the sun had been like that, like a gold medallion in the Indian-turquoise sky.
"Juanita and Ana are ready," Adelita murmured.
"They've been ready for hours," Benjie laughed. "They've been sitting in the truck since we finished packing—" He turned and walked towards the truck without a last goodbye.
Adelita stood by her husband and looked at the house. "It seems haunted already," she whispered. "People are the soul of a home, when they depart they leave behind an empty skeleton—"
"Every adobe, every nail, every board contains a memory," Clemente added.
"We will build a new home," she smiled and tried to be brave, "And with it will come a new future."
She understood her husband's apprehension. The money from the sale of their home would barely pay off the debts, then they would be alone and broke in a new city. Her family and old neighbors and relatives would be left behind. Their families had lived in this land for many generations, now they were tearing themselves away from it. It was not easy, but she had resolved to do it for her sons and daughters. She took courage from that.
"We can build a new home," Clemente nodded, "but can we take the spirit of the land with us?"
"¡Sí!" she answered forcefully. From the discarded pile of trash she picked up an empty coffee can and filled it with earth from her flower garden. "We will take it with us," she smiled and handed him the can. "Our land is everywhere," she said, "we will journey across the earth, but we will never leave our land—"
... centuries before, the brown hands of an Indian woman had scooped the earth of the heartland into a clay vessel, like the ashes that remain of the man are poured into the urn, and the people had carried that sacred urn as they wandered across the new land to complete their destiny. The earth was the new covenant between the people and their gods—
He took the can and smiled. He wished he could carry in this can, filled with his beloved earth, the spiritual connection he felt for the llano and the river valley. But just as he was sure the love for the land could not be transferred on a piece of paper, he knew he could not carry his attachment in the canful of simple, good earth. He was afraid of being separated from the rhythm of the heartbeat of the land.
He did not relish the journey, but he called out, "¡Vamos!" "Alabados sean los dulces nombres," Adelita blessed their journey, and the stain of dark earth marked the corners of the cross on her forehead and bosom.
"Jasón," Clemente turned to his son, "you also leave much behind. The old man—" He looked into his son's eyes and realized that he was not the only one who hurt at parting.
Jason nodded but did not speak.
"I am sorry," Clemente whispered and climbed into the truck.
"We're ready!" Ana cried excitedly.
Jason and Benjie climbed on top of the furniture in the back. They checked everything and called down, "¡Está bien! ¡Vamos!"
"Have we left anything behind?" Adlita was still worrying about the possessions through which she had sorted, wondering if she had made the right choice on what to take and what to leave behind.
"Not a darn thing," Juanita said and breathed a sigh of relief, "just a small town with no future in it—"
"Yeah," Ana agreed. Juanita was right. Juanita was eighteen, just graduated from high school, and she knew everything. She turned and whispered to her sister, "Only a few boyfriends—"
Excerpted from Heart of Aztlan by Rudolfo Anaya. Copyright © 1976 Rudolfo A. Anaya. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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