Your house is the last before the infinite, whoever you are.
It’s sometimes possibe to pay an affordable rent for the various little outbuildings that line the back yards of expensive adobe neighborhoods in El Paso and Las Cruces. Last year I lived for six months in half of an old carriage house in Las Cruces’ Historic District, across from the perfectly proportioned “Historic Pioneer Park”. I had only two small rooms, but there’s something about adobe that makes every space feel exactly the right size.
The Historic Neighborhood is overwhelmingly Anglo; in fact, I don’t think I met one Latino homeowner. New Mexico State University faculty line up (after tenure) to buy those houses, along with various other progressive-type transplants from both coasts. If they feel a disconnect between their vigorous presence and the quiet curves of those old earthen walls, today’s Anglo homeowners don’t reveal it.
In fact, their Neighborhood Society seems to regard itself without irony as the only body sufficiently appreciative of “our” (the city’s) heritage to be entrusted with the bulk of it – ie, the houses themselves. In these Anglo homeowner’s hands, “heritage” becomes conflated with ‘culture’ which is then reduced to little more than the preservation of their property values.
The primary focus of the neighborhood association’s civic duties appears to be keeping everyone else out of the park. It’s a logical and reasonable place for homeless people to hang out – and BTW, I’ve never witnessed a better-mannered emphasis on litter control than that practiced by this particular group of homeless people – as well as Latino teenagers from a nearby alternative school.
“The Problem” is both the first thing residents speak to a newcomer about, and the topic into which they natually fall within minutes of most encounters. After a few tense conversations about the meaning of the word “public”, I was no longer privy to the details of the master plan, which seemed premised on sleep deprivation – after forcing homeless people to leave the park at nightfall, the neighborhood association moved on to stage two, which prevented people from napping on the park’s hallowed ground during the day.
One day, shortly before I left Las Cruces’ Historic District for more modest accommodations, I heard the loud screech of a mircophone coming from the park. This was followed by what sounded like nothing less than a revolutionary speech – in Pioneer Park!
Wondering if I had finally been driven mad by the evening news, I went up my alley and crossed the street into the park.
A sea of brown faces appeared to be, well, cheering for the crowd of mostly Anglo homeless men, who, a beaming guy told me, had been invited to the park. Tables were piled high with sleeping bags, coats, mittens, hats, socks and knapsacks. Huge servings of enchiladas, refried beans, and melon slices were being handed out.
“You’re as worthy and good as any man! Don’t allow the sinners who profit from human suffering to touch your spirit,” a young priest said loudly into the mic. “There’s really only one way to love God – and that’s by living for one another. By serving one another.”
I should have known that the Latino churches would fight back. These are not your father’s Catholics, let me tell you.
As the priest went on to describe the circumstances under which land ownership becomes a sin, I felt a swell of pride for every Catholic who’s remained a stubborn thorn in the side of Rome. I chose a spot in the middle of the crowd and sat down, just one of many, not important, not unimportant. Just holding one another up.
I don’t know what happened after that, because I hit the road a few weeks later. I just know things are starting to look up a little in the Historic District – for everyone.
Before I left, I took some pics of my little adobe place.
It turns out that none of us belong in those houses. We can’t buy our way in, nor even rent a temporary right to be there – and the people who do belong there will never forget that they do.