As soon as I learned of a town that had responded to reports of higher radiation levels in its drinking water by re-naming itself Radium Springs, I knew it was somewhere in southern New Mexico. Anything to do with atomic bombs, rockets, spaceships, aliens, or prefaced by the word ‘nuclear’ has a special, if oddly juxtaposed, place in this region’s heart. That it’s a place big enough to share makes it remakable, given the contradictions of loss that shape all movement with unbearable frequency – yet at some level, rockets and outer space resonate with perfect sense to a broad cross section of, well, everybody.
“Sure, we drink the water, ” a handsome young man named Emilio told me proudly.”It’s not a lot of radiation – just enough to make things interesting.”
Hmm. I heard something like that over at the Spaceport the other day.
Emilio was part of a small work crew doing something mechanical to a pipe on the edge of town, just past the entrance ramp when I pulled in off Hwy. 25 about a week ago. He assured me that there was a lot more than a historic placque marking the site of a 19th century military fort.
“Oh, there’s real ruins,” he said, pointing. “Right over there.”
Radium Springs is a tiny cluster of neat mobile homes, prefabricated buildings, and a new community center with gleaming aluminum siding, of which the town is justly proud. And right…over there, a haunting peice of the past looms against the desert sky framed by small barren mountains: Fort Selden. Built in 1865 by US Colored Regiments the year the Civil War ended, constructed of adobe with the assistance of about one hundred Latino and Native peoples drafted and recruited to teach the soldiers by the US Army.
The Buffalo Soldiers . Several Apache peoples. The U.S. Calvary. Descendents of both the Spanish conquerers and of the conquered. Jarring Yankee entrepeneurs. And the adobe walls around which this complex web of relationships center.
I wasn’t prepared for how real it was. Let me tell you – they’re all still there.
And they’ve all got one eye on the sky.
LEAVE IT TO AN IRISHMAN
A smart, scrappy working-class girl from a family of Irish-American storytellers became one of the world’s leading scholars during the 1990s. Patricia Limerick pointed out that conquering a crowded region does not produce a simple victory. Quite the contrary: the legacy of conquest is one huge headache after another for the victors. It means endless resistence from the conquered and other losers, and eternal vigilance of unrecognized borders. It’s a legacy that requires increasingly strident, exclusive, and distorted myths about national identity.
Further, conquering land never able to sustain agriculture and ranching means destroying it, as does damnning rivers to create lakes in a desert. It turns large landholders into what Limerick’s working-class eye spotted as “the nation’s largest welfare clients”
“The West is where America’s chickens came home to roost,” she wrote. “Now, all of these issues are back on the streets – and they’re looking for trouble.”