Patricia Medina: “They’ve never been able to shut me up.” PHOTO / Claire O’Brien 2014

Comarada, entonces os he visto,  y mis ojos estan hasta ahora llenos de orgullo.

Comrade,  then I saw you – and my eyes are even now filled with pride.

Pablo Neruda


Almost ninety years ago, in 1924 or’25, a young girl left the Mexican border town of Agua Pieta, which sits on the northern edge of  Sonora facing Douglas, Arizona and walked a few miles into the United States.  Visibly pregnant, she travelled alone.  Otilla  Gallegos had just turned fourteen.

 She passed quickly through the small town, reaching a dusty highway as a bus appeared in the distance. Hours later, as evening began to fall over the southwestern mountains of New Mexico,  the bus pulled into Silver City, where Otilla joined two distant uncles. The men had found work at Arizona’s Santa Rita Mine, not far from the state line, and had agreed to provide several months of shelter until Otilla could get on her feet.

The two miners were actually Otilla’s second or third cousins ; thus, her family had been careful to make no claims on them.  The girl’s sudden adult status had been made very clear to her; still, it was not until Otilla climbed into her little mattress for her first night in America that she felt the full weight of complete and immediate responsibility

The large Gallegos family was essentially destitute; in fact barely surviving. Life was measured out in days, and days were calculated by small fistfuls of beans and corn.  Otilla  could see for herself that the two uncles, whom she barely knew, worked under terrible conditions to support their own desperate families back in Agua Pieta.

 Otilla understood all of this. Whatever she could not understand, she kept to herself.                                                                       .



Today, the  Mexican border city of Agua Pieta  has a population of 200,000, but the poverty is just as crushing as it was in 1925. The US deports busloads of people to the city daily, leaving them  stranded thousands of miles from their original homes in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama. But Agua Pieta is also an old city, with a population of many generations, and a center of massive 16th century Spanish colonial structures. The city was one of Pancho Villa’s loyal strongholds during the Mexican Revolution. A few miles from the 450 year old palaces and cathedrals, the modest ranch houses of the much, much younger small town of Douglas, Arizona can be seen on the other side of the border fence


This, then, was life, looking straight at  Ottilla Gallegos and telling her she had  no time to lose.  Early on the morning after her arrival, she went  looking  for a  job,  a slight, pretty fourteen-year old who couldn’t pass for  even fifteen, making her way along Silver City’s Main St preceded by her  protruding belly. It was 1924;  people looked at Otilla, and not kindly.

  She had a chance to cook and another to do laundry, so Otilla’s job choice surprised her uncles: she  hired on as part of a crew laying Silver City’s first concrete sidewalks.  People might have stared at her disapprovingly that first day, but  an obviously pregnant child performing heavy labor in public week after week was something else entirely.  They found themselves looking away, a fact of which Otilla took note. We know this because she made a point of telling the story, as I am telling it now, to each of her four children.

Otilla worked harder as her delivery date loomed ever closer –  until her boss and co-workers just couldn’t stand it,  begged  her to stop, and took up a collection to cover a week’s wages. Otilla took her money, went to her uncle’s apartment and got into bed.

Two days later, her daughter Lourdes was born.

Otilla’s children  passed this story down to their own children with the same care: in fact,  it’s one of the first things her  descendents will tell you about Otilla Gallegos. Like her, they have spent their lives laboring.


Main Street, Silver City, New Mexico / Suzanne Van Hulst

  “She passed the torch to our parents and they passed it to us. She worked harder than anyone  I have ever met, she gave her life away in labor to the Anglos, yet she was treated as if she were nothing – as if her labor belonged to them,” Patricia Medina told me as she whacked the dust out of a rug with an old broom last week. Medina is one of Gallegos’ many grandchildren, and is herself a grandmother. She recently lost her  home in Las Lunas after forty years of labor and moved to a  public housing project two hours south. At age  55, she is back at work as a housekeeper, unable to live on the disability payments she had thought would allow her to retire early.  But on the day I met her, Medina’s primary concern about the job was not its impact on her injured spine, knees and neck . Her hope was for more assigned work hours, leading to a full-time position. “I come from a long line of poor people,” Medina said. ” We expect to be called lazy, we expect people to point to us and say we haven’t made  progress in three or four generations like good Latinos should.  We never expect justice. But that doesn’t mean we accept injustice!  Oh no.  No, no. We fight the battles we have a chance of winning.  If not, we do what needs to be done.  That is how we remain free.” We were draping her heavy rug over a fence that seperates the housing project from a gravel pit, but Medina paused for a moment to peer at me. . ” Don’t ever, ever let anyone rob you of that, because when they can make you ashamed — that’s when they own you: when they can make you believe the lie that Latino families who don’t make it up the ladder are lazy and don’t work hard.”

She waved a hand in a gesture that managed to be both dismissive and polite.

” These Anglos don’t know what hard work is,” Medina said, and gave the rug a huge, final whack. She tosses the broom into the back of her  rattling grey van.

“Come with me to the Dollar Store, chica,” she said as she climbed in.

“¿Hacer enchiladas esta noche?” I asked hopefully,” Yo compre la avcado.”

“No enchiladas for you, gringa loco,” Medina said. “For you there will only be very, very hot chiles. And nothing at all to drink.”

“Ha, ha,” I said. “That gets funnier every time you say it. And your engine light is on again.”

Medina cursed as we peeled out of the Projects parking lot. Her son has been warning her that her van will die “any minute now Mom.” But she still drives like a maniac. silver-city-new-mexico-jack-pumphrey

Life in Silver City was not easy for Latino people. Almost all who flocked to work the mines of the mountain town  were of Mexican descent, but at least half of them had never been south of the Rio Grande.  Their roots were deep in  New Mexico.  As for Mexican nationals, they saw themselves in the same nation so many lives had been lost to free.

Anglos didn’t care about such distinctions, they just knew a Mexican when they saw one, and lumped everyone together. Juggling this surreal and frankly traumatic contradiction  was part of the price of dealing with Anglos.  Essentially,  Latinos were allowed to live and work in their own land because they were cheap labor – and they were reminded of that every day in countless ways.


   Each of  Ortilla’s children grew up fast and had  large families – Medina has 30 cousins – and all of them struggled. Her  uncles  worked in the mines, and 26 years after their mother had laid her first slab of concrete,  there was still no electricity or water in the shacks that were their homes. The mining company housing was intended to keep Latinos out of Silver City proper as much as possible, and they were segregated when they did make the short trip in.

White miners lived in  seperate housing  equipped with plumbing and electricity. They worked in separate crews doing the best jobs during the best hours, and received almost twice the pay of Latino miners. They were even provided a separate pay window so that they wouldn’t have to stand in line with Latino miners.

Something had to give. And it  did.

In 1953, the Latino miners of Silver City astonished both the mining industry and the labor movement by striking. Latino workers had long been viewed as too passive to pose a threat to the former nor to play a leading role in the latter.

Not only did they strike, but they won – and they did it during a period when most of the Left was, well,  hiding out.

Not only did they win, but they did that by relying upon Silver City’s Latino women. Another gripe the labor movement had with Latino workers was the hopelessly traditional gender roles from which they could never be budged.

Ha!. Yet another stereotype smashed.


Just  a few months after the miner’s victory in early 1954, a trio of filmmakers arrived in Silver City. They had been blacklisted by Hollywood’s shameless capitulation to the McCarthy Era’s communist witch hunts, but their supporters had secretly raised enough money to fund a modest budget – and they aimed to spend it on a film about the Empire Zinc Mine. The name of the film was The Salt of the Eartb.

It was the only film that has ever been banned by and from the United States . While it circled the globe winning one award after another, Americans remained generally unaware of it. Those who did learn about the film were remarkably uninterested, as the nation was absorbed with backyard bomb shelters, electrocuting Jewish spies, and hunting down the terrorist wave of  TV and  movie writers hiding out in Hollywood’s labyrinth of secret communist cells.




The Salt of the Earth made history in more ways than one. The miners wrote much of the script, rejected whatever they believed did not represent them, acted, and coordinated publicity efforts.

Only three professional actors were used. The leading lady was deported to Mexico before shooting was completed and the leading man was a Latino miner. The production crew was shot at, and government helicopters hovered over the set. The filmmakers finally had to make a run for it in the middle of the night.

The Salt of the Earth also became a proud part of the Gallegos-Medina family history. Two of  Otilla’s sons and a daughter acted in the film and worked on the script. And although Patricia Medina wasn’t born until 1959, she traces a direct line straight from her grandmother, uncles and aunt to a lettuce field in northern California in 1973 –  and a strong fourteen-year-old girl marching beside Cesar Chavez.




♦ How the strike was won

♦ How the film was made

Salt of the Earth


When Otille Gallegos was growing  up in Augua Pieta,  the city was defended by its greatest heroes :  Revolutionay  Mexican soldiers like those shown above, whose fiery courage and passion for freedom  brought down a major world power. Mexicans still sing  the songs written by their great-grandfathers  to  honor the women



I can’t remember how many times I’ve stood on a street corner in an American town, waiting for a parade.


The parades I go to have never marched in River City. They would have nowhere to put 76 trombones. They assemble along hundreds of Main Streets, far away from important places, throughout the constellation of small towns that dot America’s vast interior.  These are parades that march for their own communities, which very often feel invisible to the nation, and very often are.  But that’s not the defining story of these towns!  They know they’re not invisible.  Ha!  Far from it.


 Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Arkansas, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah… not only do towns in these regions have parades, they have a lot of parades. There is always the  Fourth of July, Homecoming, some kind of Fall Harvest, a Christmas Lights Parade, and various high school, county fair, Volunteer Fire Dept. and Chamber of Commerce  events.   Finally, add the word ‘Festval’  to any of the following:  Apple, Potato, Walnut, Soap Carving, Corn, Tomato, Soybean, Cigar Box, Wheat, Pumpkin, Pickle, Fishing, Cheese,  Green Chile,   Pork , Crochet, Cake, Sunflower, Dairy, Squash, Bingo, Radish, Pie and  Tractor.  ETC.


People show up early. Waiting is part of these parades. The marchers won’t make a move until the crowd has been in place for long enough to make the first drum roll count.  As well, at least one member of every family in the crowd is in the parade, and at least one other has something to open, hitch up, block off, screw in, attach, tighten, loosen or drop off. Everyone else goes off to get a good seat, even though you can usually get a good seat if you show up late. It’s considered impolite to point this out by showing up late.


But in a few small towns (that I know of), Grade A seats are snapped up so quickly that they must be essentialy reserved. In Murphysboro, Illinois, people leave chairs on the sidewalk the night before. They don’t mark them in any way, since you’re expected to know whether or not a chair is yours. I’ve seen peope remain standing next to an empty chair for the duration of a Murphysboro parade – even when the last float is in sight and the heat index is 102: it’s not their chair.

 Forgotten chairs, many of them quite nice, line Walnut St. in ever-dwindling numbers for three or four days before the last of them are retrieved. I’m  not the only person who  amused myself by waving graciously at the chairs as I drove by.


I watched these parades long before any editor assigned me to cover them. I was a stranger to these small places, but something about the huge landscape and their place within it made more sense to me than either the coast I grew up on (East) or the other one.

I should have felt lost as I drove west across the Oklahoma Panhandle for the first time, nearly fourteen years ago. I  on my way to Las Cruces, New Mexico and my first job on a ‘big’ newspaper. I drove for hours without coming to a town. But I didn’t feel lonely. Not at all. I drove into numerous tiny towns, each with a huge grain elevator looming over a deserted main street, and in each one, I found that people want to tell a stranger a story.


However, you’re not going to find a parade in a town that small. But you will discover that it sends a contingent to the parades of a larger town, perhaps an hour away. And by the time you reach the end of the Panhandle, you’ll realize that everyone in every town knows everyone in every other town along the 180 mile strip.

These kinds of American parades are like that strip for me. One could say that the parades know one another. When I first began driving around this huge interior, they formed a kind of connective tissue of familiarity that became my map. Whether I was wondering if anyone still lived in North Dakota, crossing the high plains of Kansas, or driving the endless expanse of west Texas, I’ve never felt lost following that map.  It turned out to be the road home.


uraguay dictator 308

uraguay dictator 259

KJ8J0456I think I hear the parade coming. Tune in soon for the huge inflatable dollar bill.


All photos except number five (row of chairs) by Claire O’Brien 2010

Row of Chairs / Google Images



                                                                       UntitledThese are the faces I see when I think of Iraq. And when I think of a nuclear attack on that ancient place that was once Mesoptamia, then Persia, then part of the Ottoman Empire (which welcomed the  Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition) I think of these faces, twisted in agony as they imagine their families being evaporated, or turned into virtual charcoal to die an agonizing death.
These men represent a very small community of Iraqis who blew a little breeze of joy into my days when I wrote for the Journal-Standard. I lived a block away from their little store, so I saw them every morning (coffee) and every night (whatever). They were interested, kind, generous, earnest, and full of news to share.  They believed in being cheerful, and in fact did seem to find something humorous in every situation – the word that comes to mind is ‘merry’.
After the newspaper’s higher-ups (not my great editor) killed follow-up coverage of the Iraqis, I was free to hang out and talk with them on a level more personal than a continued professional relationship would have permitted. Nevertheless, we all maintained a restraint that stopped short of friendship: I wanted the option of writing about them to remain open, should it become a possibility. And they, of course, had numerous reasons to limit anything they said to an American – or any other – reporter.
That left us plenty of room. They were genuinely emotionally expressive – all of them – and in a manner that clearly showed this to be cultural. The men would reminisce about their mothers and cry freely; they also  spoke unself-consciously of broken hearts, that is, “hearts broken by grief’. Since I come from a family that rejects broken hearts as strategic hyperbole, I recognized a rare opportunity to tell a broken heart story of my own.
They listened respectfully, nodded soberly, and reiterated that a broken heart is an unbearable experience.
The Iraqi men of Freeport immediately recognized the racism directed against the African-Americans who comprised the neighborhood,  and were quick to express their allegiance. They didn’t win the good will of the Black community overnight. They persevered.
Years later, when I arrived and asked to hear that story, the Iraqis told me, over and over, how much people need to feel respected. THIS is something the Iraqii people – and all Arabic, Mideastern peoples – evidently don’t have to be taught.
Could it be that there are some clues here? I wonder what there is about being:
A)   Black in southside Chicago,
B) Arabic in the Mid East
that drives people
C) right over the cliff  –
When the same two factors of:
are introduced



                             FROM  URUGUAY : A POET REPORTS

                                       ~ Celebration of Fantasy  ~
It happened at the entrance to the town of Ollantaytambo, near Cuzco.  I had detached myself from a  group of tourists and was standing alone looking at the stone ruins in the   distance when a small boy from the neighborhood, skinny and ragged, came over to ask if I would give him a pen. I couldn’t give him my pen, because I was using it to write down all sorts of boring notes, but I offered to draw a little pig for him on his hand.
Suddenly the word got around. I was surrounded by a throng of little boys demanding at the top of their  lungs that I draw animals on their little hands cracked by dirt and cold, their skin of burnt leather: one wanted a condor and one wanted a snake,  others preferred little parrots or owls, and some asked for a ghost or a dragon.
Then, in the middle of this racket,  a little waif who barely cleared a yard off the ground showed me a watch drawn in black ink on his wrist.
       “An uncle of mine who lives in Lima sent it to me,” he said.
                              “And does it keep good time?” I asked him.
                              “It’s a bit  slow,” he admitted.
                                ~~ Eduardo Galeano ~~
                                            BIENVENIDO. PASA. ENTRAR.
                                            WELCOME. COME IN. ENTER.
                                          ~~  EDUARDO  GALEANO ~~
                                           Thank-you, Paul Seimmering



A long afternoon with folding chairs.


There are a lot of alleys in my town. Not streets, not sidewalks, not driveways, just…places you go down to get to where people are.  Oye, no parking there!


Every sunset is one you swear you’ll remember … but you don’t.


I will tell you this kid’s story, but can’t identify her. Like a ton of kids here (and across America), her mom is a meth addict. So, ‘Maria’ raised herself, basically, until around 7th or 8th grade, when her aunt and uncle moved her in with them.

“A lot of people in town kind of looked out for me. I was good in school and I dreamed of doing computer animation,”Maria told me. “When I graduated, some local businesses gave me a partial scholarship to a private art college in Pheonix. I got financial aid and a big loan.”

She paused with real pride when she mentioned the scholarship.

                          “I guess they thought I’d do okay in life,” Maria said finally.

She remembers that year as if it were spent in heaven.

“I loved it all -everything about it. I was good at everything they taught us,”she said, as she rang up my burrito one evening. We were alone in the store. “But the tuition was so high, and the next year they said I wasn’t eligible for financial aid.There was no way I could pay all that, so I had to drop out – and right away they wanted the loan payments. I don’t think I’d figured it all out. I was just a kid.”

That’s right. And she still is just a kid.


Maria earns $800 a month. She gives the bank $400. I practically stood on my head for two weeks, trying to persuade her that the bank CAN’T take HALF her pay check. She just won’t listen. The fact is, she knows a lot of people with more credibility than I have.

“I’d rather pay it back as soon as I can,” she said. “I’m young. I make things work.”

She does that, and very gracefully too. Maria lives alone with her dog (“and that’s how I like it!”) in a relative’s RV, paying mainly utilities, which are considerable: anyone who’s lived in a small RV during a desert summer can tell you that. As for right now, it’s about 37  degrees  here – pretty nippy.

Maria’s never been able to take her dog to the vet, so she figures out how to keep “Romero” healthy on her own.

“He broke a bone in his paw, so I made a splint with Popsicle sticks, cotton bandages, and duct tape,” she recalled once.  “I gave him half an aspirin three times a day. The swelling went down and in a couple of weeks, Romero was running around like always.”

I really admire that.



“I can cook. I mean, I really can. People drop stuff off. My manager gives me food to take home,” she told me. “I know how to do stuff – sew, take care of my clothes and furniture, fix stuff that breaks. People give me rides. If they don’t, I walk. If I can’t walk, I don’t go.”

Maria hasn’t been outside the town limits for three years. She’s 24 years old. “I like peace. I like knowing what I’ll be doing every day. I’m not interested in adventures”, she said a bit testily, after I pretended to pass out (fall to the floor) at the news. I offered to drive her anywhere in New Mexico or…Arizona, maybe? – she wanted to visit.

Maria gave me a fishy look and told me she’d figure out a way to get to wherever she wanted to go.

“Anyway, the thing is, this is my town. Everyone here knows me…” she trailed off, having made her crucial point. Her mother may be in jail, but everyone DOES know Maria. Some of their mothers are in jail, too as a matter of fact. Every night, one of the sheriff’s deputies shows up and waits outside to be sure Maria is safe while she closes up. Then, he or she helps her feed the explicitly illegal colony of feral cats that lives in the neighboring junk-yard.

Then, John Law drives Maria home. If not, hey, she can walk it herself, you know.


One of Maria’s comic strips is taped high on the wall, perpendicular to the clock.It’s funny and cool.

I’m certain you’ll see it some day.



Realmente no es mi pueblo,  y no es tan poco.

It isn’t really my town and, by New Mexico standards, it isn’t really little.

DSCF0112 (1280x948) (2)


 7,500 people live here, but since there are towns of four, six and even just two or three hundred and less in this region, it isn’t as small as it would be in other parts of America. It is also the county seat, which makes it even bigger, but the presence of Las Cruces an hour south, and El Paso/Juarez 30 minutes beyond it, prevents “my” town from getting too big for its britches. Okay, it’s a little big for it’s britches, but that’s good because it’s poor.




Old, small mountains surround the town, covered with tough desert vegetation. The huge sky and the particular quality of the light make the barren mountains seem softer. They aren’t really barren; in fact, they are brimming with life, but they are tough. One doesn’t just go a-wandering up there – desert mountains are nothing at all like the lush mountains of the east nor the practically tropical Ozarks. What grows here is incredibly important – it holds down the loose sandy soil, and deer, rabbits, lizards, snakes, and feral hogs eat it. Coyote and mountain lions eat them.


I’m perched here indefinetely, having made the town the center of a sort of rectangle I want to tell a story about: from Juarez to Santa Fe, and from the western third of the Oklahoma panhandle as far west as – I haven’t decided.  So far, I’ve only crossed the southwestern New Mexico mountains.043

When I first came to the town, I thought most of the people were Anglo, but 80 percent of them identify as Hispanic. They are Spanish-Americans, descended from the Spanish colonists who trailed after the Conquistadores. There is a certain element of racism in this identity, but it has been significantly eroded by the broader racism of American culture, which lumps everyone named Gonzalez, Garcia, Montoya, Hernandez together and thinks that Madrid is somewhere in southern Mexico.


 Other people in ‘my’ town are Latinos, descended from both the Spanish colonists and the Native peoples of  Mexico and New Mexico. A significant percentage of the latter claim a sole Apache identity, although almost everyone here speaks Spanish.

The land in the county is either public, or it is owned by descendents of colonists – Yankee or Spanish -who grow huge crops of chile, quite a few walnuts, and produce much of the hay needed by the cattle.  It’s hard to imagine how anyone came up with the idea of  raising cattle for beef here, because the cattle must be fed year round. In between rounds of hay, the cows destroy the land, mournfully grazing it into dust – because grazing animals must graze.

Desert Highway stop 1 JPG


    Most of the rest of the town, ie, the non-landholders, are poor. The city workers earn about a dollar above minimum wage, and it seems as if everyone is on food stamps. There are an amazing five housing projects – that’s a lot of projects for a community of 7500. The case worker assigned to one of them told me that although he works another job, his family of four children is still eligible for food stamps.



The dense political life of the community is complicated and outrageous enough to satisfy any reporter who has covered Chicago politics. People have little patience with those who preach about corruption. As an Irishman from Boston, I’m right at home with this kind of political machine. From a working class perspective, it’s the kind of corruption viewed as equity.


Hay Farm 2012-07-10 009 (1024x676) (1024x676)

I don’t know what kind of story I am going to tell. I’m just learning the contours of the land and trying to pay attention to everything around me. There’s a story in every shift of the desert light: you just have to pick one.


Brick by brick: A military fort built by former slaves along the Camino Real



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.



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.”