Yes, We Have Art

Atlas Obscura

There’s an odd “library” plopped in the desert of New Mexico.  Inspired by American artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s site-specific work from 1973 “Fake Estates,” it was meant to poke fun at those businesses and individuals who were at the time buying up acres of land on Mars for their own utopian desert plots.

The strange sight is the work of Cabinet, a New York-based magazine of art and culture that was founded in 2000. In 2003 the nonprofit announced it had acquired a plot of land in Luna County. The magazine dubbed the turf, over 2,000 miles from its offices in Brooklyn, “Cabinetlandia.”

The library was added in 2004. Essentially, it’s a file cabinet cemented into a concrete arch on the rectangular bit of land. According to its creator, Matthew Passmore, the idea was to “make it look like the cabinet grew naturally out of the landscape; as if, in Cabinetlandia, cabinets are naturally occurring elements of the ecosystem.”

About a year after christening the land with the Cabinet mailbox, Passmore borrowed a minivan and drove the supplies out to build what is lovingly called the Cabinet National Library. He stocked the top drawer with a library card catalog, a guestbook, a pillow to sit on while you read, and an umbrella to shade you. The middle drawer contains the first 13 issues of Cabinet, and the bottom drawer, as he left it, contained warm beer, water, and size-10 men’s boots (for avoiding rattlesnakes, apparently).

In 2005 when Passmore went to fix the damage from heavy rains, he added the graveyard, a spiral stone formation, and, for good measure, arranged a toilet shape out the same stones for a “biodegradable water closet.”

Cabinetlandia has drawn more visitors than the folks at Cabinet initially expected.


Know Before You Go

Cabinetlandia is located 10 miles east of the town of Deming in Luna County, New Mexico, off Interstate 10 heading east.

 Why God Made Spanish. 

 Spanish Comes Just in Time.


Las Cruces, New Mexico at nightfall. The city is larger than it appears from this distance, with a population of about 125, 000.


Once upon a time, about two and a half months ago, l was stuck in a motel in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where my car had died:  suddenly, without warning, and in the middle of a six lane highway .. wait –

during rush hour. When else?

The cost of the tow truck, a new alternator and the motel bill had left me with exactly $4.26 to my name. Sounds about right. I mean, what’s my point here?

Let’s see..twenty minutes before my car came to a dead stop, I’d been lying in a hospital bed a few blocks away, expecting surgery and rehab for which I’d been waiting three and a half years. I’d prayed only that it wasn’t too late:  that is, I’d certainly been able to walk three and a half years earlier. Had New Mexico’s public health system included actual medical treatment, I’d have been walking long ago.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was told there would be another delay, but I was. By now, though, I’ve learned that filing complaints, calling Santa Fe, appealing to state social workers and otherwise pitching a fit are stupid things to do if you are poor in New Mexico. So two nice medics wheeled me out to the hospital parking lot, sort of shoved me into my car, tossed my walker in the back seat and waved as I pulled into rush hour traffic. Hopefully, there’d be someone around to shove me back out of the car when I got home. A few blocks later, my car suddenly slowed down….

And that’s where you came in.


 Five years ago, I stood alone against Vampires Are Us Media Group, aka GateHouse Media and its neoliberal lawyer and/or journalist pals.

At stake was the life of a Mexican-American father who was being framed for murder after he had acted to defend himself from a white supremacist attack .1

During and after the case, I was attacked by a relentless barrage of  lies, threats, retaliation, libel, and textbook defamation. 2

It turns out that the idea of a reporter’s faith in the truth is actually a huge media joke.

Everything that made up my life was smashed and broken in order to destroy my credibility.

After they broke my heart, they broke my back.


No, I didn’t stay in this motel with the cool sign / Google Images

Meanwhile, Business Begins in the Motel Lobby

In spite of the increasingly surreal quality of my world, I nevertheless maintained a dim sense that life went on. For example, I awoke the next day from motel dreams of swerving traffic and began lurching down the hall toward the free breakfast. A sharp flash of pain immediately reminded me that I’d left my walker on the passenger seat of my old Crown Victoria, which had been towed away.  The pain  remarked, in the overly familiar tone of a permanent guest, that the motel hallway had certainly grown longer overnight.  I ignored it hatefully and leaned heavily into the wallpaper, sliding almost horizontally toward the distant lobby.


The breakfast area was a sea of Anglos:  half of them were attending business meetings, and the rest were families on vacation. I looked around for something to help me through the line and as I grabbed a large luggage rack on wheels, I was pierced with longing: a memory of gliding swiftly through  crowds, able to estimate their size,  take photos, grab phone quotes and spot the outside auditors arrive without missing a beat.

DSCF0425 (1)


Then I moved my back the wrong way and cried out as a flash of electricity instantly knocked  me over – I mean way, way over. I was bent completely in half and I couldn’t move.  Everyone just sat and pretended they weren’t looking at me. I looked at the floor because it was all I could see.

“I’ll get to her as soon as I can,” a motel employee said impatiently (and to someone else!) from behind me. Instantly I was resolved not to ask for help.



However, I knew that I would soon fall to the floor, so I rapidly ran through my options. I was fairly sure that if I cried in front of this large group of strangers, I would hurl myself in front of the first rapidly approaching cement truck I could find.
I heard what sounded almost  like a sort of scuffle, and twisted my neck as far as I could.  A man rapidly approached, elbowing  people aside so that he could place a chair under me and – very slowly – help me to sit down.  With the authority of a single gesture, he signaled a passing businessman  to assist him in lifting the chair into an adjourning lounge and getting me onto a couch, Once lying on my side,  the pain soon subsided.



Just shoot me! Oh, never mind, I’ll jump in front of this cement truck.


The man’s name was Ruben, and he was evidently pissed off at the entire breakfast crowd.

(Hey, me too hermano! Over here! I am pissed off too – at everyone. !Mira – aqui!)

?”Usted hablan Espanol?” I asked Ruben. English was not working out for us.

“Si, si!”  he replied enthusiastically and I arranged my brain in preparation.  At least ten or twelve minutes later, however I realized that my brain had bypassed the prep zone and gone, unsupervised, straight to Spanish.


This blew my mind. I’d been speaking Spanish freely and effectively without thinking about it!

Let me tell you, it was like a visit from magic! I shall never forget it. My brain had inexplicably changed in significant, even profound ways, and my world had suddenly become much bigger. Infinitely bigger than if I had suddenly been able to get up and run.




Ruben and I didn’t have a complicated conversation, but it was, by every measure the best kind of conversation because it connected us. He was a Mexican national who had recently taken his time exploring North America’s west coast from Vancouver to San Diego. He said he had seen Mexicans everywhere he went. I told Ruben that I have been studying Pancho Villa and E. Zapata. Some of Villa’s generals were actually Americans – these were by far the most moronic scoundrels in the conflict. ( No, I didn’t say “by far the most moronic scoundrels” in Spanish.)

Villa himself, of course, had the heart of a lion.







When I mentioned the EZLN and “Commandante Marcos”, Ruben gave me a huge smile and a small victory sign. I told him that for 15 years my life’s biggest dream has been to join the Zapatista struggle in some way. Ruben said they are a role model for every resistence struggle in the world. He thought the right-wing coup in Brazil should be a global priority right now, because it represents a huge threat to all of Latin America. Looming right behind that is, of course,  the relentless aggression of the United States.


Zapatista Youth and Women in La Realidad


Hugo Chavez


We ended by vowing that Hugo Chavez will live forever and  the Bolivarian Movement will triumph. The very last thing I told Ruben was that although I was born in New York City, Mexico is the country of my heart. Ruben didn’t roll his eyes. (Thank-you, lord ) Instead he called me a sister of Mexico before disappearing around the corner.


Southern New Mexico Desert / CLAIRE O’BRIEN 2014



That afternoon, I drove north through the bright desert. To the west, eight or ten coyote loped  along at easy pace, out well before sunset and close to the flatland farms they know to be dangerous. They were looking for water.

What I knew had been lost to me:  I didn’t believe it anymore. But Spanish had returned it to me that morning  (or at least pointed the way) because Spanish holds memory forever. It infuses the past into the present until collective memory crackles in the air. As itself a living thing, Spanish recognizes you.

You have to know the way / Claire O'Brien 2012

Claire O’Brien 2012


I was more than halfway home. Although the day remained shining yellow and blue, the earliest signs of  evening had  begun to appear in the western sky – so subtle as to be nearly invisible. By now, Ruben was zipping through West Texas,  heading southeast to San Antonio, where he planned to cross the border at Laredo Nuevo

If only one comrade can hear you, all  can hear you.

Some families are lost to their daughters forever, and some are not. Somewhere, the people are waiting intently for snow.

The last and smallest of the yellow flowers are blooming now in the New Mexico desert,

Still, even in loneliness, no heart beats alone.



Sleeping Indian, Caballo Mountains, Sierra County


!JaJaJaJaJa! (Ha, ha, ha!)   That is the sound of my remembered laughter. No matter what anyone says, it is also the sound of Sandinistas laughing from far away.





Was it magic? Well, my Spanish adventure hasn’t happened again – not like that, not that way.  For the most part, except for the common exchanges of daily life, and a political vocabulary known to all, my road to Spanish  remains a careful and deliberate, albeit always generous one.

But hey! Don’t you know that God sends Spanish just in time?





These are meant for readers interested in further clarification, and supplement the numbered statements above.  

111. Media and popular support for my refusal to identify a confidential source evaporated in the face of my conviction for contempt of court. Without my knowledge, First Amendment stars such as Harvey Silverglate and Lucy Dalglish joined corporate media lawyers in a behind-the-scenes effort to force my testimony. This is in and of itself a basis for disbarring all attorney on both sides.

2 Worse, the coverup was itself a series of flagrant federal civil rights law violations that propelled  already alarming evidence of entrenched press/corporate corruption into a much more chilling sphere.  It revealed that non-profit public policy giants such as the ACLU have a real disregard for both the First Amendment and sections of federal civil rights law. It’s a disregard as genuine as that displayed by the most recalcitrant corporate offenders.



Bercian’s Rooster Flew

  •   F   R   E   D   E   R   I   C   O


Continued in English just below

Hey Bercian! ¿Estás en tu casa? ¿Hola? It’s Clara. Sólo vine a darle un regalo espléndido: un grande gallo llamado Frederico. Me siguió hasta aquí desde Nuevo México.

Mi abuela y yo estábamos de gira con una banda llamado América Turístico, pero fue despedido por tratar de iniciar una revuelta en Cleveland. Además, somos demasiado perezosos para mover equipo pesado.
Este país es una mierda.

¡Oh no, Frederico ha volado! Ahora que lo pienso, dónde está mi abuela? No estés triste, Bercian. Un pollo guapo y noble como Frederico  es amado de de su rebaño. Debería haber sabido iba a regresar a ellos.
Te voy a enviar otro espléndido regalo – un pájaro carpintero gigante desde el Río Grande! De acuerdo a mi abuela, ellos aman para nadar!




Aviary Photo_130727293460175594

                               American Tourist, Rust Bowl Tour 2016 / O’Brien

P  A  R  A  P  H   R   A   S  E

 I surprise the good artist, writer, and blogger Bercian Langan with the splendid gift of a large, handsome rooster named Frederico, who has followed me all the way from New Mexico. I pass on the news that my grandmother and I have just been kicked off the Rust Belt Tour of the Country/Hip-Hop band, American Tourist. We had proven ourselves useless as roadies because of our strong opposition to moving heavy objects. Also, someone had ratted Grandma out for attempting to incite the Cleveland audience to riot.


“This country is turning to shit,” I tell Bercian.

It suddenly becomes clear that Frederico the Rooster has flown away.  Come to think of it, where’s Grandma?

“Don’t be sad,” I tell Bercian, “A chicken  as handsome and noble as Frederico is beloved by his flock. I should have known he would return to them.”

Before I leave, I promise Bercian another splendid gift.

“I’ll send you a Giant Woodpecker from the banks of the Rio Grande,” I say grandly.

Maybe I shouldn’t have added that Giant Rio Grande Woodpeckers can swim. At least, that’s what my grandmother told me…


T  H  E   ~  E  N  D






Neutrina Detector , Los Alamos, 1999

Feds dock Los Alamos lab in performance review


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The contractor that runs one of the nation’s premier national laboratories has lost out on tens of millions of dollars from the federal government because of what officials call a serious performance failure.

The National Nuclear Security Administration finished its annual evaluation of Los Alamos National Laboratory earlier this month and the overall results aren’t positive. The fee earned by Los Alamos National Security LLC for the 2014 fiscal year was slashed to $6.25 million, a fraction of the $63.4 million the contractor could have earned, according to documents made public Monday.

The NNSA singled out a mishap in February at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico. That’s where a container packed with radioactive waste from Los Alamos ruptured and forced the plant’s indefinite closure.

Lab Director Charlie McMillan acknowledged the weight that the WIPP mishap had on the evaluation in a memo sent Monday to employees. He said the severity of the event resulted in an unsatisfactory rating when it came to the lab’s operations and infrastructure.

“Although this was a very tough year for the laboratory, I am optimistic that next year will be better. I am determined to do all that I can to make it so,” he told employees.

McMillan also used the memo to highlight some of the successes at the lab over the past year, including being chosen to develop a remote sensor for the Mars 2020 mission and collaborating on a project aimed at characterizing the damage at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

However, the mishap at WIPP has spurred more criticism than praise for managers at the nuclear repository and at Los Alamos.

A group of watchdogs in early December called on U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to slash the fees awarded to Los Alamos, saying its contractual performance was “seriously substandard.” The watchdogs also pointed out that the lab had missed state-imposed deadlines for cleaning up Cold War-era waste on its northern New Mexico campus.



New Mexico officials have already levied $36.6 million in penalties for permit violations at Los Alamos that stemmed from the radiation leak at WIPP. The state has accused the lab of mixing incompatible waste, treating hazardous waste without a permit and failing to notify regulators about changes in the way waste was being handled.

The state’s investigation is ongoing and more penalties are possible.

The Energy Department has yet to complete its investigation into what caused the container to leak, but officials suspect a chemical reaction in highly acidic waste that was packed with organic cat litter to absorb moisture.

According to the state, experts had notified the lab to stop using organic materials as early as 2012 because of the possible dangers of mixing them with nitrate salts.

The DOE has estimated it could take years and more than a half-billion dollars to get the nuclear repository operating again.



Main Gate, 1944



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


Two Childhoods and the Great Depression: “Hunger doesn’t Build Character.”

 Janet Smith and Don Kirby / Claire O’Brien 2013
 The last Americans who were caught where the Great Depression met the Dust Bowl will be gone in another decade or so,  taking their singular and historic childhoods with them. The memories of children always have a distinctive and revealing slant, and draw me like a magnet. So I felt lucky when two old friends invited a stranger to pull up a chair as they settled in to compare Depression experiences at the plucky Sierra County Senior Center in southern New Mexico.
Tuning out the instructive voice of a Tai Chi teacher and the routine clack of a swift game of 9-Ball,  Don Kirby and Janet Smith quickly zeroed in on the kinds of shared memories that take root in human bone, such as prolonged periods of hunger over several years,  and the shock of discovering adult powerlessness. But they eventually agreed that the Depression had done no real damage to Kirby, while impacting Smith’s life in long-term, often profound ways. What made all the difference, the two told me, was the small Kirby family’s ability to squeak by and remain together – an impossibility for the very large extended Smith family, crowded together on the same land. Here are both the story, and the stories: at least the way I heard them.
Vega, Texas

Don Kirby was born into a world of blowing dust. His father grew dryland wheat in the Texas panhandle, near the little town of Vega, where Kirby and the Depression arrived together in 1930.

He remembers dreaming of fields of wheat when he was four years old. Kirby had never seen a field of wheat – or of anything else – but he knew what everything in the world revolved around. Like the other young children of the Dust Bowl, Kirby understood the life-and-death stakes for those who had gambled everything to remain behind on farms half buried in dust.
 Either they would outlast the dust and bring the land to life again – or the dust would outlast them.
 So the region held its breath while dust piled into drifts three and four feet high, surrounding the Kirby farm and waiting for the next high wind to send it on its way.
“I remember one of the worst dust storms we ever had, just as easy as I remember yesterday,” said Kirby,” I mean it’s that clear in my mind.  I was  nine years old and I was outside playing.  I heard my mother shouting and shrieking,”Get in the house! Get in the house!”
Kirby looked at the horizon once, and ran.
“It was the the most gigantic dust cloud you can imagine, too huge to describe – like it couldn’t even be from earth”, he said. “It looked like the whole universe was attacking us. And it was headed straight for us.  My mother yelled for us kids to get into her bed, then she covered us from head to toe with a pile of  blankets, taking particular care to block our eyes, noses, and ears.”
Kirby added that during the storm, the entire house was so packed with dust that it was impossible to see his hand in front of his face.
‘You were blind. You couldn’t see anything,” he said. “After the storm had  passed, my parents spent hours and hours taking buckets of dirt out of the house.”
ΔΔΘ _______________________________________ ΘΔΔ
Dust Bowl Tourism
With no way to raise a crop, Kirby’s father took every kind of job he could  get, hiring himself out to anyone who would pay a dollar or two. His focus was  solely on feeding his family, but in spite of his efforts, his children were  often hungry.
“Of course I remember. You don’t ever forget hunger, not ever,” said Kirby. “When I was about six, my mother asked me what I planned on doing when I grew up. ‘I’m  going to eat,’ I told her, ‘When I grow up, I’m just going to sit and eat.’
However, Kirby was always aware that his parents did the very best they could to  provide food.
“No matter how young I was, I knew how hard my father was trying – of  course I did,” he said. “So I understood that I was going to be hungry, and there was nothing more to be done. Mama would put a tablespoon of sugar in tall glasses of water, as cold as she could get it, and tell us to drink up fast to fool our stomachs. It worked, too – for a bit of a while anyway. So the trick was to hop into bed and get to sleep before it wore off.”
Kirby paused briefly.
“I hated seeing Mama and Daddy feeling so bad about it,” he said. “Sometimes I’d tell them a story, maybe how my teacher had given the class a  government sandwich, or one of the Amirillo churches had sent up cold boiled potatoes to the school. I’m not sure if they believed me, but they always made out like they did – you see, they didn’t want me feeling bad neither.”
But Kirby also recalled his father’s triumphant returns, carrying as much as a bushels of potatos, or food he’d exchanged for long days of labor: beans, eggs, biscuits, flour, dried fruit and coffee.
While still a small boy, Kirby learned that when everyone is in need, everyone shares. In fact, watching his hungry parents share their food with strangers is one of his strongest memories.
“There’s one time I can still see so clear,” he said softly. “A man came to the door and said to my mother, ‘M’am, I’m very hungry.’  You could tell that just by looking at him.  Mama told him to wait.”
The family had just slaughtered a hog – a very rare event – and Kirby’s mother prepared a large plate of food for the traveller.
“Mama cooked him up some eggs, meat, and biscuits, and he ate real fast, but then he took a deep breath and stopped when he was halfway through. He packed the rest of the food  carefully away in a pouch he wore around his neck,” Kirby remembered,”He said  to Mama ‘I don’t have any money – but God will pay you for this.”
Kirby’s mother remembered what the hungry man had told her for the  rest of her life.
“It made her happy to think of it,” he said. “And now, it makes me  happy.”
These days, Kirby is still sharing food. It makes him happy. He’s 84 years old, and he works two acres now – but he really works those acres.  He cuts, chops, splits,
  and stacks wood. He has a small orchard of apple, quince, and plum trees, and a big garden. Every year, Kirby gives away bushels and bushels of vegetables and fruit..
He thinks of his parents with every delivery.
“Mama worked until she was 95, and she lived to be 101” he said. “On her  100th birthday, I bent over her and said “Mama! You’re 100!” She thought for a  minute, and then she kind of cocked her head and looked up at me, wondering, like a  little old child,’
‘Am I really 100?’ Mama asked. “Am I really?”
Kirby looked into the distance, smiling to himself, and then he chuckled  loudly.
Janet Smith grew up in a poor Nebraska farm family, among people who took pride in their ability to make it through hard times. But the Depression wasn’t just hard times. The Depression killed people.
Janet leaned forward in her chair to emphasize her point.
“Today, there’s really no way of understanding what is was like,”  she said.
Kirby nodded.
” I mean people lost absolutely everything but the clothes on their backs,” Smith continued. ” My grandparents had spent their entire lives in endless labor, building up their farm, and raising ten children. My father was the oldest, and was set to inherit it. And then it was gone – all of it, everything. There was nothing left”.
Smith believes that the loss broke her family, because the farm was the center of  their lives. Her grandfather soon died, and her grandmother took a small house in the nearby town of Elmo, while her father searched desperately for work – any work. His siblings held out as long as they could, trying to make one last go of the farm.
“They just couldn’t. They had nothing,” said Smith. “They couldn’t feed the  stock. When the horses starved to death, I think that was what finally did it. They were in agony, watching the horses suffer, but they kept holding off just one more day, thinking they’d surely find something the horses could eat by then.”
  Smith was six years old in 1941. The Depression was officially over, or at least departing well ahead of schedule, propelled by the momentum of  the war industries as the U.S. entered World War II. But the recovery didn’t reach places like rural Nebraska in time to make a difference for children like Smith. For them, the Great Depression was far from over – and in fact, for many Americans it has never ended.
Still unemployed, Smith’s father was drafted and deployed overseas, leaving their severely depressed mother overwhelmed and withdrawn. Local authorities declared her incompetent and gave custody of the children to the state, citing reports that the young Smiths were roaming the streets at any hour of the night or day that struck their fancy.
“Sometimes we looked for food and a lot of the time we just roamed about and explored,” Smith said.”We felt free at night, like we had the world to ourselves. Although I admit we didn’t turn down many opportunities to make little pests of ourselves.”
Without the family’s knowledge, arrangements were being made to order the siblings placed in an orphanage, many miles away in the Nebraska town of York.
Mother's Jewels' Home
Mother Jewel’s Orphanage
Seventy years after authorities banged on the door one Nebraska morning in 1941, Janet Smith hasn’t forgiven them for yanking a little girl from her  mother, and forcing her into a car with strangers. She remembers screaming for an hour straight.
“Throughout the long drive, they kept telling us we’d be eating nothing but bread and water until we were eighteen. I’ve never been that terrified. I knew grown-ups aren’t supposed to treat a first grader like that,” Smith said.
The bread and water part  turned out to be a cruel joke, but the indifferent coldness of the orphanage staff stunned Kirby. She remembers
thinking,” I’m too little for this!”
“Well, they fed and clothed us, and taught us the basics in school,” Kirby said. “We got a bed to sleep in. But they never showed us a slight kindness, or even smiled at us. No sign of feeling. They were distant and cold, and every orphanage child knew they didn’t care about us”
For the next three years, Smith and her brothers prayed every day that they wouldn’t share the fate of those kids whose parents had never returned for them. They knew she had problems, but they loved their mother, and were certain she wanted them back.
The sandbox in Mother Jewel’s playground
They were right. Smith’s mother had never given up her efforts to get her children back.
Several months after the little girl’s ninth birthday, she and her brothers moved with their mother into a small house in the town of  Huntley, NB. It had no running water, but the children didn’t care. They could take hot baths at their nearby grandmother’s house, and return with water for their mother.
“All that mattered to us was being a normal family, living with our own mother in a normal house,” said Smith.
But it soon became clear to the children that their mother remained too depressed to care for them properly, nor to manage the small house. They staggered under the blow – but the Smith children did not fall. They had learned some hard lessons about the world during those three years in the orphanage, and were determined to remain free of official clutches. Older, tougher, bigger, and extremely watchful,  the siblings had become experienced housekeepers, janitors, and yard workers who could cook well enough to get by.
“We were angry, I guess we felt sad and sort of cheated -but we also knew it wasn’t our mother’s fault,” said Smith. “She’d done the best thing she could manage for all for us – she’d gotten us out of there. And by then, we had this attitude that told people to stay away from us. They learned not to talk about our mother and pretty much let us alone, especially seeing as Grandma lived a few blocks away.”
Their hopes rose when their father was discharged from the army, but he returned only long enough to get a railroad job that kept him away from home most of the time. The children rarely saw him, and when they did he remained a remote figure. They knew he had a drinking problem. All their aunts and uncles, the nine brothers and sisters who had grown up together on that lost farm, drifted apart and away, taking the children’s cousins with them.
“Our mother never recovered and we took care of everything from then on, but still we knew she loved us,” said Smith. “Our father was never the same again. None of my uncles and aunts were either. They were from generations of farmers, you see. They were never meant to be town people, or soldiers or railroad men. And what can children do about something like that?”
Their father’s return brought one crucial change, however: his job with the railroad was steady and he sent most of his pay to his family. It was enough to keep them afloat, and although they had to watch every penny, they didn’t go hungry again.
“Knowing our father was feeding us told us a lot,” said Smith. “Eventually, that was enough. It had to be.”
   OO ________________________________________ OO
The Smith children resolved the issue of the adult world by turning their backs on it and immersing themselves in play. They constructed and navigated various kinds of rafts, and spent weeks at a time building things. Their father had left them his tools, and her oldest brother knew how to use them. He taught his siblings, who had to prove their competence tool by tool before getting the green light to use each one independently.
“For a long time, I was stuck with sandpaper, a small hammer, and nails that someone else had nailed halfway in, so I wouldn’t bend them,” said Smith, who was the baby of the family. “I rebelled, though, so finally they let me saw. To this day, I refuse to use sandpaper. My very favorite thing was how we’d frame a small pane of glass, you know the kind that are about six by eight inches, and make one tiny window.”
 The builders installed the little windows in treehouses complete with roofs and railed porches, while the woods below were spotted with Smith clubhouses, each with a signature chimney made of a small piece of pipe,  leading to a tiny working stove. The children also built cars from wooden crates equipped with an odd assortment of  wheels, and raced recklesly down steep inclines without benefit of brakes. They played a lot of baseball, and raced the river as soon as it froze, like a flock of birds on their homemade ice-skates
 “We loved fishing too; we’d clean and fry those fish right where we caught ’em. If it was a nice night, we’d sleep out – and we swam at all hours,” Janet remembered.
She thought for a moment.
“Overall, it wasn’t the best childhood, but I think we did a good job with what we had,” she said. “We missed out on a lot, but we also created our own freedom, because we knew how to play. The secret to being a kid on your own is to take that time and PLAY. Just play your heart out, because you’ll never get another chance to do it again.”
Smith married at 16. She knew she was too young, but felt she couldn’t wait for a normal family of her own. Later that year, her first child was born.
That was the beginning of another story about another family.
Today, Smith is a fixture at the Senior Center, where she’s volunteered for  20 years. Everyone knows her. She’s spunky and smart, and knows how to  get things done.
“I understand the past, but I don’t live there,” she said.”I’m too busy  living in the present. I’m very active in the Senior Olympics and in the First  Christian Church. I stay busy, basically – I help out wherever I’m needed”
She was too modest to reveal the number of gold medals she’s collected over  the years – but we do know this much:  Janet Smith won the Sierra  County Senior Olympics Spirit Award three times.
That strikes me as the sort of medal a community of people might give to someone they value and love – not so much because she’s helpful, but because she is home.


Claire O’Brien / 2013

THE LAND TELLS WHO WE ARE: Conquest, Identity and Place in the San Luis Valley

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There are some American places where  history overlaps and  becomes so condensed,  so close and nearly visible,  that each layer is almost like its own separate lens

Lorraine Gomez grew up in such a place

Colorado’s San Luis Valley is  the world’s highest alpine basin, and one of its oldest, created by the great river that formed it thousands of years ago in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Valley follows the Rio Grande south to New Mexico, where the river tumbles over the border  and the two join the Camino Real in its long journey to Mexico City.


Lorraine Gomez / Claire O’Brien 2013

Gomez’s connection to the  120-by-75 mile valley stretches  back to the Spanish farmers who settled the land before the Mexican Revolution. The communities they established have retained a strong and continuous Hispanic identity for generations (the term “Hispanic” refers specifically to Spanish-Americans in this region.)

Gomez is so deeply rooted in this valley that it defines the heart of her own  identity as well,  remaining her central reference point, regardless of whether or not she happens to be living there.

“It’s like a compass that’s a part of me,”  she said. ” And that actually allows me to go further and stay away longer –  I don’t even get homesick because in a way, I’m always there.”


 Gomez has a lot of company. Everyone in the San Luis Valley appears to have that compass. The air is thick with competing claims of ownership, legitimacy, and the contradictions of  history. Ancestors are a defining issue in  this  region where identity is intertwined with land and ethnicity, and people locate themselves in terms of centuries.

They settled at different times, founded  segregated towns with separate, often tiny schools located within just a few miles of one another, and told their own histories, allowing several versions to co-exist simultaneously.  The large land holders are primarily Anglo, while most Hispanic landowners are small farmers, and very few Latinos (specifically, in the San Luis, Mexican-Americans, ) own any  land at all.  Several old Hispanic families are wealthy, but most struggle to keep their land.

However, Gomez was appalled, albeit politely, at the suggestion of open conflict.

“Oh no,” she said, “In most places that kind of rudeness would shame our families, but here it would shame our whole communities. We’re  not raised  like that – neither Hispanics nor Latinos.”


But things are changing in the San Luis Valley. According to Gomez, they’ve been changing for almost everyone for a while, but the momentum of a transformative discovery accelerated her personal journey faster than she had anticipated.  It was  a discovery that changed the way she looks at herself and the world.

“Even before my sister confided in me, many of my generation had started calling ourselves Latino,” Gomez said. “But finding out my full and true heritage – that changed more than my identity. It changed the San Luis Valley for me too,”

What she discovered was that her grandmother was a slave. An illegal, Indian slave, tribe unknown,  owned by an Anglo farmer in 1916.

Nothing has been the same for Gomez since.



Lorraine Gomez’s path began in the small town of La Jara, when it was still possible for a kid to make it to high school without knowing anyone who didn’t mirror himself.

“Of course hardly anyone did grow up like that. We were country kids. We had pick-up trucks. Very old pick-up trucks,” she laughed. “You drove through the Valley when I was growing up – I’m 44, so it was roughly 30 years ago when older teenagers began to let me ride along – and you’d come to a town where everyone was Anglo, and I mean everyone.  Then, five miles down the road, you came to a town where everyone was Hispanic, meaning no one else was allowed…then Anglo, then Hispanic, Anglo, Hispanic, all the way through. That’s the kind of message that speaks for itself.”


Spanish-American farming family/ Info unknown

Gomez added that the strongest messages she received were not often delivered verbally.

“It wasn’t something anyone sat kids down to tell us, just  what everyone grew up knowing: that it took everything we had, our tiny towns, small farms and churches combined with our history, to keep the Anglos …well, frankly, to defend ourselves from them.  Latinos didn’t have their own towns, they were rarely able to buy land, they rented mobile homes and small houses, and they worked for large farmers – mostly Anglo farmers, but some, a few, Hispanic farmers, ” said Gomez. “But this message wasn’t really about Latinos. It was much more about Anglos.  I mean we worked for the Anglos too. I picked lettuce for them starting when I was twelve years old, because my family had lost its small farm. We kept the old house we had inherited, and that was extremely important to us – I always knew that we had been here for well over three hundred years before the Anglos arrived.””



Gomez paused for a long moment before she added one more group. She is still unaccustomed to including its members, even as they become increasingly significant to her. When she was growing up, no one  had included  the small settlement of Utne Indians who had been allowed to remain in a southern portion of the valley when the rest of their Nation was forced to a reservation in Utah.

And when did the Ute arrive?

 The shortest period confirmed by Western scientists place the Ute in the San Luis Valley 3,000 years ago. The Ute’s own religious traditions date  their presence from the Creation.

“I can’t tell you why we never thought about them. The truth is,  I never gave any thought to the small reservation in the Valley,” said Gomez. “No one ever told me about them, I hardly ever even heard them mentioned that I can recall.”

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The last King and Queen of the Ute Nation before conquest/Photo info unknown

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Meanwhile, the Valley’s  Mexican-Americans (“Latino” has refered specifically to them since the mid- 1960s, according to Gomez), were descended from Mestizo ancestors who had accompanied the Spaniards  to present-day northern New Mexico.

Two and a half centuries later their descendents did not need directions home.

Most of the other Latinos who settled San Luis Valley  had roots in the surrounding region, generally. Their ancestors had not come from Mexico: Mexico had come to them.  They also were perfectly aware of their location.


The Great Sand Dunes. Some are as high as 750 feet, the highest in the world.

The Ute had fought long and hard to  prevent intrusion into the Valley, and weren’t fully conquered until near the turn of the 20th century, when Anglo settlers prevailed upon the federal government, which sent troops and constructed Fort Massachusetts.


Not all that long after their final defeat, a 17-year-old Hispanic ranch hand was working alone, miles away from his San Luis Valley home, fixing fences along the New Mexico/Oklahoma border in the summer of 1916.  Young Gomez came upon a 15-year-old Native American girl, also working alone. Word has it that she was herding sheep, although this isn’t certain. Over several months, the two teenagers had occasion to meet again and again, although they were periodically called back to their respective ranches, one in Oklahoma and the other in New Mexico.

The girl told the boy she was a slave, bought and paid for.

The two teenagers fell in love.


Determined, the young couple made arrangements to escape, and that’s what they did. One night they simply removed the boy’s fencing repair materials and tools from his wagon, hitched up his horse, climbed in, and drove away to the nearest train station. No one knows where that was. All Gomez knows is that her grandfather took his beloved to Denver and married her, then the two settled down in the town of his ancestors, La Jara, in the San Luis Valley.


Everything else remains a mystery. Gomez’s grandmother never revealed the name of her tribe, or the circumstances of her  enslavement. That her own tribe had sold her is essentially unthinkable, and in fact she never claimed that it had. Whatever happened was evidently too traumatic for her to discuss – and/or there could well have been political factors at play.

In any case, this is what Grandmother Gomez chose to share, and it is what her granddaughter chose to share with me. Lorraine is pursuing the issue slowly, carefully, and in her own time and way.

“In the end, I was a Latina before I found out about my grandmother, because my experience in the world, my language and my identity here in this place and in America – in the world, actually – makes me a Latina,” she said.

“A Latina is what I am.”


Utes Chief Severo and his family, 1899

If you commented…and the 11,000


Three red poles/Desert night           O’Brien 2011

Dear Readers,

All of you who have commented lately – please know how much I appreciate each and every thought expressed. Don’t think I take you lightly – on the contrary, I cherish you guys.

I’m just feeling terrible, bogged down with the flu and other stuff. I’ll be answering your comments ASAP. I promise!

I’m also proud to announce (you know me) Electrica in the Desert has passed its 11,000 mile marker – that, is, 11,000 hit. Halalooya.


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ONE AMERICAN VOICE / PHOTO & ART by CLAIRE O’BRIEN /2013  EL PASO:A year ago today on 5 January, 2014, One American Voice replaced all print and eletronic media in the Eastern Hemisphere. The newspaper is now printed in 14 languages, “with more on the way,” according to OAV Intercontinental Executive Editor and Director Rush Limbaugh, who predicts an airdate  of  early 2016 for both One American Broadcast TV and One American Radio.”Finally!’ Geraldo Rivera was quoted,”Our Venezuelan Occupation forces will get decent cable reception.”



White Light Desert / CLAIRE O’BRIEN 2013


Electrica in the Desert is celebrating its 10,000 Maniacs, I mean 10,000 hits. Actually, we just passed 10,500, but that wouldn’t allow us to pay tribute to one of our favorite bands. (It refused to change its name, even in retrospect,  to 10,500 Maniacs.)

Darn rock stars.