Friday the 13th in the Wild West…

Some say it’s an unlucky day, while others swear it’s just the opposite and it’s as lucky as the famous four-leaf shamrock of Irish lore. The day before that fatal Friday the 13th, August 2021, ‘for some reason’, I changed my Facebook profile picture to a younger me clad as a ‘cow lady’, holding a gun and a rifle. Did cows inspire the word COWard? And is BULLying always a coward’s way, or is it rather an unconscious by-product of low self-esteem?

On Friday the 13th, I heard six gunshots. “Same old, same old,” was sadly my first reaction, but then I realized gunshots were rather a nightly ‘soundtrack’, not too commonplace in the middle of the day. On that particular Friday something was off. Friday, the word, in English and other Germanic languages, comes from Freyja, the name of Odin’s consort. She is considered the goddess of both love and war. Is such contradictory allegiance even possible? They say all in life is about reconciling duality… If we look at Romance languages, “Friday” becomes Viernes in Spanish, Venerdi in Italian or Vendredi in French, all deriving from Venus, goddess of both love and war as well! I see a trend here, maybe to remind us of the delicate art of balancing opposites. At the end of the war between two Norse Gods’ tribes, Friday’s eponym, the Goddess Freyja, became the bridge between both, leaving the Vanir to embrace the ‘enemy’ tribe of the Aesir, ruled by Odin, whom she married. Maybe Shakespeare was partly inspired by the Norse Gods’ love story when he penned his Romeo and Juliet, lovers whose feuding families reconciled through the death of the couple. Clans, gangs, sides, enemies, martyrs, heroes… Will they exist forever? And will our stories always need enemies, martyrs or heroes to remind us that any ‘side’ of a war is made of thick, dense, senseless and destructive vacuity?

On Friday the 13th, after hearing those six gunshots, I heard of the death of a 13-year-old child because of those shots. The first bits of information about the circumstances of the young man’s demise said that he had been shot while standing up to a bully, whom he talked to in Spanish, trying to be a bridge, like Freyja, on a Friday, the Goddess’ week day. This young man is the latest martyr or hero of yet another story of destruction of all ‘sides’ (more than two, if we think about how the young person victim of the bullying must feel too, and all the three young men’s peers). Directly after the tragedy, some strange, superstitious, vicarious guilt made me wonder if things would have been different without that urge of mine to show off my cowgirl looks on social media. Directly after learning about the young man’s death I considered taking down that picture of me at a “Wild West theme park”. But then something made me think otherwise, and I decided to own my initial move, because I was starting to feel that some deeper reason made me choose that particular image just before calamity struck. A profound believer in the invisible hand of destiny moving our thought threads with its giant fingers, I gradually comprehended that the profile picture change was dictated by Annie Oakley’s spirit. August 13th happens to be her birthday. She would have been 161 years old on that Friday, quite a ripe age, an age I’m sure many would look up to, waiting for words of wisdom from the extremely elderly lady.

The she-sharpshooter has been haunting me lately. It always happens with the characters I choose (or who choose me) to write their stories. It feels similar to what Rafe experiences in the teens’ movie, Middle School (The Worst Years of My Life). Extremely gifted at comic art, Rafe is constantly visited by the creatures he draws, who help him cope with the hardships of life. His own cartoon characters live out adventures that start in his awkward or frustrating life interactions, to evolve into something much more rewarding and empowering in his imagination, an awesome nation… Such nation is also where I meet “my” sharpshooter character, and this is where she told me that she’s deeply hurt about what a gun, yet again, has caused on that famous / infamous Friday the 13th. Annie has been knocking insistently on my soul’s door because she wants me to retake my (too)-long-dormant writings, in which I left her waiting in an empty Carnival masks shop in Venice, Italy, when the pandemic hit. And now more than ever she is demanding me to honor my writer’s word because she needs to speak her truth through my keyboard. The most urgent issue Annie wants me to address is related to the horrible consequence of pulling a gun trigger so eagerly and easily at another human being, from such an early age. The ‘normalcy’ of guns in this still Wild West has led a 13-year-old kid to shoot and kill another 13-year-old kid on their Middle School grounds: Washington Middle School, la Washa

Tragedy is my trigger to finally brush off my literary torpor and eradicate my writer’s block. An electroshock is always what seems to call me back to my writing duty, actually. What happened on Friday the 13th was a terrible wake-up call. After pouring my heart in these words for our community’s bruised soul, I will gradually fill my website’s new tab with fresh ‘produce’. Like Annie in her deserted mask store, my Teacher’s Corner has been waiting way too long to materialize in my website. The seed was first planted in my mind after racist incidents and social tension in… Washington (D.C.). I hesitated, I lost faith or direction in what might work, I failed to nurture the soil of my intuition and let time bury the project in the neglected sand of oblivion. But what has happened at Washington Middle School has made my once barren teacher’s soil be rejuvenated by the water of inspiration as it trickles again through its cracked furrows. For three evenings in a row after the shooting, the actual soil of my garden, close to la Washa, was blessed by powerful rains that soaked the terrain where shots were heard by my Hopi corn stalks too. The water, so my corn told me, was a need, from the sky, to wash the traces of violence and pain. I felt the corn’s sadness, as deep as mine, for the heartbreaking result of those gunshots across my mini milpa… I even thought of trimming part of the beautiful corn maiden’s silky hair for them to express their grief in a traditional way. I didn’t, but I heard their plea: “you cannot remain silent or idle any longer. Tell the world of our sorrow, so that all can relearn the way of the furrow: when even just a few stalks mourn, it will be felt by all the corn”.

Therefore, please consider this piece the voice both of the ancestors and the corn. It is also my introduction to the new section of ReCORNectioN, in which I’ll indeed reconnect —honoring the pun in my site’s name— with my first adult hat: my teacher’s hat. When facing turmoil, I believe it is a teacher’s duty to offer thoughts ideally followed by classroom work and talks. That is what I felt I had to do with my Granada students after “el once eme / 11M”, March 11th, the Spanish ‘equivalent’ of 9/11. In my humble opinion, when trauma occurs, syllabi cease to matter, and we need to accompany our students’ feelings of grief, loss, fear, sadness and anger, the way we know best, through dialogue and through learning together from our big and small catastrophes, about the world, others and ourselves.

My guides in such endeavor always seem to be people from the past, whose hearts never cease to feel, even after their demise. After this piece, once I can go back to the powerful nation of imagination, I will create a conversation between Annie and another kid, her true match: the Irish-American “Kid”, as sure a shot as was Miss Oakley. Their encounter in my world won’t have anything to do with a shooting contest though, God forbid, or any kind of competition, because both ‘shooters’ are more than jaded with what made them famous. Both “Wild West icons” want to scream, through me,

ENOUGH with gun violence already!!! Have you learned nothing from the horrors of the many wars waged in our lifetimes?

In the here and now of the spirit world, Billy and Annie suffer from being weapons icons, “inspiring” people to shoot left and right like there is no mañana, or to collect guns like delicate works of art. How could a killing machine be deemed beautiful, right? And yet… I must admit that when I was a little girl, that mythic Wild West fascinated me, and in my Native Europe I, too, played with “toy guns”. I loved the feel of that plastic object in my hands, and enjoyed the strange satisfaction of lifting my cowgirl hat brim with my toy gun’s muzzle. Was it all for the looks? Guns too, produce fashion victims…

In what may appear like poor timing, or maybe destiny’s decrees, The Albuquerque Journal, in its Sunday edition of August 15th, chose to open its pages to two events related to guns, although fueled by opposite feelings. Next to tearful testimonies of people paying tribute to Bennie Hargrove —the young man shot and killed on his school premises—, the paper also showed an article illustrated with a huge illustration of the first known tintype of Billy, leaning on his rifle. A rifle and a gun also ‘ornate’ that same Albuquerque Journal article, which announces a spectacular auction of Wild West memorabilia. One of the ‘coveted’ pieces is the gun that ended Billy’s heartbeat, a weapon “estimated to go between $20,000 and $30,000.”

Just one day before the 58th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in Washington D.C., the gun was sold for $6,030,313. Let that sink in. At Washington Middle School, on the banner honoring Bennie’s life taken way too soon, next to Martin Luther King’s picture and his famous quote about darkness & light and hate & love, a powerful sentence: “ONE Child is worth more than ALL the guns on earth.”

The title chosen for the article about the Wild West memorabilia auction was “Reach for the Skies”, a hint, I guess, to the astronomical amount expected for the purchase of the gun. In the skies of our escuela de barrio though, star-shaped balloons escaped one by one from the makeshift altar for Bennie, like winks and smiles from his spirit to those left grieving his loss down here. One of the balloons holding on tight to the school fence was retained by a glass flask filled with shells.

I thought it might symbolize the “shell shock” felt by the young people who witnessed the shooting. Above, where his balloons flew, I hope Bennie was greeted, together with his muertitos, los antepasados, by Annie and Billy too. I imagine those balloons indicating where Bennie would come knocking on Heaven’s doors, and ending their cloud walk on Annie’s hat, to dissolve into the one star she always sported on the large roll of her cowgirl’s hat. I can see both Annie and Billy opening that door, and kneeling before Bennie, hugging his new ethereal persona and asking him to forgive them for being so instrumental in the gun worship of their country. In life, while Oakley shot squirrels and birds in Ohio for food, Bonney ended up shooting and killing people in New Mexico’s real Wild West because of yet another European feud exported to the “New World”. Three months before Billy died, Annie lost her sister Lizzie; soon she would get married and start shooting for money instead of food. She would be part of a transatlantic show where she showcased her skills for fun’ in her fake, exported Wild West, as though reshaping Billy’s “career” for make-believe after his death. In Billy’s True West, Irish and English settlers were more than fond of “six shooters”. Six, the number of gunshots heard at “la Washa”, add three times two; two gunshots for each of the first THREE days kids were back in school, when two 13-year-olds became “the shooter” and “the victim”, Juan and Bennie. Have you noticed that Bennie sounds like a mix between Billy and Annie, la Oakley y el Bonney? As for Juan Saucedo, christened after his father, I could not help but make a connection with Antonio Juan Márez y Luna. 

Antonio is not exactly a peer of Juan and Bennie although his father “sort of” was; only from another timeline. The filial relationship between Antonio and his ‘father’ was not biological. Antonio’s parent was of the literary kind, a very kind human indeed: the late Rudolfo Anaya, whose writings led some critics to nickname him the Godfather of Chicano Literature. On a wall facing North by Washington Middle School running track, the track where Bennie was gunned down, a mural designed by the late Antonio Lente honors Rudy’s 1952 presence at the school; it pays tribute to his work and his quality of alumni of the school calling him “El Mero Mero de la Washa”, depicting a river of characters flowing from the mouth of the talkative old man.  

Among the watery figures are, of course, Última and Antonio, the main characters of Rudy’s most famous novel, Bless Me, Última. Page one of Rudy’s first novel opens on Antonio’s memory of the first shooting of many others he would witness, which would traumatize a child on whose shoulders adults dumped many heavy burdens. Later in the book, Última la curandera requires young Antonio’s services to cure his uncle Lucas, victim of a curse. Instead of calling him Antonio when she tells the child she will need him, she insists on calling him by his middle name only, Juan. I’ve always wondered why. Maybe Última knew it was a way to turn him into her middleman, another bridge… “Juan” will experience his uncle’s pain, for the youngest blood of the family to assist the healer in curing older blood. Apart from a possible need for help from the apostle Juan’s power animal, the eagle that sees it all, maybe la curandera remembered that New Mexico’s many traumas were often related to certain Juanes of its past…

Does young Juan Saucedo carry the burden of his name? When he was taken into custody after shooting Bennie, the young man asked the policemen to tell his mom he was sorry, and refused to eat because he deemed himself unworthy of any nurturing after his terrible deed. This helps us realize that on Friday the 13th, not only one family was broken, not only one young soul was taken… I think that both victim and perpetrator are victims of our society’s modern curses. Why did Juan feel the need to show off a gun and shoot at his peer? Why did he feel compelled to bully another child? Why do parents think it is safer for their family to live among weapons? These questions fill my eyes with tears, and as I weep I suddenly know why I had such a strange feeling a few days before the shooting, when I passed a solemn weeping willow while driving among the meadows of Los Ranchos… “Weeping willow” is Sauce Llorón in Spanish, and “Saucedo” means place of the willows… Maybe Annie —who chose to be renamed after a place of oaks— was warning me already through that tree.

Última la curandera knew about such subtle signs better than anyone else. She knew that the river, the animals, the trees and all elements of nature constantly speak to us. It is sad that such language is no longer natural to many of us, nor taught at mainstream schools… However la Washa has a powerful reminder of such language on the very wall of its running track. A work of art considered the largest mural of Albuquerque, completed in August of 2016, under the amazing guidance of artist Nani Chacón, a Chicana proud of her Diné heritage, and inspired by the deep wisdom of the late herbalist Doña Maclovia. Maclovia was a friend of Rudy, who loved asking her about natural remedies when he could still walk and visit her store in Barelas, el barrio de la escuela. The day of the inauguration, I loved witnessing the peaceful loving gaze of Maclovia, when she watched Nani, happily holding a bouquet made of roses and yerbas de la negrita.

The beautiful documentary dedicated to the art project explains that the mural honors the so-called weeds of the barrio, as an ode to Resilience, the name of the mural.

When the beautiful image was still in the making, one day the scaffolding against the wall partially covered the young man’s face, and it reminded me of the symbolic building of young people’s personality and character.

While in Middle School, so many young people are learning to define themselves, and many are struggling, despite their perceived thorns, not to be pulled like weeds.

Rudy, both a teacher and a writer, cared deeply for the well-being and future of the children and youth of his beloved New Mexico. The last children’s book he was able to publish before passing was a story about bullying, in which the whole classroom of his sweet animal characters was guilty of harrassing Jacky Jackalope, who could no longer take their bullying and fled from school, back to her home beyond the rainbow.

Many of Rudy’s writings were prophetic, but he also told us, readers and writers in the making, that all in life is a story, and that we should always write the story the way we would have liked it to be. So will you make the old man, el mero mero de la Washa, and his friend la curandera Maclovia, smile again in the clouds, beyond the rainbow, as you re-write Juan and Bennie’s story?

STUDENTS AND EDUCATORS CAN FIND STUDY QUESTIONS FOR THIS PIECE HERE

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