The Writer as Inocente
We have in New Mexican culture an oral tradition of a character called el inocente. Estevan Arellano has written a wonderful portrayal of the village inocente in Inocencio: Ni pica ni escarda, pero siempre se come el mejor elote (The innocent one neither plants nor hoes but always eats the best corn). We jokingly say of the inocente que le faltan tuercas (that he's missing some nuts and bolts). In the contemporary idiom, it is a person "whose elevator doesn't go all the way to the top floor." The inocente experiences life differently than ordinary people.
What does it mean to be inocente, and why do I feel that the writer must be an inocente? For me, the inocente is constantly in contact with the marvel, the beauty, and the mystery of life. So it seems that with the passage of time I am each day more in awe of creation. The simplest experiences take on a marvelous aura that reveals a deeper reality. It is that reality I try to capture in my writings.
Where does it begin? It begins in childhood, in dreams, in memories, in the feeling that a divine spark animates the world and the cosmos. To be inocente means one feels a transcendent power working in our ordinary lives. The world is as much spiritual as it is material.
A large part of the life of a writer and of the inocente is lived in memory and dreams. I remember the river of my childhood as if it were yesterday. There I still hear voices, spirits moving at dusk--not only La Llorona, a spirit I really feared, but other powers. Powers of place. The river was alive, and it spoke. I tried to capture that experience in Bless Me, Ultima, and some readers were surprised. How can the river be alive? they asked.
I thought everyone had heard the presence of the river speak, its natural soul revealed. I heard the groans of the giant cottonwoods, those ancient grandparents. The sky at sunset spoke volumes, not only of the weather but of the history of the people. The stones of the hills were as animated as the animals that roamed there.
It's fantasy, some said. It's real, I replied.
Now, today, so many years later, I feel not only the presence of nature's spirit, but I am surrounded by the lives of those who once walked on the hills I love in Albuquerque. The old people of the Tiguex pueblos, Mexican sheepherders who walked there long before there were buildings. Professors who taught at the University of New Mexico and are gone, students who studied there. They hover nearby. I am in Albuquerque not only as I am today, but as I was as a young man who matriculated at the university. I left something of my self here.
You see, everywhere we go we leave part of our souls. Everyone carries memories of the past, of places that were magical, of people we loved. Part of your soul is there with those people, in those places. The inocente understands that. The soul is not only in our bodies. It is everywhere we have been.
Each morning I look at the rising sun and give thanks. I offer a blessing at sunrise: I bless all of life. My wife and I sit over breakfast, and I am startled at the beauty of our relationship and how the very act of eating fills me with thanksgiving. The inocente is a person constantly saying, Wow! Look at that! ¡Mira! Sun and clouds. Geese flying south. Apples hanging on a tree. Flowers going to seed. ¡Mira!
Inocentes sense the divine spark that illuminates the simplest acts of the day. The inocente knows this intuitively, for that is how they live, that is how they are most alive.
I look at the faces of friends and see beauty. I see beneath the skin a psyche that shines with innocence. I smile. They say the inocente goes around with a silly smile on his face. For me, that smile is a sign of wonder. Let us practice going around with silly smiles on our faces. Let us slough away the pretense of what we should be and be who we truly are. Inocentes are on the road of life, friends to one another.
In our jardín, under the ramada in our back yard, Patricia and I sit in the afternoon sun, and each blade of grass shines with its unique character. Every flower sings its song. Clouds, like marvelous and gorgeous people, move across a transparent blue sky. I marvel at the beauty and diversity of life.
In light of these thoughts, I am still trying to process receiving the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush over a year ago. We flew to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony. Patricia, our granddaughter Kristan, and I got on a plane and flew to the capital. Maybe I should write a story about our experiences. "An Inocente Goes to Washington."
They got us together in a room, and we met Johnny Cash. Yeah, I went up to him and said, "Hello, Mr. Johnny Cash. I'm Rudolfo Anaya from Albuquerque, and I want you to know I love your songs. New Mexicans love you. Here's my wife and granddaughter."
You see, that's an inocente talking. He talks to the good soul in those he meets. Some people say, "You didn't tell Johnny Cash that, did you? ¡Qué pendejo! Don't you have manners?"
What are manners to the inocente? We deal with the soul in the person, the daimon that drives us, the essence. Forget the formalities, go for the spirit. Tear down the fences that separate us. That's what the inocente teaches us.
And we met Kirk Douglas. And I said the same thing. "¿Cómo 'stá, don Kirk? What an honor. I like that movie you did with Burt Lancaster where at the end you plow the train into Mexico. I also liked Spartacus. Here's my wife and granddaughter. We love your movies."
The inocente, even though he is in pain and knows there is suffering and poverty in the world, smiles. He sees the quality of a corresponding goodness in people. We all have that innocent quality. Inside. Deep in the soul.
And I told the president, "No nos estés fregando tanto. (Don't irritate us so much.) Lighten up. Take care of la gente pobre. Help the kids get an education." Pues, I really didn't say that, but the inocente in me thought it. The way I looked at him, he knew what I was thinking.
I was very civil to the First Lady. She told me she had read Bless Me, Ultima. I said, "Thank you," and I thought to myself, there's hope for us humans.
I am always thinking. People from the past come to visit me. Those are the spirits of the ancestors. They are here with us. I speak to them and they to me.
What are characters in our stories but spirits who want their stories told? Sometimes my characters are more real than real people. And all my characters are inocentes at heart. All are learning that there are many secrets hidden in our souls. We have to bring them out. We should not be afraid to speak to each other as inocentes.
I know there are gente in the world who are muy cabrona. Somebody is always trying to get the better of somebody else. Tyrants of all sorts making people suffer the worst atrocities. But if we inocentes get together, we can be stronger than the bad guys. Let us practice that virtue of innocence in our souls. Let it shine. Let the power of place and all the spirits who inhabit a place make us strong. I think the medal they gave me in Washington, D.C., is for all of us. Especially for all the inocentes who have enriched my life.
Editorial note: Adapted from Mirage Magazine 21, no. 3 (spring 2003), published by the University of New Mexico Alumni Association. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Rudolfo Anaya is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of New Mexico. He was one of the first winners of the Premio Quinto Sol National Chicano literary award. Winner of the PEN Center USA West Award for fiction for his novel Alburquerque, he is best known for his classic Bless Me, Ultima. His other works include Zia Summer, Rio Grande Fall, Jalamanta, Tortuga, Heart of Aztlan, and The Anaya Reader. He has also written numerous short stories, essays, and children's books, including The Farolitos of Christmas and Maya's Children, and coedited Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland.
“From the January-April 2004 issue of World Literature Today (78:1), pages 41-42. Copyright 2004 World Literature Today.”
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