The Book of Archives and Other Stories from the Mora Valley, New Mexico

The Book of Archives and Other Stories from the Mora Valley, New Mexico

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In the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico’s Mora Valley harbors the ghosts of history: troubadours and soldiers, Plains Indians and settlers, families fleeing and finding home. There, more than a century ago, villagers collect scraps of paper documenting the valley’s history and their identity—military records, travelers’ diaries, newspaper articles, poetry, and more—and bind them into a leather portfolio known as “The Book of Archives.” When a bomb blast during the Mexican-American War scatters the book’s contents to the wind, the memory of the accounts lives on instead in the minds of Mora residents. Poets and storytellers pass down the valley’s traditions into the twentieth century, from one generation to the next. In this pathbreaking dual-language volume, author A. Gabriel Meléndez joins their ranks, continuing the retelling of Mora Valley’s tales for our time.

A native of Mora with el don de la palabra, the divine gift of words, Meléndez mines historical sources and his own imagination to reconstruct the valley’s story, first in English and then in Spanish. He strings together humorous, tragic, and quotidian vignettes about historical events and unlikely occurrences, creating a vivid portrait of Mora, both in cultural memory and present reality. Local gossip and family legend intertwine with Spanish-language ballads and the poetry of New Mexico’s most famous dueling troubadours, Old Man Vilmas and the poet García. Drawing on New Mexican storytelling tradition, Meléndez weaves a colorful dual-language representation of a place whose irresistible characters and unforgettable events, and the inescapable truths they embody, still resonate today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806155845
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/20/2017
Series: Chicana and Chicano Visions of the Americas Series , #18
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 321,615
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

A. Gabriel Meléndez is director of the Center for Regional Studies at the University of New Mexico and a distinguished professor and former chair of  the Department of American Studies at UNM. He is the author of several books, including Spanish-Language Newspapers in New Mexico, 1834–1958 and Hidden Chicano Cinema: Film Dramas in the Borderlands.

Robert Con Davis-Undiano is Neustadt Professor and Presidential Professor at the University of Oklahoma and Executive Director of World Literature Today. Among his many publications are The Paternal Romance: Reading God-the-Father in Early Western Culture and Criticism and Culture: The Role of Critique in Modern Literary Theory.

Read an Excerpt

The Book of Archives and Other Stories from the Mora Valley, New Mexico

By A. Gabriel Meléndez


Copyright © 2017 A. Gabriel Meléndez
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5862-4



La Jicarita Peak, twelve thousand feet in the air; xúmatl, the sky bowl of our indomitable spirit.


Most certainly we have never thought to discard the litany of ancestral souls that accompanies the birth of each person born at the foot of La Jicarita Peak, nor can we neglect the accompanying clamor of voices that fills the air we breathe and is with us at each moment of the day and night. Our ancestors are the unseen visitors who sit at our kitchen tables when we speak of the past; they are the ancestral countenances we believe we've recognized on the faces of strangers we pass on the street. Now they are the elongated shadows that move in the old abandoned patios and the unearthed bones that walk the earth and do not know eternal rest or peace.


In late summer, clouds thicken quickly on the ridgeline of the sierra, and the distant rumble of their thunder echoes endlessly in the mountain canyons and in the tall stands of spruce until, like the water in the river, the sound ebbs its way out to the open llanos to the east. As the valley fills with a gray light, the animals feel the air tingle across their spines: yellow house cats jump suddenly from the windowsills lined with old coffee cans potted in geraniums; village dogs creep under the porch steps or find the last dark corner of the storeroom to hide from the storm; young mares and stallions race along the pasturelands to the riverbank, their nostrils flaring, manes flying in the air, the mirrored image of the fields caught in the obsidian light of their frightened eyes. Fire dances across the mountain, and lightning cracks the skies. The mountain's fire flashes like a knife blade slicing the crisp air above the deep green of the scrub oak.

This kind of lightning has broken the backs of prize bulls grazing in the high pastures, leaving their carcasses bowed and bloated in the middle of boggy meadows; it has split open the massive trunks of conifer trees and left the forest smoldering from blackened wounds in the earth; it has caught unlucky stockmen crossing barbed-wire fences on their way to shelter and left them dangling there like trout on a fish line. The rising waters of the downpours that follow, rushing down the mountain, have swept away young calves; cut apple orchards and bean fields in two; and washed away bridges, lifting them like tiny wooden boats on the swell of crested muddy waters. Midstream, the cresting waters snatched away infant children from the grip of their parents, the ill-fated passengers in old Model T Fords. The memory of such mishaps is held in the gaze of the old people of the valley, like the yellowed clippings of defunct newspapers pressed into the pages of family Bibles.

The old people have known the delicate dance of the earth's elements: wind, fire, and water. They've seen the changing masks of life and death, and death and life, on the face of each new day's horizon. When the storms appear and the fury of the mountain sounds, the old women step out in the rushing wind, their long gray hair filled with electricity. They cut at the clouds with long kitchen knives and cast salt to the four directions, and they chant the song of lives upon lives of endless memory: "Holy Saint Barbara, protect us from lightning when it strikes." Then the flashing light and the windblown shadows of clouds dance about the fields and above the tin roofs of the village and through the cottonwoods along the river, flashing off windowpanes recessed deep in timeless adobe walls. Many people swear to having seen the shadows of the dead in this half light, moving through the open doorways of the old abandoned houses, walking silently behind the tongued flames of oil lamps into the inner rooms where they are lost from sight. Are they dancing in the dark? Are they praying at their altars in the dim glow of candles? Are they covering the mirrors with black cloths to draw away the lightning? Are they the half-clothed skeletons of lovers locked in loving embraces, waiting their turn at life again?


Fui a buscarte y no estabas,
I searched for you and you did not appear,
Entonces me asomé detrás de las sepulturas
Then, I peeked behind the gravestones
Y hablé con los difuntos
And I spoke to the dead,
Para saber de ellos
To learn from them
Cómo volvernos polvo juntos.
How we might all together return to dust.
— Popular verse

Manuel Casados remembers, "Oh, I think it was about one thirty, just after the noon hour, and as I got up to put away the dishes, the dishcloth fell from my hand and I thought to myself, surely someone is going to visit me. Well, ten minutes hadn't gone by when I heard a knock, first at the window and then at the screen door. I looked out, but I saw nothing. Maybe the neighbor is nailing a board or something around his house, I thought, and I even called out, 'Hey, friend, what the devil are you up to?,' and since I didn't hear anyone answer me, I sat down again and picked up a book I have here about Vicente Silva's gang of bandits. Then, again, after only a short time, I heard a knock, but this time it was very loud, and I heard what sounded like rocks rolling off the tin roof, and by God, just then the screen door opened wide and I felt a cold chill in the air and that's when I saw her. There was no doubt about it. It was my dear Petra, just as she had been in life, though not as old as she had become in recent years. It was Petra as she was when we were young and her eyes were full of fire. And I heard her call out in a very low and serene voice as if she were very far away, 'Ay, dear one, the joy of my youth.' Because, you know, my comadre Petra loved me very deeply. Now, I'm sure she came that afternoon to take her leave because she had never forgotten me. They say that she cried as if her heart was about to burst when I was first sent to the war in France. When I came back and they had already married her to the now deceased Don Benito Sánchez, what could be done? But I knew she often thought of me and never forgot the times we had as lovers. Oh yes, I knew her as a man knows a woman way before Don Benito showed up, and as the song goes, 'Oh, what times, Señor Don Simón!' We shared nights when we romped in bed like wolves in heat until the first light of day scratched the sky. It must be as they say, my friend, the blood is known to boil. The blood is known to boil. The next day after Petra's visit, my cousin Evaristo Trujillo came to tell me that Petra had died over in Las Golondrinas that previous afternoon and that she had been in agony for a long time. Evaristo took it upon himself to let me know, because having attended to her in the last hours, he had heard her call out, 'Ay, Manuel, my dear one, the joy of my youth!' Oh yes, my friend, that's exactly how these things are."


In the opinion of the elders, The Book of Archives contained mention of everything that had ever transpired in the valley. Its records went further back than their own memories, back to the time of the Spaniards and beyond. According to those who had seen it, the book — covered in buckskin and bound with buffalo straps — began with the copious phrase "In the beginning of time," thus sustaining the idea, contrary to the history taught in the universities, that things had their beginnings in this lost corner of America. Perhaps this is the reason why the people of the valley and their descendants always begin speaking of things by using their own lives as models and referring to the lives of others as examples of lost causes.

The Book of Archives records that in the beginning only a handful of families left the safety of the established villages high in the mountains at Santa Bárbara del Peñasco and San Lorenzo de Picurís to pasture their livestock in the verdant summer grasses of the valley. Although the Pawnees retreated to the cool oasis of the valley once or twice a summer, they ruled from afar. They rode from the east on horseback, filling the air with the sounds of their hoofbeats and the tinkling of their amulets riding the winds of impending summer storms. High up in the mountains, the mestizos from Santa Bárbara and San Lorenzo de Picurís mixed their blood with the Indian captives the Comancheros sold into the Tewa settlements. At Picurís they forged out the policies of blood, marriage, and concubinage until the Pawnees, the Comanches, and the Picurís could be seen in the reflections in their mirrors. By the time the ink had dried on Governor Albino Pérez's 1835 proclamation of a land grant to the seventy-two heads of family, payment to the valley had already been made in blood, toil, and sacrifice. And the newcomers took note and admired these things. Albert Pike, an American pony soldier, wrote home to tell his relatives about his side trip to the valley:

September 6, 1832

I hooked up with some trappers who were after beaver and we made our way down the mountain from Taos, we traversed the valley the Mexicans call Low-day-morah (Lo de Mora). We camped near the old village[,] finding nothing but abandoned mud houses and rattlesnakes. Some of the old furrows can still be seen in a few fields round the village where these New Mexicans worthy of the pertinacity of the Yankee nation pushed out into every little valley on the eastern side of the mountain which would raise half a bush of red peppers — some of them like this — thus exposing themselves to the Pawnees, and Comanche, who of course, use them roughly. The former tribe broke up the settlement in this valley about fifteen years ago and the experiment has never been repeated, though this valley and that of the Gallinas are great temptations to the Spanish-Mexicans.



En la fertilidad crecía el tiempo. In the fullness of things time grew.

— Pablo Neruda

No one can say with certainty how this place cloistered in the furrow of a deep valley on the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains got its name. The Book of Archives refers to the valley by saying that it was buffalo hunters stopping to rest there on their way to hunts on the Llano Estacado who sang in their ballads, "Allí hicimos demora, hicimos de-mora." "We tarried there," they sang, but they scribbled "de Mora." Other folk insist that Mora was the name of one of the first grantees of the Mexican land grant. But in later years, folks had a hard time considering this a mark of distinction and dismissed the idea, thinking only of Cruz and Flavio Mora, the last of the Mora clan, who were two notorious wine drinkers who leaned up against the saloon walls all day long.

The oldest living members of Mora swore on the authority of their memories that the valley was so named because years before settlers had laid the first adobe brick there, a French Quebecois trapper wandered over from Taos and came upon the body of a dead man half sunk in the current of the river, his skull crushed by a stone, and when he went back to Taos, he said, "No beavers, creek too small, only a dead man and lots of grass." He spit on the ground and called the place Les eaux des morts, "the waters of the dead" — a name, or so it was said, the Mexicanos corrupted in their baroque Spanish to sound like "lo de Mora." Others, including Sofía Martínez, the herb woman, did not subscribe to either ominous or foreboding beginnings. She would just repeat what she knew: "Here, everywhere, grew acres and acres of wild mulberries." The name stuck, Mora for the moras, the bittersweet mulberries for the black bears to eat.


The elders passed on their knowledge of the land and its humors, and each child grew up knowing every ridge, every rivulet, every crevice, every spring, every open meadow, every canyon, and every gulch on the land grant. Such was their affinity to the land and to the creatures that lived there that they could predict with astonishing accuracy the day on which the beavers would leave their hovels in marshes, proceed to the very hollows where the bobcat and the wolf birth their young, and even count the number of cubs in the litters. This, so that at the least expected hour and upon the slightest contention, the cartography of their lives and those of their descendants would never be lesser or greater than the things that had been inscribed in the first pages of The Book of Archives by Agustín Valdez, the first scribe of the valley. Agustín painstakingly copied the petition the people of Mora made to their governor explaining their need for a place of their own:

To the Governor and

Captain General, Don Albino Pérez:

We, Antonio Holguín, Miguel Páez, Ramón Abréu, Carmen Arce, and Agustín Valdez, in the name of seventy-two other families, all natives of this province and residents of the town of San Lorenzo de Picurís, in the best manner that your honorable attention merits, come before you, Excellency, and finding ourselves without arable land to cultivate, and in order to keep our obligations, request, for us and our children (who are no small number), and with our wives who suffer continual deprivations each year, and in order to alleviate them, come forth in agreement to register a piece of vacant and uninhabited land, save for the roving presence of hostile tribes, and known as "Lo de Mora" at some sixteen leagues from the aforementioned pueblo of the Picurís Indians, and from the adjacent fields the Indians plant, we ask that a grant be made by the government of the Republic to lands bounded on the north by the Ocaté River, on the south by the Sapelló River, at the point where it empties into Mora River; and extending west to the ridgeline known as El Estillero; to the east to a point known to all as El Aguaje de la Yegua. We most respectfully make this petition and request to you, your Excellency, this twentieth day of October in the year of our Lord, Eighteen Hundred and Thirty-Five.


A people conquered but yesterday could have no friendly feeling for their conquerors, who have taken possession of their country, changed its laws and appointed new officials, principally foreigners.

— Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan, 1847

Manuel Cortez was in the crowd of townspeople the day the Army of the West trudged into Las Vegas Grandes, thirty miles away. He lowered the brim of his hat to hide the smoldering fire of his eyes from passersby. He had already decided that he would find the moment and the time to strike back. He would fight before he would bow to the Yankee general, and he brought back the news to Mora that Kearny, whom he called Carne, had made the town residents assemble around the gazebo in the old plaza and instructed the sexton to sound the church bell at the hour of his proclamation. The creaking boots of the parading American soldiers broke the resolute silence of the people and was followed by the tossing of their horses' bridles and the distant thunder of an artillery detachment, firing off rounds nonchalantly as if by happenstance into the distant hills.

From the rooftop of a sagging adobe house, the general spoke. It was the first time the villagers had heard the general's high, nasal, cropped words. It was said that many in the crowd went back to their homes believing that they had not heard a man speaking, but the yelping din of a coyote. It was only the patience and persistence of the translator that converted the sounds to rounder, more familiar sounds recognizable to them. Carne spoke: "I have come amongst you by order of my government to take possession of your country and extend over it the laws of the United States. We consider it, and have done so for some time, part of the territory of the United States. We come among you as friends, not as enemies, as protectors, not as conquerors. I am your governor. I shall not expect you to take up arms and follow me, to fight your own people, who may oppose me. But listen! He who promises to be quiet and is found in arms against me I will hang!"

Manuel Cortez promised nothing and left the plaza heading north back toward Mora.

Then the American general made the alcaldes from all the surrounding villages take an oath of allegiance to his administration. Agustín Valdez found himself corralled with the others in the plaza at Las Vegas on that August morning. He lowered his head, as did the others, and his eyes welled up with tears. And despite the silence, the humiliation borne by the elders when Carne raised his voice as if admonishing some mischievous children did not go unnoticed: "Gentlemen," he said, "look me in the eyes when you take the oath of office."

When he got back to Mora, Agustín Valdez spent hours inscribing the events of the preceding days in The Book of Archives. When he had finished, he called the leaders of the nearby villages together in general council to discuss the measures to be taken in the days to follow.


Excerpted from The Book of Archives and Other Stories from the Mora Valley, New Mexico by A. Gabriel Meléndez. Copyright © 2017 A. Gabriel Meléndez. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Series Editor's Foreword ix

Preface xv

The Book of Archives

In the Shadow of La Jicarita 3

Petra's Agony 5

The Book of Archives 6

Time Grew in the Fertile Earth 8

Joyful Sorrows, Sorrowful Joys 9

General Carne 10

The Fire in Manuel Cortez's Belly 12

Mora Is Bombed 13

Rebirth 15

Brotherhood 16

Witches and Warlocks 17

Old Man Vilmas and the Black Poet García 18

No One Bathes Twice in the Same River 24

James Meline's Letter 25

Sebastiana 26

The Ballad of a Dying Cibolero 28

Father Avel 31

The Child Julia 34

The Woman Julia 35

Little Sarah, the Half Indian 36

Julia and Her Suitors 37

Little Sister Romancita's Conjuring 45

In Your Spare Time, Make Some Mud Bricks 47

Oh, What Times, Sir Simon! 53

Waldo B. Catrine and His Cronies 55

Mariano Sosa 56

A New Century 60

Opening to a Previous Life 68

Pablo, "the Shiftless" 72

Don Eugenio's Oxen 73

Crucita and the Black Bears 76

No More Witches, Perhaps 78

A Hundred Years of Fasting 79

Government Cheese 81

Coreligionists 81

Oversease 82

Francisco Aguas 83

"Deputy Pete" 85

The Toad Man 87

Ranchers in Fancy Ties 91

The Ante, Six Bets on the Infinite 98

Litany of The Book of Archives 113

El Libro de los Archivos

Sombras de la Jicarita 119

Petra en su agonía 121

El Libro de los Archivos 122

El tiempo crecía en la fecunda tierra 124

Querencias y dolencias 125

El general Carne 126

El rancor de Manuel Cortez 128

Mora es bombardeado 129

Renacimiento 131

Fraternidad 132

Brujas y hechiceros 133

El Viejo Vilmas y el Negropoeta García 134

Los años se siguen, pero no se parecen 140

La carta de James Meline 141

La Sebastiana 142

El corridor del cibolero moribundo 144

El Padre Avel 147

La niña Julia 150

Julia, la mujer 151

Sarita, la genízara 152

Julia y sus pretendientes 153

Los polvos y conjuros de 'mana Romancita 161

Mientras descansas, haz adobes 163

¡Ay, qué tiempos, señor don Simón! 168

Waldo B. Catrine y sus secuaces 170

Mariano Sosa 172

El siglo Nuevo 176

Por la rendija de una vida previa 184

Pablo, "el-zángano" 188

Los bueyes de don Eugenio 189

Crucita y los osos negros 192

Se acabaron las brujas, quizás 194

Cien años de ayunos 195

Queso federal 197

Coreligionisatas 197

Oversís 198

Don Cisco Aguas 199

"Pite Chotas" 201

El hombre sapo 203

Los rancheros de corbata 207

El alce, seis apuestas con el infinito 214

Letanía del Libro de los Archivos 229

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