Saturday, December 31, 2011


Last month, a friend wrote to ask if I'd read Emerita Romero-Anderson's Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot, published in 2011 by Texas Tech University Press.  I ordered it and am sharing my thoughts on the book.

Here's the preface:
This story, Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot, gives us a peek into a time and place in history that is little known, but significant in helping tell America's story. Based on historical fact, there is ample evidence of a Spanish Colonial pottery tradition from about 1790 to 1890 in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Some archeologists would argue that only Native Americans made clay pots.
Clearly, Romero-Anderson wants people to know that Spanish settlers in New Spain (in what later became known as New Mexico) made clay pots. She's created this story and its protagonist to bring that knowledge forward. Her motivation is good but in giving us that information, she affirms stereotypes of the bloodthirsty Indian, and there are other problems, too.

Some of them are relatively insignificant. In chapter nine, the protagonist, Raymundo (he's Spanish) is successful in getting an old woman to teach him how to make pots. Her name is Clay Woman (she's genizaro). I'll say more about her later. Within the span of one day:
  • Raymundo shaped three clay pots, complete with rims and handles, by midmorning
  • By noon he made three more and polished all of them with a stone
  • After polishing them, he coated the inside of each one with brown paint
  • Clay Woman then takes him out to gather plants to use as dyes
  • On their return, Raymundo gathers dung chips so they can fire the pots the next day
  • Then, Raymundo heads off to water his bean patch 
  • But! He hears a "blood-curdling war cry"
  • It is the Comanches that killed his father a year ago. Now, they kidnap Raymundo and steal horses from Raymundo's village.
  • They ride for hours, stop, and then the Comanches kill a horse by shooting an arrow into one of its eyes before eating its raw liver. They roast the rest of it before going to sleep for the night.
My sister makes pottery, and so does one of my aunts. I called home and asked if they polish the pot on the same day they shape it. The answer? No. The shaped pot has to dry first, and that takes a couple of days. That said, I suppose it is plausible that all those things could have happened in a single day (the heat and drought figure prominently throughout the story), but is it probable? I don't think so.

For the remainder of this review, I want to focus on Romero-Anderson's depiction of the peoples that are in the story: the Spanish, the Genizaros, and the Comanches.

The Spanish
The year is 1790. Raymundo lives in a small Spanish village in the northern part of what is now known as New Mexico. In 1790, it was New Spain. He lives in a village of adobe houses Raymundo and his mother live in one room. They own two hundred varas (Romero-Anderson says a vara is 2 feet) of bottom-land acquired through a Spanish land grant. Some of the land grants were made to Spanish individuals who agreed to live in less-populated and less-protected areas. Given the Comanche raids in the story, that seems to be the case with Raymundo and his family.

The bean pot in the title is the only one Raymundo's family has, but it has a crack and no longer holds water. They need a new one, but, the genizaros who make the pots have stopped trading with the local Spanish people and sending their pots south, to Mexico.

I'm guessing genizaro is a new word to most people. As such, the way they are depicted is of utmost importance. And given the stereotyped and biased ways that American Indians have been portrayed in children's books, their depiction is equally important. Genizaros, Romero-Anderson tells us in the glossary, were "Christianized (Hispanicized) Indians" (p. 110). She introduces them in chapter two when Raymundo walks past their village:
His search for firewood took him to the crest, past the small village of genizaros, a group of Indians who were ransomed from captivity to the Spaniards. They were given land here far away from the capital and Spanish society before Reymundo was born.
Their village includes three adobe houses and two made of stone, surrounded by a fence.

To better understand who the genizaros were, I've been studying two books. One is Violence Over the Land by Ned Blackhawk, and the other is Captives & Cousins by James F. Brooks. They were primarily young Plains Indians who were captured by other tribes and Spanish soldiers, sold as slaves, and subsequently became detribalized (many did not know who their tribal nation was). Those who weren't successfully sold were killed, prompting some Spanish colonists to intervene by redeeming the captives and baptizing them. In return, the redeemed captive owed allegiance and service of up to 20 years to the person who redeemed them. In northern New Mexico, Brooks writes that they became like members of families in a fictive kinship relationship, but he that in the Rio Grande Valley, they were ostracized and looked down on.

In Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot, we meet two genizaro characters. One is Clay Woman, who teaches Raymundo how to make pottery, and the other is a medicine man named Fools Crow. The  genizaros wear clothing much like the Spanish, except for Clay Woman and Fools Crow who stand out because they wear traditional clothing. The traditional clothing Clay Woman wears includes a manta, but that's an error because, as Blackhawk and Brooks noted, captivity as young children means the genizaros were detribalized. Later on, Fools Crow performs an Indian ceremony on Raymundo but, how does he know how to do that?!

From the Pablita Velarde gallery,  Bandelier Natl Monument
That article of clothing is actually worn by Pueblo women as seen in Pablita Velarde's illustration to the right. Velarde was from Santa Clara Pueblo, one of the Eight Northern Pueblos in New Mexico. Her art is known worldwide and she's the author of Old Father Storyteller, a collection of stories.

Speaking of Pueblo Indians, where are the Pueblo people in Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot?! Romero-Anderson mentions them on page 13. Raymundo is on his family's land, looking at a dry wash: "It had once belonged to the ancestors of a Tewa Indian pueblo, Papa had said, but the native people were no longer allowed on land granted to the Spaniards by the Spanish Crown in the Kingdom of New Mexico." On page 20, Raymundo plays "chueco, an ancient game of the Pueblo Indians" but other than that, Pueblo Indians are absent from Romero-Anderson's story. All through that time period, Pueblo Indians were taking Spanish people to court for encroachment and other criminal matters. 

In some ways, Romero-Anderson misrepresents the genizaros. She does, I think, accurately portray the disdain that Blackhawk and Brooks report in their respective books. Romero-Anderson writes "The old crone's hair looked like a magpie's nest" and she says that Fools Crow's hair is matted and filthy, and that his torso is caked with grime. (p. 11). 

She also accurately portrays the ways that the Spanish feared and accused the genizaros of being witches. On page 15, Raymundo's aunt calls them "evil brujos" (witches). She tells Raymundo to stay away from them:
"Remember what happened to Father Ordonez? I believe the year was 1796. I had come for a visit and that's all everyone talked about. The genizaro witches put a curse on him, Raymundo, and he died a terrible death." (p. 15). 
Juan, a Spanish man, shoots and kills Clay Woman with an arrow in a dramatic scene that takes place on the day that Raymundo and Clay Woman fire their pots (Romero-Anderson repeatedly says "bake" which to me, sounds odd). 

There was, in fact, a Franciscan father named Felix Ordonez y Machado who founded a mission at a genizaro settlement in Abiquiu. Brooks covers this on page 136 of Captives and Cousins. Ordonez died in 1756 of suspicious causes. The new missionary, Juan Jose Toledo, was sick several times in the years after 1756. Then a genizara, on her death bed, accused a Kiowa genizaro named Joaquin Trujillo, of sorcery, the area erupted in accusations and counteraccusations that led to exorcisms during which "pagan" practices of Pueblo Indians were exposed as "evil" activities. Reading that section of Captives and Cousins, leads me to believe that Romero-Anderson borrowed heavily from that series of events.  Her Juan (who killed Clay Woman) is Juan Jose Toledo, and, Fools Crow is Joaquin Trujillo. The unnamed setting for her story is Abiquiu, 34 years after the actual event took place.

In the Acknowledgements, Romero-Anderson names Charles Carillo as a source for her writing. I think I'd probably find the Ordonez/Toledo/Trujillo/Abiquiu events in one of his books.

Comanches did raid and kidnap the Spanish and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, but not at the time period the story is set (1790). The Comanches in Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot are portrayed much as they are in popular culture, as blood thirsty killers. There is a lot more to any tribe than that narrow portrayal. There were a lot of Native and non-Native nations trading and raiding and inflicting violence on each other. The title of Blackhawk's book, Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West effectively captures the coalitions and conflicts of that time. If you're interested in knowing more about it, I highly recommend his book.

Romero-Anderson tried to give readers a look into a little known piece of history about Spanish potters. We do, in fact, need stories about that, and about that period during which many nations interacted with each other, but the information has to be reliable. Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot falls short in that regard. 

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