Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Biographer and journalist David Roybal was a young reporter in high school in northern New Mexico for one of the seminal events of the state’s history.
The 1967 Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid, which highlighted disparities in a tri-cultural society, is one of many events that imbues “Ghosts of the Land,” Roybal’s historical novella and first leap into fiction.
Dressed in jeans, blue shirt and kerchief with a gray vest matching his curly hair, Roybal, 69, passionately detailed the inspirations for his work in an interview last week in Santa Fe.
One reader compared “Ghosts” to the magical realism of the great Colombian writer Gabriel García Marquez.
Roybal is a walking encyclopedia of northern New Mexico culture, people and events. “If people trust you, they will open up to you,” Roybal said, espousing a tenet of journalism. His career began over 50 years ago when he started writing local sports stories for the Santa Fe New Mexican as an Española High School student.
Subtitled “No borders for death, love and conflicting dreams,” the novella “is about barely concealed tensions among diverse cultures in the region that spans an international border, a region that once belonged to Spain, then to Mexico before the United States took it as its own in 1848,” Roybal wrote in the preface. “That life in Mexico seeps into stories told in the following pages merely reflects the inescapable and occasionally uncomfortable bonds between two neighboring nations,” he wrote.
Reies Tijerina, the fiery one-time Pentecostal preacher, and the dedicated followers of his Alianza movement made national headlines with the June 1967, armed takeover of the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse in which a state police officer was shot while they demanded that wrongs perpetrated over Spanish land grants be righted.
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and gave the U.S. a huge swath of the present-day Southwest states, ensured the property rights of Mexican subjects who were previously Spanish subjects before Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821.
Tijerina’s efforts were not universally accepted. Many northern New Mexico locals and politicians downplayed Tijerina’s diatribes as “tonterías” or “craziness,” said Roybal.
“Tijerina and his courthouse raid essentially hooked me on journalism,” said Roybal. The raid plays into his fiction “a lot in terms of background if nothing else,” he said. Taking photos and notes, Roybal was thrown into covering the raid alongside veteran editor Jim Maldonado and the event showed the young reporter the importance of speaking Spanish “and learning how to communicate with others who spoke Spanish.”
Roybal lives with his wife, Marlena, in a four-room adobe home in Cundiyó that his grandfather completed in 1911, the year before New Mexico gained statehood. His grandparents had 14 children, of which Roybal’s mother was one, and he recalled family meals in the little house during his childhood.
Every Sunday, “I would sit down and listen to grandparents and uncles telling fantastic stories, always in Spanish.” He then dedicated himself to learning the mother tongue. The house eventually passed out of the family, but then Roybal saw a newspaper ad for the home and he exchanged his Santa Fe home for it.
Writing books – and he prefers nonfiction – is a labor of love for Roybal. Through David Roybal Communications, which published the novella, he said he finds satisfaction in the connections he makes with people in the small mountain communities near Cundiyó. Roybal gave a copy of “Ghosts” to the Truchas library for their permanent collection and the librarian emailed him asking help in identifying people in photographs from his prior five non-fiction books.
“These people suddenly feel like they matter, like they count … and that’s fantastic,” Roybal said.
His hope and belief is that “Ghosts” will have social significance beyond New Mexico and the Southwest, and a recent note indicates the novella’s verisimilitude has struck a cross-country chord.
A woman from New Hampshire purchased a copy at the Rancho Chimayó restaurant gift shop and Roybal received a note from her, reading, “I hope this book finds a national audience because it has national importance in its social relevance,” Roybal said, paraphrasing.
Roybal meshes, in a two-pronged approach, a mystery with protagonist and Rio Arriba County Sheriff Jimmy Silva trying to solve the murder of an elderly rancher that smacks of land grant trouble, with a pantheon of real-life folks named in the book, including Barack Obama, Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe, Freddy Fender, and New Mexico politicians Emilio Naranjo, Toney Anaya and Jerry Apodaca. “Ghosts” allows “fiction to move tauntingly close to the true life,” said Roybal.
The book is laced with quintessentially New Mexican photographs, many taken by Roybal, such as massive firewood piles, Tierra Amarilla adobes blanketed in snow and the weathered faces of the ancianos.
“Ghosts” is multi-layered. “If cultural preservation is a major thread in the book so, too, is environmental preservation,” Roybal wrote in an email. “I tied them together in an attempt to show how common interests often can get lost amid conflicting approaches,” he wrote.
Immigration is also a subplot. “The story tells how, with immigration, as with so many other issues, the wealthy and influential often have access to paths that so many others can only dream of,” Roybal wrote. “If, while addressing that issue, I was able to convey a bit of a feel for life in Mexico, then good.”
Roybal spends time in the Mexican state of Nayarit, where he has a home and has been recognized by state education officials there “for his contributions to education in Mexico,” according to the book’s notes.
In 2008, he was able to acquire 235 used computers from Santa Fe schools and an Albuquerque law firm, which were transported to the border where Mexican officials delivered them to Nayarit and they were distributed to vocational schools, Roybal said by email.
Roybal hopes readers will take from the book the importance of preserving a culture and way of life. “This is one of the few remaining places in the United States where you’ve got this very unique population of Hispanic Americans who, as this constant churning in society occurs around them, find themselves in this region of northern New Mexico and recognizing that this might be their last hold on something they can call theirs,” he said.
But still, like a ghost from past decades, a sign in a pasture near Tierra Amarilla reads: “Tierra o muerte (Land or death)” and includes an image of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.