SANTA FE, N.M. — Each individual life has its own drama and comedy.
Along the Rio Puerco, that included widowed grandfathers losing money to scheming women. Relatives felled by disease and suicides. Shy romances and stumbling clergy. A little witchcraft and a lot of religion.
Nasario Garcia interviewed 40 to 50 people from the Rio Puerco valley during the 1970s, recording their memories in a book of oral histories from the area where he spent his preteen years – a patchwork of tiny villages that residents later abandoned reluctantly in search of a more workable livelihood.
Shebana Coelho has woven many of those stories into a play that will bring new life onstage to those old times, with actors representing the viejitos who shared their tales with their native son. “When the Stars Trembled in Río Puerco” will be performed this weekend and next at Teatro Paraguas in Santa Fe.
Coelho said the inspiration for the piece came after she heard Garcia talk about his book, “Recuerdos de Los Viejitos, Tales of the Río Puerco Valley,” at Collected Works Bookstore.
“Something about the way Nasario told the stories just popped – it felt like theater to me,” she said. She got his book and read it, with visions rising in her mind of people delivering monologues in a spotlight on an otherwise dark stage.
The play evolved into an interactive presentation, with families and friends gathered around a kitchen table, telling their stories to an imaginary Garcia, occasionally shifting to act them out as if they were occurring in the present. Projections on a sheet at the back of the stage show scenes from the real location, some of its people and some of its ruins.
Coelho traveled with Garcia to the valley, situated mainly in Sandoval County west of the Jemez Mountains, where he pointed out the spots where tales told in his book actually occurred.
“There is just enough left for it to be real evocative, real poignant,” she said. “The stories are so alive up there.”
Garcia’s delight in seeing this way of life reappear onstage is evident.
“To me, it is truly inspiring to hear the words of the old-timers as projected by actors,” he said. “I remember these people’s voices. I still remember their anecdotes … .”
“As far as I know, they’ve all passed on,” he said of his interviewees. “The last one to die was three years ago; she was 92. They’re all gone.”
Getting the stories
Surprisingly, the idea to collect the stories came to Garcia when he was doing doctoral work at the University of Granada in Spain. Browsing a bookstore, he came across a slim volume that included interviews with people from his little valley, including a dear friend of his grandfather.
But the tale’s details were not the same as the way his grandfather had told it to him, said Garcia, now retired from an academic career and living in Santa Fe.
“That inspired me to think about that these people must have something to talk about,” he said.
So when he came back to New Mexico, he started talking to some of the people from his childhood home.
His first interview was with his maternal grandparents – “he was 96, she was 89,” Garcia said. “It was one of the most memorable interviews I ever had.”
Toward the end, he asked his grandfather when he got married, only to be told that it was so long ago, he couldn’t remember. The bristling grandmother informed them it was Dec. 12, 1898. They were approaching their 75th wedding anniversary.
“If you’re going to embarrass me like that, tell your grandson what happened the day after we were married,” Garcia said his grandfather told his wife.
It turned out that, after a full day of work, his grandfather came home to find no sign of his supper or of his new bride. “He was fit to be tied,” Garcia said. His grandfather found her in the bedroom.
“There was my grandmother, playing with dolls. She was 13 years old.”
Garcia’s own storytelling is vivid and mesmerizing, incorporating many details and often recreating conversations from the past. (“My memoir comes out next year,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.)
He said he was born in Bernalillo “at my grandma’s insistence: ‘My first grandchild will not be born in that uncivilized country!'”
At 6 months old, he was taken back to that “uncivlized country,” his parents’ Ojo del Padre home southeast of Chaco Canyon. They left that place again in 1945, coming to Martineztown in Albuquerque.
Many other people eventually left, partly in response to land grant issues and government regulations. Part of the play re-enacts federal agents telling families they had to shoot their cows and sheep – or watch the agents shoot them – because they had too many for the land to support. If they didn’t comply, they would lose their grazing permits for lands they had used for years without government control.
Around the same time, years of drought made subsistence untenable.
But things weren’t much easier after they left. “Nine of us were in a room, 12 by 15 feet, for four years,” Garcia said of his family after first coming to Martineztown. “It was very difficult.”
After his father saved enough money, they moved to Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, he said.
“I had a happy childhood. My mother was a very happy person,” Garcia said. “She died at age 52. She married at 15. In those years, she packed in more than most people do in a lifetime.”
“When the Stars Trembled in Río Puerco” has had a staged reading in Dixon. To help develop it and bring it to completion, Coelho successfully used an Indiegogo campaign to raise money from interested people.
“This was a way for the community to literally invest in their stories,” she said. “It was many people giving very little over the course of months.”
Besides words from the interviewees, the play includes a tape Garcia recorded of an old man singing a mournful song associated with funerals.
“I asked if he would say one for me,” he said of the traditional laments. There was a long pause. “Then out of the blue, he started singing. It lasted no more than two or three minutes. By the time he finished, tears were rolling down his cheeks.”
The play takes its title from one of the recuerdos included in the book and script.
The character Bencés, talking to Garcia in the play, says: “Things are different now, Nasario. We are so far away from the land … . Before, do you know what we used to do? … We used to go out on the land. Every day. We would go out. Listen to the river. Listen to the silence. Put our feet on earth … .
“No matter if the stars were trembling from cold, we would go out on the land, sleep in our blankets and whatnots. Or we would look up at those stars. Trembling from cold.”