Veins of Turquoise:
Migration, Immigration, and Language
On the desert horizon at dusk, where red rock meets lapis sky, at the seam of the union, runs a band of turquoise, recumbent upon the land’s great darkness. The color is transient. Before night falls, blue-green is the last quantum of visible light to pass through the atmosphere without scattering. It can draw a person right down into the skin of the world. The tidal pull of light can shape an entire life. Every heart-warmed pulse of blood and breath. ~ Ellen Meloy, Anthropology of Turquoise
When I close my eyes and think of my first experience with turquoise, in an instant I am back on the Cascabel ranch of my childhood in southeastern Arizona. A mature cottonwood tree stood outside the front of the house, a large rock threaded with turquoise rested at its base. I stepped on the rock to climb up the tree, walk across the rusted metal pipe lodged in the branches to walk onto the roof of our house. From the roof, the valley and sheer bluffs behind our home opened before me. When I think of turquoise, I think of home, sky, sun, family, and roots. I think of myself as a little girl, laying on my back on the roof of the ranch house, and all was right with the world.
What is your earliest memory of turquoise? Close your eyes. Where are you? What memories, scents, feelings?
Santa Fe, New Mexico 2010
“You’re not even American. You’re taking away our jobs. Speak English!”
Saraí, a young Mexican woman, sought after and brought to the United States to teach in a bilingual education program to provide much-needed Spanish language content and literacy to students, wept as she told me, her mentor teacher, what had happened at her school that day.
Earlier that morning, another teacher came into her room, and told her, “Shut the door.” Saraí closed the door and the woman moved in front to block any exit.
“You’re not even an American citizen. Why are you teaching here? You’re taking away our jobs. You have no right. You don’t even speak English! You’re disgusting.” Saraí ran past the blocked doorway and went into the hall, where a waiting group of teachers burst into applause. They looked at Saraí and laughed.
Later that afternoon, Saraí and I sat in a café, and she told me, “Ellas no piensan de mí como un ser humano, como una persona, maestra, professional (They don’t think of me as a human being, as a person, teacher, professional.) The only thing they care about is if I’m an American citizen. I don’t understand. Somos todas Hispanas (We’re all Hispanic.)” What Saraí was now living and being introduced to, was the Us and Them chasm that exists in the United States today—with the Them firmly focused on Mexican immigrants. New Mexico governor Susana Martínez won the latest election by basing much of her campaign on anti-immigration promises. Martinez was supported by both Anglos and Hispanics in the state, highlighting the depth of complexities running through these issues.
Saraí had been treated this way for months, yet never had she said a word to any of the other teachers at the school.
“De lo que tengo más, más, más miedo (What I am most, most, most afraid of) is that the district is going to decide that I’m a problem teacher, and they are going to send me back to Mexico, before my contract is finished,” she said. A conversation she’d had the day before, however, changed the way she would handle this treatment.
“When I went to the bank to open an account, the bank teller asked me what I did, so I explained to him that I was a teacher,” Saraí told me.
“When I was a child, I hated school,” he said. “I hated it.”
“Why did you hate school, when there are so many nice teachers like me?”
“In school, we were only allowed to speak English. Everything was in English, and I didn’t understand. In my home, we spoke only Spanish. I was the oldest child and wanted my parents to be proud of me. And, no matter how hard I tried, because everything was in English, I failed again and again. I just wanted to make them proud.”
“Así se perjudica a los niños (In so doing, children are hurt),” Saraí said. “They make it so they don’t feel comfortable in school, and then they blame them when they fail. No es solo yo (It isn’t just me). It’s the 83 percent of students in this school who are Mexican. If the teachers talk like this about me, because I’m Mexican, how are they treating their students?” Her hands trembled, as she spoke. “Pero ya no me dejo más (I won’t take it anymore). No more. I’m still scared, but I won’t take it anymore. I need to defend myself, and in doing this, I’ll defend the students in this school. And do you know what’s ironic about all of this? My dad is American.”
When you look through a kaleidoscope, each tiny piece of cut glass portrays a scene―a reflection of the whole complete unto itself. As you turn the kaleidoscope, identical tiny scenes play out before your eyes, each mirroring the others. What happened to Saraí and her students is one scene in the current kaleidoscope of our nation, mirrored thousands of times throughout the United States. Saraí’s hands trembled against the white ceramic cup she held, as she reeled from the very human effects of the anti-immigrant feelings that are so predominant in the United States. Turquoise teardrop earrings framed her face.
Turquoise—the stone carried for centuries along the north-south corridor connecting what is now southern Mexico with the southwest United States. The stone’s formation occurs exclusively in arid areas. Volcanic disturbances are necessary to make the fissures in the rocks where water must run through copper, aluminum, phosphates, and iron to create veins of turquoise throughout the surrounding rocks. These veins thread the body of our land, all interconnected as our physical body. These veins know no borders.
Across time and cultures, people cherish turquoise. The Zuni people associate turquoise with supreme life-giving power. Blue turquoise is associated with Father Sky and green turquoise with Mother Earth. Powdered turquoise accompanies prayer.
The Diné or Navajo hold turquoise as one of the four sacred stones (abalone, white shell, turquoise, and black jet): Hunters carried turquoise in their hunts, and warriors carried turquoise to ensure victory and a safe return. A bead of turquoise fastened to a lock of hair is worn as protection from lightning and
snakebite. For the Pueblo people, turquoise is the Sky Stone, associated with good fortune and protection for the wearer.
One can see turquoise-colored doors across the Southwest, coming originally from the Moors, through Spain, as protection from evil entering the home. And what color is the robe of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the original depictions of her?
Like the turquoise running north, for centuries immigration has run not east to west, but south to north and north to south. When the Spanish conquistadors encountered the Aztec empire and headed north hundreds of years before Plymouth Rock was a twinkle in any pilgrim’s eye, they traveled well-worn paths. The turquoise-embedded mask of Moctezuma, that legend says Moctezuma wore when meeting Córtez, was made of turquoise from the Cerrillos mine in what is now New Mexico (Foxx & Karasik, 1993).
The wave of history carried these migrations over thousands of years. Twenty-thousand-year-old campsites dot the Southwest, an area known historically by the Nahuatl word of Aztlán, meaning “Homeland.” According to legend, the migration from the current Southwest—Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada—began in 1064, the year of a volcanic explosion in Sunset Crater, Arizona. The descendants of original Cochise people migrated south, away from their homeland, to live along the banks of Lake Texcoco, near today’s Mexico City. The Uzo-Aztecan languages of Mexico and Central America stemmed from the language of the Cochise people.
Atzlán is the Nahuatl word for “people from Aztlan,” ancestral homeland of the Nahuatl people. It has come to represent “homeland.” After the Spanish conquest, stories of Aztlán grew to represent a paradise in the north, a primary element in drawing the conquistadores north.
Now let us go.
Vámonos, vámonos. (Let us go, let us go)
Un pájaro cantó. (A bird sang)
Con sus ocho tribus salieron (With his eight tribes they left)
de la “cueva del origen.” (the cave of origin)
Los aztecas siguieron al dios (The aztecs followed their god.)
~ Gloria Anzaldúa
After the arrival of the Spanish, legendary tales of this homeland became a key element drawing the Spaniards north―something to think about the next time you hear people, when referring to Mexicans, saying, “They should just go back to where they came from!”
“I was pulled over by an Anglo policeman in Phoenix,” said Latina author Stella Pope Duarte. “He asked how long I’d been here. ‘Well, my mother’s side of the family has been here for 30,000 years. My father’s side of the family settled Tucson in the early 1800s. How about yourself?’
Migration abruptly became immigration with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, when a border was drawn on a map, bisecting the north-south lifelines of the ages. Nobody paid much attention to this for a hundred years. Communities along the Rio Grande continued as they always had, with a constant back and forth across the river. “Nobody had heard of the term immigration. Migration, to them, was when the tuna and the whales cruised up the coast, or when Guacamaya parrots flew up from the south, writes Luis Alberto Urrea in Into the Beautiful North.
“Nobody was ever sure if my grandfather was a U.S. or Mexican citizen. He fought alongside Carranza in 1916 during the Mexican Revolution, when the Carrancistas stole his horse, and he went with them. Nobody really knew on which side of the Rio Grande he was born,” my husband, Noé, said. “Nobody ever really cared either.”
And the migration continues. My brother-in-law,
Amadeo, stood with another man looking at the newly constructed fence, running a section of the border between Texas and Mexico.
“This fence is 13 feet high,” the man shook his head, “and all people do is bring a 14-foot ladder.”
“Well, don’t be surprised!” Amadeo exclaimed. “These are the people who built temples, mapped the stars, invented the concept of zero, for God’s sake. You think a 13-foot fence means anything to them?”
Now, the borderlands are enacting anti-immigrant laws, and the state of Arizona is banning books deemed…deemed what? How does one rationalize entering classrooms and removing books such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire; Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,by Rodolfo Acuña; 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, edited by Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez; Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement, by Arturo Rosales; and Critical Race Theory, by Richard Delgado, from the shelves (Winerip, 2012)? What impact does this have on students, as individuals, on the culture of the classroom, and on our nation?
Gloría Anzaldúa (1987) wrote of these impacts in her poem:
1,950 mile-long open wound
dividing a pueblo, a culture,
running down the length of my body,
staking fence rods in my flesh,
splits me splits me
me raja me raja
This is my home
This thin edge of
“The US – Mexican border es una herida abierta (an open wound),” continues Anzaldúa, “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms to hemorrage again, the lifeblood of two worlds merge to form a third country—a border culture.” She chose the word nepantalismo, the Aztec word meaning torn in two ways, “refugees in a homeland that does not want them.”
“Dearest Infant Lord Jesús, who accompanied by your sainted parents, Mary and Joseph, knew the bitterness of leaving your homeland for Egypt,” begins a tiny prayerbook found in the desert, writes Terry Greene Sterling, “we ask you on behalf of all the children who are homeless immigrants and refugees, these children who suffer as you once suffered, we ask that their parents find work, food and a home, and that they always be received with love, that outsiders they meet treat them as brothers, and that you please keep their bodies and souls safe.”
People continue to die in this open wound. Since 2001, the bodies of more than 1,750 men, women, and children have been discovered in the desert or mountains of southern Arizona. Millions upon millions of dollars spent on fences and roads—fences not designed in many places to truly stop immigration. Noé and I walked the Arizona/Mexico border with our friends, Walt and Pam. Because of his job, Walt was able to take us to areas few are allowed to go. We saw the open Normandy fences, the desert floor littered with empty water bottles, clothes, and heartbreakingly, diapers. A worn circular path of tire tracks line the Mexico side of the fence. I wonder at the real design of intention of these fences so clearly not designed to be effective.
“Do you see those roads over there?” Walt asked. “The road on the right was built for about $10,000 and is in excellent condition. Homeland Security is spending millions to build the road 100 yards away.”
Coyote’s gone with most of our money
And all of our hope.
Left us just this side
Home feels like heaven
Compared to this.
I know the buzzards overhead
Hold salvation in their kiss.
It’s this bad, crazy sun
That makes me think like that.
I lost my mind
And I lost my soul
And I know
That I’m never going home. ~ The Sidewinders
For centuries before this barbwire of a border, veins of turquoise bound us together—and bind us still. In timeline, measured to represent the years passed, the tiny blink of an eye since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo stands in stark contrast to the tens of thousands of years people traveled these veins of turquoise. We seem to forget the history of the land and the people who brought us here. No law can erase the centuries of land and body memory of these connections.
Each person holds the potential to bring these connections into the present. Saraí succeeded in defending her students and went on to create an environment of pride in Spanish and culture, high expectations, and a love of literature, self, and family in her kindergarten classroom.
Two years after Saraí and I spoke of what had happened that morning, Noé and I sat, not in a café, but in a courtyard filled with the blossoms of spring and sprays of purple flowers, as she married Rodrigo, a teacher from Spain. The complex web of our history, present and future—coming together over a unity candle. We watched as Rodrigo slipped the gold and turquoise wedding band on her finger. Behind us sat our friend, Jesús Reveles, the director of bilingual education for the school district. Jesús was born and raised in Zacatecas and Tijuana, before moving to the United States as a teenager. He told me years earlier, “These ideas take me back to 1492. They shine light on an area that no one wants to look at or talk about.” Our history is our present. These relationships and connections continue to grow and shape us.
The volcanic disturbances we experience now are political and legal, creating fissures and divisions on immigration. Somehow the real people these laws affect get lost—figuratively and literally—in the desert as words fill the air. Enough people have died.
Let us remember the symbolism of turquoise that spans cultures and centuries.
These veins of turquoise thread our land.“Colors bear the metaphors of entire cultures,” wrote Ellen Meloy. Let us create turquoise in the political and social fissures surrounding immigration and languages, as the land does amidst geographical eruptions. If turquoise is the stone of spirit, of healing, of prosperity, of protection, of journey, of safety, and of homecoming, then let us bring it to the land and our people. Let us create policies of healing, of humanity, of Spirit. Let our policies recognize the vast arc of time, policies that honor the journey of turquoise throughout the ages.
The land carries the memory of centuries of connections, centuries of journeys, centuries of Spirit under one sky, one turquoise sky.
If colors do bear the metaphors of entire cultures, let our color be turquoise.
Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands, La Frontera: The new mestiza. Aunt Lute Books. San Francisco, CA
Foxx, J. J., & Karasik, C. (1993). The Turquoise Trail: Native American jewelry and culture of the Southwest. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.
Meloy, E. (2002). The anthropology of turquoise: Reflections on desert, sea, stone, and sky. Vintage Books. New York, NY
Winerip, M. (2012, March 19). Racial lens used to cull curriculum in Arizona. The New York Times. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/19/education/racial-lens-used-to-cull-curriculum-in-arizona.html?pagewanted=all
Originally published in the BEIS Newsletter Bilingual Basics, edited by Francisco Ramos.
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