The faces of my ancestors are both luminous and shadowy. I'm standing in a long line, holding the memory of their hands. My own hands are bone and muscle, sinew and threadlike veins of blood. We're dreaming about each other or maybe playing a game of "telephone," hundreds of years old. You know, where one person whispers a message or story to another, who then whispers it to the next person in line. Pass it on. The message is changed, perhaps only slightly but continually, until it has created a new language, a different shape of itself. Or maybe the words become the dimple in your mother's cheek or the stubborn cowlick in your sister's hair. Still, there is a connection of breath, heart, mind, and spirit.
Not one of my immediate ancestors was a professional storyteller, yet all told stories about our families, and collectively the stories of their lives have influenced me.
I'm half Indian and half white. Most people assume it's my mother who is Indian. Not so. My mother's grandparents came from Vinica (Slovenia), Fai Della Paganella (alpine Italy), and Curciu (Romania). For sociopolitical reasons, they all probably spoke German in addition to their national languages. They were two men and two women, traveling individually from their small villages to the end of the earth: Butte, Montana. They came in the late 1890s: Johanna Ostronic, Joseph Kambic, Elizabeth Yaeger, Eugenio Endrizzi.
Like many young men, Eugenio Endrizzi intended to work for a few years in America, make his fortune, and return to Italy. In Butte, he met Elizabeth Yaeger, and they married and had children (my grandfather, William Eugene "Papa Billy," was one of them). Eugenio had already sent his family back to Italy when he was killed in a mining accident on October 11, 1905. He was thirty-eight.
I have a copy of the newspaper article about his death. The headline reads: Dead Miners Careless. Below that it says "Endrizzi and O'Neill failed to follow instructions of the shift boss."
Further headlines add: Crushed Beneath Tons of Rock in Speculator Mine.
The detailed article goes on to say that "suddenly and without warning, an immense quantity of rock came down from the hanging wall and caught O'Neill and Endrizzi. One of them spoke a few words after falling, but the other appeared to be dead."
I'd like to think it was my great-grandfather passing on that message, speaking his last few words. What did he say? I'm still listening. Maybe my son was learning as he arranged his rock collection. The beauty of each rock was formed under certain immense pressures in the heart of the earth. Each rock exists, singular in its own beauty, and ageless. Like people.
Eugenio's widow and children returned to that raw city of bricks and trees burnt leafless by the sulfuric acid in the air. Butte was a city of great wealth, vitality, and death. A town that heaved itself up and out of the earth, home to immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Scandinavia. My mother was born there.
Her name is Jean and she is Papa Billy's daughter. She's fair-skinned with amber-colored eyes and blondish brown hair. I have photos of her when she was a little girl, wearing her blond hair in a Dutch-boy haircut. She's told me how she played on the mine tailings.
Shortly before World War II, she moved to Long Beach, California, and worked in the naval shipyards, drafting. She was very good at it. The blue lines were clean, neat, and precise.
My maternal grandmother, Ann, or Nana, was also a quiet woman. Deeply religious, she tried to get me to go to mass. My mother wouldn't let her. Even so, I grew up with ideas and experiences in both Catholic and Protestant churches. Nana was ninety-two when she died in 1994, and she taught me a lot about patience. She was a nurse in a time when nurses were instructed how to formulate their own disinfectants and told how to prepare a kitchen for a woman's birth labor. She was born in Butte, Montana.
She was a good shot; they called her "Annie Oakley." But she was also fearful, didn't like taking risks, avoided changes. I have tried to follow my mother's example of saying yes to life's possibilities. Still, I can understand my grandmother. In her lifetime, the world went through changes tremendous and frightening to the timid soul.
Her husband, my Papa Billy, was a steamfitter by trade and an inventor by inclination. He invented an ore classifier used in the Montana mines.
He had a rock collection: stunning purple crystals and clusters of yellow crystals that caught and refracted the light. We set them all on our mantel. Blue-green rocks—copper—that we were warned not to lick. Solid "fool's gold," or pyrite, which made our childish eyes glitter. Heavy chunks of lead. I learned the names of rocks before I learned my multiplication tables.
Although Papa Billy's father had been killed in that mining accident, he was fascinated with the deep earth—and the deep sea. Papa Billy invented a nuclear-powered submarine with a conical-shaped hull. I still have all his patent drawings. I can see his drafting table, set square in the golden light of a lace-curtained window. Pens. Straightedge. Crumbly erasers. A small penknife to sharpen thin-leaded pencils. The implements of his creativity were just as exciting to me as his creations.
Someday I'd like to write a book about my mother's side of the family.
My father, Alexander Raymond Diaz, was Yaqui. A full-blood with a dark moon face and hair so black it shone blue at times. When he met my mother, he was a divorced motorcycle mechanic for the Long Beach Police Department. After they were married, they tried to buy a house, but because he was Indian, no one would sell one to him. And because my mother was a woman, she wasn't allowed to buy one either.
I wrote about this in "La Morena as the Sad-Eyed Jaguar Priest." La Morena means "the dark woman." and she is one aspect of the female presence in many of the poems and prose poems I have included in this book. I am also related to the Moreno family. My godfather was Alex Moreno (see the poem "Anonymous Is Coyote Girl"). Additionally, the Virgin of Guadalupe is known as "La Morenita," which is an affectionate way of saying "the little dark one," since she is of indio blood.
"Someday, your daughter's going to write about this," La Morena promises in "La Morena as the Sad-Eyed Jaguar Priest." "Doesn't matter if she gets it the way it really happened. Nothing happens the way we remember it."
While collecting stories for this book, I asked relatives for their memories and discovered that people remember things differently. One story might be told three different ways, filtered by individual perceptions and by time. I was intrigued by something Stravinsky said: that we live by memory, not by truth. In gathering material for this book, I learned that the truth is not often found in fact. The reporting of history is always subjective, no matter who is telling it. This discovery freed me: I was able to figure out how I wanted to approach my family history—as fact or fiction? Long troubled by the question, I decided to do it in both ways. This book, therefore. is history, myth, family anecdotes, poetry, and short stories, and they are all the same thing.
Yaquis have had centuries of contact with Europeans. The first Spaniard went through in about 1533 on a slave-raiding expedition. Another explorer, Francisco de Ulloa, saw "naked people " and smoke signals on the beach as he sailed up the Gulf of California sometime between 1539 and 1541. There have been periods of relative peace, but consider this: at one time, there were thirty thousand Yaquis living in eighty rancherias. Three hundred years later, there were only ten thousand left. For better and for worse, Spanish culture, language, and religion have influenced Yaqui culture.
Other tribes in the region have fared worse. Of the ten original Cahita-speaking tribes, only the Mayos and Yaquis survived.
The Yaquis have lived near the Rio Yaqui in northwestern Sonora for thousands of years. In fact, one name given to us is Ria Hiaqui, which means "People Who Shout across the River." Another name used by native speakers is Yoemem. It means "the People."
My father's parents, Carlotta Ramos and Emiterio (Meetah) Diaz, were Yaquis from Mexico. It was a terrible time. Just before my grandparents were born, more than one hundred Yaquis were burned to death in a church in Bacum, one of the eight Yaqui pueblos. This is what happened: six hundred men, women, and children surrendered to a Mexican colonel, who ordered four hundred fifty of them into the church. The others were let go. He kept ten leaders as hostages and promised that if there were any attempts to escape, all hostages would be shot. He trained his artillery on the church door. I tell about this in the poem "Red at Bacum."
There were constant battles against the Mexican government and the soldiers, the federales, who enforced the tax collections and took away Yaqui rights and land. Reprisals against the Yaquis included deportation to Yucatan, enslavement, rape, murder, and starvation. My grandfather, Meetah, was just a boy when he saw his father murdered by Mexicans. Meetah escaped by hiding under the porch and later walked north. In "Bones Resembling My Grandfather," I relate how he "scooped up handfuls of mud and made a turban of wet earth" as he crossed the Salton Sea. This is how he avoided sunstroke. Since the Salton Sea wasn't formed until after 1905-1906, when the area was flooded by the releasing of a dike damming the Colorado River, he must have been there after that date.
In 1886, when Carlotta was a child. the Yaquis suffered a defeat at the hands of the Mexican general Carbo, military commander of Sonora. Two hundred Yaquis died and two thousand became prisoners of war. Diseases claimed the lives of many civilian Yaquis. Many Yaquis were settled in the eight pueblos, under the control of the government, but the majority left the Yaqui Valley, seeking work and freedom. Some fled to the rugged Bacatete Mountains. They raided the Mexicans and the pueblo Yaquis.
In 1900, General Torres battled the mountain Yaquis and killed four hundred men. Many others committed suicide by jumping off cliffs. More than a thousand women and children were forced to march down the trail. Most died along the way. This is called the Massacre of Mazocoba. Only eighteen federales were killed and sixty wounded. Thirty-five guns were taken from the Yaquis during the "battle."
By 1907, Yaquis were a cash commodity, selling for sixty pesos a head to the owners of henequen plantations in Yucatan and sugar fields in Oaxaca.
Many Yaquis left Mexico at this time, some fleeing to Arizona, refugees from their homeland, always hoping they would be able to return. My grandparents (separately, since they were not married at this time) went to California.
Although Yaqui history continued hand in hand with Mexican history (in 1910 the Mexican Revolution changed the country), my grandparents had removed themselves from those dangers—and begun to merge with American history and culture.
The Arizona Yaquis maintained a more unified identity as a tribal people than did those who lived in California, who blended into a Mexican American identity. My grandparents struggled with making a living and raising children. Although my father grew up knowing he was Yaqui and heard the family stories, he was not political. Even after my parents divorced and he moved to Green Valley. Arizona, he didn't participate in the Yaqui effort to establish a reservation outside of Tucson. Instead, he was busy with his nursery business and raising my two younger half- siblings. In ill health for a number of years, he died in 1979. the same year the Pascua reservation was approved by the federal government.
My grandmother Carlotta Ramos came to the United States before 1916 (when my father was born here)—probably around 1902. An astute businesswoman, she later owned property in several California counties: produce fields and houses for field workers. She carried her money wrapped up in her shawl. My father clearly remembered the early days, when they all had to pick lettuce and strawberries and walnuts in order to survive. They went as far as San Francisco, working in the fields.
Carlotta had been raped by Mexican soldiers. I wrote about it in the poem "Angelina," which appears in Part Two of this book. A bad thing happened to Carlotta, but by all accounts she was a good and kind person. She was not the bad thing. She was stronger than that.
Carlotta's father, Pedro Ramos, had been a merchant in Sonora. He had a caravan of burros loaded with supplies that he traded and sold along the coast near Guaymas, Sonora. It is possible that he was also a smuggler, perhaps a gunrunner for the Yaquis in the mountains.
Pedro was murdered, "shot by Mexicans dressed as Indians," according to family legend. This phrase always made me wonder until I learned more about Yaqui history. I think that the mountain Yaquis had a disdain for the pueblo Yaquis and would have characterized them as "Mexicans dressed as Indians." In other words, the pueblo Yaquis may have dressed like other Yaquis but were really Mexican at heart, living and accepting Mexican rule. Or perhaps he was simply shot by Mexican bandits.
In any case, his wife, my great-grandmother Estefana Garica, marched to the local law authority. With a gun on each tiny hip, she demanded that he find the killers or die himself.
Another story is told about her. She had a tooth pulled—and it was the wrong one. She swore she'd kill the "dentist." For more about her, read "Estefana's Necklace of Bullets."
My Yaqui grandmothers were strong women, educated, clever, and fearless. Carlotta was also graceful, exceedingly beautiful, and kind. She fed hoboes, loved music (she played the twelve-string guitar), and sang. She was only four feet, eleven inches tall, with masses of dark hair piled up on top of her head. Her eyes were deep black. I have her photo on my office wall, next to one of her husband, Meetah. He's posed stiffly in a suit, with a shock of unruly hair escaping out from under a dark hat. He didn't like Mexicans. He lived his life like an Indian, he'd say to anyone. He could easily lift four hundred pounds, according to my father. Meetah was five-ten and stocky. As a young man, he trained horses all over California and Arizona. He died from a hit-and-run accident in the middle of the night in Long Beach, California, on September 19, 1937. He'd probably been drinking. I wrote about it in "Grandfather Sun Falls in Love with a Moon-Faced Woman." The story is actually a retelling of an old Yaqui story about the sun falling in love with the moon, but I wove it into our family history.
Meetah owned a junkyard that now is just part of the neighborhood across the street from the Long Beach Community Hospital, where I was born. His was a long journey; from his experience as a boy witnessing his father, Valentino, being murdered by soldiers to the experiences of a man living not far from Hollywood, town of illusions and fantasy.
Valentino also dealt with his father's death. Valentino and his brother and father had been up in the mountains in Sonora, hunting for honey, when something happened. I don't know what, maybe a heart attack or a fall down the mountain trail. The boys had to bury their father there among the red rocks and crumbling earth.
Diaz is not a Yaqui name but one given to our family. It is a Mexican name, specifically that of the Mexican president Porfirio Diaz, who was in power from 1876 to 1910. Sometime during that period, we acquired that last name. I was born Anita Diaz. Other family surnames were Flores, Garica, and Ramos—all Mexican names, not Yaqui. Many Yaquis had both a Yaqui name and a Mexican name, along with nicknames by which they were more commonly known. My childhood nickname was "Stormy." My Indian name, given to me shortly after my birth, is Desert Rose.
Life was hard for my ancestors. They didn't live long. But I know about them through the stories we still tell. There are not enough stories; I always want to hear more. I want to understand them and learn more about them and myself. I want my children, Aaron and Maja, to know them also. That's why I write and paint, to pass it on.
The history of words is the history of people. People define and are defined by their language. If you study languages, you learn about war, religion, adventure, and spirit. I think it is interesting that scholars studying Indian languages today are coming to realize that the great diversity of languages in this hemisphere supports the idea that we have been here a lot longer than the accepted, academic starting point of 11,500 years ago (the Clovis timetable). Indeed, recent research has agreed that native people have been here for about 45,000 years. The voice of a people truly is their history.
My father never spoke Yaqui. When he was young, he was ashamed of being Indian. He didn't want to listen to the old stories. And yet he liked to tell us about what life was like "in the old days." My younger half-sister, Rondi (who was born in Farmington, New Mexico, on March 15, 1959), told me how our father would go skinny-dipping in the ocean and the police would take his clothes. He traveled with his family in a buckboard wagon into Los Angeles. He was, she says, great at storytelling, funny, and generous. Rondi says, "I see him with both the eyes of an adult and the memory of a child. When I was little, he was wonderful. He'd sing for me and let me blow up the muscles on his arm by blowing hard on his thumbs." But he also ran around with other women and was a "happy drunk." For sometime he was separated from her mother, and he lived for a while in New Mexico. We have a picture of him giving a corn grinding demonstration at Chaco Canyon.
Rondi says, "He claimed to be a Catholic. Other times, he' d talk of the Happy Hunting Grounds. If truth be known, he didn't believe in anything. Whatever served his purpose at the moment." Yet she also relates how he became a Christian later in his life and was a changed person: "He became kind, considerate, and humble." She enjoyed being with him then. "So his last days were his happiest. They were my happiest, also, because I found my dad before he died," she told me.
Our father, Alex, was married three times (my mother was the second) and had six legitimate children plus several illegitimate ones. My older half-sister, Mary Francis, has only good memories of him. She still misses him, twenty years after his death. My full sister, Barbara, remembers him not at all. My other two half-siblings, Raymond and Tim, have mixed feelings about our father.
My parents' marriage was very troubled. We lived for a while in Merlin, Oregon, near Grant's Pass. My parents logged their land. I remember napping in a tent covered with crawling caterpillars. I breathed the close, green-tinted, pine-scented air. I heard the milky sighs of my sleeping baby sister, Barbara.
It was a place of violence, I've since learned. I wrote a poem about it, which appears in this book. It's called "My Little Sister's Heart in My Hands."
I remember my father's violence. He scared me. We finally left, my mother secretly stealing away with us girls. We moved around a lot after that. From birth to age eighteen, I lived in thirteen different houses. I went to a different school every year from sixth to twelfth grade. In the poem "Housing Dreams" (in the recently published The Humming of Stars and Bees and Waves) I say, "There's no rhythm / to moving / except the moving." And "we moved / because we were nowhere / better / than tomorrow." For many Indian writers, place is vital. For me, it's been thought and feeling, an emotional landscape. A landscape of dreams and stories. It's been four generations on either side of the family since someone has died where they were born. We have been rootless for more than one hundred years. And yet that restlessness, or desperation for something better, has given us a vitality, a sense of adventure. While I have a Danish husband and my children can find their roots in many countries of the world, we are Americans in the special way in which only those who have Indian blood can connect to this land.