Desert Exposure continues its annual writing contest with submissions from people who harbor a love for this beautiful corner of the world. Many of the 2020 submissions reflect the times we are learning to live with as well as the area we live in. They were all a pleasure to read and the judges had a difficult time choosing between many of the submissions.
Contest winners are determined by points which are accrued according to how the judges rank each piece. This year’s grand prize, “Back Home Again” by Efrem Carrasco, is a bittersweet memoir reflecting not only the Mesilla Valley but the culture and life of southern New Mexico.
Contest honorable mentions in the prose division are “A Lodger’s Death,” by Tom Hester and “Still,” by M. John Fayhee. Each tying the human in us with the environment around us. The two poems ultimately chosen are “What Remains: Pandemic August 2020,” by Beate Sigriddaughter, and “The Wall,” by Alethea Eason, both poignantly reflecting the climate and reality of our current world.
But these are not the only pieces received that touched on our varied lives here, so many submissions brought emotions to the surface, we regret we cannot print them all. We would like to thank all who entered sharing their hearts, ideas and passions with us.
Grand Prize: Back Home Again
By Efrem Carrasco
It has taken me a good part of my life to find my true home. I lived in many places in many states, exiled to most, and always with the sense my existence there were transitory. I was nothing more than a visitor, even when I lived there for many years, never taking stock in any of the cities or towns, and never feeling a connection with them. There was one exception, though, a place where I found comfort and joy, a place with which I felt a strong connection and a true sense of belonging-a place called Las Cruces, New Mexico.
I was born in the heart of west Texas in 1952, and shortly after, we moved to Ysleta, Texas. My first recollection of Las Cruces was at the tender age of two; I was blessed with a great memory. My grandparents moved to Las Cruces in 1949 to work in the pecan orchards at Stahmann farms where my grandfather became a foreman a few years later. Raising all girls, my grandmother wanted a son and I was the only male child available to her at the time. On a warm Sunday morning, I’m told, my grandparents arrived at our home for a visit and by afternoon my things were packed and I was on my way to New Mexico.
The area was covered with pecan trees as far as the eye could see. It was Mesilla, but everyone referred to the area as Las Cruces. From the paved road, now known as Snow Road, we turned onto a dirt road that led us west to a rustic stucco house near the Rio Grande River. It was located in a large open space surrounded by wooden outbuildings. It was a farm, but everyone
called it the ranch. The orchards surrounded the ranch and the trees seemed to stretch out to all eternity to the north and to the south from the house. The ranch seemed far from the main paved road at the time, but as I discovered years later, it was only a mile away. There were only two bed rooms in the house, my grandparents slept in one and their two younger daughters, my aunts, slept in the other. I was small and the sofa in the living room became my bed. The only plumbing in the house was the water pump at the kitchen sink. Business had to be taken care of outside in the outhouse located behind the house and just far enough not to be of any nuisance. Baths were taken in the middle of the kitchen floor in a metal tub filled with hot water carried from the wood burning stove and carried to the tub in a white enamel water basin. No one was allowed inside the house while the adults bathed, but when it was my turn, everyone was inside and watched grandma wash and scrub me. Perhaps that explains my shyness.
Grandpa came home in the evenings and he took me for walks along the Rio Grande, a slow and silent moving stream of brown water heading south to create the border between the United States and Mexico. He pointed out the various species of wildlife, the turtles, whose heads popped out of the water for air, the ducks as they swam in the river and flew off as we neared them. I saw lizards, quail, and roadrunners. One time we saw a fox, which scared me because I thought it would eat me. He took me deep into the orchards, and even though the sun was still out, the dense tress made it dark, ominous, and disorienting. It was a forest to me and I thought it inhabited by big bad wolves, witches, and ogres like the ones I saw in the Fairy tale
books, and it also reminded me of the forest I saw on television in the Wizard of Oz. Grandpa added more to my fear with his story about the huge “Zorro,” (fox) that lurked about at night in search of children for his meals, and the trees that walked and talked. Although I feared the orchards, it was still fun to listen to grandpa’s stories as we walked and picked pecans from the ground and ate them. We returned to the ranch and he let me sit on the red antiquated and rusted tractors parked in the in front yard, and I pretended to drive; this was almost a daily routine. I enjoyed living with my grandparents and I wasn’t only visiting, I lived there for weeks at a time with occasional visits to Ysleta to see my parents.
Apparently, my father was not content with my new status as a resident of New Mexico; he preferred that I be a Texan instead. On a rainy Saturday morning, I was told, my father left the Lone Star State and headed to the Mesilla Valley to regain possession of his son, which actually took a lot of courage because my grandmother was the matriarch of the family and everyone feared her, but like a true Texan, my father stood his ground. Later that day I was back in Texas reunited with my parents. Funny, but no one asked me how I felt about returning home. I continued to stay with my grandparents after that, but only for short periods, and not over a week’s time. Later, when I was about thirteen, my father said to me, “Your mother and I went through the trouble of having you for our pleasure, not for your grandparents’.” It was years later, after a lot of education and mind-expanding, that I finally understood the double entendre of his statement. The visitations to my grandparents’ house continued for a year, but in the spring of 1955, my father decided to start a new career in Arizona. We moved and I lived there for the following twelve years, but that did not detach me from Las Cruces.
In August my father took his vacation and we spent two wonderful weeks at the ranch with my grandparents. He spent only a few days of his vacation in Las Cruces, just enough for a short visit with his in-laws; the rest of the time he spent it in Texas to visit with his parents and other relatives. I played outdoors most of the time, and walked with grandpa in the evenings. Sometimes friends and relatives came to the ranch with their kids to visit us during our stay. I played with the kids; most of them were about my age. To scare them, I told them about the Zorro that lived in the orchards, and it was safe to do so because we were not allowed to go into the orchards or stray far from the house, otherwise I would have had to prove my bravery and venture into that dark forest.
I always enjoyed when my Aunt Martha and Uncle Jorge came to the ranch to visit and then take me with them to their new home in a neighborhood considered upper middle class at the time. I spent half of my vacation with them. Their house was fabulous- a ranch style, painted white with turquoise trim, and an opened porch with a built-in storage shed. The back yard was a desert landscape- flat, then terraced up slope at the back of the property. The entire back yard was enclosed by white-painted cinderblock walls capped with decorative see-thru cinderblock. I had never seen a yard like that before and I thought they were my rich relatives. My aunt was a great cook; breakfast was the usual eggs, potatoes, and bacon. Lunch was light, but dinner was a
feast. Every day the table was topped with a different meal and she cooked a vast variety of dinners ranging from Mexican food to beef wellington and everything in between. What I enjoyed the most about her meals, whether it was breakfast, lunch, or dinner, she served all the meals with her home-made corn flour tortillas- they were the best.
My uncle Jorge always kept the conversations interesting at supper time. He was a civil engineer and a man of erudition; he taught me many things through the years when I spent time with him- he was my sage. Vacation came to an end and the goodbyes were always sad for me; I watched my mother and grandmother embrace tightly with tears in their eyes. When we boarded the car to leave, I sat at the back of our Mercury Station Wagon, by myself, among the luggage. When we left, I faced back towards the city and watched as the Organ Mountains faded into the horizon. I watched them until I could no longer see them, and it would be a year before I saw those mountains again. I laid down, pulled a blanket over my head and silently sobbed for many miles.
For a child, a year was an eternity, but the vacations did eventually come, and they were much the same and they ended the same- with tears. In 1960 my grandparents divorced. Grandma moved into one of the row houses located at the intersection of Snow Road and the private dirt road that led to the ranch where she previously lived. The houses were built for the farm’s employees and their families. The pecan orchards surrounded the housing area, but towards the east was a clear view of the Organ Mountains. I missed the evening walks with my grandfather, but now there were plenty of kids to play with. The foreman of the farm lived in the large house next to my grandmother’s house. He and his wife had many kids, with whom I developed a great friendship for the next several years, and every August they waited for my return, as did the mountains.
By 1964, the kids at the ranch had changed, they were older and taller. I turned twelve, and I learned that with time nothing ever remains the same. The orchards also changed. Fence surrounded them and hundreds, if not thousands, of white geese had been placed in the orchards. There were so many white geese that at night time the ground looked as if covered with snow. I never knew if the farm had gone into the geese business, or if the geese just provided a good source of fertilizer for the pecan trees. Vacations became more fun because my friends and I were able to venture farther from our homes. We played hide and seek among the trees and ate the pecans from the ground. Our biggest adventure was the walk to the Rio Grande River on the private dirt road. It was a long road to travel, but it was a worthy journey. We arrived there and played around the ranch where my grandparents previously lived. The place was abandoned but the old tractors were still there and everything look different from what it looked like when I was four. The wooden buildings were dilapidated and falling over, the flat roof of the adobe house caved in, and the outhouse laid sideways on the ground. The entire place had fallen victim to the sun, the seasons, and time. Time changed everything. That was the last time I played in the
orchards and I never saw my friends again, and it was the last time I saw my grandparent’s old home by the Rio Grande.
1965 came around, and that summer I learned to swim. A couple of weeks after school was out for the year, mom took me to the Greyhound Bus depot and set me on my way to Las Cruces to live with grandma until August. Grandma left the Mesilla Valley and moved into a small home, with her two daughters, on Griggs Avenue across from Klein Park. It was not an active vacation as the others because there were no kids to play with in that neighborhood, but my two aunts and my grandma kept me entertained. I liked to swim and my aunts took me to several swimming pools in town. One of my aunts, who never learned to swim herself, knew the techniques and taught me. My great triumph over water took place at the public pool in Radium Springs. It was up by the side of the mountain, an archaic concrete pool unlike the ones I swam before. The water was not clear and it smelled like algae, but regardless of its condition, I learned to swim in deep water and no longer feared drowning.
On the day of my birthday Grandma took me downtown to shop at the stores on Main Street. She was not the type to buy anything cool that I wanted- like the latest album of the Rolling Stones, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, or even a guitar. No, with her it was always clothes- socks, sweaters, pants, and underwear- because they were utilitarian.
It was an exciting, warm July evening. We parked on Church Street and strolled towards the clamor of Main Street. The Street was aligned with stores of all types. The buildings were of the original red brick with ornate façades, some were stucco-covered adobe buildings standing out as symbols of the southwest and reminders of the Spanish and Mexican heritage of New Mexico. The stores lit up the street and the sidewalks were busy with people as they walked in every direction. Grandma blessed herself as we walked past Saint Genevieve Church, an old church with two towers, one on each side of the main entrance with a cross affixed on top of them. They stood tall and rigid like two guards protecting the church. The doors and windows reminded me of bullets with the pointed ends aimed up towards heaven. My grandmother made me bless myself as reverence for the old symbol of spirituality. While grandma visited Zales Jewelry store, I ventured towards what later became my two favorite places- The State and The Rio Grande movie theaters. I could not resist the delightful aroma of freshly popped popcorn. I loved movies and I loved popcorn. I hoped my grandmother would take me to the movies for my birthday, but she was more inclined to shopping. She bought some nice clothes for me and the evening ended with a milkshake at a drive-in on Church Street near Griggs Avenue, and was walking distance from our house. I took many walks to that drive-in for my cheeseburgers, fries, and chocolate shakes that summer.
Grandmother went to Old Mesilla every Thursday evening to visit with her lady friends. She called it a visit, but to be more precise, it was nothing more than a good old fashion gossip session. The denizens of the town called it Mesilla and that’s what we called it, although it was
very old. Most of the houses were made of adobe covered with water-stained and cracked stucco, an indication of old age. On the road to Mesilla before crossing the canal, stood a brown stucco building- it was a museum and gift shop- and in front was a sign boasting to have the head of Pancho Villa on display. I wanted to go in to see the head of this man who was a hero to some and a bandit to others, but grandma said there was nothing there see and Pancho Villa’s head was not there. Later in a college history class, I heard that the actual missing head of this Mexican Revolution leader was in possession of the Skull and Bones society at Yale University. We continued into town and up to then I had only been on the road from Las Cruces through Mesilla, now called Avenida de Mesilla, numerous times; always driving past the local grocery store, the cantina, and the school. It was the way to get to the ranch house on Snow Road.
This was my first time at the plaza, a town square with a large open grass field centered in the plaza delineated large wood logs on both side of the grass field. At the north end of the plaza stood San Albino Church facing south. The cantina, with the large mural of a Billy the Kid shoot-out that took place there, was on the south side of the plaza, and ironically, facing the church. The shops and stores were aligned on the east and west side and most of them were adobe. All the roads were dirt, including the one that encircled the plaza. It looked like an old town, like the ones I saw in western movies. Grandma told me that covered wagons used to line up on that road around the plaza to deliver or pick up supplies from the trading post, now known as La Posta Restaurant. I joined other kids and we played in the grass area while the women sat on the logs and exchanged stories, I was there every Thursday. The local residents gathered in the plaza in the evenings to shop, attend church, drink at the local cantina, or to visit with friends, it was home to them. Years later Mesilla became a tourist attraction. The rest of my summers, thereafter, were the same until the big change came into my life.
In May of 1968 my parents decided to let me live with my grandmother permanently. It was the biggest change of my life- I had a permanent home in Las Cruces. Grandma bought a mobile home and moved to a mobile home park at the south end of Dona Ana Road near the Hostess day-old bread store. I had a great and active life. I did well in school, I made many friends, and I traveled a lot throughout southern New Mexico. Grandma and I went to White Sands Missile Range to watch the missile demonstrations for Armed Forces Day, picnicked at White Sands Monument, visited Carlsbad Caverns, swam and fished at Elephant Butte, took road trips to Silver City, to see the home of Billy the kid, and drove south to Columbus, New Mexico at the border where Pancho Villa crossed and attacked the town in 1916. We took Sunday drives to Cloud Croft and Ruidoso, and on other weekends we picnicked at the Rio Grande River just outside of Las Cruces.
Every Saturday I walked from my house to either the State or Rio Grande movie theaters where I spent all day and returned home at dusk. It cost seventy-five cents to get into the theater, the popcorn, hotdogs, and sodas were cheap, and the movies were always double features with a cartoon in between, and it was continuous until late at night. During the summers I visited my parents and returned for the school year. In the spring of 1970 grandma bought a parcel of land on Sacramento Street and we moved the mobile home there. I left my hand print and name on the wet concrete pad and it’s still there today. After high school, I attended New Mexico State University and lived in the dorm at Breland Hall- that adventure is a novel in and of itself.
I went to visit my parents in Arizona in the summer of 1971. It was a time of war and though I was doing well in school, my college deferment was rescinded and I was drafted. I enlisted in the U.S. Army, went overseas, and didn’t return to the United States during my entire enlistment. After the fall of Saigon, in 1975, I returned to my parents’ home and attended Arizona State University. What followed was a career, marriage, move to Colorado, kids, divorce and retirement.
Throughout my work career I lived in five cities in California, five in Colorado, and one in Texas. I took vacation time to visit grandma at least twice per year. Improvements had been made to the house and it no longer looked like a mobile home. I saw my grandmother for the last time in the spring of 2002; she passed away in September. My parents moved into her house the following year and I continued to visit them every spring and the fall until 2012, when they moved back to Arizona. My Aunt Martha passed away in 2014, and Uncle Jorge moved to Arizona. There was no one left; everyone moved away and I no longer had familial ties to Las Cruces.
Through all my adult years, I looked for the perfect place to live, a place in which to retire. I considered many places, given that I had a wife and kids, but they preferred to remain in Colorado. Each Time I visited Las Cruces I drove throughout the city and the rural areas with the hope I would have a home there one day. I saw people driving to work, and go about their everyday lives. I thought to myself, how lucky they are, to wake up each day in this place, to work, to play, to see the Organ Mountains, and to live where their whole lives revolved around this great part of New Mexico. That’s what I wanted. I often wondered if these people actually appreciated what they had. Perhaps they just went about their lives too busy to realize what a unique place they live in.
I moved to Texas in 2012 and lived there for seven years. I was only four hours away from Las Cruces, and although I no longer had family to visit, I went there every other week just to be there. I took everything it had to offer; the friendly people, the farmer’s market, the food, the university, the history, and the multitude of events that took place there. Most importantly, to me, Las Cruces developed into a great art center, a home for artist. It was a place to call home.
What is home? For me it’s a place that has a connection to one’s heart, and it’s more than just a house, it’s everything things that surrounds it, the things that give meaning to one’s life, and the things that fill one with joy. In the Mesilla Valley it’s the city, the pecan orchards, the aroma and tastes of cultural foods, the history, the culture and its people, Old Mesilla, the art culture, the local artist- writers and poets, and the proximity to many locations of interest and activity. The list goes on. But mostly, home is where one wakes up every day thankful and proud to be part of that community.
Life is not perfect. In 2019, on my birthday, I was diagnosed with cancer, and subsequently forced to retire. Life continued and it was only by the grace of God that I found a house, an adobe home sitting on an acre of fertile land with a huge Mulberry tree, several pecan trees, and a large pasture. It’s the home I now share with my new wife, and every day I wake up thankful to be living in that area of southern New Mexico where I first developed a strong connection to it on a warm Sunday morning in 1954.
My pecan trees remind me of the summer of 1964 where I played in the orchards for the last time and ate many pecans; I haven’t eaten pecans since. In the mornings I sit outside on the patio with my glass of juice and I looked out towards the Organ Mountains, those unchanging mountains standing there majestically over the Mesilla Valley and I’m glad they waited for my return.
Someone wrote, Home is where the heart is; it’s an old cliché, but one which carries so much truth, and I am thankful to be back home again…finally.