Cultural Complexity

By: Bill Whaley
7 October, 2016

Last night I attended the continuing SMU-UNM series of lectures on the influence of historic cultural practices extant today. The lecture series, ably coordinated by Dr. Sylvia Rodriguez, offers insight into the culturally rich community of Taos and northern New Mexico as well as the Southwest in general. Once again an SRO audience attended the lecture at the Harwood.

Specifically last night’s lectures concerned “Comanches and Genízaros” in Taos. Archaeologist Lindsay Montgomery (University of Arizona) pointed out that the wide-ranging Comanches, nomadic and particularly adept as warriors, engaged in both trade and violence, while fostering the exchange of cultural influences and intermarriage among Native tribes and Hispanic settlers of Taos Valley.

The descendants of mixed cultural identity, whether Hispanic and Comanche or other tribal influences, are preserved in folklore practice as Dr. Lamadrid found among Genizaros. He presented a number of photographs and songs as evidence of inherited cultural practices among those “Genizaros,” who preserve ritual practices hundreds of years old though little known to the general public.

The practices of the Genizaros exist today in places like greater Ranchos de Taos and Abiquiu. Historically a quirk in ‘taxonomy” or “classification” by the Mexican government occurred when Mexico City bureaucrats during the 1821-1846 era disappeared the Genizaros by deleting the nomenclature from the official census. In effect Native American Tribes and Spanish settlers were designated as representatives of the people residing historically in northern New Mexico.

The living history and exemplification of the Genizaros as extant came to life in the person of Ranchos de Taos native and anthropologist Gregorio Gonzales (University of Texas, Austin). The youthful scholar represents Genizaros as a native participant from childhood and as student of the culture. Though Gonzales refused to say exactly what a Genizaro is, he gave ample proof of identity in photographs and while reciting his poetry, a poetry of cultural identity. Despite the historic disappearance from the record books or even the suspicion voiced by vecinos (neighbors) in Taos of Genizaros, Gonzales, last night stated the obvious claim to existence when he said, “I am Genizaro.” Some of my readers will remember Gonzales’s father, El Comanche, whose legendary doings at local rituals now appear more real than imagined by virtue of the son’s presence.

The more you engage with the culture of Taos, the more you discover how uncanny the community. I have been wondering about the question of “Comancheros” and “Genizaros” since I heard about them almost fifty years ago. Are they real or ersatz? Finally, I understand (somewhat) thanks to Genizaro Gonzales last night and Sylvia’s lecturers, Ms. Montgomery and Senor Enrique Lamadrid. If you live long enough, you will learn something.

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