Santa Fe is the city of holy faith, but also the city of straw-speckled adobe fortresses, stream of vendors selling turquoise jewelry and polished cowboy boots, hanging bunches of dried poblano peppers, and the best enchiladas I’ve ever had. My first time in the West was a trip to the National Federation of State Poetry Societies’ annual convention, where I was invited to release my first collection of poetry. But in one of the oldest colonial establishments in the New World, surrounded by poets from across the country, I found myself surrounded in a sea of voices.
On my first full day in New Mexico, I visited El Rancho de Las Golondrinas, the Ranch of the Swallows. We drove through rolling hills, cracked earth dotted with small, hardy shrubs, stretching miles into the mountain-edged distance. The land seemed barren—devoid of trees. Thirsty. Baked. But the native tribes there, such as the Apache, found ways to flourish. They made life in the desert—but only because they paid attention and care to the life that was already there. They knew the ways of the small animals burrowing in the ground, the insects crawling, the right grasses to weave and the roots to eat. To the Spanish who came here four hundred years ago, the desert must have seemed like a wasteland. But there were already so many voices—those of natives, plants, animals—singing in the wind, in languages they didn’t realize that they couldn’t understand.
For the newcomers, life was brutal. Constant warfare and hardship of life on the margins of the Spanish Empire meant that they had to fortify their small settlements with large adobe walls to fend off attacks. Windows and doors were tiny, if they existed at all, to prevent intruders from sneaking in. Instead of doors, some settlements left a ladder outside that they could draw up in case of emergency. In the 1680s, a native revolt pushed the Spanish settlers out of New Mexico, although they returned only a decade later. Some natives allied with the Spanish conquerors. Others were enslaved. On both sides, countless were killed in bloody skirmishes.
The Cross of the Holy Martyrs sits on a hill overlooking Santa Fe, commemorating the priests who were killed in the 1680s revolt. But as I watched the sunset from this peak, I couldn’t help but wonder: Who were the martyrs on the native side of the rebellion, who lost their lives fighting for their families’ freedom? And the priests who had died in the attacks—did they think they were doing the right thing by bringing “civilization” and “salvation” to the desert, even if it meant a painful process of uprooting local peoples? It is impossible for us to know, but I can at least hope that they were trying to act out of compassion.
And I wonder—how often did people from either side ever sat down and truly speak to each other? Share stories? And, most of all, listen? Did the settlers and natives respect fellow human voices, even if the bodies that bore them had different colors and spoke different languages?
It’s impossible for us to know. I’m not a historian, and framing a bloody, complex relationship in terms of sheer communication is oversimplistic. These battles were fought for many more reasons than campfire storytelling, and were fueled by ambition, pride, money, territory, and many other factors. But I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if all of us took the time to truly listen to one another, to learn new languages, to hear each other’s stories. Reading, for example, has been linked to increased empathy. With more stories—and importantly, with more people listening to those stories—how would history be different?
I believe storytelling in all of its forms has the potential to bring people together. But we must do more than project our own voices into the fray—we need to listen to others. It is not enough to act with compassion. We must listen to the people we are trying to help. We must open our hearts and minds to different ways of thinking, living, and being.
It’s not easy, and making change requires much more than a listening heart. But that is where it often begins.
I write, in part, to remind us that despite our differences, we are all human. My first collection of poetry, The Happening: Reflections on the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting, is rooted in the universal emotions of pain and heartbreak, but also the ability of the human mind to heal, grow, and forgive. I hope my writing helps to open hearts and minds, that people are listening, that my words can inspire change. But I also hope I always remember to listen for voices, even when the world appears barren. I hope that we all can learn to find life in the desert.
Thanks to Seadog Studios for help with the final production!
Note: If you would like a copy of the The Happening: Reflections on the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting, or if you would like to make a donation to the victims’ fund, The Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, please reach out to me. I will forward all donations or tell you where to send your check.