I remember how happy my elderly mother was each time she returned from retablo-painting workshops conducted by Linda Pedro at the local senior citizen’s center. My mother, like so many from every walk of life, was enthralled and deeply inspired by this larger-than-life woman who did so much—often, the seemingly impossible—from within the confines of a wheelchair and a seriously compromised body. Without a doubt, Linda Pedro was one of the great souls who have inhabited the mountainous community of Chimayó in northern New Mexico. She lived there for over 40 years, before passing away on Jan. 13th of this year.
Linda left a permanent imprint on practically everything she touched and everyone who knew her. Together with a long line of people who played essential roles in her epic journey, she embraced the world with flair, magnanimity and gusto.
After surviving a horrendous car crash in the 1960s, when she was in her early 20s, Linda was left a paraplegic but, surprisingly, she was inwardly unshaken. Doctors did not give her long to live. But Linda summoned her enormous will, not just to live but to live powerfully for another 40 years—like a fire that’s about to go out at any moment but doesn’t. During those years, she dedicated herself to the service of community and to the constant struggle to obtain justice for those it most often eludes. It is not an exaggeration to say that Linda was a consummate warrior in defense of human dignity and the values of nature, community, love and compassion.
Linda faced a multitude of severe physical and economic hardships and upheavals of her own and became a staunch advocate for people with disabilities and for those living on the margins of society through no fault of their own. She was dealt an early lesson in this nonpaying role soon after her accident, when government agencies sought to deny her the right to raise her son because of her physical impairments. She responded by taking the government to court, demanding that, as the child’s mother, she be allowed the right to decide the future of their relationship. Not only did she win the case to retain care and custody of her son, Daniel; over many years, her home became a haven for many tribal youth from across the country who lacked family or home.
In spite of the goods and services she so freely shared, Linda found herself having to wrestle with powerful agencies in order to procure even the most minimal resources with which to sustain herself—a telling commentary on our country’s social services system. In the end, her advocacy work for people with disabilities provoked a radical shift throughout the nation in the level and kinds of services our government and society are willing to provide to its most helpless citizens.
Linda was a highly respected community leader, spokesperson and outspoken proponent for a heroin-free community. She led marches down the dusty roads of Santa Cruz and Chimayó. She was a member of the Rainbow Coalition, the Raza Unida Party and the Native American Church. She was also an accomplished artist.
One of the highlights of Linda’s life took place in 1984, when she was asked to introduce presidential candidate Jesse Jackson at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Because there was no way for a person in a wheelchair to get on the stage, a special platform had to be erected. The entire country was able to witness an unprecedented act of kindness and consideration being extended to someone who, having survived a major catastrophe, had managed to transmute tragedy into triumph.
Because Linda required continuous care and assistance for so many years, family, friends and even strangers rallied to provide her with the support she needed. This made it possible for her to accomplish the work that brought great meaning and satisfaction to her life and healing to the world. Although she was the recipient of much care, Linda nevertheless simultaneously functioned as a trainer in the art of caring for people with disabilities. She became an informal teacher in a wide range of subjects she had mastered. Her subtle embodiment of the archetypal wise woman-teacher ultimately may have been her greatest accomplishment and contribution to the world.
I will never forget the time when, on World Prayer Day, a pleasant summer day in June, a friend and I hoisted Linda, seated in her wheelchair, onto a platform at a Sikh camp deep in the Jémez Mountains. There, on a richly brocaded cushion sat Amma, the “hugging saint,” a Hindu holy woman who embodies boundless love and compassion and had traveled all the way from India. Hour after hour, many hundreds of people inched their way up to see her to receive her blessing. When the ecstatic Linda finally reached Amma’s welcoming arms, upon contact these mighty women both seemed instantly to grow in stature and beauty, uniting in a wave of mutual recognition, joy and unconditional love.
In her final years, Linda mounted an extraordinary effort to remain afloat upon a tumultuous sea of increasing physical complications. It was a heroic struggle, and when it was not possible to fight any longer, she peacefully surrendered to the forces that ultimately decree our deaths.
Kevin McCourt, one of the many who attended Linda’s memorial service in Chimayó, said, “We left Linda’s home feeling blessed, trying to not forget the beautiful images of four fires surrounding each speaker, the smoke carrying their words and songs to the four winds along with Linda’s spirit. There was Calvin Magpie with his beautiful songs, the bagpiper, the man in the wheelchair and many others who shared memories of a triumphant Linda gone home at last. Indeed, it was a joy to see her take flight on the back of this most beautiful ceremony.”
Alejandro López is a writer, photographer and educator.