I was born and raised in the Española Valley, which is my homeland—my Tierra Sagrada (sacred earth). I did not realize it then, except perhaps intuitively, but looking back over five decades, I realize now that I was raised as much by “place” as I was by family and by community.
Our toys were “palitos de leña” that we turned into horses that we raced across the llano. In winter, we built our own sleds out of wood, and covered the runners with thin strips of tin before propelling ourselves down the nearby hills. More than anything else, we used our imaginations and the place in which we lived to entertain and educate ourselves.
My home was located a few hundred yards from the boundary with Santa Clara Pueblo. The greatest part of neighboring pueblo land was that it was open and undeveloped. I had a playground bigger than as far as I could walk in eight hours or even 10 hours. This playground was filled with piñón and cedar, crisscrossed with arroyos, singing with breezes that dried the sweat from my brow as I played with my brothers and my friends over the hills and in the arroyos.
Every day, I saw rabbits, lizards, coyotes, rattlesnakes, owls, bluebirds, sparrows, worms. I saw and heard birds I still don’t know the names of, but whose songs echo in my dreams each night.
I learned to swim in the Río Grande, where we built our own crude diving board above a quiet pool along the Río. There, we kept from drowning by dog-paddling our way furiously from one end of the pool to the other. We played Tarzan in the bosque, where it was eternally cool and dark throughout the hot summer days.
I was raised by my parents, by my older siblings, by my tíos y tías, by my teachers, by my vecinos. But I was raised as well by my “place”—my Tierra Sagrada. I was hugged each night by the huge red-faced sun—embarrassed because he tired before I did—setting over my playground in the west. I was greeted each morning by the cu-cu-ru-cu-coo from the gallinero. Western breezes tickled me. Birds talked to me. Trees danced with me. Brujos prowled through my neighborhood at night, disguised as snakes and owls. “Place” dirtied my clothes, wrung sweat out of my boy’s body, made me late for supper, waited up all night for me, and made me whole.
Arturo Sandoval was born in Santa Cruz de la Cañada, NM, and raised in Española, NM. He currently lives in Albuquerque, NM.