Creative nonfiction by Christiane Williams-Vigil
Established in 1567, the quiet little mountain town of Santa Barbara, Chihuahua, became the beckon that drew in my family from across the Atlantic. Legend, and my mother’s meticulous research, states that Domingo Cruz came to live here in the late 1800s. He was orphaned in Spain at a young age. He came like many who traveled to search for a better life. At the time of his arrival, the town bore the motto “Valor, Work, and Hospitality.”
The home that would become a shelter for many generations was given to Domingo by a landowner. The shot-gun-style house rested at the foot of the great mountains and was adjacent to a wild-winding river. My grandma swears this river was a favorite of La Llorona to cry over.
The land surrounding the home had been sold off a bit at a time due to moments of hardships. It was also sold in times of business advantages. The original layout included an entryway for horses and buggies. What remains is a part of Calle Meoqui, and currently is abandoned. The last inhabitants were my great-grandparents, Baltazar and Isaura Delgado. Baltazar is the grandson of my ancestor Domingo, and both men had the inherent sense of hard work to make a better life for his family. My great-grandfather had many mouths to feed, so he did what all men did for work.
He traveled deep into the Earth for the mining company for gold, silver, and zinc. The large clocktower, El Reloj Publico, that sits at the entry to the town marked the starts and stops of the shifts he worked. The heavy equipment was said to be so loud that one could place their ear to the ground. Through the floor, they hear the echo of the miners at work. The surrounding mountain ranges were dotted with deep sinkholes from years and years of the loosening of sediments.
The family burro, Chavelo, was tasked with leading young cousins to the river to fetch water. He was trained to follow a specific route to avoid a sudden tumble into the dark abysses. These sinkholes were hard to see in the desert thickets. For a drop that deep would surely crush an unsuspecting person’s skull.
As is the case with any mining industry, there were tunnel collapses, deaths, and the slow decay of lungs due to breathing in microscopic rocks. The all-seeing Reloj Publico was rigged to ring out a chime that warned the town of trouble in the mines. Everyone held their breath, wondering who was to be the affected family.
Miraculously, at the end of a long workday, my great-grandfather walked back home to his family, led by the ever-faithful family dog, Guardián the German Shepard. And upon his return, he was never empty-handed.
He often found geodes, fossils, crystals, and calcite. Since they were not what the mining company wanted, he was free to take them. My grandmother said that he brought so many back up with him, that he would often give them out as gifts to family or visitors to the Ranchito. One of the lucky recipients of such precious minerals is my mother.
As far back as I can remember, our chimney was decorated with sparkling rocks. My favorite one was a glossy purple crystal deposit. On the side, a thick outline of fossilized ammonite peaked out. I’d run my fingers over the dips and chisel marks, feeling soft bits of dirt scraping off. I didn’t know about their origins until I was much older, but even then I knew these precious things rivaled the amber-crusted mosquitos of Jurassic Park.
Today, these geode heirlooms are either out in my mother’s garden or carefully kept behind the protective glass of a curio cabinet. They are a testament to his dedication to ensuring his family was well-fed and cared for. Although he was proud of his work, generously recognized for his 50 years of mining, it was not the life he wanted for his children.
I’ve myself been deep underground three times, and my little brother worked in a laboratory 700 miles below ground in college. I don’t know what my great-grandfather would make of that if he were alive now, but I hope he sees how much drive we have within us. We carry within our blood the motto “valor, work, and hospitality” and live it every day here on the border. And the roots he planted are set deep further than any mine could ever reach.
Christiane Williams-Vigil has a degree in English and American Literature from the University of Texas at El Paso. Her work has been featured in BorderSenses’ anthology ‘Life in the Times’ and in Marshall University’s ‘Movable: Narratives of Recovery Project.’
Image by Katriona McCarthey