Where the present is the past

When the older residents of the Hispanic land-grant village of Torreón, in the eastern foothills of the Manzano Mountains, grew up in the 1940s, the settlement of several hundred residents was at the peak of its World War II-era prosperity. It had a school, a bar, a restaurant, shops, and families who looked to the future with hope for their isolated world and promise for their children.

Today, the present life and soul of the village, like that of most of the ancient Hispanic communities of New Mexico, lie in its past. This is the past that Judy Alderte Garcia seeks to capture and conserve in her book, “Memories of Torreón, New Mexico.”

Although she lives in Albuquerque, many of the author’s relatives are natives of Torreón and as a child she spent many weekends there visiting her grandparents. She has turned her roots into a kind of collective memoir. Although several of this book’s sections are written by her, many of its 34 chapters are in the voices of her relatives and friends in the village: “a collection of stories about the people of Torreón by the people of Torreón.”

“My feeling,” Garcia writes in the preface, “is that everyone has a story and has something to say.”

The story-tellers range in age from 10 to 101, but most are in their 70s. Many left, for school or work or marriage, and then in their later years returned to their childhood homes, where they live surrounded by the memories and mementos of an earlier and very different era.

It is hard to grasp the isolation of the village, even in the recent past. Garcia describes a two-day horseback ride over the mountains from Valencia on the Rio Grande to Torreón. Today, the drive to Albuquerque over paved highways takes an hour. Many children grew up speaking only Spanish at home and even in the village elementary school, not learning English until their forced linguistic bath in high school in Estancia. A visit to town for shopping did not mean an excursion to Albuquerque but to Estancia or Mountainair or even Willard.

Times have always been hard on the small farms and ranches of the Manzanos, but, at least in retrospect, survivors recall more of the pleasures than the pains of their childhoods. One of these pleasures is the matanza, the traditional annual feast that is featured on the book’s cover in a painting by the author’s husband, Eric J. Garcia. (The book has actually been through two editions, the first of which used a collection of black-and-white photos for the cover.)

Reading between the lines, however, some of the pains do emerge. A child is denied the chance for an education because she is a girl. A diminutive girl is hounded by the hurtful insult, “Shorty.” An ailing grandmother spends most of her declining years sitting in her dining room. A family seldom sees the father who travels to other states to earn a living, for even in the best of times there were never enough jobs in the village.

Some residents found their lives depressing. “My grandparents also had a big grandfather clock in their home,” recalls Christella Alderte-Garcia. “I remember the constant sound of the tick-tock, tick-tock, and every half hour it was ding-dong, dong-dong! I did not like the sound of the clock. It always made me sad.” In the way of memories, we never learn the source of her sadness, but perhaps it is enough that we can imagine this girl’s life.

One of the ways the past differed from the present was the weather. Winters were serious, with several feet of snow falling in a single storm. Walking anywhere could be difficult. The arroyos were alway full of water, and one little girl almost drowned while playing in one.

Despite the personal pains and community hardships, most of these story-tellers, like people everywhere, like to revel in the happy memories. “This isn’t a life for everybody,” says Susie Chavez-Perea, “but it’s a perfect life for us. We are still here and are proud to welcome you all back whenever you come home to Torreón, even if it’s just for a quick visit.”

“I believe the stories of our past and present give us and others a better understanding of who we are,” Garcia explains. She told some of these stories a couple of weeks ago to a crowd of some 50 East Mountain residents gathered at the old church in Tijeras. For them, as for the readers of this collective memoir, as for the residents of Torreón, the past is the present.