Jacinto Corral Miranda, QEPD

Jacinto is gone.

He was here one day and then he was not.

This is my tribute to a man I scarcely knew. I hope I can explain what it means to me that he is gone without sounding patronizing and without romancing him.

I would never equate my sadness to the sorrow of his sister or daughter or the other people who knew and loved him and whose lives were entwined with his. My sadness is of a different sort.

It is the sadness of absence. For the last three years or so, Jacinto was part of our life in Alamos. In leaving, he left a rent in the fabric. He is not at the back gate as he often was in the morning when we were heading out. He is not sitting on the curb on our street as he did on many afternoons waving when we passed by. He is not doing odd jobs for Chemo, who owns the hardware store next door to us. On many evenings, Jacinto sat with Chemo in lawn chairs having cafecitos, chatting, and laughing. They sat in a little open-air shed where Chemo, a devout Catholic, keeps lit candles and a crucifix of Jesus.

Jacinto’s rural Sonoran Spanish largely escaped me. This did not stop us from exchanging the gestures and cordialities that define a day. “¿Cómo amaneció?” Literally, beautifully, “How did your day dawn?” Jacinto was always smiling.

Jacinto died in December as the year and decade were drawing to an end and when the outer world has become evermore discordant, tense, uncertain, and rude. Or so it seems. Perhaps the outer world is forever fraught and at times and places dangerous and now we have created the technologies to be constantly reminded of the menace. In leaving Jacinto whispered, “Anda aquí, no allá.” Go here, not there. That was his gift to me.

I am not trying to beatify Jacinto. I know virtually nothing about him or his life. Unlike his loved ones, I am spared of his imperfections. He died at 65 of congestive heart failure. He was a countryman, a campesino. He and Yobarda, his sister, talked about a place, Rancho Tlachuache, where I gathered they spent considerable time in the past. I doubt he had more than a few years of schooling. He often had his radio dialed to Radio Sonora, a station that plays wonderful Mexican music. We understood he had dos mujeres – two women – to whom he was unlikely married and neither currently present. His daughter, and only child, has a young boy and girl, and her husband, who is bilingual, works as a handyman somewhere on the outer fringes of metropolitan Phoenix. The family seems to be in a classic border limbo straightening out documents so they can all be together in the United States. We spoke with them briefly at the velación – vigil – for Jacinto.

We took an arrangement of flowers back to the compound where Jacinto lived with Yobarda and her husband Chapo. Family and friends were sitting solemn in folding chairs in a ring around an ornate coffin. Jacinto’s white cowboy hat was perched on top. A photo of Jacinto as a young man was propped on a table. There were flowers everywhere. David walked around the ring paying condolences to each person. I hugged Yobarda and sat down next to her. We did not stay long. All the cues of Jacinto’s absence were taxing my capacity to withhold tears and I was determined not to cry. This place was for their sorrow, not ours.

The next day we went to the funeral mass for Jacinto in the grand cathedral in Alamos, La Iglesia de Purísima Concepción. Chemo, who is ordained to perform sacramental functions, made the arrangements for this service. Jacinto’s granddaughter, who we met at the velación, sat next to me. The solemnity of the occasion was beyond her comprehension. She squirmed and giggled with a cousin her age and she and I smiled and made wide-eyed sideways glances at each other. She will know in due time what death is all about. The church was full. Only a few people took communion, evidence that while few Mexicans are baptized these days they turn to the church for rites of passage.  

The home where Jacinto lived is little more than a hut. It is part of the barrio directly behind us called Vergeles – el vergel is an orchard – inhabited by country people, ranch workers (current or retired) and ranch owners. When we drive through Vergeles, as we do almost daily, we slip back a century. This time warping is not unusual in Mexico. Most people cook outside on wood fires. They keep horses, chickens, cows, calves, goats, burros, every so often a pig. The sounds that drift up onto our portal from Vergeles are rural—cowbells, neighing, braying, mooing, cackling, and crowing. There are barking dogs, laughter, and music as well but these sounds are universal throughout Mexico. We are frequent beneficiaries of the thick nixtamal corn tortillas Yobarda makes every day on her wood fire. If I don’t see her, I often hear the rhythm of her hands patting out the tortillas. This is a sound that is dying out in Mexico. These days only countrywomen make tortillas like Yobarda’s.

On the day of the funeral mass Jacinto was buried at Rancho Tlacuache, the place of which he often spoke. A novena ensued, an ancient Christian ritual often associated with the death of a loved one involving nine days of devotion and prayer. Through the mist of my poor understanding of religious ritual and Spanish, I am not sure how this period played out for Yobarda and Jacinto’s family. Plus, it was Christmas and I was busy living my own swirling life.

I know there were people hovering at her house in the evenings for the next nine days. I learned it was customary to revisit the grave at the conclusion of a novena. In conversations with Chemo and Yobarda—over the fence, at the back gate—David and I came to understand we were invited to make this journey, we dearly wanted to go, and Don Angel Esquer, our friend and gardener who had become friends with Jacinto, was invited also.

On a clear blue morning, the last Sunday of the year, we headed out in two vehicles to Rancho Tlacuache. It was a perfect way to close the book on 2019. We were nine, four of Jacinto’s family and five of his friends. We took one of the numerous dirt roads that wind out of Alamos toward remote corners of neighboring Sinaloa and Chihuahua. On the way, listening to Yobarda and Angel talk, we came to understand just how important Rancho Tlacuache was to her and her brother, we learned more details about Jacinto, Angel told us he remembers visiting this ranch when he was ten years old (at some point during his 87 years Angel has been everywhere in this part of Sonora), and we learned that Tlacuache means possum. One of the great treasures of living in Mexico is riding around in the country with country people listening to them talk about their lives.

We came to a barbed-wire gate, entered, and arrived at the cemetery. Yobarda pointed to Rancho Tlacuache, a compound of buildings in the distance across a wide arroyo. The cemetery seemed like an incandescent oasis for the dead. The grave markers were tidy and painted bright colors. Clearly relatives had come for the Day of the Dead in November. Jacinto’s grave was a riot of flowers upon which we all placed more flowers while Yobarda and her daughter attended to lighting votive candles. Jacinto is buried next to their father. Their mother’s grave is several paces away as are two graves for sisters who died as youngsters. We stayed about an hour during which David and I noted a Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Cooper’s Hawk, and Gray Hawk. Four raptors watching over Jacinto we take as a good omen.

Looking back, I realize that whether by design or happenstance the small clutch of people who went out into the vast and quiet Sonoran countryside to Jacinto’s grave were his quotidian family, the people he spent his days with in the last years of his life. Anda aquí, no allá.


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The Curse of Google Maps

A globe has dimension. It puts places on Earth in context. It spins.

My Daddy was a mapmaker for Magnolia Petroleum Company in Texas back in the 1940s and 50s when cartographers plotted the locations of oil and gas wells on linen or paper maps by hand. He had wonderful penmanship and he taught his daughters to read and respect maps. He always insisted maps must be neatly folded in the exact way they had been unfolded, and I usually complied. He died in 1977 well before the GPS revolution and the digitizing and cloud storing of information.

I love maps, atlases, and globes of our world. Whenever friends return from a far-flung trip, we get out our old National Geographic Atlas and look to see where they have been. They do the same when we return from a journey. Most of our friends still have atlases. When we are planning an extended trip of our own, I first refer to the old atlas admittedly out of nostalgia and then I open Google Earth and plot our trip with digital pushpins. Google Earth is no replacement for an atlas but it is an example of a useful computer tool. It has lots of detail and contour and it lets me see the larger landscape of where I am planning to go and where I have been. Travel is a narrative. Travel has context. A trip, long or short, to Kathmandu or the grocery store, entails a great deal more than moving from point A to point B.

As a rule, we keep a Rand McNally Road Atlas tucked between the console and passenger seat in our car. When we were packing for our annual trip south to Mexico in September, I glanced in the slot and mistook our DeLorme Gazetteer of Minnesota (same size, shape) for the Rand McNally. I made a big mistake of which my husband bore the brunt. I complained daily, sometimes twice and thrice, for most of the 2,800 miles. The world-shrinking Garmin and Google Maps on the cellphone stuck on the dashboard sufficed for my driver-husband, but I could not track our passage on a map on my lap. I could not put us in our transitory context. Where were we exactly in relation to the other places and landmarks—cities, towns, counties, rivers, mountains, parks, historic sites—that define the landscapes, history, and cultures we were passing through? I was anxious and adrift and I wondered, “Am I the only person who feels this way in the Age of Google Maps?”

Manhattan, Kansas, on Google Maps. Small, flat, no context. Boring.

Manhattan, Kansas, on a Rand McNally map. You can see Topeka, the state capital and where the wonderful Brown v. The Board of Education National Historic Site is located. Just north of Manhattan is Pottawatomie # 2, a state fishing lake where David, the dogs, and I spent a loving evening on September 26, 2019, looking for dragonflies and having our end-of-the day beers. To the south is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flinthills, one of the most beautiful landscapes in North America. Details. Context. Narrative. Not boring.

It is difficult to find a Rand McNally anymore. I asked in numerous gas stations and truck stops. I got blank stares (“…a what?”) or eye rolling (“Where have you been, lady?”) Finally, somewhere toward the end of the trip, in West Texas or New Mexico, at a bustling truck stop, I found a 2020 Rand McNally. It was dirt-cheap, like $7.99. I would have paid $49.99. We had only about 24 hours remaining in the U.S., but I put the map on my lap and I calmed down.

I know it is a trait of elders to balk at change and innovation. My mother, bless her earnest heart, was troubled by evolving cultural values related to courtship, virginity, marriage, divorce, and gender. My father, heart-breaking for me, took his racial biases to his grave. They both were alarmed by rock and roll. The good thing is elders die—they are relieved of the burdens of change and we the living are relieved of their intransigence.

I am still shocked having advanced to elderhood. I think I am open-minded and I work to maintain flexibility in the headwinds of change. But certain things, particularly in the intersecting realms of media and technology, are not sitting so well with me.

One change I came to resist and abhor decades before I became an elder is television, which has made millions of people fat in body and lazy in mind. TV and social media are like boxing’s one-two punch. The former set up the first jab; the latter, the second blow. Even weather reporting, which has practical and at times life-saving value, has been ruined by the Weather Channel. I get my weather from Windy, a mobile-device application that maps high- and low-pressure systems around the world in real time and has other useful functions, such as radar, storm tracking, temperature, waves, air quality, and predictive forecasting for specific locations. It shows weather in all its swirling majesty. No hype needed from Jim Cantore and his Weather Channel cohorts. The fact that Windy is my preferred weather source also proves I am not a Luddite.

The hand-held device has brought about the most fundamental behavioral change among humans in my lifetime, and I think the case could be made that the gripping of these devices is the most radical development in tool use over the roughly 65 million years of primate evolution. It doesn’t matter whether I think this change is good or bad. I have a device and I grip it frequently.

I do take issue with the hypnotic power of certain device applications and how they reshape how we see and live in the world. I take note when an application is starting to hold me hostage. I make an escape. It is not always easy.

Google Maps is an example of the fine line between an application’s practicality and its power to capture and mind-bend its users. Last November we met friends in Mexico City for Thanksgiving. I hadn’t been there in years. On past trips, I made my way around the city just fine with travel guides and maps and the help of other human beings—taxi cab drivers, bellhops, storekeepers, waiters, and strangers on the street—encounters that enriched my experience. On this trip, we all had devices and, like device monkeys we have become, we immediately defaulted to Google Maps.

I can see us now. We looked ridiculous—a congregation of gray-hairs lurching down the streets of Mexico City gawking not at every wonderful thing around us but at the devices in our cupped palms. I recall a couple of preposterous occasions where we stood in a huddle disputing what our devices were telling us. My friends and I are pretty self-aware, not hopelessly device-addicted, and veterans of the old school of travel for whom a singular joy is watching people, spaces, places, landscape, nature. We got our bearings, put our devices in our pockets (mostly), and broke out of the tiny jail cell of Google Maps.

Google Maps takes the eye hostage and robs us of peripheral vision. Google Maps makes the world small and flat and simple. It puts up a wall, at once invisible and opaque, between the user and everyone else. People who use the application to the exclusion of traditional maps are denying themselves a richer life. I think my Daddy would agree with me. And someday I will be happy to join him wherever it is that intransigent elders go.


Posted in West Saari Road | 1 Comment

A pig is not a fence

A pig is not a fence.
The pig is in the fence.

This is one way to learn Spanish:
looking at a pig in a fence.

I say cerdo. I mean cerco.
This causes mirth
amongst the Spanish speakers
in my midst.

Un cerdo no es un cerco.
El cerdo está dentro del cerco.

A c for a d. A d for a c.
Two consonants recombined
outline the balance of power.
The fence defines the fate of the pig.

Christmas is near.
The pig is destined for a spit.
We behold its hefty, fleeting beauty
while two redstarts, ruby jewels, flit
around the beast like angels.


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On a Sunday

Westminster Abbey, London, UK

Apostolic Lutheran Church, Embarrass, Minnesota

On a Sunday in mid-May, I went to the weekly organ recital at Westminster Abbey in London. On a Sunday three weeks later, I went to hear a trio on fiddle, drums, and guitar play Nordic, Celtic, and Old-time music at the Apostolic Lutheran Church in Embarrass, Minnesota. I do not have a religious bone in my body. I enter houses of worship for weddings and funerals if I must and of my own free will for music.

Both Sundays I was lifted by the music and touched by the people who made it.

The churches could not be more different, one renowned by millions, the other beloved by a few hundred, one a majestic, massive 800-year-old Gothic cathedral in the throbbing heart of London, the other a simple century-old white frame church in the hushed woods of northern Minnesota. Each in its own way offers acoustical space where music soars.

The musicians were superficially different. They were playing different instruments: a soaring, immovable 94-stops-5-manual pipe organ built in 1937 for the coronation of King George VI versus portable troubadour instruments. And they were playing different genres: classical works by George Frideric Handel versus the music trove of country people and the working class, farmers, miners, merchants, teachers, traders, sailors, soldiers, fisher folk—one piece was the haunting Finnish waltz Metsakukkia.

They are, however, deeply alike in their tenacity and talent and willingness—call it a gift if you will—to make and share music. They are equals in another way that is significant to me. I am wary of fame as it manifests in the hothouse of 21st-century media and culture. They are not famous and their lack of fame bears no relationship to the degree of their talent. They do possess rich orbits of friends, family, loved ones, colleagues, students, fans, followers, and fortuitous listeners who, like me, are lifted by their music. I contend their achievement is better than fame.

Here are their names: Matthew Jorysz, assistant organist at Westminster Abbey, and the members of the trio Whirled Muse, violinist Eli Bissonett, percussionist Robin Anders, and guitarist Joey Kenig, who play as a group and solo mainly around northern Minnesota. I want to thank them for the music I chanced upon in two churches on two continents on two perfect summer Sundays.


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Flag Day, June 14, 2019

American flag mounted on a pickup truck, Ely, Minnesota, June 14, 2019, Flag Day. This flag is in violation of the Federal Flag Code, 36 U.S. Code 173.

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