With the big red pickup packed up, I bid farewell to El Paso, my home for the past five months. I was headed west again and I made my exit through the Franklin Mountains and out of Chucotown. The beauty of the desert is a sight to behold. The clear blue sky illuminates the hews of brown and green that color the landscape as mountains and hills make the background interesting to look at, breaking up any threat of monotony the drive posed. I wasn’t too worried about that possibility, though as I had decided that rather than going straight to Phoenix, I would take a detour and see the Gila (pronounced “hila”) Cliff Dwellings, a national park located at the edge of the New Mexican border with Arizona.
As I drove past Silver City onto New Mexico Highway 15, a sign warned me that the trip into the site would take two hours. I looked at it incredulously as my GPS said that I was a mere 45 miles away from my destination. It was soon apparent that I could not take the turns of that winding road very fast, especially in my long vehicle. I navigated the winding roads to the ancient rooms excavated from the cliff, watching the green of the forest explode around me. On one glance down at my thermometer, I realized that the outside temperature was only 81 degrees. Dispensing with the air conditioning, I rolled down my windows and enjoyed the leisurely drive up, over, and through the hills.
Eventually I arrived to my destination: a small, one mile trail staffed by volunteer rangers. There were some other travelers arriving about the same time as me. One couple was from Germany, having driven all the way from Northern Arizona on a tour de force through some of the best sites that the American Southwest had to offer. They were a testament to the relative ease there is to move in today’s world.
The cliff dwellings were inhabited by the Mogollon people for a few dozen years approximately eight hundred years ago. Though they are not as complete as early accounts seem to suggest, they have done a good job to withstand the elements – yearly monsoons and occasional forest fires – in order to remain intact enough to understand what they once were. The dry climate the region experiences the majority of the year ensures that nothing rots, not even the original wooden beams used to support the buildings openings. The dryness, though, ensures that the walls and the roofs crumble over time as the adobe dries out.
Standing there I couldn’t help but think of a phrase a friend of mine, Giorgio, liked to say. As an Italian, he liked to needle his American friends who would brag about the US’ status in the world (and Italy’s lack thereof) by saying, “we were people when you were nothing,” alluding to the youth of the United States, the modern incarnation of which is an amalgam of people with roots from around the world. (I once asked Giorgio, “what about the Native Americans?” to which he responded, “they were people then too, but most modern Americans have nothing or want nothing to do with them.”)
Giorgio’s comment, even in jest, struck me as quite profound as I stood in the great meeting room carved out of the side of a cliff. To think that eight hundred years ago, there were people here, is amazing. It took me two hours to drive the 45 miles – I can only imagine what it took folks to move around back in those days. To think that eight hundred years ago, those people existed in a world without states, a world where many were flatly unaware of what was going on to other people within their own continent, much less the inhabitants of another, is just a testament to the realm of possibility that we have today. And to think that the way that we think about ourselves as citizens of a country and identify borders that we cannot cross without permission was not even in play back in those days shows us just how much our focus on what identifies us has changed over time.
Who knows how the cliff dwellers identified themselves or how they viewed others. One thing for sure is that they didn’t consider themselves as the Mogollon people, a name that came from mountains named after a Spanish Governor of New Mexico, Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón, who served from 1712 until 1715. It was not an identity that those ancient people conferred unto themselves. There was also no state to grant them citizenship and the rights that come with it. All of that is reasonably new. My identity as an American or as a Texan is something nobody would have had three hundred years ago. The same goes for my rights as a citizen, the borders which separate the US from Mexico are even newer, with the Rio Grande being concreted in place as a result of the Chamizal treaty of 1963, and the laws that have affected immigration to the United States have fluctuated greatly over the past century and a half. These are all things that have a recent tradition, things that the people who lived 800 years ago never considered; these are all things that mark a significant change in the chronicles of human history.
But some things never seem to change much. The ranger at the site told me that the Mogollon people inhabited the area for about three decades and then abandoned it as the drought continued in the area with no relief in sight. With little or no hope, those folks packed up and left, looking for a better place to live. Wow, I thought, that eight hundred year old story is one that has been repeated countless times over history: people, in a place that they can no longer feel at home, for whatever reason, seek to move. It’s a story that has historically existed wherever there have been people with the means to leave their present home. It’s a story that existed at a time far before the US was something. What is so wrong with that, moving to a place where you believe life will better? But, according to a vocal strain of current public rhetoric such an action is reprehensible rather than a consideration of human nature.
That simple realization that there were people that predated states, something that should be obvious but is altogether ignored in the public consciousness, and that they moved as they pleased within the limits of their capabilities, forces us to consider citizenship and borders today. While that historical freedom does not undercut the legitimacy and value of citizenship in the modern context – we have a clearly different context and resulting system today than those centuries ago – it does bring into question why we, as a society, have sought to exclude or include certain people over time. It is the premise of the question “what do we want our society to look like?” The tougher question to answer, as it is dependent on where you stand, is “given that so many folks were excluded when that question was first answered, who has the authority to answer it today?” Do you?