How does one get to know and love a place, a landscape?
The channels through which I developed first a curiosity, then an interest, and finally a love for the Southwest were obvious and subtle, conscious and unconscious, respectful and offensive, authentic and ridiculous. They first presented themselves in New Jersey in the 1950’s, during my childhood, and continued into my youth. Several of them stand out:
The Cisco Kid television series. It starred Duncan Renaldo, a Romanian of murky parentage, as Cisco, and Leo Carrillo, an American of Spanish descent, as his sidekick, Pancho. The pair portrayed two Mexicans dwelling mysteriously in the American West. Each episode captivated me. Set to dramatic music, the episodes’ opening credits saw our two heroes galloping through a barren, rocky, Joshua tree-studded landscape, a place obviously unlike New Jersey. Except for his white sombrero and generous splashes of white floral patterns woven into the shoulders and arms of his trim cowboy shirt, Cisco dressed all in black. How could a little boy longing for adventure not identify with this handsome, dark-eyed fellow?
Competing for my affection was Pancho. With an earthworm-thin mustache and eyes the size of quarters, he was the comical one: nervous, shy with the ladies, and given to malapropisms―“the shoe’s on top of the other foot these time”―mostly owing, as with Cisco, to English being his second language. Pancho’s gray sombrero was somewhat larger than Cisco’s; as he pursued outlaws during fiery afternoons in the Southwest, I imagined the generous and comfortable shade beneath it. His patterned shirt, far more subdued and worn than Cisco’s, looked to me like one of my pajama tops, and because of that, extremely comfortable.
The Cisco Kid introduced me―unknowingly, of course―to my first tidbits of Spanish: “COM-pon-YER-o,” “CHEE-lay ray-A-nose,” “free-HO-lay beans,” “tore-TEE-ahs.”
Here were two good hombres from south of the border, frequently mistaken for outlaws, but always, in the end, righting wrongs and earning the gratitude of the American settlers. Each astride a horse―Cisco’s named “Diablo,” Pancho’s named “Loco”―the duo bade farewell at the end of every episode: “Goodbye, ah-MEE-goes,” said Cisco. “See you soon! Hah!” said Pancho.
Then there was the short story “María Concepción” by Katherine Anne Porter. Porter’s 1923 tale, anthologized in a book assigned to me in a high school creative writing class, is set in Mexico, in an unnamed city with a view of distant mountains. Its titular character is eighteen, barely older than myself at the time. Her “home country” is the Mexican city of Guadalajara. The story is one of adultery, revenge, murder, cover-up, familial bonds, and violence that goes unpunished, presumably because justified. It is filled with strange things like a “jacal” and “maguey thorns” and includes a “medicine-woman” who uses “charred owl bones,” “singed rabbit fur,” and “cat entrails” in her ministrations. Its women wear a thing with the peculiar name “rebozo.” It mentions archeological digs and hints at the 1910 Mexican Revolution. This tale, too, was clearly not New Jersey.
The 1960’s television commercial for Dristan decongestant compellingly evoked the Southwest for me, albeit in a ridiculous, if clever, Madison Avenue way. The ad opened with a shot of a man―white, of course―in a suit and tie; I imagined him as just one more drone in any number of New Jersey businesses. Puffy-eyed and shaking his head as he pressed his fingertips to his sinus region, the man had serious hay fever, so he took two Dristan tablets. Then he appeared still suited but seated in his house as he chased the wonder drug with a glass of water.
Suddenly he and his lounger were enveloped and locked shut in a giant suitcase as the voice-over said, “Yes, Dristan is like sending you sinuses to Arizona.” Like a tiny UFO, the suitcase took off from the man’s living room, beyond whose window was a driving rain, and came in for a smooth landing on what looked like the patio of a desert dude ranch. A cowboy and a couple cowgirls observed the touch down with casual interest. The suitcase snapped smartly open, and there was the drone in one of those cheap 1960’s metal-and-plastic chaise lounges. However, he was now comfortably wearing shorts and a casual shirt and footwear. Grinning, his sinuses now obviously clear and dry as a remote desert culvert, he leaned back and donned a pair of sunglasses. The building adjacent to the patio was roofed with Spanish tile. An elegant desert willow grew in a stylish pot on the patio. Behind the man stood a pair of saguaro cacti. Beyond the cacti stood a barren mountain. A few puffy clouds occupied the sky. This was my ludicrous introduction to Arizona.
Yet it resonated. My problem wasn’t allergies. The driving rain beyond that guy’s living room, so typical of life in New Jersey, was. Sunshine, warmth, a majestic mountain, giant cacti, rippling tile instead of flat tarpaper, a drugstore cowgirl or two: If this is “Arizona,” I thought, where’s my suitcase? I want to go!
Other youthful Southwest hints include the song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” as rendered by the Rolling Stones, comedian Bill Dana’s silly impersonation of a fictional Latino named José Jimenez, and Pat Boone’s recording “Speedy Gonzales.”
What a boyhood!