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 1950s, during my childhood, and continued into my youth. Several of them stand out:
The Cisco Kid television series. The series 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, however, was Pancho. With an earthworm-thin mustache and wide, rolling eyes, he was the comical one: nervous, lady-shy, 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 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―subliminally, of course―to my first tidbits of Spanish: “COM-pon-YER-o,” “CHEE-lay ray-A-nose,” “free-HO-lay beans,” “tore-TEE-ahs.”
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 18, 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 a 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 Madison Avenue way. The ad opens with a shot of a man―white, of course―in a suit and tie; I imagined him as just one more white-collar drone in any number of New Jersey businesses. Puffy-eyed and shaking his head as he presses his fingertips to his sinus region, the man has serious hay fever, so he takes two Dristan tablets. Then we see him still suited but seated in his house as he chases the wonder drug with a glass of water. Suddenly he and his lounger are enveloped and locked shut in a giant suitcase as an announcer says, “Yes, Dristan is like sending you sinuses to Arizona!” Like a tiny UFO, the suitcase takes off from the man’s living room, beyond whose window is a driving rain, and comes in for a smooth landing on what looks like the patio of a desert dude ranch. A cowboy and a couple cowgirls observe the landing with casual interest. The suitcase snaps smartly open, and there’s the drone in one of those cheap, 60’s, metal-and-plastic chaise lounges. However, he’s now comfortably wearing shorts and a casual shirt and footwear. Grinning, his sinuses now obviously clear and dry as a remote desert culvert, he leans back and dons a pair of sunglasses. The building adjacent to the patio is roofed with Spanish tile. An elegant desert willow grows in a stylish pot on the patio. Behind the man stand a pair of iconic saguaro cacti. Beyond the cacti stands a barren mountain. A few puffy clouds occupy 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 included 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.”