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Southwest Kitsch, Southwest Authentic, Southwest Everything in Between

During our first two years together in the Southwest, Linda and I, like so many other new arrivals to this land, surrendered to its numerous cultural attractions, from, in the words of Albuquerque-born Southwest scholar Robert Gish, “the lowbrow, curio kitsch” to the clearly authentic. 

The “kitsch” was primarily my weakness.  To friends, I enthusiastically fired off postcards bearing the obviously-doctored image of the New Mexico hybrid known as the “jackalope,” a giant, rearing rabbit crowned with the massive rack of an elk.  In Albuquerque’s Old Town, I snapped up mini bricks of piñon incense and small, cylindrical bundles of sage smudge, and soon my apartment was smelling like a Navajo sweat lodge, and the inside of my Mercury Christmas Eve on the Taos Pueblo plaza. 

Linda, meanwhile, purchased a popular New Mexico curio: a carved wooden coyote in full-throated howling pose; however, she drew the line at the equally popular mini-bandana about its neck.  

In the patio area of our rented townhouse, our first dwelling together, we hung a ristra.  The ristra, a venerable symbol of fall in New Mexico, is a mass of red chile peppers intricately strung together in a long bundle.  When available for sale, the peppers of the ristra are freshly-harvested and thus scarlet, plump, and rubbery; however, when subsequently hung outdoors, they dry, shrivel, and darken to burgundy, eventually swaying en masse, perhaps softly clattering, in New Mexico’s winter winds.  Of course, artificial “peppers” are available in New Mexico as well: we purchased and shipped red, green, and yellow electric “chile lights” to my sister and brother-in-law in New Hampshire.  

We purchased Native American artifacts: pottery from the Acoma, Jemez, San Felipe, and Zia pueblos; a delicate and detailed wooden “eagle dancer” figurine from Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center; a Navajo rug at a University of New Mexico auction; and, also from the auction, a “vegetal chart” explaining the origin of Native American dyes.  Linda gave me my first ring, a turquoise set in silver from the pueblo of Sandia.  

Gracing the walls of our townhouse were framed photographs of iconic Southwestern locales, places such as Laguna Pueblo and Monument Valley, by Ansel Adams and others.  

We watched Robert Redford’s 1988 film adaptation of John Nichols’s novel The Milagro Beanfield War; set in a thinly-disguised Taos, the movie was filmed largely in the northern New Mexico village of Truchas.

Books with Southwestern settings and themes quickly became my passion.  I purchased them at Albuquerque’s independent and chain bookstores, as well as at the gift shops of Albuquerque and Santa Fe art museums and cultural centers and Santa Fe’s famous La Fonda Hotel, the hotel displaying titles by Willa Cather, Frank Waters, Rudolfo Anaya, Tony Hillerman, and Nichols.  At a used book store on Central Avenue I purchased Lawrence Clark Powell’s Southwest Classics: sketches, critical and biographical in nature, of authors who were among the first to chronicle the often mystical life of the Southwest.  At the same store I purchased Erna Fergusson’s 1940 non-fiction work Our Southwest, which remains my favorite book about this land.  

And we often enjoyed much of this while listening to the music of “nouveau flamenco” guitarist and Santa Fe resident Ottmar Liebert.