Voices from the Southwest

A new anthology celebrates the stories, culture and future of our region.

A common college application essay, meant to reveal intellectual interests as well as the capacity to string sentences together, asks students to describe a dinner party at which they can have any three guests. It's a game some of the rest of us would like to play.

In this reviewer's case (pretty much out of the undergrad business but clinging to some feeble intellectual interests), that party wouldn't include three guests, but a couple dozen. We wouldn't be sitting down at dinner, but milling around with margaritas or beers with limes in them, and dipping into salsa. And it would feel a lot like this great new UA Press anthology, The Multicultural Southwest.

Leave it to a teacher-reviewer to rave about a textbook.

If you weren't aware that this collection rose out of a need for a text for a University of New Mexico class on the Southwest, you might have thought somebody had a brainstorm to praise the region through some of its own thinkers. Two professors and two grad students compiled more than 40 writings. They range from definition sof the Southwest through explorations of its three ethnic components--Anglo, Hispanic, Indian--to speculation about the future of the area.

If the book's structure gives off a whiff of "syllabus," the contents itself are refreshingly unclassroom-like. It's a book of voices: poets, journalists, personal essayists, scholars. It's reader-friendly. Most of the pieces are an easy single-sitting read, and even those are broken up with short poems.

And they tell some pretty good stories.

In "Hopi Indian Ceremonies," UA researcher Emory Sekaquaptewa includes the story of a naughty village six-year-old boy. Having been warned that children can be taken away by kachinas for bad behavior, he apparently doesn't take it to heart until the day kachinas appear at his door demanding him. His mother puts on a show of protest that they can't take him because he's necessary to two complete families-- he's a bridegroom, about to be married. Pressed for proof, the family then produces the bride--an old grandmother, in full bridal regalia. Sekaquaptewa doesn't relate the boy's reaction to grandma-bride, but the child learns that the social/religious network both trains and protects its members.

The experience of Cochiti Joe Suina is related as more wrenching. Taken from the security of his grandmother's one-room pueblo home and placed in boarding school, he suffered--but came to see pueblo security as unsophisticated and the one room as unseemly and unhealthy. Tucsonan Gary Paul Nabhan's tale is triumphant--how one Sonoran-born Papago overcame the bureaucracies and proprietorship of two national governments.

Clearly, sense of place features in the identity of the Southwest. Anglo Charles Lummis gushed about it in 1926: It's "the very Land of Wonder among the lands of Earth; ... it is the Serene Elbow-Room the hand of Man can never spoil." SMU history professor John Chavez writes that to Chicanos, the Southwest is "their lost homeland, the conquered northern half of the Mexican nation." To Native Americans, it's the "middle world," the "place of emergence."

Not just a celebration of the area, the book provides another opportunity to brag about Tucson writers.

Shiprock-born UA Professor Luci Tapahonso has two selections in the collection. "Ode to the Land: The Diné Perspective" is an essay on sacred places in Navajo country that muses on symbolic ritual and stories. The irresistible poem "Raisin Eyes" muses on something else entirely: "Damn./Those Navajo cowboys with raisin eyes/And pointed boots are just bad news./But it's so hard to remember that all the time."

Our favorite banjo-pickin' folk historian, Jim Griffith, appears in The Multicultural Southwest, as does best-selling novelist and essayist Barbara Kingsolver. Griffith draws a scholarly connection between the baroque art and architecture of 18th-century New Spain and the expressions of folk-art displays (including low rider ornamentation) and contemporary Pasqua Yaqui and Tumacacori social/ religious events. Kingsolver takes us on a chilling descent into a Titan missile silo.

There's not a voice in this collection that isn't distinctive, or an issue that's inconsequential. Just when you think you might get bored, something peculiar in an essay makes you want to grab a fresh beer and engage--it's a passion expressed, or a disarming naiveté, or the draw of the vulnerability of personal experience. My only gripe would relate to locals we're missing.

The Reader concludes with concerns about the future of the region, how to preserve cultural integrity in the light of change. The final piece, an article by Tucson Weekly freelance writer Margaret Regan on Rio Nuevo, worries about Tucson's "trashed birthplace" and reminds us of just how fragile it all is.

Feature this: The collection includes an essay that's actually entertaining on the history of the swamp cooler. No kidding. I'd include it too.

Now, wouldn't you like it with one on the rocks? With salt? Couple of varieties of chilies? Spicy and diverse is what we're all about. So's the book.