It is good to be writing again. The mountains have snow, the air is cold, the sun is shining. It is a good November day, and I have been thinking of this idea of sovereignty, an almost foreign word here in Antonito, Colo., where there is so much poverty, and where most of us, to some degree, rely on a government that mostly ignores us to survive. I suppose the skeptic in me believes that the government wants its minorities that way, dependent, but I don’t want this essay to be about bitterness. Instead, I want you to come to the river with me where we can talk about this beautiful wish, sovereignty. Both words — river and sovereignty — lead me to Gerald Arellano.
I looked up sovereignty in the dictionary. I was
hoping for something that didn’t mention autonomy, politics
or governance. I was hoping because we in Antonito are not heavy
hitters in any of those arenas. I held out hope, and there it was:
The first definition. Before autonomy, before body politic. There,
on page 836 of my Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate, was this
definition: “supreme excellence or an example of it.”
It made reference to Shakespeare’s Love’s
Labour’s Lost: “of all the complexions the cull’d
sovereignty do meet in her fair cheek.”
So with this
I come to Gerald Arellano. Growing up in Cañon, a small
village west of Antonito, he was our nearest neighbor, about
one-quarter mile away to the east. For most people, Gerald would
not come to mind as an example of supreme excellence. As men go, he
had the basic features of a man but did not exude any other
characteristics we think of when we say the word “man.”
He was a thin man, almost nonexistent, his tall brown body racked
with diabetes, alcoholism, drug abuse.
He lived in an
uninsulated trailer with his wife and daughter. Later, these two
would die in the most horrible traffic accident I have ever seen.
Gerald asked that I be one of the six that carried his daughter to
her grave. But the tragedy of Gerald Arellano existed long before
his family was taken from him. He did not work. Their home had no
running water, and to survive he waited for his welfare
Usually around Christmas, my abuelito — my
grandfather — would hire Gerald to do some work around the
ranch. Just some under-the-radar stuff paid in cash every weekend.
We knew he wouldn’t return after the first payday. We hired
him anyway, because my abuelito liked Gerald’s
I tell you all this, because in the eyes of this
nation and our community, Gerald Arellano was close to worthless.
Yet, as a boy, I admired him more than any other man I knew. I
believe in my God; I see him as loving, a presence who, despite the
traumas of our lives, gives each of us a gift. A gift of supreme
It was on the Conejos
River, which drops toward the Rio Grande, that I learned
about Gerald Arellano’s gift. He died of his failings a few
years back. He probably wasn’t over 40 years old. I failed to
record the day, month and year of his passing, but this essay will
serve to record that he was the greatest fisherman I have ever
As a young boy, I would look east out of our living
room window and wait for his thin ghostlike figure to emerge from
his weathered, white trailer, rod in hand, and move slowly north
toward the river. I would run to stand by his side, my own fishing
pole ready to mimic his cast, the holes, the retrieval of the lure.
I was his mirror. Everyone thought he was a bum, but he would catch
20, 30 fish. I would beg some from him to make four, enough for my
mother, father, brother and myself. He always shared.
what does any of this have to do with sovereignty? As a writer, I
must have faith that one human can represent all of us. Gerald
Arellano is that for me. By all accounts, he had nothing, and what
little he had was taken from him at an intersection two miles up
the road from his trailer. My home town, Antonito, also has had
many things taken from her. Some are measurable in acres and cubic
feet of water. Other losses are more discreet but just as
Many have suggested that gambling will save
Antonito. We have had enough of the odds. Other communities are
also expected to benefit from outside enterprise, whether it be ski
slopes or cabins in a formerly pristine canyon. We cannot be
complacent or happy with the scraps of the American dream. We must
let our excellence be our mark. We must realize our natural gifts
and harvest them.
To be sovereign, autonomous,
self-governing, economically viable, free, each of us must realize
our one gift. Sometimes, if God and genetics are good, there are
many to choose from, but often there is just that one. Each of us,
each community, despite circumstance or poverty, must foster the
one gift, the one resource, our one example of supreme excellence.
If we do this, sovereignty becomes easier.
Some may argue
that setting the gift free opens it up to be stolen. It cannot be
stolen, because people don’t look into the well past the
water they have come to drink. I stood by Gerald’s side,
mimicked him to the smallest detail, used the same lures and
equipment and still, 20 years later, I cannot match him.
Perhaps Gerald Arellano was a bum. He was beautiful too, excellent,
supremely so, there on the Conejos, where this boy and maybe even
the fish miss him. On the Conejos he was free, autonomous,
memorable, totally aware that some gifts cannot be purchased,
stolen, neglected or lost. Years later, I too realize something:
Only the beautiful parts of our existence can save us.