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 check.
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 father.
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 excellence.
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 known.
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.
So 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 devastating.
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.
Aaron Abeyta is an assistant professor of English at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado. He received the 2002 American Book Award for his book, Colcha. Abeyta originally read this essay at the 2003 Headwaters Conference in Gunnison, Colorado.