The old man in my passenger seat sees faces in the mountains. As we drive through vast alfalfa fields near Blythe, Calif., in the searing heat of late August, he points with a weathered finger the color and texture of tanned leather.
"See it? That is Huitzilipochtli," says Alfredo Figueroa. As we pass under the peak, one of the highest in the Big Maria Mountains, a jagged rock appears, slanting like a bird's beak. "Weet-se-lo-POTCH-lee," he says in a dry, high-pitched voice. "Hear it? Like a hummingbird." Huitzilipochtli is the Aztec deity of the sun and summer solstice.
The spry Chemehuevi elder lives with his wife, Demesia, in a small adobe bungalow on the outskirts of Blythe, his hometown. His bolo tie is inlaid with turquoise and he wears a straw fedora pulled low over deep-set eyes. Over the last 50 years, Figueroa has fought beside California labor leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Bert Corona, from the vineyards of Napa County to the lettuce fields of the Coachella Valley. He is well known for singing the corridos, Spanish folk songs that speak of the plight of the working class. Guitar in hand, Figueroa would take the stage, singing huelga (strike) songs as a warm-up before Chavez came on. In his struggle to help migrant farmworkers, the activist has been slandered, threatened, beaten and jailed.
But for the last decade Figueroa has been waging a different battle, protecting ancient history in the forbidding desert landscapes of the Palo Verde Valley – a place he calls la cuna, or "the cradle," where his family has lived for generations. His neighborhood, Barrio de la Liebre – acacitli, or jackrabbit island, in his ancestral Nahuatl tongue – occupies an abandoned meander of the Colorado River. From the end of his street he can see the great rock head of a mountain he calls Cuautlehuanitl. When the low-angled rays of the sun strike the peak in the morning, it casts a shadow from the crags in the shape of a great eagle. There are also hundreds of giant manmade figures, known as geoglyphs or intaglios, among the area's springs, burial grounds and rock art panels.
Etched into the pale caliche soil, some are hundreds of feet long and depict human and animal shapes; others show intricate spiral and zigzag patterns. Only Peru's famed Nazca Lines are believed to hold a larger trove of land drawings.
Most consider the geoglyphs a mystery. But Figueroa thinks he's deciphered their meaning: The glyphs, he says, interweave with the region's natural features to tell the creation story of the ancestors of the Chemehuevi and other Uto-Aztecan speaking peoples of the Southwest. Figueroa also believes that the lost homeland of the Aztecs – la cuna de Aztlan – is here, amid the ancient washes and sun-seared mountainsides of the Lower Colorado River. He's self-published a book about it: Ancient Footprints of the Colorado River: La Cuna de Aztlan.
Not everyone accepts his theories. Many scholars say Aztlan is purely mythical – the Atlantis or Avalon of the Americas. And the Lower Colorado tribes hold a variety of beliefs about the geoglyphs and their creation. Because they were made simply by moving rocks, dating them is extremely difficult, if not impossible, according to George Shannon, an archaeologist with the Lake Havasu Bureau of Land Management office. "If you ask the Mojave, they'll tell you (the glyphs) have been here forever. But the archaeological record, based mostly on ceramics, indicate that the Mojave have only been in the area for 3,000 years."
The tribes agree about one thing, however, and that is the threat posed to the ancient land art by industrial development. La cuna has become the cradle of the country's push for solar energy. Spurred by federal stimulus funds and the state's aggressive carbon reduction law, AB 32 –which mandates that utilities generate 30 percent of their energy from renewables by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 – more than a dozen utility-scale solar projects have been proposed for the BLM lands around Blythe, in a corridor sacred to the Chemehuevi, Mojave, Cocopah and Quechan.
Some of the intaglios have already been damaged or destroyed. One array just north of I-10, west of Blythe, was damaged when a road was widened. The set of glyphs contains the strange, skull-like visage of a figure Figueroa calls Tzitzimitl, which points toward the Topock Maze, another large geoglyph near the town of Needles. The road also runs beside the preservation movement's unofficial mascot – an intaglio depicting the flute player, Kokopelli. From Google Earth, the rotund, almost cartoonish figure can be seen playing his flute atop the desert pavement. The aerial view reveals a more extensive network of scars, deeply incised tracks of off-road vehicles.
Figueroa wants fences to be built around the most vulnerable sites, but he says that protecting the glyphs is not enough. The land art's meaning, he explains, is inextricably tied to the landscape. To alter the landscape, therefore, is to alter the meaning. "The intaglio is sacred, yes," says Figueroa. "But so is the land around it. It's all tied together."
Shannon echoes this point, noting that the intaglios were often deliberately aligned with sacred landforms and other glyphs. "This orientation amplified the power of the prayers that were offered at these locations," he says, adding that utility-scale solar farms are often punctuated with tall collector towers and can occupy several square miles of land, interfering with sightlines for miles in all directions.
Hoping to protect the intaglios and viewsheds, Figueroa has formed a group called the Sacred Sites Protection Circle, comprised of members of various tribes and organizations including his own group, La Cuna de Aztlan. In 2008, the group signed a memorandum of understanding with the BLM to assist in the identification and protection of the glyphs. It's also lobbying the United Nations to designate the area a World Heritage site.
Figueroa's group is currently tackling at least 10 large solar projects in and around the Palo Verde Valley. Getting people involved is difficult, he says, both because of the sheer number of proposed projects and the generally poor communication between the BLM and the community. "The tribes didn't participate at first because there were too many projects over too big an area. There were 150,000 acres proposed for solar development here in the I-10 corridor of eastern Riverside County alone," says Figueroa. "The public hearings were ramrodded."
One project was abandoned after Solar Millenium filed for bankruptcy in 2012, leaving behind a vast pan of white caliche, stripped of vegetation. The access road and project site not only disturbed the Tzitzimitl and Kokopelli geoglyphs and other sacred sites but also wiped out part of an ancient trail used by the Quechan people for thousands of years. "The BLM once had a sign that said, 'PROTECT THE SACRED SITES,' to keep rock hunters from picking up a few pebbles here and there," he says. "Now it's apparently OK if energy companies plow under hundreds of thousands of acres of desert."
Figueroa has faced down powerful interests here before. In 1976, he was a key member of the tribal coalition that stopped San Diego Gas and Electric's proposed Sun Desert Nuclear Power Plant. In 1992, he helped organize a coalition of five tribes to defeat the proposed Ward Valley Nuclear Waste Dump.
Figueroa's conservation work is animated by a family tradition of activism. As a member of the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s, his grandfather worked unsuccessfully to organize mineworkers in Bisbee, Ariz., in 1918. Figueroa's father, Danuario, often told him, "Your boss is your worst enemy."
In the early 1960s, he and his brother often hung out at the Palladium Pool Hall in downtown Blythe, listening to farmworkers' stories of abuse and exploitation. Moved by those stories, Figueroa helped to organize Mexican braceros –farmworkers brought from Mexico to the U.S. during World War II when domestic workers were in short supply. The effort culminated in the 1962 Lettuce Strike, an early battle for improved conditions and fair pay in California's fields, some of which lay in the Palo Verde Valley.
Above those fields, on an anonymous butte under the ragged teeth of the Big Maria Mountains, is a site the Chemehuevi call the "Altar." Canyons of ashen shale run away toward green fields and the silver vein of the Colorado River. On the lower benches, the effigies of the Blythe Giant Intaglios – the best-known of the geoglyphs – sprawl out like sleepers on the stony ground. From here, says Figueroa, on the summer solstice, the sun can be seen rising from a small cleft in the ridgeline of the Moon Mountains, across the valley, above where he believes the ancient city of Aztlan was once located.
As we stand looking out over the valley, Figueroa's son, Jesus, taps out a simple rhythm on his hand drum, evoking memories of a way of life before modern development took hold along the ancient corridor below and the Colorado River was yoked to the rapidly growing and urbanizing Western United States.
I ask Figueroa about the present, namely the strain on the Colorado from growing populations and a warming climate. He shrugs off accusations that his current objectives are at odds with the need to rapidly replace fossil fuel-burning plants with carbon-free solar energy projects. "Climate change is a serious issue. It's true we need to do something. But this is not it," Figueroa says, as the drum hammers on. "Put panels on rooftops. Put panels on disturbed sites in and around cities. Don't put them out here. If we destroy these sites, they're gone forever."