At age 79, Vidal Aragon is moving strongly into his second century as perhaps the premier silver smith in the 12 pueblos of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. He signs his jewelry with the bear paw and "VA" merged together. His name commands top prices with the Santa Fe trade. He doesn't have to sit on the portico at the Palace of the Governors hawking his wares with his brothers and sisters from other pueblos. He comes to town every two weeks, where he delivers his latest creations to his own special display case inside the oldest of the Indian trading outfits, Packards.
Vidal and his family are part
of my heritage, thanks to my mother. When I was young, I would go
with my mother to see Vidal and his family at Santo Domingo Pueblo.
It was such a treat to go there on feast days, to listen to the
singers and watch the dances. Vidal and his brother Mateo, both now
former governors of the pueblo (Mateo died years ago), would dance
or sing in the tradition of their centuries-old religion. The
modern world does creep in. One year they honored Jack Kennedy by
wearing Kennedy half-dollars on their moccasins. But it is one of
the few pueblos that has successfully resisted the temptation to
build a casino.
Vidal's home is filled with the
finest of Indian art. He traded to Plains tribes for beadwork and
to the Navajos for blankets. He traded with the Chippewa and the
Nez Perce. A few years ago, somebody broke into his home in the
middle of the pueblo and stole two very large and special pots.
Santo Domingo artists long dead had made the pots before the
gringos came. Now, Vidal locks everything up, and the blankets that
used to line his walls are in safe keeping.
year, the pueblo condemned Vidal's home. Even adobe fails with the
centuries. The tribe moved Vidal to a new place for a year and
built him a new home on the same spot as his old one. His niece,
Irene, raised by Vidal as a daughter, and his grandchildren, Ed and
Sonja (not actually his grandchildren but really his cousins who
needed a dad), and his great grandson, Mateo (who may be his
great-grandson though it doesn't seem to matter in a culture that
takes care of children no matter what the circumstances), all live
in the new house.
I was in Vidal's home with my
oldest daughter and my grandchildren and my friend, Laurie, to
honor him and to keep the tradition of our friendship alive.
Grandson Ed invited us to come out to watch him dance and feast
with the family. His sister, Sonja, doesn't dance. "She doesn't
practice her religion," Ed said. "She practices the white man's
religion." "It's easier," Sonja said, without apology. Sonja has
just completed four years of her engineering degree at the
University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. Ed is studying to be a lawyer.
We brought food with us, freshly cooked chili
and bread and Krispy Kreme doughnuts and fresh flowers and coffee.
We sat together and caught up on all the news of our families.
Vidal's mother and my mother became great friends over the years.
At 90, Mrs. Aragon spoke no English and preferred her own language,
which is still spoken in their home today. My mother taught her the
only English she ever knew -- how to sing "Happy Birthday" and to
say "Hello. Hello. Come in. Sit down." That's how she'd greet the
many international visitors who Mom brought to see Vidal and to
learn about los Indios of New Mexico. My mother was on the New
Mexico Border Commission and made it her lifework to bring people
together in the tri-cultural Rio Grande Valley.
I have never gone to see Vidal after calling in
advance. I just show up and there he is. He only recently acquired
a phone. There is living history in that place, where the wind
sweeps the streets and people have danced and prayed for 800 years.
I'll go back this Christmas, and maybe my children will, and we'll
listen to the old songs and eat posole and thank God for the
blessings of our lives and the season.