Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Rooster on Atlantic Avenue

I don’t know if Barelas has ever been without roosters. In my imagination, chickens arrived here shortly after Don Pedro de Varela put roots into this soil in 1662 and have maintained a presence in Barelas ever since.

When we moved here 11 years ago, members of my family mentioned hearing roosters crowing every morning. (Even with my hearing aids, this is a sound I miss out on – for better or worse.) At first I thought this was yet another joke my kids were playing on their gullible hard of hearing mom; since we could see downtown Albuquerque from our backyard, it didn’t seem possible that roosters could be living nearby.

It turns out that in addition to cats and dogs, many of our neighbors also keep chickens and ducks. On occasion we’ve seen a pot-bellied pig cruising down 4th Street on a leash. And there’s Rooster, the neighborhood celebrity cat once featured in the Albuquerque Journal – an animal destined for identity confusion if I ever saw one.

Last spring, I noticed a bunch of chickens wandering up and down our street in the early morning, scratching for bugs and whatever else chickens eat. It turns out that they live several houses down the street, and every morning they get an hour or so of free range exercise – the avian equivalent of being let out of your cell for an hour of exercise in the yard, I suppose.

The rooster attached to this brood has considerably more liberty. Most days this winter, I sit on my front porch in the sunshine, working away on my laptop and waiting for The Rooster to show up.

You see, my next door neighbor, a gruff WWII veteran, has taken a liking to this bird. He leaves fresh water for him daily in a plastic margarine container in his parkway. His granddaughter and my daughter, Chicken Run fans both, have taken it upon themselves to keep The Rooster well supplied with bird seed and other delicacies, from melon rinds to hunks of aging Halloween pumpkin.

He’s a tough bird, and I’ll confess, a bit scary. Some mornings when I walk outside to retrieve my morning paper (now there’s an archaic ritual!), I look both ways to make sure he doesn’t sneak up on me. Trust me, there’s nothing more disconcerting than bending down to pick up the newspaper only to find yourself eye to eye with a rooster before you’ve had your morning coffee.

He’s pugnacious, too. Neighborhood cats stay out of his way, and though the local dogs bark at him, they back off when he swaggers over to their chain link fences. I used to worry that a dog or even a coyote from the bosque might snatch him up, but no more. I’m convinced this guy would come out ahead in a brawl. He’s a Barelas street rooster, after all.

You never know what kind of relationships you’ll develop when you move to a neighborhood. When we planted ourselves in Barelas, one of the things we liked most about it was the sense of community that reminded us of our childhoods. After a short time, I realized how rich this place was in people and stories, and I started collecting them the way my daughter collects rocks.

I figured bits and pieces of Barelas would emerge in my writing or lectures at some point, mixed up with tales of cowboying in Wyoming and waiting tables in Napa Valley. This community has taken hold of my life and thoughts in unpredictable ways: I could not have imagined upon my move to Barelas that a decade later I’d be blogging about a neighborhood rooster and wondering if he has a name.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Las Posadas de Barelas

One of my favorite Albuquerque memories is walking through the luminaria-lined streets of Barelas in a light snow, following the Las Posadas de Barelas nativity and enjoying the sounds of Christmas carols sung in Spanish and English. My two children, dressed up as an angel and a shepherd, were old enough to carry their candles without setting themselves on fire, and young enough to take heed of mom’s words about the dangers of mixing candlefire with horseplay.

In case you are not familiar with Las Posadas, it is a lovely Hispanic tradition that reenacts the travels of Jose y Maria prior to the birth of Jesus, with the nativity procession moving from door to door in search of shelter.

Carolers sing traditional Spanish songs seeking shelter, followed by the residents of the house and their guests denying this request. The procession continues to the next house in hopes of finding shelter, and at the last location, Sacred Heart Church, the doors are thrown open and everyone enters (except the burro, who always refuses). Most of the Barelas households on the Las Posadas route participate every year, decorating their home with strings of lights and luminarias, and hosting parties on the night of Las Posadas. When the procession arrives, partygoers spill out of the brightly lit homes singing their parts in this age old ritual.

The tradition dates back to the 1500s when it was brought to the New World by the Spanish. It has been an official event in the Barelas neighborhood for 62 years, thanks to the efforts of Patrick Turrieta and many others too numerous to name.

Las Posadas de Barelas is one of two times a year where my many worlds collide here in Albuquerque. It is one of the many reasons I love this city, and Barelas in particular.

On this night I see my next-door neighbors, friends from organization boards, commissions, and committees that I’ve served with over the years, family members, people from the NM Deaf community, parents from long gone soccer teams that my children once played on, fellow artists and writers and actors and musicians from Barelas and points beyond. I bump into teachers from my children’s schools both past and present, former River Rangers, homeschoolers and unschoolers, and cherished bioethicist/philosopher friends and colleagues from UNM. On this night I get to have conversations in English, American Sign Language, and Spanish, and sometimes a mixture of the three as I introduce friends dear to my heart to each other.

Each year we invite some of our friends to join us in this neighborhood tradition, and this year is no different. I remember my Austrian friend Gabi, crowing with delight at the polka sounds of ranchero music played at the Barelas Community Center celebration following the walk through the neighborhood. I remember jostling through the crowd to get nearer to my dear friend Brenda Hollingsworth-Marley so that I could hear every word of her beautiful rich alto singing voice. (And in case you would like to hear her too, she will be performing at the Q Bar in Hotel Albuquerque on 4 January from 6-9pm). And I remember watching my buddies from the Hearing Loss Association of Albuquerque fiddle with the settings on their cochlear implants and hearing aids so they too, could reap this benefit.

I remember my Jewish friend from Jerusalem peppering me with questions about the significance and symbolism of everything from the farolitos to the order of the procession. And I remember one bitter cold posadas night some years ago when my signing deaf friends joined us and our fingers froze like popsicles mid-sentence.

I remember watching powerhouse Bareleña Dolly Sanchez de Rivera standing at the entrance of the Barelas Community Center, greeting almost everyone by name and marshalling them into helping out in some way, somehow. I remember sotto voce conversations with my Belgian neighbor about her childhood Christmas memories and the importance of creating community and raising our children to be of Barelas and not apart from it.

I remember seeing my neighbor Adam, a young baseball-addicted teenager, transformed as Joseph and walking with pride alongside a very stubborn burro carrying another neighborhood teen portraying Mary. And of course, I remember the stalwart women of Barelas who return to the community center each year to serve hot chocolate and biscochitos to the crowd as we wait for the program to begin in the Indian Room.

This Saturday we will be doing our part for Barelas, making and setting up luminarias along the walking path, helping the children of Barelas clamber into their costumes, and passing out candles and bilingual song sheets.

Las Posadas de Barelas is on December 22, 2007. It begins and ends at the Barelas Community Center at 801 Barelas Road SW. The procession begins at 6 pm sharp, followed by refreshments and the Fiesta de Navidad, which ends at 10 pm. Dress warmly, and bring candles and flashlights. All are welcome.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Dia de Los Muertos

Most of the time I try to keep my DC blogging separate from my musings about Barelas. This time they've come together in a blog I posted on DeafDC at


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

In Defense of Barelas

Said in 1996, in and around UNM…

“You live where?”
“In Barelas.”
“Where’s that?”

“You live where?”
“In Barelas.”

“You live where?”
“In Barelas.”
“In the barrio? Is that safe?”

Eleven years ago last summer, I purchased an old adobe fixer-upper in Barelas. It had crumbling pavement in place of a front lawn, a sagging porch, and a parkway filled with bindweed and goatheads. A collection of used tea bags dangled from the wrought iron grating enclosing the front porch. The dried tea bags fluttered in the breeze like aspen leaves and puzzled our traditional Hispano neighbors, who wondered out loud if they were part of a protective religious ritual.

Our house had two claims to fame in the neighborhood. Folks either knew it as the former home of several UNM Ski Team members and site of infamous wild parties, or associated it with local politico and native Bareleño Al Otero, the New Mexico State Representative who pushed to locate the National Hispanic Culture Center in Barelas. After we moved in, we became the people who bought the Ski Team house or the Al Otero house, depending on who you talked to. Shortly before we closed on the house, President Clinton drew some positive attention to the neighborhood by speaking at the Barelas Community Center. The 4th Street Revitalization project began as we moved our furniture, books and toys into our new home; some say this started the seismic shift that transformed Barelas from a poor neighborhood to an up-and-coming funky place to live.

Why Barelas? I needed to be close to UNM, where I was beginning graduate work in philosophy. We didn’t want to live in a New Mexican version of a Levittown suburb. Barelas was affordable; we bought an adobe house twice as big as our NE Heights apartment with a monthly mortgage that cost less than our rent. We could walk to the zoo, downtown, and the Rio Grande bosque. Plus, Barelas felt like home – there was something about it that reminded me of Guadelahabra, a neighborhood in my home town of La Habra, California, blended with a dash of my grandparents’ stomping grounds of Boyle Heights and Santa Ana. Downtown rehabilitation was pie-in-the-sky talk at the time, ground-breaking for the Aquarium and Botanic Gardens hadn’t started yet, and drug dealers and gangbangers lived down the street. Still, something about Barelas smelled right and it wasn’t just the home cooked tortillas y frijoles, though that helped.

About a month after we moved in, we started hanging out on the front porch. We couldn’t see much at first, just a treeless concrete streetscape with people walking by. I’d park myself on my rickety five dollar faux Bentwood chair purchased from the NM Animal Humane Society Thrift Store and read Leibniz and Descartes while drinking yerba buena iced tea. The front porch became an extension of our living room – the place where we colored, drank coffee, played with ants and grasshoppers, read Dr. Seuss, and cut up magazines for art projects. It also introduced us to the neighborhood.

After a while, I started noticing neighborhood patterns and habits. There was the dapper eighty-ish Hispanic gentleman with a fedora who walked by every morning; the blonde hippy chick headed to Arrow Market a few times a week with a little girl, a baby, and a dog in tow; and the homeless Anglo guy with the Grizzly Adams’ hair and beard who favored pink muu-muus and pushed a shopping cart down 4th Street.

One morning, while I was agonizing my way through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the man with the fedora interrupted his stroll to ask me what I was reading and how I liked the neighborhood, in that order. It turned out he was a retired academic who lived a few streets over. One thing led to another and pretty soon we found ourselves talking about the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein, logical positivism, and the retired prof’s experiences in Austria in the 1930s. In Barelas, no less!

Barelas has changed a lot over the past decade. I still sit on my front porch and watch the neighborhood go by - these days I’m more apt to be pecking a blog on my laptop than reading early modern philosophy. More artists and writers live here than when we first moved in, and downtown is hopping, not just hoping. People still refer to our place as the “Al Otero house”, but these days, it is also known as the house with the colorful flowers and exposed adobe front porch. The dapper guy with the fedora stopped his morning constitutional about nine years ago, but not before we had many conversations about history, art, philosophy and life.

To my regret, I never did catch his name.