Tony Hillerman’s Mile-High Multiculturalism

Creator of savvy Native American sleuths, author Tony Hillerman cherished his Southwestern high desert home

Tony Hillerman (Kelly Campbell / Associated Press)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Editor’s note, Oct. 28, 2008: Tony Hillerman, whose bestselling mystery novels centered on the Navajo region of the American Southwest, died on Sunday at the age of 83. In 2006, Hillerman reflected on Albuquerque and its environs, where he had found a home and inspiration for 18 novels.

From This Story

Why is Los Ranchos de Albuquerque my kind of town? First, our mile-high, big-sky, cool-night, dry climate. Second, mountains in all directions, reminding you of aspens, pines and silent places. Next, there's the Rio Grande right behind our neighborhood, its shady bosque, or grove, providing habitat for coyotes, porcupines, squirrels, and parking spaces for the assorted geese, duck and crane flocks on their seasonal migrations.

Such assets are common in the Mountain West. Nor can we claim exclusive title to the bosque, since it lines the river from its origin in the Colorado Rockies to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. It is the longest strip of unbroken woodland in North America, and probably the narrowest.

The network of irrigation ditches, or acequias, fed by the Rio Grande allows us to believe we are still a farming village. Water still flows to our hayfields, orchards, vineyards and gardens. Yet we also enjoy urban advantages offered by the City of Albuquerque, which has engulfed us. I am one of those country boys who left the farm but couldn't forget it. For me, living in a farm village with city pleasures at hand is a joy.

While we declare our independence—and have our own city hall, firetrucks, mayor and council, and post reduced speed limits on city streets that pass through our village—mapmakers, the U.S. Postal Service and political and commercial agencies all see us as Albuquerqueans. In the census we are just 5,000 of a half-million citizens who make it New Mexico's major metropolis. Officially urbanites, we drive downtown enjoying the perfume of new-mown alfalfa and the sight of grazing horses. And our nocturnal quiet is punctuated only by occasional yips and honks in the bosque—the honks from the geese whose sleep has been disturbed by the coyotes stalking them.

The map of Los Ranchos on the wall in our little city hall shows a crazily shaped place. It runs along the east bank of the Rio Grande, 7,000 yards long (north to south) and much narrower east to west, varying from as little as a short block in some places to perhaps 3,000 yards at its widest. When I asked a former mayor of Los Ranchos for a brief description, he offered this summary: "Four square miles with 5,000 cranky people five miles from downtown Albuquerque."

Those miles are anything but square, and the "cranky" adjective reflects only those angry enough to call on city hall. However, as the mayor said, the downtown buildings (skyscrapers by Mountain West standards) do loom just to the south, and "Old Town"—the heart of Albuquerque before the railroad came through—is just four miles down Rio Grande Boulevard from my house.

The survival of our village, and many others, is due to a quirk in history and to geography. History allowed our Pueblo villages, and their water rights, to escape European colonization. And geography made Albuquerque a crossroads. The Rio Grande was the north-south road, and the Tijeras Canyon between the Sandia Mountain ridge and the Manzano Mountains funneled east-west traffic through us.

Many of those villages that formed along the Rio Grande in the 18th and 19th centuries bore the names of pioneer Spanish families. Some grew into towns, such as Bernalillo and Los Lunas. Some faded away, and some survive as Albuquerque "neighborhoods."

History preserved our acequias for us through a treaty. When the Mexican-American War ended, the West was won for us. But Mexico insisted in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that our laws respect the rights the Spanish king had given the Pueblo Indians and subsequently granted Spanish settlers, rights that the Mexican Republic had honored after winning its independence from Spain. Thus, people who own land along the ditches still retain rights to their water until they sell those rights. Thus, water still flows down our ditches.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus