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|Ray John de Aragon|
Author celebrates Hispanic culture and traditions
Ray John de Aragon is an educator at heart, which is good because he has spent much of his adult life creating learning opportunities for young people in Las Vegas and Los Lunas school districts. He is Las Vegas born and a lifelong student of life, Hispano culture and art. He follows dual disciplines, finding time to write definitive books based on stories he heard growing up, and a curiosity that lead him to write a book that corrected erroneous understanding of the state's early history.
As an artist he is creative while staying true to the traditions of style and interpretation. His writing has won a number of awards and he has been the subject of a number of articles and books. His enthusiasm about his work never stands in the way of his getting it right. He is a careful researcher and a dedicated historian.
Below I share Ray John's responses to the questions we discussed during his Writer's Block segment July 17.
WB: Please start by telling the audience what you’ve been up to.
RJ: I’ve been working on a new project titled, The Hidden History of Spanish New Mexico. This book will tell the story of the four hundred year history of the state and will include something about the heritage, culture, and traditions with information that is not readily available in any other book.
WB: Your books and art celebrate Hispano culture. Share with us your thoughts on keeping one’s cultural traditions alive in an ever-changing world.
RJ: I don’t think people actually realize how much of how we react to things, our habits, and basic knowledge comes from those that came before us. Cultural tradition is what shapes us as human beings, and it will continue to shape us on into the future.
WB: You’ve written a number of books, all of which have stood the test of time, creating a compendium of information that brings understanding to old Spanish and northern New Mexico traditions, and shines the light of understanding on often flawed depictions of history. Tell us about some of the books you’ve written and how your work has influenced or changed how we view the past.
RJ: I wrote my book, Padre Martínez and Bishop Lamy, because I was incensed at the way our legendary folk hero priest Padre Antonio José Martínez was depicted in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. Although it was a historical fictional novel people took it as the truth and saw the padre as an immoral lecherous priest. I felt I needed to counter that denigrating portrayal with the truth. I attempted to do the same thing with my book, Hermanos de La Luz, Brothers of the Light to present a more balanced look at the Penitente Brotherhood of New Mexico. The truth is most people want to hear about some rituals which have been sensationalized, rather than what was going on in the world around them. Actually their rituals reflected their faith and the strength it took to make it in a tough world and the penance they felt was needed to remind them that good moral decisions could only be made by picking up their cross and carry it, which was harder than taking the easy way out. Besides, the persecution they and their families endured by people who did not understand a culture different from theirs was a much greater penance than what they would have ever chosen. They were constantly being dragged out of their homes and beaten and sometimes they and their families were killed. It wasn’t meant to be a secretive society, but throughout history, from ancient times to now, the world has not always been kind to things they could not understand. I think my books have opened up an understanding and appreciation of the rich cultural and historical heritage and legacy of the four hundred year old Spanish history of New Mexico.
WB: How do you balance the time it takes to create a work of physical art and the artistic expression of writing, both of which take a monumental amount of time?
RJ: I go by the inspiration I feel at the time. If I feel like painting, I paint. If I feel like writing, I write. If you want to do something bad enough, you sacrifice. Some people get to go on vacation, watch TV, sleep, etc., sometimes I have to give those things up and work on what I believe in.
WB: Let’s talk about New Mexico Legends and Lore. Now, I’m Hispanic, on my mother’s side. I grew up learning what she remembered of stories she grew up with in Arizona, where my grandfather was a country sheriff and a sheepherder, but those stories were watered down, I think, by the fact we didn’t live in community with the traditions she grew up with. I will say, however, that in this book I recall similar types of stories. Do these stories sort of cross all cultures and come out in different ways?
RJ: I think that in all cultures the world over there are stories that have been passed down from one generation to the next that teach lessons or follow universal themes. It doesn’t matter what the color of our skin is, how our culture or traditions are different. We all want to be treated with dignity, to be loved, to be taken care of, to wish that our children could always be safe and protected. We are a very creative people and we find ways of expressing ourselves by making it interesting, magical, or frightful. Whatever works to get our point across. What youth wants to hear, “Don’t go into a canal with rushing water or ditch filled to the brim with water because you could drown!” Doesn’t it make a more lasting impression if one says, “I’ve heard that La Llorona is always looking for children who go near the water in the arroyos and if she catches them, they might not ever see their family again. So be very careful. You never know…”
WB: What prompted you to put together this particular collection?
RJ: When I told the stories in the book to students at schools, at presentations around the state, at conferences, and at university classrooms I always enjoyed seeing how kids and adults would respond. Since people seemed to be enthralled by the stories, I wrote them down.
WB: What stories resonated with you as a child and has that changed as you’ve matured?
The story of La Llorona is one I grew up with living next to the Arroyo Manteca near the Old Town Plaza here in Las Vegas. Of course my mother told me the story to keep me away from the arroyo, but as I grew older, my friends and I searched for La Llorona in the arroyo by day, but never by night. I decided to write a full-length book on La Llorona, The Legend of La Llorona, which is still in print. As a child I didn’t understand why the stories were told, but as an adult I understand the value in those stories. In today’s society, kids watch programs or play games where blood is gushing, or brains are bursting out of characters heads, but there is no value in the story, no moral learned, except maybe a “how to” guide on how to do the same things, but do it before it’s done to you, or do it well enough to not get caught. People say its not real, but when it does become real some of us are shocked, others may think they were stupid because they got caught, and still others may think, “It’s not really that big of a deal!”
WB: Of the books you’ve written which has been your favorite?
I can’t say any one book I’ve written is my favorite. Each one had a purpose. I guess I could say, my next one and the one after that is my favorite. Each new book is the infant waiting to be born.
WB: Which has had the greatest impact and why?
At this point, Padre Martinez and Bishop Lamy has had the greatest impact. It has been referred to as a revisionist history by some, I say, “Is it a revisionist history because I dare to contradict what the so called “experts” have quoted over and over again without looking at the facts?” At one time it wasn’t easy to do research by looking at documents from primary sources or as close to the primary source as possible, but today there is no excuse for rehashing what somebody else has said with the technology that is available. I would say read and reread both the pros and cons, what are the statistics, what else was going on at the time, who is saying it, why they are saying it and then make your statement. Hey, there is nothing like history, the written words of those who lived it, and time will eventually bring out the truth. New “old” documents come out of secret government folders or hidden chests everyday. We just need to look for them. Sometimes we like what we find, sometimes we don’t.
WB: You have also written children’s books. Talk a little about that.
RJ: It always seems that I have ten different projects going at the same time. Being a Title I reading teacher I always wanted to write children’s books because I saw how kids reacted to Dr. Seuss so I wrote City of Candy and Streets of Ice Cream. It sold well and now I have several children’s books in the works.
WB: On the book cover for New Mexico Legends and Lore, you quote a common New Mexico expression, “Fear always leads us to suspect the worst.” Do you regard that as a caution to not be fearful or a defeatist reality? As in, the worst is bound to happen so I might as well get the fear part of it out of the way up front.
RJ: This famous New Mexico dicho most probably means something like, “If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” What it also means is keep on trying until you do. We say, “Think before you leap!” Sometimes, we have to leap before we think or we might not ever do it!
RJ: Tome on the Range is having a book signing on Saturday, July 21. I will be there to sign the books and try to answer any questions you might have. We might be able to share some stories.
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