Sunday, February 19, 2012

Protecting Doña Ana County's Treasures

Not long ago we attended an outdoor press conference concerning the proposed Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks Wilderness Act.

It was a splendid day, with a splendid view of the Organ Mountains. Denise Chavez read a poem about Tortugas Mountain. J. Paul Taylor charmed us with a personal history of Doña Ana County – including the fact that the Robledo Mountains were named after one of his ancestors.

As I listened to the fine words and watched the light play on the mountains, I mused that here was something all of us who love this place could support: protecting the Organs.

Motorcycling home, I wondered who, if anyone, opposed the legislation and why.

Folks who love the environment would obviously support it, and I figured that folks whose top priorities are jobs and economic development would too.

Yes, protecting the Organs can promote sustainable economic development.

Ask Tim O’Donohue, former President of the Chamber of Commerce in Jackson, Wyoming, how he feels about Yellowstone. According to one study, just the re-introduction of wolves there has generated an additional $25 million per year for the area!

Or ask the folks in Socorro if they’re glad to have the millions of dollars spent by visitors to the Bosque del Apache.

I spoke with two economists who’ve studied the issue and even made a "case study" of our county.

Extensive studies have shown that designating wilderness areas tends to help the surrounding economy. How much depends on the context. A wilderness next to Las Vegas or Seattle won’t be the area’s major draw. In Reserve or Cuchillo, remote from airports, hospitals, and other urban amenities, a wilderness area won’t draw many retirees or cause a company to relocate its software engineers there.

The effect is most pronounced in a place like ours: high "quality of life" but easy access to hospitals, Fed-Ex and UPS, and an international airport. Much of the recent growth in our economy has been service-related: health care, professional and technical services, and food services. All three are positive for drawing retirees, tourists, and/or environmentally friendly business. All three would in turn be helped by what the economists call "new permanent and branded protection" of wilderness areas.

Opponents of this legislation deny that protecting lands helps local economic development. One cited testimony by Brian Steed, a former deputy county attorney in southern Utah with a Ph.D. in public policy, that his research "found that Wilderness had a statistically significant negative relationship with county economic conditions." However, peer-reviewed scientific studies show a positive effect. I’ll add to the blog a link to Mr. Steed’s testimony, too; but if you have a hard time following it, you’re in good company. Economist, Ray Rasker (cited in Steed’s testimony) said of Steed’s group, "their statistical model made no sense at all" and called some of their conclusions "nonsense."

A few groups and individuals oppose the Act. Their main stated ground is border security. They argue that the legislation would hamstring the Border Patrol and endanger border security. (Extremists even say there should be no protected lands within a hundred miles of the border. That would wipe out part of the Gila Wilderness – and, if read broadly, even White Sands National Monument.)

Their basic argument, as a Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce representative put it, is that any impediment to the border patrol’s freedom is too much.

As in a family or community, the Border Patrol and federal land managers need to work together. Officials from both have testified that they do. Their working relationship isn’t perfect, but they try hard to harmonize different important priorities. A year-long review by the U.S. General Accounting Office interviewed Border Patrol agents-in-charge throughout the Southwest, who reported that despite some problems, "the border security status of their jurisdictions has been unaffected by land management laws." The GAO also found that both sides are working to improve inter-agency cooperation.

The current version of the Organ Mountains - Desert Peak legislation represents significant compromise and improves the Border Patrol’s flexibility.

While agents have been limited to a 1/3 mile strip between the border and the "Wilderness Study Area" in the Potrillos, that’ll become a five-mile strip [three-mile buffer plus two-mile "Restricted Use Area" which, though otherwise closed to motorized traffic, would permit the Border Patrol to patrol and construct outposts.) There will be an East-West road for the Border Patrol to use. The legislation also states that nothing in the wilderness designation would affect Border Patrol overflights and other security activities in the area.

In 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin, in a letter strongly supporting the legislation, said it would "significantly enhance" the Border Patrol’s flexibility in the area. Bersin said cooperation between the bill’s proponents and the Border Patrol "should be a model" for future consideration of other wilderness areas along the border. Ron Colburn, a third-generation Border Patrol officer who retired a couple of years ago, has called it "a constructive piece of legislation that would work to protect our international border with Mexico and protect our nationally valuable wilderness resources."

In one recent fiscal year the border patrol apprehended a grand total of thirteen people in the area around the Potrillos. Opponents say that designating it as a Wilderness will bring drug smugglers and illegal border-crossers streaming to the area. Proponents note that the area has been a Wilderness Study Area for nearly three decades. (Colburn questions how strongly that history can be used to predict the future, but said the real issue was the tough terrain there. "It’s really tough terrain, they could be out there for hours to days, which raises the possibility they can be intercepted by law enforcement, assuming enforcement has the capability to detect them.)

It’s hard not to wonder whether border security is the real issue or just seemed like the best way to attack legislation that would protect our scenic treasures and boost our economy.


[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 19 February.
In it, I undertook to add links to certain material:

The Economic Importance of National Monuments to Local Communities is a report by Headwaters Economics.
At that same URL, there's a link to the "case study" on Doña Ana County, Doña Ana County’s Public Lands and Economic Prosperity .
You can read an opposing view at Brian Steed Testimony.  It's testimony he gave to a Congressional Committee.  An opponent of the proposed Organ Mountain legislation referred me to it.  Mr. Steed didn't return my phone call, so I didn't get to speak to him directly.
Anyone interested in the issues discussed in the column should read those three documents, as well as the GAO Report  "Southwest Border - More Timely Border Patrol Access and Training Could Improve Security Operations and Natural Resource Protectionon Federal Lands."
Folks particularly interested in the border security issue might also watch part of the C-Span video U.S. Border Enforcement and Environmental Laws. (Unfortunately, it's three hours long.)  I started watching because Part II, which included testimony from a Las Cruces resident and former Border Patrol officer.   The hearings were held by U.S. Congressmen who hold a particular view, very different from mine, and they chose their witnesses to make their points.  Officials from the U.S. Border Patrol, Department of the Interior, Department of Agricultural, and GAO testified unanimously that (contrary to what those running the hearing contend) environmental laws pose, as one Congressman pur it, "a relatively low burde4rn that has been successfully managed by inter-agency cooperation."  However, all involved also agree that there are serious problems on the border. 
I'd note that Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who represents El Paso, testifies at approximatley 20:00 of Part I, and Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM), questions Reyes at  45:18.  Reyes was a border patrol officer himself for more than a quarter-century.  At 55:30 U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello starts his testimony, followed by Kim Thorsen from the U.S. Interior Department and Jay Jensen from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Noteworthy in Part II are the poor manners of the two Utah Congressmen questioning witnesses they don't like and the strong views expressed by two retired border patrol officers and a rancher.  To his credit, Representative Pearce, who also disagrees with the witnesses, didn't shout and interrupt the way the two Utah Congressmen did.)]
     Researching this column was interesting.   I'm no expert either on economic development or border security.   I heard some very disparate views expressed, sometimes with great passion.  I read some contradictory interpretations of the same facts. 

     Above, I've added in links to some of the evidence I looked at, so that interested readers could conveniently look further into this, rather than relying on me.  I also have a few further comments that wouldn't fit in the space I had for the column.

     Talking to Ben Alexander and Ray Rasker from Headwaters Economics was extremely helpful.   At a later date I hope to follow up in another column or blog.    I've provided links to their web-site above.

      Ron Colburn was a particularly interesting fellow to talk with.  He finally called me back, just after I'd sent the column in.  (I made a few small changes as a result of that conversation.)  He added some much-needed balance between the extreme statements I'd heard.

       He's not an environmentalist -- or "cactus-hugger," as they're called in Arizona.  He's third-generation Border Patrol.   Which isn't technically true, because his grandfather was patrolling the Mexican Border on horseback in Pancho Villa's time, before there was a border patrol as such.  His son is fourth-generation Border Patrol.  Mr. Colburn was Deputy Chief during the Bush Administration.

         He's a lawman.  He's dedicated to and highly experienced in border security.   Talking to him, I felt he was shooting pretty straight, calling 'em as he sees 'em.  He neither supports nor opposes the propsed legislation, but doesn't believe it'll present the kind of impediment to border security that opponents are screaming that it will.

         He also confirmed my instinct about the GAO report: that it was comprehensive and mostly fair, but might be shaded a little toward the views of the Congressman who requested it.  The GAO responds to Congressional inquiries.  Mr. Colburn said he takes the results with a small grain of salt.  "I think the GAO will try to provide a pleasing report to the specific congressperson who tasked them with whatever the question is -- and that's nonpartisan."   In this particular case, I believe the report was requested by Congressman Bishop (R-Utah), whom I saw screaming at witnesses from the Border Patrol and other federal hearings who testified in hearings that the Memorandum of Agreement between the Border Patrol and the Department of the Interior was working pretty well, and that they were trying to improve their working relationship. 

         The report definitely contains ammunition each side can use: it reports "delays" at times in the Border Patrol doing what it wants to do, but that those delays, in the opinion of Border Patrol border station agents-in-charge, haven't had an significant impact on border security.    The key thing the Border Patrol wants -- the ability to follow law-breakers when in hot pursuit (or "exigent circumstances") the Border Patrol has.

          Mr. Colburn, who helped draft the MOA, put it succinctly: "Is it perfect?  No, it's not perfect.  Could it sue improvement?  All sides would say it could.  But it's the best we have."

           Meanwhile, I'm also trying to talk to current Border Patrol officials in this area.  My request to that effect is being passed up the chain of command, and I'll hope to have a chance to talk with someone there."  Evidence such as the GAO study, the conversation with Mr. Colburn, the Congressional testimony, and secondhand information about "on-the-ground" officers' views all tend to suggest that this legislation isn't a threat to operations.   That's what leaders have said.  However, some retired officers have claimed, and testified in hearings, that active Border Patrol officers aren't telling the truth because they're scared to lose their jobs.  One testified to Congressman Bishop's committee that "Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol are intentionally misrepresenting the situation along the southern border, particularly as regards safety." 

           Could be true -- but sounded a little like a conspiracy theory to me; and isn't very complimentary to the agencies or officials he was talking about.

           The bottom line appears to be that there are serious problems along the border, but that environmental laws do not pose a major hurdle to dealing with those problems.  That's what the Border Patrol says -- under oath, in the committee hearings cited above. 

           I also asked U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce's office whether he supported or opposed the proposed legislation.  He stated: "I believe that the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and the other sensitive areas need to be protected.  The question is how best to do that.  In the 110th Congress, I sponsored a bill to do just that.  As Hispanic leaders wrote in a recent letter to public officials, the 'protection of the enfironmentally, culturally, and historically rich landscapes' in our state is a great imperative.  That is why I have worked for more than a year soliciting comments and suggestions from various local groups and active individuals for a balanced solution that protects our land and the rights of private property owners.   I will continue working with local communities to further the best interests of New Mexico including protecting the beauty of our state."

In e-mailed follow-up questions I asked his Press Secretary, Jamie Dickerson:

Q.  "Does Rep. Pearce support the legislation, oppose it, or oppose it pending specific revisions or improvements that he would like to see in it?"

A. "Congressman Pearce does not support the legislation."

Q. "If he opposes that legislation, I'd be interested in knowing why, with some specificity."

A. "Many of the new areas designated as wilderness in the bill do not fit the definition of wilderness in the 1964 Act.  The definition of wilderness in the 1964 Act states:
'A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.'
Cherry-stemming roads and water towers out of an area does not make it 'untrammeled by man.'"

The full definition of Wilderness in the 1964 Act is:
A wilderness, in contrast where those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrtrammeled by man, where man himself is a visoitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is furtehr defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land reainting its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condtiions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.]

Q.      "Does he agree or disagree with the view that wilderness protection or similar formal designation of lands often increases sustainable development and tourism?"

A.   "A study by economists at Utah State University and Southern Utah University calls into question this notion. The study showed that counties with wilderness areas have an average household income $1,446 lower than in non-wilderness counties."
Q.      "Does he agree or disagree with the statement by the (now-former, I believe) head of the border patrol that the legislation, under consideration would improve the flexibility of the Border Patrol and was developed into its current form from a very positive exchange between Senators, community, and Border Patrol?"

A.  "Wilderness designations limit access. Shutting off areas near the border to wheeled vehicle access is simply not good policy. According to a letter from the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers opposing Sen. Bingaman’s bill, “even the smallest impediment to unencumbered access of enforcement assets is unacceptable.” In the Organ Pipe National Monument, Park Rangers carry assault rifles and chase drug smugglers.  According to a 2003 article on the Organ Pipe Monument in National Geographic, “On any given night, rangers estimate, up to 1,000 people are inside the park. Nearly all of them have entered illegally across the park's 31-mile (50-kilometer) southern boundary, which also happens to be the dividing line between two nations.” This is without the restrictive access provisions of wilderness designation."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Workable Plan

A recent letter to the Sun-News regarding Roe v. Wade displayed a misreading of the U.S. Constitution sufficiently common to be worth addressing.

The Constitution’s framers, reacting both to the inequities of rule by a remote monarchy and to the inefficiency of several years’ self-government under the Articles of Confederation, sought to guarantee freedom from tyranny while establishing a government strong enough to be effective. Therefore Congress has no powers that are not expressly or impliedly granted by the Constitution.

The letter quoted the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." It added that since the Constitution nowhere mentions the word "abortion," the power to regulate it is left to the states. "Pretty clear," it commented.

But the letter ignored the last four words of the Constitutional language it quoted: "or to the people." Women are people. It is at least possible that the Constitution, as amended during the 19th Century, protects a woman’s right to make critical decisions regarding her body. Does the Constitution leave such decisions to her or to the state legislature?

Many of the Constitutional freedoms we take for granted were initially guaranteed us only against Federal action -- not against abuse by the states.

After the Civil War, though, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were approved. The 14th specifically extended our protections against federal interference to cover interference by the states. That is, it prohibited states from interfering with individuals’ liberties in ways the federal government would not be allowed to do. "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

The Constitution is a rather well thought-out document stating general principles. It is not, like the Federal Register, a detailed list of specific regulations. Thus it speaks of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" but leaves to the courts the task of determining whether a particular claimed right – to drive a car, make love, smoke marijuana, or wear a burka or chador to high school – is protected strictly, somewhat, or not at all.
A couple of important examples come to mind. We take for granted that a state can’t forbid a black woman and a white man to marry each other, or prohibit a married couple from using contraceptives. Supreme Court cases established those points.

Fifty years ago, many states had laws forbidding miscegenation. Loving v. Virginia (1967) involved a married couple residing in Virginia. Richard Loving was white. Mildred Loving was of African and Rappahannock descent. A bunch of Virginia policemen burst into their home one night and arrested them. They’d violated Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The Supreme Court eventually held that Virginia could not forbid them from marrying because the right to marry was a fundamental freedom guaranteed all citizens by the Constitution.

(Interesting facts: as discussed in Pace v. Alabama (1883), adulterous sex was a misdemeanor, while interracial marital sex was a felony; and a mere eleven years ago, Alabama became the last state to take its anti-miscegenation statute off the books.).

Folks like that letter-writer might accurately complain that the Constitution nowhere mentions cohabitation by persons of different ethnicity.

They would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that the Constitution does not protect us from interference by a deluded and racist state government.

In 1965, the Court decided Griswold v. Connecticut. Again, one could accurately point out that the Constitution nowhere mentions contraceptives – and could inaccurately claim that the state could therefore forbid folks from using them.

The Court disagreed. It found that some measure of privacy with regard to one’s own body and marriage was implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution. As Justice Harlan had written in a dissenting opinion four years earlier, "the full scope of the liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause cannot be found in or limited by the precise terms of the specific guarantees elsewhere in the Constitution."

Roe v. Wade is in the same category. One could reasonably argue that it was not a good decision. (I happen to think it was appropriate, but I recognize what a difficult subject abortion is.) One cannot simply point to the absence of the word "abortion" from the Constitution and claim, with any credibility, that therefore the decision is wrong.

I don’t say that the letter-writer can’t argue that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, as I think Citizens United was wrongly decided; but maybe he should bone up a little on the Constitution before lecturing us on it.

Such people (except where they happen to like a particular Supreme Court decision) see the Constitution as a document to be taken very literally, and they would restrict it to the specific topics it mentions expressly.
Nowhere does the Constitution mention that black children have the right to be educated in the same schools as white children. Few now would deny that right; but none of the framers tried to convince the populace in the 18th Century that such a right should be guaranteed. Nowhere does the Constitution mention people with physical handicaps, or expressly authorize the federal government to enact laws guaranteeing them access to buildings, but such laws exist and have been upheld as Constitutional.

The beauty of the Constitution is that its authors did remarkably well at setting up a system of checks and balances and concepts that could live and grow with the people. That’s a "wonderful and workable plan."

[ The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 5 February.]

Ironically, the page following this newspaper column contained another warning that the Constitutional rights discussed in the column are far from safe.

U.S. Representative Steve Pearce favored us with another example of his fear-mongering.

His column, entitled "Obama destroys conscience protections," began:

President Obama and his cabinet have infringed upon a basic private right in their newest sweeping federal mandate.

Strong language. I wondered what "basic private right" and "sweeping federal mandate" he was going on about, so I read on. It took many paragraphs of feverish rhetoric to get a clue.  I did learn from his second paragraph that:

This violation of the longstanding concept of conscience protection breaches the safeguards for personal religious and moral convicitons that have been in place since our founding.

Clearly Mr. Pearce had never been taught what I’d learned in grade school and re-learned as a newspaper reporter and a lawyer: in a topic sentence or paragraph, give the reader a clear sense of who did what when. Tell us what the piece of writing is about.

In a recent op-ed in USA Today, Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, wrote that this latest demand "cuts against the grain of what it means to be an American."

I believe the Archbishop hit the nail on the head.

Okay.   A Catholic Archbishop agreees with Mr. Pearce, and President Obama is un-American -- for some vile misconduct Mr. Pearce has not yet identified, after four paragraphs.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is aligning against the constitutional protection of one's conscience and religious beliefs.

Sounds serious!  Five paragraphs of ominous accusations, but no content yet.

We have the First Amendment to allow everyone to practice whatever faith in whatever manner without the government dictating the God that they worship.

A reasonably truthful sentence (though not fully correct in its grammar).  Mr. Pearce and I agree.  As a reader, I'm meant to infer from this that Mr. Pearce must be right about whatever it is he will eventually say.

As the National Association of Evangelicals stated in response to this edict, "No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience."

Mrs. Worthington, my fifth grade teacher, would surely have circled "this edict" and written "REF" in red ink, to remind me that pronouns such as "this" should have an antecedent.   But Mr. Pearce has used seven paragraphs without deigning to tell us what the "sweeping federal mandate" or "edict" might be.  He has, however, managed to cue Catholics and Evangelicals to the fact that he must be right about whatever it is, because other learned authorities agree with him.

I began to wonder if Mr. Pearce was ever going to identify this dastardly act of the Obama administration that had him so worked up. It sounded as if it was pretty bad, and would have church-doors locked instantly and guarded by Atheist Patrols.

President Obama is dismissing our Constitution, and forcing religious organizations to violate their conscience by adopting the agenda of the administration's favored special interests.

This is an abhorrent assualt on our fundamental liberties, including our right to live the way our faith prescribes. 

The goverrnment is interfering where it has absolutely no place -- in our personal, spiritual lives.

Three more paragraphs.  No further clue what it is that Obama and Sebelius have done.  Three more abstract accusations of very bad conduct.  No reasoned argument.   But if I'm a casual reader, I now clearly understand that Mr. Pearce is out there protecting my fundamental rights against Mr. Obama's vile efforts to enslave me.

The administration has already inserted federal bureaucrats between you and your doctor.  Now, this new overreach pushed us to a truly dangerous tipping point where a federal agency is forcing people of faith to change their interpretations of the Bible and other religious canons.


So offended are many religious organizations that the Archodiocesian [sic] Healthcare and Bioethics Committee of Milwaukee submitted a comment to HHS in September that these newest requirements could be seen as "a deliberate strategy by the federal gvoernment to abolish the influence of the Catholic Church in civil society."

Secretary Sibelius justifies this assault on our freedom of religion by stating that this requirement for religious organizations to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives is the policy in a majority of states."

Finally our first clue as to the subject of the diatribe:  something to do with contraceptives.   Of course, the vagueness of "religious organizations to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives" isn't real helpful.  Are priests going to be required to preach that contraceptives are wonderful?  Or are Catholic hospitals, which treat people of all faiths and receive public dollars for doing so, going to be required to provide all legal forms of health care?  Or are huge health insurance companies going to have to cover all legal prescriptions, including contraceptives?

In any case, it's a far cry from what the rhetoric in the preceding twelve paragraphs had suggested, that individuals were no longer to be allowed to practice their chosen religions.

Mr. Pearce went on through ten more paragraphs to accuse the administration of "dangerously interfering with people of all faiths and their God," of "a gross violations of our rights as a free people and as people of faith," of "discriminat[ing] against anyone for their [sic] beliefs," and of "ignor[ing] the Constitution."  One somewhat disconnected paragraph even reads:

The Constitution ensures the protections of thje rule of law for the poor and the disadvantaged.  The rich and well-connected always get their way.

If I knew these people, I'd love to ask the Pearce hireling who wrote this what the connection is.  As far as I can tell, big health insurance companies are very well connected.  Poor folks and lower-middle-class folks who might need their insurers to cover their medical needs aren't so well-conncected.  I honestly don't get it.  I can only assume that Pearce and his folks will say anything that sounds good, even if it's wholly contradicted by their actions.  

In his final paragraph, Mr. Pearce finally did let on what he was talking about: 

On Jan. 20, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that the federal government would require all health insurance plans to cover sterilization and contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs, and that virtually all employers, including hospitals, schools and privatge universities with a religious affiliation, would have one year to comply with the new rule.

In short, people who depend on large insurance companies for their health insurance will not have to live according to the religious or moralistic precepts of those who own or run the large health insurance companies.  Mr. Pearce’s wealthy constituents can use condoms or have legal abortions at will, and poor folks will have the same choice.

A reasonable op-ed piece would have begun with that description of what the federal government had announced, then gone on to provide reasoned argument concerning that announcement.  But reasoned argument is never Mr. Pearce's first choice.  There may well be credible arguments that the action is too sweeping; but Mr. Pearce offers none.

Clearly his purpose was more fear-mongering rhetoric and an attempt to convince Catholics in Doña Ana County that religious life as they knew it would be over if they voted for Obama this year. He larded the piece with rhetoric and left the morsel of meat for the end, knowing few readers would persevere that far but all would read his first few paragraphs. (He’d probably have preferred it if some employee of the Sun-News had carelessly cut the last paragraph, so that people wouldn’t be let down by reading the actual "subject" of his harangue.)

Surveys show that many Catholics use birth control. To them, the Church’s stand on contraceptives is one of those quirks we forgive in those we love. Many Catholics love the Church but need contraceptives. They remain devoted Catholics. I’d be willing to bet that in Doña Ana County many Catholics use birth control – and that of the ones who choose not to use it, a fair proportion wouldn’t claim any right to dictate whether or not other folks use them. It’s a personal choice. A personal choice the Constitution respects and protects. And a personal choice most folks are content to let others make for themselves. Even poor or lower middle-class others.

To me, at first glance, Secretary Sebelius's announcement seems reasonable.  I lack sufficient information to assess it, as I would have to do if I wrote a column about it or were a legislator voting on a measure related to it.  Unfortunately, Mr. Pearce provides no such information.

If I read Pearce’s piece without his name attached, I’d be laughing; but we let this gentleman represent us in making decisions that affect our lives and will affect our grandchildren’s future. That ain’t funny.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Shrine

One day some friends take us to visit a small shrine.

Ominous grey clouds mill around in the sky like a herd of uneasy cows. Although in a hurry to meet our friends, we pause along the road to admire rainbows. Then it begins raining, though not so heavily as to make the long, slow dirt road to the shrine impassable.

When we first see the shrine perched on a hill, it the road is marked by a striking guardian: the decaying carcass of a coyote lies in the middle of the road, on its back, the face still staring up at us, the teeth still looking quite capable of tearing into a delicious rabbit should one happen by.


Soon we are there. 

It is a simple place, rebuilt not many years ago -- and perhaps several times before that.

I do not know how long it has stood there.  

I know that the swirling clouds and changing light are an evocative background for it on this particular afternoon.

I know that many people have visited the shrine, lighting candles or bringing flowers or toys or photographs of loved ones in need of aid or protection.

It is a strange place, and moving.  As with certain shrines in Tibet, it moves me whether or not I share the faith of those who pray there.  As we sit inside the small structure, the rain begins again, then attacks with full force and the usual machine-gun-like rat-a-tat on the tin roof, then withdraws again -- or moves on to attack some other part of the desert.  My friends light candles.  I sweep the floor, after noticing that our feet have brought in bits of mud from the freshly damp sands. 

The shrine celebrates a small child: El Santo Niño de Atocha.  Sitting there, I know nothing of him, but resolve to learn a little.  As well as flowers and toys and candles, the offerings include bottled water and an odd assortment of iterms meaningful to those who left them, including a Carolina football cap and a photograph of a man wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder."  I like the eclectic mix.

I love too that it is here, this small shrine that overflows with faith and passion and love, even with no one else here.  (It is a good ride on a dirt road out into an unnamed bit of desert, and I will offer no further details of its location.  Already near the parking lot a few broken beer bottles and several hypodermic needles suggest that Faith isn't always what brings folks here.)  Part of what I love about Doña Ana County is its unpretentious eclecticism -- that is, that just wandering around in the desert we find so much -- and such variety -- to wonder at.

Leaving, on roads now slick from continued rain, I am grateful.

Santo Niño de Atocha is the image of the Child Jesus carrying a basket of bread, a staff, and a drinking gourd and wearing a cape with a shell on it, the symbol of Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage that, for more than a thousand years, has run through Santiago de Compostela in Galicia Spain. There is a legend that St. James preached in Spain. (The Vatican has accepted relics there as authentic but has so far stopped short of confirming that they are relics of St. James; but in earlier days making the pilgrimage earned the pilgrim a plenary indulgence.)

St. James returned to the Middle East from Galicia, and was then beheaded in Jerusalem; but apparently his disciples got his body onto a marvelous stone ship that transported them and it to Galicia, possibly without any crew.  In Galicia, they asked the local pagan Queen (Lupe, the she-wolf) whether they might bury him there. She didn’t much care for them, and sent them to a nearby sacred mountain in hopes that the dragon there would kill the Christians. Fortunately when they made the sign of the cross, the dragon exploded.

They buried him. Centuries later a shepherd spotted strange lights at night, and then God revealed to an Archbishop that St. James was buried at the site. They built an altar where the shepherd had seen the lights. There’s a shrine in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.  (Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia, which is now an "autonomous community" in Spain.)  Similar shrines have since appeared in Mexico, the Philippines, Chimayó, and Doña Ana County. The pilgrimage, known in English as the Way of St. James, has been portrayed in books and paintings. Many pilgrims traveled it during the Middle Ages, until the Black Death interfered.

In the 13th Century, Spain was occupied by Muslims. Many Christians were held prisoner, and the most devout of the prisoners were denied food. At first, their families could bring them food. Then, only children younger than 12 were allowed to bring food to the prisoners – but many prisoners had no young children.

The women of Atocha prayed at the statue of Our Lady of Atocha, imploring the Virgin Mary to ask her son Jesus to help. Soon afterward, a mysterious child under the age of twelve began bringing food to the prisoners who had no children. His water gourd was never empty. The child wore pilgrim’s clothing, and was unknown to the people of Atocha. The women returned to the statue and thanked the Virgin for her help, and noticed that the shoes worn by the statue of the infant Jesus were tattered and dusty. Thereafter, it is said, they were repeatedly replaced, but always appeared soiled again soon afterward, a sign that the infant Jesus went out every night to help those in need.
Often in art the Holy Child of Atocha is shown with his bread basket empty, indicating that he has been busy feeding the needy. It is now filled with flowers – as was the little shrine we visited. He is dressed as a pilgrim. Well beyond Atocha, travelers during the Moorish Occupation sometimes reported that a young boy, dressed as a pilgrim appeared and gave them food, and guide them out of danger.

John Adams, who had to stop in Spain on his way to Paris because of a leaking ship, traveled the Way of St. James in reverse. As he heard the story, and recorded it in his autobiography, "In the time of the Moors, the People made a Vow, that if the Moors should be driven from this Country, they would give a certain portion of the income of their Lands to Saint James. The moors were defeated and expelled and it was reported and believed that Saint James was in the Battle and fought with a drawn Sword at the head of the Spanish Troops, on Horseback. The People, believing that they owed the Victory to the Saint, very cheerfully fulfilled their Vows by paying the Tribute."

The scallop shell long ago became the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, because it is often found on the shores in Galicia. Pilgrims often took shells home as souvenirs. However, it has two other explanations: one variant is that a heavy storm hit the ship carrying St. James’s body, the body fell into the ocean but washed ashore intact, covered with scallops; the second is that when the stone ship (mysteriously, with no crew) transported the disciples and body back to the Iberian Peninsula, a wedding was taking place on shore when the ship arrived. The groom’s horse got spooked by the ship, and the young groom and his horse fell into the sea. Through a miracle, horse and rider then emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.

Whatever its origin, the scallop shell served as a metaphor for the pilgrim: as the ocean waves wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s Hand guides the pilgrims to Santiago. It also served a more practical purpose: the shell was just the right size for a pilgrim to drink water from it, or use it as a bowl.

In Zacatecas, after the Spanish Conquest, when the town of Fresnillo was under construction, some workers saw a mule arrive carrying a huge wooden crate on its back. To let the mule rest, the miners removed the crate, but the mule then ran away, leaving the crate behind. The crate contained a silver crucified Christ with no cross. The Spanish general overseeing the construction ordered that a church be built across the valley and that an image of Our Lady of Atocha be brought from Spain to stand at the site.

Silver was then discovered in Fresnillo. Mines were opened. Within a few weeks, an explosion trapped many of the miners. Their wives prayed at the church for their husbands, and noticed that the child on the image of Our Lady of Atocha was missing. Meanwhile, a child visited the trapped miners, gave them water, and guided them to an unknown escape route. In later years, whenever there was a problem in the mine, the child appeared – and the image of the child on the Virgin’s arms was found dirty. The people eventually took the Holy Child off his mother’s arms and put him in a glass box for viewing – as we saw him in the little shrine. Santo Niño de Atocha became the protector of miners and a symbol of Zacatecas, from whence arrived the grandparents or great-grandparents of many residents of Doña Ana County. At Christmas many people in Zacatecas made pilgrimages to the church to bring toys to the Holy Child.

Too, in 1857, one Severiano Medina is said to have made a pilgrimage to Fresnillo from Chimayó and returned with a small statue of El Santo Niño de Atocha which was placed in a private shrine. Nearby is a posito, or well, where devotees come to take blessed dirt as an aid to healing.

During World War II, in the Pacific, troops from New Mexico fought at Corregidor, where there were many underground tunnels and defenses. Recalling El Santo Niño de Atocha as the benefactor to all who were trapped or imprisoned, Catholics among the soldiers vowed that if they survived they would make a pilgrimate from Santa Fe to Chimayó in gratitude. At the end of the war, two thousand veterans did so, with their families, some walking barefoot.

I’m also told that in Michael Jackson’s video for "Beat It" a picture of El Santo Niño de Atocha hangs above Michael Jackson’s bed.