“Okay, we’re calling on spirit guides to guide us as Gilbert searches for information to help him on the way of his journey. As he thinks about learning about his people, the question is what spirits can guide him on his journey now?”
Vanessa makes her selection of three cards, moving around the deck, guided on which cards to turn. Each card she selects she places separately below the deck. She turns each one over one by one. The first card is:
Octopus. This card reads: Practice shapeshifting by altering your physical appearance and mannerisms.
“These spirits will support the first.” She turns over the last two:
Humpback whale. This card reads: Music is essential to your healing and well-being whether singing, playing an instrument, or listening.
The final card is:
Goose. It reads: Take time to reset and recuperate rather than continuing your striving.
Vanessa hands me a book: “Here’s the book, read the descriptions of the animals, write, meditate. I’ll leave the spread open and won’t close it in case there’s another question that comes up that you wanna ask.” I move from the round table in our shared office to my desk and open the book to the pages that describe the three animals that came up for me in the spread.
The Octopus is about observation, practicing different identities and shape shifting.
I think of performance and grad school, the first time I really performed in front of people, a huge challenge for my younger self who was painfully shy. Much different now as I train groups of people in my work. How did I get an animal spirit that tells me to observe and not engage?
I ask another question to Vanessa. “What spirit animals can guide me in the future?”
“Spirits, please guide us to answer Gilbert’s question of what spirits can guide him in the future.” Vanessa makes her selection of three more cards, moving around the deck, being guided on which cards to turn. Again she places them below the deck. She turns each one. The first card is:
Chameleon. It reads: Stay in the background and adapt to the situation rather than being conspicuous and attempting to direct the course of events.
“The two spirits that will support the first are:”
Panda. It reads: Create a sacred space for yourself in your home and/or place of work.
The final card:
Snow Leopard. It reads: Take time out of your usual life and spend it in solitude.
Vanessa asks me to do the same contemplation as last time. The chameleon is even more camouflaged than the Octopus— what does that mean? I Google again, pictures of Baboquivari Peak, the highest peak in the Baboquivari Mountains, sacred to my great grandfather’s tribe. This is where I’itoi the Elder Brother spirit lives who created the Tohono O’odham people. I’itoi is often represented in Tohono and other southwest native cultures in baskets as a figure atop a spider-like maze with a filled-in center. Entering a cave in the mountain means, to the Tohono, entering the spirit world.
To climb Baboquivari, a guide is required to scale the vertical peak. I’ve never rock climbed outside a climbing gym. I’ve asked around online and looked for climbing guides, hoping to find someone from the tribe but I couldn’t find anyone nor did I know really where to look. Climbing Baboquivari would be the most spiritual connection I could have with the tribe, where I have no connection outside a dead great-grandfather.
I decide to make my way to the reservation, if I can’t climb Baboquivari yet, I’ll ask how to. And if I can’t make my way to him, I’ll buy a basket of I’itoi and hopefully, he’ll show me the way to connect to a people and earth that I want to connect to but don’t know how. I want to stand on earth that crosses bones and blood that can surge up and touch me and connect to my story of who I am. I want to know that I’m not just a seed that blew on the arm of some breeze but that was connected to a plant rooted somewhere. I wonder if this trip will help me find that root.
A few days before I’m 34, I’m on a plane to Phoenix, I’ll rent a car and drive to Sells, the center of the Tohono O’odham reservation. I’ve traveled here twice before, the last time to apply for a scholarship from the tribe and the first time to register and get my ID card. It was in high school that we learned my great grandfather was a tribal member. He had been estranged from my Abuelo, my grandfather, and my family didn’t know much of him or his story. When my family had learned of his tribal affiliation which borders the Northern border of Mexico in the state of Sonora, where my Abuelo was born, my mother had asked us to go to the town of Sells to register with the tribe as members. She encouraged this because members could apply for scholarships for college.
At first I said no, I didn’t want to claim something that wasn’t meant for me to claim. We were Mexican.
I have to take a shuttle to the car rental place from the Airport. It seems like a long journey already. I’ve never rented a car before and I haven’t traveled alone since I was 19 years old, when I spent a week wandering in San Francisco with a map, my discman, and a BART pass. I feel I know nothing of desert soil. I only know the coastal soil of Orange County, the green backyard of my Abuela’s house. I’m driving on the 10 highway, in a white three door car, much fancier than my ’07 Chevy Cobalt. I’m leaving the Waffle House, my favorite waffle chain, having digested a plain waffle, with the butter scraped to the side, a side of eggs and hash browns with onions, the grease and fat feeling are unsettling as I feel a sense of guilt for eating what I ate, as if I only honored nostalgia of my year in the Deep South. I’m walking towards the parking lot and I see the shiny newness of this white car; I wonder if this car is too fancy to roll up to the reservation in. I already feel guilty having to acquire a plastic card to affirm a connection to land and people that I don’t know.
This time it would be different. The last time I was there was for an orientation for the scholarship. This time I had a question, I had an appetite. I learned about TOCA, the Tohono O’odham Community Action, an organization dedicated to teaching Tohono O’odham ways of eating and growing food. There was a restaurant, Desert Rain Café, serving traditional food, including Tepary beans, beans I’ve never tried. I’m excited to try new beans.
Sunday beans were pinto beans. There was always a big pot steaming for hours all afternoon, put on right after church. When my Mom’s or my Abuela’s beans were ready, we would eat them with toast or a bolillo roll with mayonnaise and a Squirt. This was Sunday and what the end of that day tasted like. It would look like my Abuela in her long house dress and her long frilled apron, all hand-stitched by her, standing in front of the stove. These beans were salted beans, that had a special bowl next to the stove where the bean scum that pushed itself to the edges of the pot were spooned into. The house smelled like beans and the yards smelled like fresh wet grass after my Abuelo watered.
I’m driving for some time now, I’m away from Phoenix, and I make one turn to leave the 10 and enter another road. I’m heading away from the busy stream of cars, now I see barely any. Living in Los Angeles, I’m hardly ever alone on a road. Now I see an occasional car coming from the opposite direction, yet in the direction I’m going to there is no one. To the left and right there is desert, in front of me only more road. Above me, open sky with sheets of white clouds. I’m driving with no music. I could stop right now in the middle of the road and take a picture of all this, there is nobody here. I begin to see in the desert tall poles with appendages sticking out in all directions.
I remember who I’m seeing now. I first saw them driving with my family on trips to go see my grandparents in Colorado. They always reminded me of people. The Saguaro grow tall and upright. They grow with limbs that bend and curve the way arms do. Saguaros reach for the sky. They reach for other Saguaros. I see whole families of two giant parents reaching down to touch smaller Saguaros. I see lovers, two Saguaros, arms reaching out to embrace each other. I see Saguaros dancing, one arm on someone’s waist while the arm from the other flares out. I see Saguaros in their flirtation or in their amorous selves, holding a belly out in lust, male Saguaros also stand with their pants down exposing all of their mighty selves, dropping down to the ground, or lifted towards the sky in happy readiness. Almost all are in shared space or calling attention to someone by saying hello, reaching out to hold someone’s hand or to teach a young person something or laying their hand on a young person to stop them. There are whole families in communities, whole families in cities, Saguaros walking and talking to each other or in a parade or commute of traffic. Few are alone out in the open. There are Saguaros in different stages of life, leaning over, some with no tops, some have fallen over and others harder to see, remaining only in skeleton, in what looks like ribs or wires sticking up with no flesh, only what the Saguaro used to be in life. The flesh has disappeared but the bones remain. The more I drive the longer it takes to see another car and the deeper into the Saguaro world I go. Tohono O’odham translates in English to, “people of the desert.” The deeper in their world I go, the more open and expansive the sky becomes, painted with the fluffiness of clouds. This is the canopy covering the Saguaro people.
When I see my first security checkpoint with Border Patrol, my peace is broken. I now realize I’m driving south from Phoenix just a few hours from the Mexican border. As a little boy sitting between my Abuelos in the front bucket seat of their black Buick, I would cross the border into Tijuana from home all the time. I have never crossed by myself. As I slow down towards the plastic speed bumps, I reach for my wallet, thinking of my license. I slow to a tortoise’s speed and turn towards what I see is a white women border patrol officer, I reach for the button to lower the window to stop, when she sees me she waves me past, I let go of my wallet, speed up past the speed bumps and drive away with the desert to my left and my right again.
I think of the fancy car I’m crossing the desert in. My mother came with her family when she was nine years old, crossing from Mexcali Mexico and into San Ysidrio California. I will later read that the movement of the Tohono people was expansive, crossing into the mountains in spring for water and later once the Spanish colonized, into Mexico for catholic religious festivals. Before colonization men would walk from the desert to the ocean for salt as a sacred ceremony. Where am I in all this movement? What did I do different from a dark skinned person to receive the privilege of a white women letting me pass?
Driving into the reservation to find where I need to go becomes challenging. When I called to get the location of the enrollment office to renew my lost ID card, I was told there was no addresses or street names. I have to call three times after being lost and unable to locate the office. I feel like I want to give up and leave. Why is it hard just to find it? Each time I’m given a direction I keep passing the Desert Rain Café, as I’m starving, it’s passed noon. I see people having lunch outside the café and I know I’ll be there soon. I want to do this one errand before going there.
I finally find it! It’s near the spot I had parked when I first arrived and stopped to call for directions. I walk into the office and speak to the receptionist who had been helping me on the phone. It’s painfully clear that I am not from here. My family has to say, “no district,” meaning we are registered members, but don’t live in the reservation’s districts. We are outsiders. I ask to use the restroom. I flew in this early morning and have been driving for hours, the last time I saw myself in a mirror was in the Waffle House, now I’m here about to have my picture taken. The last time I had my picture taken here I was in high school. This tribe gave me a final year of college without loans and helped with a dent in tuition at USC years later. As my picture’s now being taken, I sit with these thoughts and the thought of not being worthy to be here claiming this card. This card means very little to what I want, some connection to the earth here.
I’m given my new ID card immediately, it’s broken into two horizontal color blocks, the top is yellow and the bottom is purple, I recognize my purple shirt and the purple background for the photo. When I walk out of the office, I see in the sunlight holograms of the I’itoi image on the ID. There is one right on top of my face, I’itoi glistens on me.
I get in the car, I know exactly the way to the Desert Rain Café. Once I park, I take off my earrings of I’itoi I’m proudly wearing. I take them off because I assume people would wonder and be upset of what this outsider boy with “no district” is doing wearing I’itoi. I worry it would look like I’m merely trying to look Tohono. I walk into the store that is next to the Café, where I’m hoping to find a basket with I’itoi.
Once inside I see him everywhere! I ask the price of a foot wide basket I’m feeling connected to, or maybe that’s choosing me. The price surprises me, I’ve never bought a basket. I continue walking through the store. On the left wall away from the baskets I see bags of beans, brown and white tepary beans. I ask what the difference between taste is and the women behind the counter tells me the white beans are a bit sweeter while the brown beans are more earthy. I want to taste the earth. I see sage bundled up for smudging. I walk up to pay for the beans, the sage and the basket, which I knew regardless of the expense, I have to have. There are so many questions I want to ask her. One is, if I’m pronouncing I’itoi correctly? Relying on my Spanish pronunciation is not accurate for Tohono.
Instead, I ask her how I can find a guide to climb Baboquivari and she suggests I call the district of Baboquivari, as the mountain is within it’s own district and if I were to call that district office they might be able to connect me with a guide. I didn’t know it was its own district. I walk to my car feeling accomplished and happy with this new information. Once leaving my items in the car, I head to the Café. I’m so excited to be eating foods from the desert, to taste my great grandfather’s desert.
Walking in, I see people sitting and eating as I go up to the counter to pick up a trifold paper menu and wait to ask for someone if I can sit anywhere. I see on the menu, cactus and citrus salad and my mouth salivates. I see a cactus smoothie and I get excited. I see tepary beans and I so want to have them. I also see Saguaro fruit and cholla buds! A young guy walks out of the kitchen just then and walks towards me, before I say, “Table for one,” his mouth opens and I hear, “I’m sorry, we’re all out of food.”
I feel like I’m on a rock and the rock is pushed away from me but I’m left standing on air for a second before I fall. “There’s no food left?”
“No, we’re out for today, but we’re open again tomorrow.”
I know I’ll be in Tucson hiking at the Saguaro National Park and then at the Botanical Gardens, ending the day back in Phoenix to fly back to Los Angeles tomorrow. This was my last and only day in Sells. “You don’t even have anything to make a smoothie?”
So I leave, not explaining that I came from LA with the real intent to eat here, that I was wanting and needing to taste what I didn’t know, that I already feel so weird being here and like I don’t belong.
I walk out with a heavy feeling of sadness and disappointment and also a basic problem of hunger. My last meal was greasy potatoes with sappy waffles. I then instantly smell barbecue, its scent wafting over the air. All the times that I had driven around the shopping center and around the buildings earlier I saw folks barbecuing on the corners and folks lining up to buy barbecue. I thought about going up, ordering some food and talking to people, but it ‘s Friday. And it’s Lent. I haven’t eaten meat on a Friday during Lent since a little kid. I float in the deep irony of having been denied native desert food and having the opportunity to eat meat cooked in the open by community with the possibility of eating with community, but the centuries of colonization suspends me.
Tucson is a little over an hour away. I realize I have a headache and I need to eat something quick. Walking around the shopping center, I find a little park with benches, a big mural, and a small playground. I sit and think about all of this, a journey represented in unknowing, opportunity and then self denial. This whole time I had seen a grocery store in the shopping center. I resort. Inside the store are mostly Latino products that are recognizable to me. But the only thing I see is granola bars. I resort. I’m standing behind a Mexicano looking man with a vaquero, hat holding a box of granola bars and water in my hands. This is what my journey is at this moment. My headache is getting stronger. He leaves and the woman at the register scans my food then says, “Tres y siente y seis.”
As I’m feeling lost, I suddenly for a moment feel validated. This language, this interaction I know and understand.
I’m on the road heading towards Tucson, leaving Sells and the reservation behind. The thought of coming back tomorrow to eat at the café just didn’t seem like an option; I want to move forward not back. Whether that is the right decision, I don’t know. Once in Tucson, I end up having dinner at a Mexican restaurant a mile or so from my hotel. The shrimp tostadas have a different sweet taste to them, after finishing one; I discover they had pork in them. After avoiding meat in Sells, I’ve eaten pork when I didn’t want to consent. I finish the refried pinto beans and rice and leave the restaurant to jump into the cold water of the hotel pool. I’m eagerly wanting to see the sunset in the desert but didn’t know where to go, so I just watch the desert sun go down on a mountain top across from the hotel and stay outside for a while as the Arizona evening comes. It’s now dark; I walk around the hotel and the nearby gas station. I just want to smell the desert at night.
With Belia, my director, while eating Lucuma Ice Cream at Pollo Inka in south LA before this trip:
Me: “I don’t understand why the Octopus and the Chameleon came out. Both animals represent being in the background, being camouflaged, easily not being seen. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to not be or feel like I’m hidden and the cards gave out two animals that are like what I’m trying to not be anymore.”
Belia: (With a spoon of bright orange Lucuma ice cream) “Gilbert, those animals are about being present in a different way than in mainstream capitalist Latino culture. Those animals are like in traditions where listening is regarded with power and is honored. And you do that, you have that, so when you represent that animal spirit, you’re also honoring traditions where that communication has been practiced.”
I’m sitting on a stool at the counter at Denny’s. Not quite as early as what I wanted it to be when I left the hotel but it is still early. I slept good last night. I’ve just eaten eggs, hash browns, wheat toast, some good orange juice, it all tasted greasy but good. The excitement of the day is different than yesterday, I woke up to the desert today. I’m here. The morning is bright but fresh and cool, not what I was expecting. It has a new day, new beginning kind of feel. I walk out of Denny’s to the shiny white rental car and I feel the possibilities of this day. I’m excited about today, I will be on new soil, on my own again, on a trail, hiking in the Saguaro National Park. My car and Google Maps are taking me there. On the road, I feel a little lost and it‘s perfect. The Saguaros greet me.
When I get to a windy back road, I feel uneasy. I see a sign for the park but now I’m on another windy road and don’t see any cars. Did I miss it? Am I lost? I pass by a few houses out in the desert, I’m heading further and further away from Tucson. What would it be like to live out in the desert? What would it be like to be covered by a desert blanket of dark sky at night but by a brighter mother moon and stronger father sun in the day?
I grew up near strawberry fields in Santa Ana and hearing the train down the street at night. I could see fireworks from Disneyland at night. I woke up with coastal fog in the mornings. Later when I went to high school in the Inland Empire of Riverside County, I could smell sagebrush and chaparral early in spring and summer mornings and late evenings. Living in Los Angeles, driving from place to place I don’t feel as connected to the earth and sky. Here, right now, I’m in the middle of the golden glow of sunshine as morning is leaving. The golden sunshine takes me to a Visitor’s Center of the park. Once inside and looking at maps, I see my trail options, I want to go on a long hike but have to weigh my options. I choose a trailhead that’s nearby but I have to drive there.
The beginning is always the same. The same gate, sometimes the same looking plague describing where I am, the same possibility, the same opening, like I’ve entered times and times before. I am completely present today. I’m ready. The sky is wide, like a blanket of blue. The mountains ahead are rocky. There are people everywhere. As I go further on, I get closer to them, they are huge. I’m walking in their cities; I’m in their communities. I’m at their dance, I’m in their playground, I’m close enough to hear how parents are schooling their children. I’m close enough and their public enough, that I can see their courtship, their dates, their love making. They’re massive and giant. They’re loud and quiet. They don’t feel scary or looming but they feel welcoming. Are you welcoming me? I can’t go up the mountain where there are more of them. I’m longing to but I need to start to turn around for one more stop.
I begin to turn back and instantly all of the trips I’ve taken in my life flash in my head like home movies. Suddenly, I remember places in the South when I was in AmeriCorps, when I first saw autumn and snow fall in Alabama. I see my first trip to San Francisco. I see myself stepping in my barefeet at Pioneer Park in Walla Walla. I can see the beaches in Rio. I can feel the breezes from hikes in Point Lobos and Big Sur. I feel myself waiting for buses, stranded in airports, the time I took the train from New York to Boston. I feel myself in the backseat of my parents car passing forests going to Colorado. Why are all these trips so clear for me right now? I pass the same gate and the same plague I passed when I entered. The exit is always different, each time different memories, different senses, different thoughts. This hike was different, I’m leaving whole neighbors behind. Did they remind me of everything?
I have one more stop. I’m back in the fancy white car heading back towards Tucson. Driving up a mountain, the whole road is open for me and eventually once in Tucson, it takes me through a large black iron sign: “Tucson Botanical Gardens.” Did I just make the wrong choice in leaving the Saguaro city and now about to enter land where seeds were planted by hand? I start regretting this choice. Once inside, I see rows of patios showing different plants, they look like people’s real backyards with planters and potted plants in meticulous order. I think about the Saguaros and how they grow to communicate directly with each other. Why did I leave the Saguaro City to come to this manicured landscape? It’s as if I resorted to my comfort zone. This no district boy leaves the desert to go to a garden.
Suddenly, at the end of the row of patios I see something familiar, a planked roof. I walk towards it, the sunlight is creating shadow lines on the ground. It is lined with a red brick planter. How is this familiar?
Instantly, I know where I am; I’m in the backyard of my Abuela’s house. They had created an almost exact version of it. Here in Tucson. I sit down on the planter and look up above the swaying hanging plants. What’s missing is the fruit trees and the plants that I don’t know their names, but the leaves she picked from the yard and put in glass jars to make teas when I had a stomach ache or an ear ache. I wish I knew those plants again. It’s so odd to see this here, a piece of my home.
After sitting for a while, I continue on and find a whole section of the park dedicated to the Tohono O’odham people. There is an herb garden with plants that are highlighted and documented as being medicinal. I see Creosote Bush, whose leaves and branches were used to treat rheumatism and childbirth pain. I learn how Ironwood seeds were eaten raw, cooked or grounded. I read about the Saguaro Harvest and Wine Ceremony, performed to bring rain. I read how the Mesquite tree was used to build homes, fences, and used for firewood. The bean pods were eaten or grounded into a powder and added to water for a sweet drink, the sap was processed into a candy. I learn how the different parts of the Yucca were used to make baskets. I touch all of these plants as I learn about them. Some white people walked around and read as well and talk to themselves about the plants. I have a connection, I had a great grandfather. I don’t know to what extend he lived like his ancestors but I feel closer to him and the Tohono people.
Then I realize I am hungry. I take a seat outside of the café in the center of the garden at a black iron table. This is my last hour before I head back to the airport in Phoenix. I feel like I’m missing Arizona already. I eat eggs with organic and local greens. For the first time, I feel a different kind of full. It’s not the food of the desert that I didn’t eat, that fills me; it’s something else. I’m wearing my I’itoi earrings.