Miguel's Last Santo

Article excerpt

Miguel was about to butcher a horse with a machete. His eyes glittered as he led the poor beast to a vacant lot behind Jose's tiny house. A small army of happy Seri men and boys followed. One of them carried a small-caliber rifle.

Jose didn't even look up from the ironwood figurine he was chipping away on with his hatchet. "Un tiro," he told me. It would take only one shot.

I hunkered squeamishly, too queasy to watch, trying instead to concentrate on a conversation with Jose, who was too busy carving to join the happy occasion. Red meat was hard to come by for the Seris in those days, and there was a general carnival atmosphere when an animal was slaughtered in the village (even for a decrepit horse).

The shot rang out, hardly louder than the report of a cap pistol. It was followed by a dull thud and laughter as the horse collapsed to the ground. The thop, thop, thop of the machete hacking away at the carcass began and continued for fifteen minutes. A few women passed the house to join the division of the bounty, returning moments later lugging a piece of bony meat or a dripping cut of horse loin. Soon Miguel appeared, bespattered with blood and gore, his arms and the handle of the machete a dark reddish purple from dried and caked horse blood. He toted a huge chunk of what appeared to be rib cage toward his hut by the sea at the south end of the village.

That was in 1970. It was the fiercest I ever saw Miguel Barnet. I had known him as a kindly, quiet man in his mid to late fifties, one of a dozen or so conservative Seri men who still wore their hair long, wrapped an apron-like manta around their waist, and disdained to speak Spanish. He was extremely soft-spoken, uttering only a few words, and these hardly above a whisper. I found conversation with him difficult. He was uncomfortable speaking in Spanish, which he had never learned very well, he would humbly remind me. From time to time he approached me timidly and offered little ironwood sea lions, dolphins, and birds. They weren't as well carved as the sculptures of Jose, Aurora, Fernando, or Alejandro, but they were cute. He also offered me santos whittled from a whitish wood, which I for the most part declined to purchase, a philistine mistake I now sorely regret.

Miguel was a tall, thin fellow, close to six feet and healthy, not at all unusual for Seris of that day when the diet was primarily fish, frybread, and gleanings from the desert. He had been born, someone said, on Tiburon Island. He married Jose Astorga's half-sister Victoria Astorga, and Jose married Miguel's half-sister Rosa Flores, thus cementing the two families. Miguel and Victoria produced a fine brood. Their oldest son, Chapo, is probably the best-known Seri now that Jose Astorga is dead. Sons Pancho Largo and Nacho were skilled ironwood carvers back when the Seris carved a lot. Daughter Rosamalia was an expert seamstress. She was also a crack shot with rocks. I once saw her sidearm a stone at a jackrabbit and strike it in the head, killing it.

Over the years I had many slow conversations with Miguel. He was more introverted than most Seris. He maintained a phenomenal store of nature lore but for whatever reason was not especially forthcoming with it. I didn't spend enough time talking with him. That was Fernando's fault.

Fernando Romero was Miguel's next-door neighbor in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was the last Seri brujo or shaman. Talking with him was pure delight, at least when he was sober, which was about 75 percent of the time. The rest was hell. Fernando spoke pretty fair Spanish, so it was easier for me to chat with him, especially because he from time to time demonstrated uncanny powers. In the process, however, I neglected to go next door and hobnob with Miguel. Today I kick myself for it. Too late I learned that Miguel knew as much or more about the Seris than the younger Fernando.

The most outspoken I ever saw Miguel was when he tried to protect my daughter from my own rash behavior. …