Traversing the Memory Field

Emily Withnall, Editor
By Emily Withnall

There are several threads running through the articles and essays in this issue of El Palacio, but as I edited the work, Diné poet Jake Skeets’s idea of the memory field kept returning to me. In his essay, Skeets writes that time and memory are not just cognitive, but physical. Just as the light we receive from the stars comes from the past, he argues, our memories are woven together with the land and within our bodies. Scars, for example, hold physical reminders of the past. The landscape holds the history of its formation and clues about what’s to come. Our memories, Skeets says, are very much tied to distinct places.

The “memory field” theme traverses the vast geographies present in this issue, from the Gila Wilderness to Las Vegas, New Mexico, not to mention the layered histories in this state that make it so complicated and beautiful. As Adele Oliveira writes in “Acequias de Santa Fe: Preserving What Remains,” the city’s loss of a once-vast irrigation system is all the more reason to hold onto the four acequias that remain. And as Hilario Romero tells Oliveira, when he walks the city looking for signs of old acequias, he always finds traces of them.

Whether it is desirable to return to the past is often beside the point. In her essay, “So Far from Paris or Santa Fe,” Samantha Dunn remembers the beauty and pain of her high school years in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The years were formative perhaps because of their difficulty. Although I graduated from Robertson High School eighteen years after Dunn did, so much about her experience resonated with me. Her words, and the photographs by Alex Traube that accompany them, reveal a slowing down, or pausing of time. In Las Vegas, as in many small towns, past and present blur. Memory fields are transposed like layers of sandstone. The effect is the feeling of a deep sense of place and connection, or suffocation—or both.

Finding the balance between holding on and letting go is an art. Looking to the past for clues about how to navigate the future can be invaluable, as Joe Saenz writes in his essay “Nde Benah”—excerpted from First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100. Although we cannot return to the past, we can learn from the people who have been here for innumerable centuries, people who remain culturally and spiritually connected to the land.

For others, looking to the past involves pain and healing. In Almah LaVonne Rice’s article about the film “Community in Conflict: The Santa Fe Internment Marker,” the past and present have intermingled. Pain has been dragged through decades. Remembering is essential, but returning to the past would be unthinkable. The memory field of war and incarceration remains tied to the Casa Solana neighborhood in Santa Fe, grief and loss rich in the soil.

In Robin Babb’s review of New Mexico Museum of Art’s Out West: Gay and Lesbian Artists in the Southwest 1900–1969, the past is spotty and hard to fill in. As with queer history of any kind, the archive of New Mexican queer artists is riddled with holes. Babb reveals how having a documented past can often be a privilege. Though art and writing aren’t the only ways to inhabit the memory field, they often make it easier. Amy Groleau, former Museum of International Folk Art curator, once told me, “There’s a lot of disagreement about how or whether to remember. There are people currently in politics now who have a stake in forgetting.”

Documented, held in cultural memory, or held in the land, the past can reemerge at unexpected times and in surprising places. Skeets reminds us that, “Pasts, presents, and futures exist simultaneously.”