THE SUN is just beginning its evening
melt across the horizon. The sky turns
lavender; the sorghum fields glow crimson. A maguey undulates its aquamarine
leaves like a desert octopus. Somewhere
along Chapman Ranch Road, not far from
Bishop, Texas, my friend Greg pulls over.
“I want to show you something,” he says.
The land before us is overgrown with
weeds as high as our knees. We wade
toward a cinder-block house abandoned
long ago. Spiderwebs mend the shot-out
windows. Braids of vine slither up one
wall; black and green mold creeps down
another. Despite the house’s run-down
condition, Greg grins and points out a
paint-splattered pattern in the mold. Just
like that, what was previously an eyesore
becomes art. We circle around the house,
marveling at the plant life burgeoning
from the rooftop and the wooden door,
distressed just so.
Out back is an old warehouse, equal
parts rust and tin. We slip in through a
door cracked open. Inside is an arsenal
of tractor tires. Some are as tall as I am.
Greg emits a low whistle, then throws a
rock at a tire suspended from the rafters
above. Suddenly, there is movement—a
chaos of bu= and white. Owls! Two— no,
three. Five. Eight! The kind that look like
they’re wearing opera masks, swiftly exit-
ing their balcony nests. Soundlessly, they
circle above our heads. Their wingspan is
immense, upward of three feet in length.
They render the rafters almost invisible.
For a thrilling moment, I see only black
eyes and white feathers. Then they swoop
out the door behind us.
My paternal grandmother collected
owls. Every summer, when Dad and I
drove to Kansas for a visit, I would rush
to her bedroom to admire her latest acquisitions. Conditioned, perhaps, by years of
Winnie the Pooh cartoons, I thought her
porcelain figurines signified a fine intelligence. Once I learned to put pencil to
paper, we started a written correspondence
that lasted until her death my senior year
in high school. After the funeral, when
Mom, Aunt Jolene, and I sorted through
her jewelry boxes, the piece I claimed was
a silver owl with green glass eyes that dangled from a chain. It hangs now above my
writing desk, a tribute to the woman who
first encouraged my e=orts there.
The sight of owls swirling overhead,
then, engulfs me in her reassuring presence — something I haven’t felt in years.
A few nights later, Greg and I visit the
Kingsville ranch of the legendary painter
Santa Barraza. Decking the walls are the
life-sized portraits of the icons of South
Texas: La Virgen de Guadalupe pulsing
a blue-veined heart inside her chest; La
Malinche in a field of maguey with a
fetus curled at her breast; La Llorona
rising from a pool of water; the pop star
Selena emerging from a house. Each
woman shimmers beneath a spotlight in
an explosion of red, yellow, purple, and
blue, a monument to heritage and to dig-
nity. In high school, I bought postcards of
Santa’s work at an art museum and have
hung them on the walls of every residence
I have lived in since. Entering her studio,
then, feels like stepping into a memory
palace, a labyrinthine space that is both
fantastical and familiar.
As we gather on her couches, I eagerly
recount our avian adventure. At the first
mention of owls, Santa gasps. “Lechuzas?!
That’s a bad omen.” She goes on to explain
how in Mexican folklore witches turn into
owls in the dark of night to cast their spells
This is why I moved to Mexico for
a year when I turned thirty. As a Tejana
writer, I felt obligated to know such cultural markers as whether owls should be
feared or revered. For months I roamed
the countryside, talking to everyone whose
path I crossed, aspiring not only to learn
the language of my maternal family but
also to absorb some of their mindset as
well. I came to realize that internal culture
clashes are actually an intrinsic part of the
Mexican experience—a legacy of blending colonial and indigenous bloods (or, in
my case, Pennsylvania Dutch and Tejano).
Now that I have followed the gravitational
Reports from near and far
LAY OF THE LAND