"Sheltering the Creative Spirit"
Taos, New Mexico USA
Rekindling the Inner Light
Jose R. Martinez
Seven years after his death, a few hundred people gathered in Taos to celebrate his life on the centennial of his birth. For three days in the summer of 2002, we talked about the way Frank had touched us and changed our lives, in person or with his writing. We talked about the way he had taught us to see and think in new ways.
Waters, who was born in Colorado Springs and lived most of his life in Arroyo Seco near Taos, wrote 28 books, fiction and nonfiction. Place eight of those books on the table in a rectangular formation—The Man Who Killed the Deer; People of the Valley; The Woman at Otowi Crossing; Masked Gods; Mexico Mystique; Mountain Dialogues; Pumpkin Seed Point; and Book of the Hopi—and you have a foundation of word and thought unrivalled in American letters.
Alexander Blackburn—professor emeritus from the University of Colorado and a Waters scholar—wrote: “To many of us who knew and read him, Waters was one of the greatest of our writers in the twentieth century, comparable in stature to such contemporaries as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. Like them, he wrote novels that are classics. They did not rival him, however, in depth of vision, nor were they philosophers as he was.”
People and notables from all walks of life came to the Frank Waters Centennial. Tony Hillerman wrote a keynote address. John Nichols spoke with humor and eloquence as did Rudolfo Anaya and Vine Deloria, Jr. The three cultures mingled in the tricultural setting that is Taos, all of us brought there by the one man who had authentically inhabited the three cultures of the Southwest.
At the end of the Centennial Barbara Waters, Frank’s widow, edited the papers and presentations into book form and found a perfect title, Rekindling the Inner Light, taken from the words of Albert Schweitzer. “Sometimes our light goes out but is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.”
And that’s why most of us had met in Taos, to give deep thanks to Frank, the human being who had rekindled our inner lights, usually when we most needed it.
I spoke about Frank’s gift to Hispanics and how People of the Valley had rekindled my inner light when I was in high school in 1960 in southern Colorado. In that novel Frank gave us authentic Hispanic characters at a time when Hispanic characters in U.S. literature were rare, mostly nonexistent.
I remember fruitlessly searching the library shelves for just the right book in those days. I needed a book that spoke to me with characters who resembled my uncle or my grandmother. I wanted to see Spanish dialogue on the page. I wanted the landscapes of northern New Mexico with the Rio Grande running through it. Mostly I failed in this search.
But one day I found my book. It was a red book with white lettering, an image imprinted on my brain to this day. Near the floor at the end of the shelf I saw the title: People of the Valley. In that fevered moment, in that dusky library on my knees, as I reached for the red book, I knew with deep certainty that this was my book, my people, my valley. And it was. I read the book that day and that night. The magic of words never works better than when the words feed the hungry heart and rekindle the inner light.
Many years later, when I had started to believe that my kind of fiction was dying from the onslaught of postmodernism, I got a phone call from Frank Waters telling me one of my stories had won the first Frank Waters Writing Award. I had the unforgettable experience of meeting Frank and sitting with him in the living room of his adobe home. We talked about words and about my stories of Hispanic life in the San Luis Valley. He was taciturn and chose words carefully. Finally he turned to me and said: “Your stories have a sense of place. You captured the valley.”
So twice in my life he had rekindled the inner light, as he has done for countless people around the world. His writings will continue to light the way through this century and beyond.
Jose R. Martinez lives in Boulder.