Joe Mondragon, a feisty hustler with a talent for trouble, slammed his battered pickup to a stop, tugged on his gumboots, and marched into the arid patch of ground. Carefully (and also illegally), he tapped into the main irrigation channel. And so began-though few knew it at the time-the Milagro beanfield war. But like everything else in the dirt-poor town of Milagro, it would be a patchwork war, fought more by tactical retreats than by battlefield victories. Gradually, the small farmers and sheepmen begin to rally to Joe's beanfield as the symbol of their lost rights and their lost lands. And downstate in the capital, the Anglo water barons and power brokers huddle in urgent conference, intent on destroying that symbol before it destroys their multimillion-dollar land-development schemes.
The tale of Milagro's rising is wildly comic and lovingly tender, a vivid portrayal of a town that, half-stumbling and partly prodded, gropes its way toward its own stubborn salvation.
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The Milagro Beanfield War
By John Nichols, Rini Templeton
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1994 John Treadwell Nichols
All rights reserved.
"You can't buy bullets with food stamps."
— Nick Rael
Amarante Córdova had had thirteen children. That is, he and his wife, Elizabeth — known as Betita — had had thirteen children, who either still were or had been Nadia, Jorge, Pólito, María Ana, Berta, Roberto, Billy, Nazario, Gabriel, Ricardo, Sally, Patsy, and Cipriano. Betita, who had never been sick a day in her life, died in 1963, on November 22, on the same day as President Kennedy, but not from a bullet in the head. She had been outside chopping wood during a lovely serene snowstorm when suddenly she set down the ax and began to walk along the Milagro–García spur out onto the mesa. In recalling her death later Amarante would always tell his listeners, "You cannot imagine how beautiful it was that afternoon. The snow falling was as serene as the white feathers of a swan. When the ravens sailed through it they made no sound. You looked up and the big black birds were floating through the snowflakes like faint shadows of our forefathers, the first people who settled in the valley. The tall sagebrush was a lavender-green color because there had been a lot of rain in the autumn, and that was the only color on the otherwise black and white mesa, the pale lavender-green of the sage on which snow had settled. You remember, of course, that Betita's hair was as white as the snow, and she was wearing a black dress and a black woolen shawl that Sally, our daughter who was married to the plumber from Doña Luz, knitted for her on a birthday long ago."
Slowly, taking her time, Betita walked across the mesa to the rim of the gorge. "And there she stood on the edge looking down," Amarante said. "For a long time she was poised there like a wish afraid to be uttered. The walls of the gorge created a faded yellow glow to the flakes falling eight hundred feet down to the icy green river below. Ravens were in the air, circling, their wings whispering no louder than the snow falling. It was very peaceful. I was at the house, I never saw her leave. But when she didn't come in with the wood after a while, I saddled up that lame plow horse we used to have called Buster, and went after her, following her tracks in the snow. Just as I left the road to enter the chamisal an owl dropped out of the darkening sky, landing on a cedar post not ten yards away. An owl is a sure sign from the dead, you know, and it was right then I knew she had disappeared into the gorge. When I arrived at the rim an enormous raven was standing where she had last stood, and when he saw me he spread his wings, which were wider than my outstretched arms, and floated up like a good-bye kiss from my wife into the lazy storm. Next day we opened the church, only the second time that year it was used, not to say prayers for Betita, but to burn candles and shed our tears for the President who had died in Dallas. But I lit my candles for Betita, and nobody noticed. Three months later her body was discovered on the bank of the river two miles below Chamisaville."
The Córdova sons and daughters had scattered, as the saying goes, to the four winds. Or actually, only to the three winds, eastward being anathema to the children of Milagro, whose Mississippi was the Midnight Mountains, that chain running north and south barely a mile or two from all their backyards.
Nadia, a waitress most of her life, first in Doña Luz, then Chamisaville, wound up in the Capital City barrio, dying violently (and recently) at the age of sixty-one in a lover's quarrel. Jorge emigrated to Australia where he tended sheep, same as at home. Pólito, who spent his life wandering around, getting married three or four times and taking care of sheep in Wyoming, Montana, and Utah, had died young of the flu. María Ana wanted to be a dancer, took the train to San Francisco, and after years of strenuous work, heartbreak, and small roles in the city ballet company, she hurt her back and wound up teaching in an Arthur Murray studio. Berta married an Anglo who raised lemons in California, and, curiously, they never had any children. Roberto, Billy, and Nazario became farm workers, mechanics, truck drivers, dishwashers, and short-order cooks in and around Los Angeles; they all raised large families, and although between them they'd had nine sons in Vietnam, only one of Billy's kids, Rosario, had been killed. Gabriel, who miraculously metamorphosed into a run-of-the-mill featherweight boxer in the army, turned pro after his discharge, was known as the Milagro Mauler during his short and undistinguished prime, and died in a plane crash in Venezuela. Ricardo had stayed on as a rancher in Milagro, although he spent half his life in the lettuce, sugar beet, or potato fields of southern Colorado, or else with the big sheep outfits up in Wyoming and Montana. Two of his sons, Elisardo and Juan, had died in Vietnam; another boy was stationed in Germany. Sally married a plumber in Doña Luz and had eleven kids herself, one of whom became a successful pop singer in Mexico City, but never sent any money home, not even after the plumber died when a black widow bit him while he was creeping around somebody's musty crawl space on a job. Patsy, the most beautiful and the sharpest in school, ran West to join a circus, became an Avon lady instead, and died with her husband and all their children except Peter (who was in a Japanese hospital at the time recovering from wounds received in Vietnam) in a head-on car crash in Petaluma. And little Cipriano, the baby of the family, born in 1925, who went farther than everyone else in his education, and, in fact, had just obtained a full scholarship to Harvard when he was drafted, was vivisected by a German machine gun during the first eighteen seconds of the Normandy D-day landings.
All his life Amarante had lived in the shadow of his own death. When he was two days old he caught pneumonia, they gave him up for dead, somehow he recovered. During his childhood he was always sick, he couldn't work like other boys his age. He had rheumatic fever, chicken pox, pneumonia three or four more times, started coughing blood when he was six, was anemic, drowsy all the time, constantly sniffling, weak and miserable, and — everybody thought — dying. At eight he had his tonsils out; at ten, his appendix burst. At twelve he was bitten by a rattlesnake, went into a coma, survived. Then a horse kicked him, breaking all the ribs on his left side. He contracted tuberculosis. He hacked and stumbled around, hollow-eyed, gaunt and sniffling, and folks crossed themselves, murmuring Hail Marys whenever he staggered into view. At twenty, when he was already an alcoholic, scarlet fever almost laid him in the grave; at twenty-three, malaria looked like it would do the job. Then came several years of amoebic dysentery. After that he was constipated for seventeen months. At thirty, a lung collapsed; at thirty-four, shortly after he became the first sheriff of Milagro, that old devil pneumonia returned for another whack at it, slowed his pulse to almost nothing, but like a classical and very pretty but fainthearted boxer, couldn't deliver the knockout punch. During the old man's forties a number of contending diseases dropped by Amarante's body for a shot at the title. The clap came and went, had a return bout, was counted out. The measles appeared, as did the mumps, but they did not even last a full round. For old time's sake pneumonia made a token appearance, beat its head against the brick wall that evidently lined Amarante's lungs, then waved a white flag and retreated. Blood poisoning blew all his lymph nodes up to the size of golf balls, stuck around for a month, and lost the battle.
Amarante limped, coughed, wheezed; his chest ached; he spat both blood and gruesome blue-black lungers, drank until his asshole hurt, his flat feet wailed; arthritis took sledgehammers to his knees; his stomach felt like it was bleeding; and all but three of his teeth turned brown and toppled out of his mouth like acorns. In Milagro, waiting for Amarante Córdova to drop dead became like waiting for one of those huge sneezes that just refuses to come. And there was a stretch during Amarante's sixties when people kept running away from him, cutting conversations short and like that, because everybody knew he was going to keel over in the very next ten seconds, and nobody likes to be present when somebody drops dead.
In his seventies Amarante's operations began. First they removed a lung. By that time the citizens of Milagro had gotten into the irate, sarcastic, and not a little awed frame of mind which had them saying: "Shit, even if they took out that old bastard's other lung he'd keep on breathing."
A lump in his neck shaped like a miniature cow was removed. After that a piece of his small intestine had to go. There followed, of course, the usual gallbladder, spleen, and kidney operations. People in Milagro chuckled "Here comes the human zipper," whenever Amarante turned a corner into sight. His friends regarded him with a measure of respect and hatred, beseeching him to put in a good word for them with the Angel of Death, or whoever it was with whom he held counsel, even as they capsized over backward into the adobe and caliche darkness of their own graves.
But finally, at seventy-six, there loomed on Amarante's horizon a Waterloo. Doc Gómez in the clinic at Doña Luz sent him to a doctor at the Chamisaville Holy Cross Hospital who did a physical, took X rays, shook his head, and sent the old man to St. Claire's in the capital where a stomach specialist, after doing a number of tests and barium X rays and so forth, came to the conclusion that just about everything below Amarante's neck had to go, and the various family members were notified.
The family had kept in touch in spite of being scattered to the three winds, and those that were still living, including Jorge from Australia, returned to Milagro for a war council, and for a vote on whether or not they could muster the money to go ahead with their father's expensive operation. "If he doesn't have this operation," the Capital City doctor told them, "your father will be dead before six months are out."
Now the various members of the family had heard that tune before, but all the same they took a vote: Nadia, María Ana, Berta, Sally, and Billy voted for the operation; Jorge, Roberto, Nazario, and Ricardo voted against it. And so by a 5–4 margin Amarante went under the knife and had most of his innards removed. He recuperated for several weeks, and then, under Sally's and Ricardo's and Betita's care, went home to Milagro.
But it looked as if this time was really it. Slow to get back on his feet, Amarante had jaundice and looked ghastly. He complained he couldn't see anymore, and they discovered he had cataracts in both eyes, so Ricardo and Sally and Betita took him back to St. Claire's and had those removed. Thereafter, he had to wear thick-lensed glasses which made him look more like a poisoned corpse than ever before. His slow, creeping way of progressing forward made snails look like Olympic sprinters. The people of Milagro held their collective breath; and if they had been a different citizenry with a different culture from a different part of the country, they probably would have begun to make book on which day it would happen. In fact, the word had spread, so that down in Chamisaville at the Ortega Funeral Home, which handled most of the death from Arroyo Verde to the Colorado border, it became common for Bunny Ortega, Bruce Maés, and Bernardo Medina to wonder, sort of off the cuff during their coffee breaks, when Amarante's body would be coming in. And eventually, although she did not go so far as to have Joe Mondragón or one of the other enterprising kids like him dig a grave out in the camposanto, Sally did drop by Ortega's in order to price coffins and alert the personnel as to what they might expect when the time came.
One gorgeous autumn day when all the mountain aspens looked like a picture postcard from heaven, Amarante had a conversation with Sally. "I guess this old temple of the soul has had it," he began with his usual sly grin. "I think you better write everybody a letter and tell them to come home for Christmas. I want to have all my children gathered around me at Christmastime so I can say good-bye. There won't be no more Navidades for me."
Sally burst into tears, she wasn't quite sure whether of relief or of grief. And, patting her father on the back once she had loudly blown her nose, she said, "Alright, Papa. I know everybody who's left will come."
And that was a Christmas to remember! The Celebration of 1956. Jorge came from Australia with his wife and their five children. Nadia journeyed up from the capital with her lover. María Ana took off from the Arthur Murray studios in San Francisco, flying in with her husband and four children. Berta and the lemon grower took a train from the San Jose Valley. Roberto, Billy, and Nazario, their wives and fourteen children and some grandchildren, drove in a caravan of disintegrating Oldsmobiles from L.A. And Sally and the remaining two of her brood still in the nest motored up every day from Doña Luz. People stayed at Ricardo's house, at what was left of Amarante's and Betita's adobe, and some commuted from Sally's in Doña Luz.
They had turkeys and pumpkin pie, mince pie and sour cream pie; they had chili and posole, corn and sopaipillas and enchiladas and empanaditas, tequila and mescal, Hamms and Coors and Old Crow, and in the center of it all with the screaming hordes revolving happily about him, chest-deep in satin ribbons and rainbow-colored wrapping paper, so drunk that his lips were flapping like pajamas on a clothesline during the April windy season, sat the old patriarch himself, dying but not quite dead, and loving every minute of it. His children hugged him, whispered sweet nothings in his ear, and waited on his every whim and fancy. They pressed their heads tenderly against his bosom, muttering endearing and melodramatic lovey-doveys, even as they also anxiously listened to see if the old ticker really was on its last legs. They took him by the elbow and held him when he wished to walk somewhere, they gazed at him sorrowfully and shed tears of both joy and sadness, they squeezed his feeble hands and reminisced about the old days and about the ones who were dead, about what all the grandchildren were doing, and about who was pregnant and who had run away, who was making a lot of money and who was broke and a disgrace, who was stationed in Korea and who was stationed in Germany ... and they joined hands, singing Christmas carols in Spanish, they played guitars and an accordion, they wept and cavorted joyously some more, and finally, tearfully, emotionally, tragically, they all kissed his shrunken cheeks and bid him a fond and loving adios, told their mama Betita to be strong, and scattered to the three winds.
Three years later when Jorge in Australia received a letter from Sally in Doña Luz, he replied:
What do you mean he wants us all to meet again for Christmas so he can say good-bye? What am I made out of, gold and silver? I said good-bye two winters ago, it cost me a fortune! I can't come back right now!
Nevertheless, when Sally a little hysterically wrote that this time was really it, he came, though minus the wife and kiddies. So also did all the other children come, a few minus some wives or husbands or children, too. At first the gaiety was a little strained, particularly when Nazario made a passing remark straight off the bat to Berta that he thought the old man looked a hell of a lot better than he had three years ago, and Berta and everyone else within hearing distance couldn't argue with that. But then they realized they were all home again, and Milagro was white and very beautiful, its juniper and piñon branches laden with a fresh snowfall, and the smell of piñon smoke on the air was almost like a drug making them high. The men rolled up their sleeves and passed around the ax, splitting wood, until Nazario sank the ax into his foot, whereupon they all drove laughing and drinking beer down to the Chamisaville Holy Cross Hospital where the doctor on call proclaimed the shoe a total loss, but only had to take two stitches between Nazario's toes. Later that same afternoon there was a piñata for the few little kids — some grandchildren, a pocketful of great-grandchildren — who had come, and, blindfolded, they pranced in circles swinging a wooden bat until the papier-mâché donkey burst, and everyone cheered and clapped as the youngsters trampled each other scrambling for the glittering goodies. Then the kids stepped up one after another to give Grandpa sticky candy kisses, and he embraced them all with tears in his eyes. Later the adults kissed Grandpa, giving him gentle abrazos so as not to cave in his eggshell chest. "God bless you," they whispered, and Amarante grinned, flashing his three teeth in woozy goodbyes. "This was in place of coming to the funeral," he rasped to them in a quavering voice. "Nobody has to come to the funeral." Betita started to cry.
Out of the old man's earshot and eyesight his sons and daughters embraced each other, crossed themselves, crossed their fingers, and, casting their eyes toward heaven in supplication, murmured, not in a mean or nasty way, but with gentleness and much love for their father:
"Here's hoping ..."
When, five years later, Jorge received the next letter from Sally, he wrote back furiously:
NO! I just came for Mama's funeral!
Excerpted from The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols, Rini Templeton. Copyright © 1994 John Treadwell Nichols. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
1. How can the story of Joe Mondragón's bean field be applied to current clashes between independent landowners and developers? How does the tiny town of Milagro reflect current disputes in borderlands around the world?
2. What role do outsiders play in the Milagro war? How are Bloom and Goldfarb received? Did their lives on the East Coast prepare them for what they would encounter in the Southwest?
3. How does Bernabé Montoya manage his role as sheriff? Where do his loyalties lie? What sort of enforcer is he? Is he right to be so afraid of symbolic acts?
4. Did your opinion of Joe Mondragón shift throughout the novel? Is he an accidental hero, or does he possess a calculated bravery that other revolutionaries would do well to emulate?
5. Discuss the notion of "milagro," the Spanish word for "miracle", as it applies to the novel. How does Amarante Córdova, whose longevity astonishes those who know him, perceive the line between miracle and self-determination? How do surreal stories and spirituality shape the way the peasants of Milagro view their destiny?
6. Revisit the novel's plot as if you were reviewing a bona fide war. When did the initial act of aggression really occur? What were the battlefield strategies? Besides guns, what weapons were used (jobs, laws)? Who were the most powerful factions at various points, and why? Was victory won through violence or diplomacy, or something else altogether?
7. How would Pacheco's pig describe the Milagro situation? From his point of view, can boundaries ever successfully be applied to any natural resources? What is the true nature of the disputes between local residents and the Forest Service about trespassing and livestock?
8. What is the role of the press in The Milagro Beanfield War? How do the residents of Milagro view the distinction between journalism and storytelling? Does a public relations campaign make up for their lack of political clout? How does Kyril Montana play the information game while he's undercover?
9. How does the author balance slapstick comedy and drama in the novel? How is humor used to display the cultural gulf between Milagro's underdogs and power brokers?
10. In his epilogue, Nichols describes his occasional frustration that The Milagro Beanfield War has overshadowed his other accomplishments as a writer. To what do you attribute the enduring success of this novel? How has its context shifted from the early 1970s when it was written to a readership in the twenty-first century? What themes or tones link it to the other John Nichols works you have read? What makes it unique, even within the trilogy?