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Religious Multiculturalism in Taos

Alison Small in Taos, New Mexico, February 2001

Hi there to you all, and Happy Losar! Things over hear are going pretty well. Our office is called the "Barracks" and used to be where the soldiers slept, maybe the horses too, for the old Spanish convent at the back. The Spanish came in the 17th Century so I think the building is at least a few hundred years old.

Taos has a pretty grisly past, lots of gringos were murdered only last century, and the Catholic priests & nuns needed some protection from the local Tiwa-Pueblo Indians.

Now the convent, which incidentally is the tallest building in Taos (a massive 2 stories) is used as a warehouse. Massimo, our illustrious Executive Director, says it is really spooky there. Perhaps it has something to do with the nuns being raped by the priests and their babies being buried in and around the building...

We don't have a centre here yet, but so far Ven. George Churinoff and Ven. Robina have taught here a few times which has been great. Robina will come back to Taos every couple of months and give teachings, which is great for the local people as there seems to be a real thirst for the Dharma.

There is a Taiwanese nunnery in the Taos Canyon somewhere, and we often see groups of them shopping at Walmart (like K-Mart), which is the closest thing we have to a department store in Taos. It is a bit unreal seeing all these grey-robed Asian women in the Wild South-West, shopping alongside native Americans. There are only about 5 other Asians living in town, including our accountant.

70% of the people in town are Hispanic, and about 8% are Indian. The average wage for a family here is only $19,000 per annum, and there are a lot of really very poor people around. Lots of trailer homes littered all over the place. Lots of homeless people too. The social welfare system is pretty bad here, (ie. the nearest office is 1½ hours away) and apparently lots of people die every year from cold out on the mesa where they squat in tin sheds, old buses etc. I think the majority are Vietnam Vets, or people who ended up homeless when the government closed down most of the Mental Hospitals to save money.

Demographically there is a huge cleavage in the society, people who freeze to death, and really rich people who come to Taos for the skiing and art galleries. When I went down to Santa Fe shopping one day, I made Toby go into a shop to see how much a nice rug was that I saw through the window. It was only US$25,000. The Southwest is tres chic and tres expensive. At least pockets of it are, but it is known as the "Third-world State" in the US.

You've got no idea about the administrative and bureaucratic problems that we have to deal with in our office. I've got used to it now, it's a bit like India. You have to be on 'Taos Time' and expect to call anyone at least three times before anything gets done. Maybe it's just New Mexico, maybe it's America, but they think us Aussies are really pushy with our expectations too high. I don't think the word 'professionalism' is in the American vocabulary.

Anyway, enough about America-bashing, actually I really like it here. Don't know why, maybe it's all the sun you get at 7,000 ft with no pollution. Maybe it's because it is so funny. Remember all those photos of yourself in the 80's where you had big hair, and really bad fashion? Well that is an everyday occurrence here in New Mexico. Everyday I see at least one flicked fringe and one Flock of Seagulls fringe, usually followed by white shoes and stone-washed jeans. There's something so satisfying with going to the supermarket in your tracky-dacks and knowing that no-one in the whole shop is more well dressed than you are. It's quite liberating to be so unfashionable that you fit in!

Toby and I are going to His Holiness's teachings in San Jose in May to work on the FPMT/Mandala stall. Should be lots of fun. The teaching is on the Heart Sutra, followed by a public talk, Medicine Buddha initiation and a long-life puja. Toby is well, working very hard, and giving those cranky, crusty old timers a run for their money! How lucky we are to work for Rinpoche!

Taos is great if you like Pow-Wows and Mariachi Bands, but sometimes I yearn for a bit of modern dance and music. We don't even have a disco!!!! But don't for a minute feel sorry for me, I'm as happy as can be! But you know, you can take the girl out the city, but you can't take the city out of the girl and all that...

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