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La Zona Sagrada
When Refugio was born, several traditions merged, and new ones emerged. Among them are the naming of different areas of Refugio, and of its inhabitants, both fauna and flora. Perhaps the most beautiful of these areas is "La Zona Sagrada," a tiny plot on the Northern boundary, which is directly linked, mostly by open canal, to the Rio Grande, known to our neighbors to the South as "El Rio Bravo." It holds the magic of the Holly Near song, "Water Come Down." When the valve is opened, a veritable geyser gushes forth, and by closing and opening different sections of the internal canals, a torrent of water, complete with fish and other river residents, can be directed to irrigate the fields, the woods, or to fill and re-populate the resaca.

Near the water's mouth grew a magnificent willow. At the time of Refugio's founding, it was by far the tallest, and most impressive of its many native trees. Being so close to the water, it thrived, and towered over the landscape. In 1989, an Oglala Souix reminded us that it was the 100th anniversary of the death of Illotake Tatanka - Sitting Bull, who had guided the people along the Trail of Tears, and urged them to prepare for the day the children of the oppressor would seek their forgiveness, and they would open their arms and continue the journey together. Our guest also reminded us that the willow is the protector of the people. So our towering willow, with his widespread and welcoming arms, became Illotake Tatanka, the protector of Refugio.

But his very location made Illotake Tatanka vulnerable. He sat within inches of the canal, and as the soil eroded from his roots, he began to lean in that direction. As he leaned, his root mass erupted from the Earth. The refugees decided to try to save him. One of them, known as "El Cuñado" (Brother-in-Law), suggested that they excavate some ponds, off the side of the canal. The Earth they removed would be placed atop his root structure, weighing it down, and, they hoped, anchoring him in place. "But have you ever dug a pond?" another asked. No-one had ever lived anywhere with such amenities. He started, and retreated.

The next day, El Cuñado returned. "I've never dug a pond," he admitted, "but I have dug graves. It cannot be that different." So the refugees set about turning death into life. They dug out three large holes - moving what must have been a ton of Earth onto Illotake Tatanka's root mass. In one area, they widened, and deepened the canal, creating a pond for the young at heart. They imagined the children climbing a nearby Mesquite, and jumping from its branches into the rushing water. A smaller pond was for the wildlife, and would be planted with reeds and rushes. The third was off to the side. It was secluded, for the very young, and their mothers. They connected the ponds with Earthen bridges over concrete culverts. "At home, we would connect the graves of the victims of the Death Squads like this, so that they could hold hands in death, and keep each other company," El Cuñado said. His gaze fell. "That is why they tried to kill me. That is why I am here." And so was born La Zona Sagrada.

Neighbors soon began to arrive. First came the "Strong Women." Several young women who were volunteering at Refugio took a side trip to Guatemala. When they returned, they brought a string of tiny Guatemalan dolls. At the border, a Customs Agent asked, "And what are these?" "These are some strong women, that we are bringing to be company to the strong women of Refugio," was the reply. He shook his head, and asked nothing more. They decided that the Strong Women belonged in the Zona Sagrada, so they planted a series of Date Palms, along the bank of one of the ponds, Last year, one of the Strong Women hosted a family of Altamira Oriels.

Then Raquel Orendain, one of the Valley's own Strong Women, passed away. In the bitter farmworker struggles, when some suggested that la Migra be called to remove the strikebreakers the growers had recruited from across the Rio Bravo, she championed their cause. "Don't deport them," she urged, "organize them." So it was decided that she should also find a home in La Zona Sagrada. Another native of the Valley, a Sabal Palm, was chosen, and was planted across the canal from Illotake Tatanka and the Strong Women.

Over time, Illotake Tatanka continued to grow, and to lean. Eventually, he sat down, his massive trunk straddling two of the ponds. Now the little children can jump from his low-slung torso into the calm waters, even as their older siblings leap from the much taller Mesquite. New branches sprouted, and Illotake Tatanka became a string of young willows, linking the past and the future.

And still more neighbors arrived. A Mango seed casually dropped into a slight depression in the Earth is now the martyred Herbert Anaya, former Coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador. A Magnolia memorializes my Father, who gave me his love of the Earth and her Creatures, and his commitment to serve them. A Flash Pine commemorates the late Reverend Maurice McCrackin, an inspiration for us all, perhaps best remembered for climbing the White House fence on his 85th birthday, to protest the Gulf War. He once called Refugio "an island of hope and faith in the middle of the storm, a permanent act of non-violent resistence."

This past week, the Earth rejoiced with the long-awaited coming of the rains, and today, Ron Ridenhour came home to La Zona Sagrada. We found him the day after Ron passed away. For ages, we had been looking for a Guayabo tree, the fruiting variety, and finally discovered him in a backyard nursery in Brownsville. He spent the long, extraordinarily hot and dry summer in a pot by the canal, but did remarkably well. He even set three little fruits, one of which remains after his transplanting ordeal, and concomitant pruning. Now he stands alongside Herbert Anaya, whose torture report he brought to the North American people. He looks across to Reverend McCrackin, whose scorn for war he shared. And he is flanked, as in life, by the Strong Women he so loved - and who so loved him.

by Lisa S. Brodyaga
September 12, 1998

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