“I grew up pretty hard core,” says Robert, when asked about his early years at Taos Pueblo, “I never expected to do what I have done.”
Robert grew up mainly with his grandparents in the Village at Taos Pueblo and attended school there until he was 12, almost 13. His early years were uneventful and followed the seasonal and daily rounds at the Pueblo. His grandparents were “low key, traditional people,” he says. From them he learned his people’s ways; the language and culture, how to farm the land to grow food, to hunt and perform ancient ceremonies and to provide for the extended family.
We were dirt poor,” he tells me. “It was all about survival”
Early on he discovered a love for literature. Books became his escape from the daily grind of living close to the earth and the bone. Music was another early passion. His music teacher at the Pueblo School Martha Oestreich, was a multi instrumentalist. From her he learned the rudiments of music. He learned to play the piano, clarinet, saxaphone and other instruments. He was introduced to classical music which became the foundation for his own compositions. Music, along with words transported and inspired him.
So did dance.
He joined the Taos Mountain Shadow Dancers around the same age he started going to school in town. He and his young cousins toured the country with them. Rhoda Concha Hopper, the grand-daughter of Little Joe Gomez, was part of the troupe and with her and Sonny Spruce, he remembers often going to Hopper’s Mud Palace parties at the old Mabel Dodge Lujan house. Later he would play Tony Lujan onscreen and in fact, his grandfather was related through the same Kiva Society to Lujan.
Though it’s likely they may both have been at a few of these gatherings, his and Robby Romero’s paths would not cross ’till much later.
“I think Robby and I both had to do our own thing first,” he says, ” sow our wild oats and such, before we were able to make this music we’re making together as Iron Horse.”
He started listening to Rock Music and joined a High School Band. They were once chosen to go to Washington D.C with other bands from the Northern Pueblos, to march in the Cherry Blossom Parade. The music he was listening to was in sharp contrast to the music he learned and played in school.
“Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, bands like that,” he recalls, “we couldn’t exactly get with Thriller,” he adds sardonically,” but these guys were hardcore, like us.”
“Led Zeppelin,” he muses,” really intrigued me, I mean they were mythological and mystical, they were talking about spirituality and stuff you didn’t hear of out there in America.”
His horizons had already opened by the time he was in his mid teens, advanced a year in school, academically bright, although much of his time was spent ditching in order to fulfill his traditional obligations and/or help his ageing grandparents, he dropped out for awhile but another teacher appeared to guide him. Nancy Jenkins who taught English and Drama at Taos High School, recognized and nurtured his talent. She convinced him to go back, plied him with the classics to read, coaxed him into acting and encouraged him to exceed his own expectations.
After High School, he bought a one way ticket to Oklahoma to audition for a Summer Stock Theatre Program there. He got into the program but had no money to return to Taos so picked up different jobs in order to stay on and participate. When he got back to Taos, he borrowed money from his grandmother to buy a flute.
“No one was playing it,” he remembers. “Very few anyway.”
“It came easily to me and it all just seemed to fit, my love of music, dance and performance all came together.”
He made a cassette and started selling it, started to make a little money.”Before I knew it I was playing weddings and bar-mitzvahs,” he laughs.
His teens really came to an end at around 20, with a trip to Russia where he participated in a Peace Walk from Leningrad (St. Petersburg) to Moscow. It was the tiime of Glastnost, walls were falling and doors were opening. He met many people there including Carlos Santana, the late, legendary promoter, Bill Graham and others who encouraged him to continue with his music.
Robert went on to accomplish so much more than he ever dreamed he would, but as he remarks near the end of our conversation. “All roads eventually lead to Taos.” He is rooted where he began, at the Pueblo, raising his own children with their language and traditions, passing along the seeds of wisdom that were bequeathed to him.
He and I have known each other for many years, but his memory is much better than mine. He reminds me that he used to see me talking to Frank Samora (we profiled his daughter Maria Samora here on the blog) many years ago. Robert must have been a teenager then. That was way back when the men from the Pueblo would sit on the benches around the Plaza, wrapped in their pale blue blankets.
He tells me that Frank was one of his Kiva Elders and gave him his Indian name, which translates to Flute Song.
He has just finished some days of ceremony and he is pensive and thoughtful as he speaks.
“Out here,” he says, “we live in a world of metaphors.”
Robert Mirabal is a wonderful writer and storyteller who posts to his blog frequently, please visit his site below. Iron Horse will be with us monthly here on taoStyle. Look for them after next week’s final post in this series, on the first Friday of the month.
Photographs of young Robert from his personal collection.
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