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Thoughts on the Rebels of Milagro

Canyon, Texas

I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’ve been asked to talk a little about this month’s Radio Readers Book Club Read, The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols. I read this book twenty years ago, after a friend of mine got a forearm tattoo of the tequila-toting Latino skeleton illustration from the cover of the book. I figured there must be something worth investigating in Nichols’s novel if my friend, a Jewish agitator from Austin, would get permanent ink dedicated to a story of Chicanos in northern New Mexico. So I read it. And I loved it.

I took up the book again this month, and my affection for it hasn’t changed. Apropos of its title, The Milagro Beanfield War is a miraculous feat of storytelling, a sprawling epic about small moments and forgotten people. It could be said that this novel has no protagonist. Or, perhaps more accurately, the main character of the book might be said to be the small community of Milagro, New Mexico, with its wandering pigs and randomly discharged pistols and pebble-tossing grannies.

Nichols’s Milagro Beanfield War is a rousing example of that most American of stories—a tale of downtrodden everyday people, oppressed by a machine far larger than themselves, who learn to fight back using their own unique talents—skills they’ve learned from inhabiting this desolate land. In a way, this is a recapitulation of the American Revolution, with its scrappy backwoods rebels challenging an oppressive system. But while Nichols embraces that narrative in the grand tradition, he also subverts it in ways that are uniquely American.

These “rebels” of Milagro are a far cry from the minutemen and Enlightenment statesmen of our nation’s original revolution. They’re Chicanos, destitute handymen and sharecroppers, many of whom don’t speak English. But they’re no less American for all that, and in their urge to stand up for their individual rights and the rights of their community, these hardscrabble rabble-rousers are more American than the local real estate potentate, who is filthy rich and lily white, or the smoke-filled poohbahs in the capital, those nefarious functionaries dead-set on preventing the citizenry of Milagro from using water that hasn’t been legally deeded to them.

The touchpoint for the novel is, at it must be, a plot of land: the beanfield owned by Joe Mondragón, a local tinkerer and layabout who seems more likely to pass out on his porch than to lead a revolution. But this is no ordinary revolution. In this uprising, the first shot at Lexington has been traded for a slow trickle of water into a weedy patch of frijoles no larger than an acre. Like Cincinnatus and George Washington before him, Mondragón is a reluctant hero, called in spite of himself to lead. And behind him amasses a hodgepodge troop of misfits, who draw their power from their perpetual misfortune. As the accidental holy man Billy Ray Gusdorf tells Joe Mondragón while they’re sitting on the porch of the local dry-goods merchant, “For three hundred years . . . the people around here have starved to death, but somehow they always survived.”

In the same way that a canyon is carved out by a trickle of water over time, this revolution builds slowly but inexorably, through tiny actions and the wriggling will of a people who seem to stand up for themselves despite themselves. There are few acts of true courage in the novel. But this isn’t that kind of novel. The people of Milagro don’t need courage; they need only keep existing, in their inimitable fashion. In the same way that a glacier consisting of infinite water molecules can, over the course of centuries, sheer the side off a mountain, so too can the good people of Milagro topple tin-can despots through the accretion of everyday acts of compassion, comedy, and truth.