Poet and musician Robert Mirabal was raised by his mother and grandparents at Taos Pueblo in a world suffused with Pueblo agriculture and tradition. Corn––Corn Mothers, Corn Songs and the Corn Dance––formed the center of their lives and was at the root of everything they did.
When the two-time Grammy winner slowed his touring schedule a few years ago, he decided to spend summers in a simple canvas tent north of the pueblo, committing himself to ancient farming methods and living off the land.
As Mirabal spent warm nights listening to the wind in his cornfields, he had a revelation. Without corn, his people would be extinct. And without the Pueblo Revolt leader Po'pay, Puebloan people never would have kept their corn traditions alive. But the corn is still here, sustaining the people and maintaining an integral role in ceremonies and daily life. Maybe, Mirabal thought, Po'pay has been here all along, too.
"In Pueblo culture, we believe there are certain people who don't actually die," Mirabal says. "They just kind of evolve into something else."
Mirabal began imagining where Po'pay might have been and what he may have done and seen in the years since he led the Pueblo Revolt of Aug. 10, 1680. In the highly coordinated revolt, Pueblo people killed hundreds of Spanish colonists and drove the rest from New Mexico. The Puebloans defended their independence from harsh Spanish rule for the next 12 years. When the Spanish eventually returned, the Pueblo people were granted land and legal rights they didn't have before.
With the help of co-writers Nelson Zink and Stephen Parks, Mirabal has written a one-man show about the Pueblo leader who's equally hated and revered.
Po'pay Speaks opens Aug. 16 at The Lodge at Santa Fe. In the performance (which includes some musical interludes), Po'pay has been living for the past 331 years in a cornfield north of Taos, analyzing life, traveling the world and spending time with the likes of Wovoka the Paiute prophet, Jim Morrison, Kit Carson, Georgia O'Keeffe and Mabel Dodge Luhan.
"He's been to Vietnam. He's just kinda been around," Mirabal says. Lumenscapes Illumination Media of Santa Fe helps Mirabal achieve different moods to convey Po'pay's voyages through time and space.
The focus of the performance is not the bloody revolt, but what has happened since––and the lessons Po'pay wants to pass on. It's also about Mirabal's notion that Po'pay resides in everyone.
"I wanted to create someone who you could see on the Santa Fe Plaza or at the pueblos on feast days," Mirabal says. "Po'pay's revolution was carried out by like-minded men who had families. We are all the children of Po'pay and, in the play, he talks about how we can all be revolutionaries. Pueblo people believe that without song there is no dance, without dance there is no rain, without rain there is no life. We believe we move the earth on its axis––we are the fulcrum. The bottom line is that Po'pay is in all of us."
Mirabal denies planning the show as a direct response to last year's 400th anniversary of the "founding" of Santa Fe, but he says marketing around that event did provide a flash point.
"I had no idea that was coming up, man. I saw an ad for the celebration last year and I said, 'Four hundred years? I got moccasins older than that,'" he says.
That quote––with a picture of Mirabal as Po'pay holding a conquistador's helmet––will go up on a billboard between Santa Fe and Albuquerque this summer, he says. The billboard is intended to be as provocative as the content of the show. Mirabal acknowledges that it might be uncomfortable for some people, but says the messages aren't aimed at any one group.
"This show is going to be very controversial, I think. It picks at the conquistadors for what happened; it picks at the Americans who slowly infiltrated northern New Mexico, from Gov. [Charles] Bent to Kit Carson; and it picks at Native people, too. Because I don't think Po'pay would be sitting back and saying, 'Hey, everything's OK…that's the way it is.'"
Po'pay tells stories that address contemporary life in the context of ancient Pueblo culture––but they aren't something only Puebloans will want to hear, Mirabal says.
"It's not just speaking to Pueblo people; it's speaking to all of us who are faced with everything from genetically modified food products to the inherent dishonesty of our government. We can't just sweep it under the rug," he says. Mirabal suggests that Po'pay instigated the first revolution in this place called America, and he's using Po'pay now to ask who will instigate the next. The project is a new form of expression for Mirabal, and he cautions that people expecting a concert are going to be surprised: He's going to act more than play music. To tackle acting, especially with such a politically charged character, is something Mirabal views as a challenge––but he says he was born to play the role.
"This had to come from a Pueblo artist, someone who has seen the traditions passed down," Mirabal says. "This couldn't be done by somebody from LA."
In the past few years, Mirabal has become deeply immersed in Tiwa culture. He and Zink recently co-wrote a book, Believe in the Corn, about a year in the life of a traditional Pueblo corn farmer.
"It's a manual for Puebloans who want to reconstitute viable agriculture," Mirabal says.
The book is punctuated with ancient recitations, symbols, meditations and pictures of plants at various stages, as well as pictures of Mirabal, his family and various elders in the cornfields.
The authors also founded Tiwa Farms, a project at Taos Pueblo that's focused on growing corn and reviving Pueblo agriculture.
Belief in corn has sustained his people thus far—and keeping that interest alive is key to survival, Mirabal says. The past few years have renewed his belief in corn and inspired him to convey its value to young people who are more interested in Facebook than farming.
"If we're not careful, the Corn Mothers will leave us," he says.
And if that happens, Po'pay is going to be pissed.
Santa Fe Reporter