- In the Country of Empty Crosses: The Story of a Hispano Protestant Family in Catholic New Mexico by Arturo Madrid
In the Country of Empty Crosses is a prose poem memoir by Arturo Madrid, the Norine R. and T. Frank Murchison Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Trinity University in San Antonio, which captures the beauty of his native New Mexico. Noting that his family was among the Spanish-Mexican colonists who settled the upper Rio Grande watershed in the early seventeenth century, Madrid concentrates much of his remembrance upon the family's conversion to Protestantism. As Hispano Protestants, his family embraced the language, culture, and values of Anglo American society; yet, they were never fully accepted by the Anglo community. On the other hand, traditional Catholic Hispanos viewed the Madrid family as heretics who deserted their religion and historic community.
In the 1880s, Madrid's great grandfather Albino Madrid converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, joining the Presbyterian Church. The specific reasons for this conversion are subject to speculation and are not clear in family memory. Nevertheless, this decision altered the history of the Madrid family. While land developers were forcing many traditional Hispanos to retreat downstream on the Rio Grande from family land holdings in Los Valles de San Agustín, Albino Madrid moved his family to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where greater educational and economic opportunities were to found in the Anglo Protestant world.
Although the family integrated into the Las Vegas Protestant community, they were still perceived as outsiders. Arturo's grandfather Teófilo Madrid attainted education, but he could not find employment in the Las Vegas schools. To the Anglos he remained a Mexican, while to the Hispanos he was a Protestant heretic. Nevertheless, education remained important to the Madrid family. Arturo's father graduated from New Mexico Highlands University and became the first lay principal of Tierra Amarilla High School. Arturo's mother, Gabriela Barela, served as a county clerk in Tierra Amarilla, and the family was well established in the community. Gabriela was also Protestant, and Arturo enjoyed spending time on the Barela farm where his grandparents were more isolated from the Anglo Protestants with whom they only associated in church or a business transaction.
During his senior year of high school, Arturo's parents sent their son to the Menaul School, a Presbyterian boarding school located in Albuquerque. While at Menaul, Arturo was surrounded by other Protestants and began to prepare for a career in the ministry, but he was not fully integrated into the social life of Anglo religious peers. Arturo continued [End Page 231] his studies at the University of New Mexico, although he moved away from religious studies and the church toward philosophy and secularism. As Arturo crossed over to academic life, he recognized that as a Hispano he was still the outsider, concluding, "I was one in a line of family interlopers, and more important, that I was one of many interlopers in American institutional life" (190).
In the Country of Empty Crosses is a moving remembrance of a Hispano Protestant family in Catholic New Mexico. Despite being caught between the Anglo Protestant and Hispano Catholic worlds, one of the major themes in the remembrance is a sense of place and belonging. Relying upon personal observations and family recollections rather than archival research, which Madrid confesses to be a weakness, the author eloquently presents a strong sense of place to which the Madrid clan belongs. This sense of place is reinforced by the black and white photography of Miguel Gandert. While Madrid discusses family photographs, they are not reproduced in the book. Instead, the beautiful landscape images of Gandert do an excellent job of establishing the connection between the Madrid family and the soil of New Mexico, a relationship that the religious conversion of Albino Madrid was never erased.