When We Tend To

Socorro County, New Mexico got its name because parched men were given water at the village it used to be. In my fuzzy reenactment of the legend, Spanish settler Juan de Oñate and his men crawl across the desert, gaunt and sunburnt, to find the Piro-speaking people of the Teypana pueblo. They’re given corn to eat and shallow bowls of water to drink from, which they dump over their heads. On that day, Oñate’s relief—which is what Socorro translates to—grew so big that it gave the Teypana land a new name. No one speaks Piro anymore.

Now, in Socorro, people work on farms and at the technical college. About 50 miles west, scientists listen to space at the Very Large Array observatory. Visitors watch birds at a nearby refuge, interrupted only by deep, muffled explosions from mines in the distance. (Sometimes, through their binoculars, they can see the dark smoke rise above the hills at dusk.) My great-aunt Bo’s backyard, as I remember it, is a coliseum of rock shards, plastic statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and cholla cacti. She, my grandfather Louis, and their siblings grew up in the county, too—towards the hills, in an extinct mining town called Tokay that’s now only soft dirt trails and parched grass. I went there once, years ago.

Driving in from elsewhere, such as my home in Albuquerque, you’d think most things come to the towns in Socorro for the dry expanse. But not Judy Armendariz’s shrimp. They’ve been calling the desert home since 2014, and compared to their oceanic relatives, their quarters are cramped.

The shrimp don’t decide to come to the county on their own. They don’t know that they’ll end up there when, as transparent infants, they’re packed into Styrofoam boxes in Florida and shipped to Judy’s farm in Lemitar, a town of 330 people in Socorro County. The farm sits on the side of a lineless road behind a golden alfalfa field, which is another one of Judy’s operations. When I took the familiar drive to Socorro a few months ago, ending with a turn toward Lemitar and an unfamiliar left into Judy’s driveway, I parked my truck next to her John Deere and in the shadow of a white barn. The building advertised itself with a sign that read:

“THE SHRIMP FARM”

Southwestern Seas LLC

FRESH, CLEAN AND GREEN, NEW MEXICO RAISED SHRIMP

A similar sign can be found at a Santa Fe farmers’ market stand. There, Judy and her business partner Tim sell the shrimp they grow in the barn’s pools, and some say they sell out in fifteen minutes or less. After seeing similar “farms” all over Florida, Judy and Tim decided to do some research, buy a few tanks, and start one in New Mexico. (Since, they’ve received a $50,000 grant from the USDA’s Rural Development program.) They’re joining a trend. Aquaculture—the cultivation of underwater organisms in controlled environments—now accounts for 55% of all consumed shrimp in the world, though most of it happens in China and Southeast Asia. With the vast majority of the world’s marine stock overfished or exploited, Judy and Tim are on the frontiers of something that could become the norm: Saving the ocean by giving it a break. Redefining what it means for something to be “from” a place. Providing the earth with some contained relief unlike Oñate’s reckless version.

Looking at Judy’s adobe house, painted with a coat of crustacean-pink, and the surrounding landscape, I remembered that the ashes of my grandfather are buried in a cemetery in Lemitar. It’s right off the freeway ramp leading back towards Albuquerque. He hadn’t lived in the county since he left for college—he “got out,” I always thought—but now he rests next to his parents, Nepomucena and Jose, behind the cemetery’s chain-link perimeter. I must have passed it on the drive in.

***

Few of my memories of my grandfather take place in Socorro. Most place him in his beige Lay-Z Boy at the head of his dinner table in Albuquerque, fishing for Scrabble tiles out of a blue felt bag or finishing a crossword in ballpoint. In some, he’s picking me up from school in his Mercury Grand Marquis, a champagne-colored boat of a vehicle that he drove with two twitching fists on the wheel. (My mom inherited both the car and the grip.) He always arranged a can of Mug root beer and two king-sized Snickers bars in the backseat cooler for me, and it wouldn’t take us long to get to the Taco Bell drive-thru a few blocks away. Often, a memory reduces to one movement, like the way he kept his gentle hands close to his sides while entering a room.

When I do imagine him as a young man, it’s always in the context of what I’ve seen: glossy, posed photos from when he was Albuquerque’s mayor; a video of him walking down from a stage after giving a speech; a black and white image showing him at a printing press, almost being swallowed by it, where he laid type for a now-defunct newspaper. In my mind, I’m the author of all his traces. It’s hard to admit how much we want things to stand still just so we can get a good look.

I was five, maybe six, when we drove to Tokay. My brother and I lagged behind our parents and grandfather as we walked, my shirt mostly off and swinging around my neck in the heat. I think there were shards of wood scattered off the path, but that could be me trying to fill the frustrated gaps in my memory. I don’t know what my grandfather’s childhood house, or his face during that time, looked like, so I make it up.

When I asked him about his life then, he told me about playing games with sardine cans and looking forward to a spoonful of condensed milk as a treat. By the time we reached the river, his Reeboks were covered with sand.

***

After a few knocks, Judy pops out of her house. She’s short and quick, her hair pulled tightly into a bun and sealed with a pair of athletic sunglasses on top of her head. The house is a few steps away from the barn, and the proximity is a must. “Once shrimp get a little stressed,” she tells me, “they die.” She has to be on-call. She leads me into the barn’s first room, where she stores the Styrofoam containers in stacks, and it’s humid with saltwater vapor. It peels the mint green paint right off the wooden walls. Here, she preps the larvae for the pools and stores food in opaque bins. The atmosphere is full-on laboratory, a kind of quiet different from the desert stillness outside.

The humming in the next room is audible when she turns the doorknob. With the order of a hospital nursery, nine black, plastic containers holding 300 gallons of water line the walls. Judy extends her arm across the room, raising her eyebrows like a confident car salesperson with a foot on the tire. Here, the shrimp grow and gain strength before being moved to the “raceways,” 12- x 80- x 6-feet tanks that fill the third and largest room with steam. Even without seeing the shrimp in the dark water, it’s obvious something big is going on near the raceways. My phone screen fogs up. We have to yell to hear each other over the rumbling of the water filters, and cat feeders mounted on wooden boards dispense food pellets into the water. We crunch our way through gravel.

Judy then hikes up her sleeve and uses a net to scrape the bottom of a raceway. She pulls a few shrimp above the surface, and I’m sure she could tell me what exact percentage of the stock is in her hand with a few calculations. She holds them firmly between her fingers, eyes out. They’re beautiful—translucent, glistening, and silver, and they couldn’t be more real.

***

After talking with Judy in her kitchen, she gives me a frozen Ziploc filled with her prized animals: the jumbos, ones she says the chefs at Ragin’ Shrimp in Albuquerque have been gossiping about.

“Put them in foil, with just a little butter, garlic, and lemon. Throw them on the grill, and you’re set,” she says. She tells me to come back in a year, when she’s hatching her own larvae, for shrimp she promises will be the length of my forearm. Whole Foods is interested in the meantime. (She’s still skeptical.) I get in the truck, back up, and pull out of the farm, tracking mud through more mud.

Judy’s from Chihuahua, Mexico, though she’s called New Mexico her home for most of her life. Now, she cares for hundreds of small beings here. She’s careful to tell me that there are no secrets to her work. Keeping things alive is her business, but the focused way she walks about the farm makes it seem like more than just a job. It’s a way of knowing, and tending to, a space.

I’m not from Tokay, Lemitar, or any part of Socorro County. I can’t act like I am for the sake of a more complete picture, or for the sake of being a better granddaughter. Much of my grandfather’s life rests there, but it’s impossible for me to know those parts personally. Instead of feeling responsible for keeping his whole self alive in my head, the posthumous project is more about treating my memories as moving pieces. They’re part of a giant system—an entire life—that I’ll largely never uncover myself. A Lay-Z Boy’s rocking squeak, the bobbing of a car, the pigment on a printed photo: each is an intersection between him and me, the respective halves extending far beyond the given moment.

That project is why the shrimp farm, curiously, makes sense: Things get out of hand when trying to claim ownership over the Atlantic. It’s healthier to care for what you can see. Standing in Socorro County, it’s relieving to lean on the land as one of my grandfather’s many keepers.

It’s midafternoon when I turn back onto the interstate. Ten minutes out, I realize I forgot to stop at the grave in Lemitar. I consider turning around, but I trust it’s doing well on its own. Still deep. Still whipped dry by gusts trying to become dust devils. Still room enough for one man.

 

 

Fly to Albuquerque, New Mexico on an empty stomach, and Elena will pick you up by the airport curb. It’s a five-minute drive to a burrito covered in green chile stew (+ a tall cup of tart orange juice). Send arrival times to elena.saavedrabuckley@yale.edu

Comments are closed.