Gentleman of Rio en Medio by Juan A. A. Sedillo
It took months of negotiation to come to an understanding with the old man.
He was in no hurry. What he had the most of was time. He lived up in Rio en Medio, where his people had been for hundreds of years. He tilled the same land they had tilled. His house was small and wretched, but quaint. The little creek ran through his land. His orchard was gnarled and beautiful.
The day of the sale he came into the office. His coat was old, green, and faded.
I thought of Senator Catron, who had been such a power with these people up there in the mountains. Perhaps it was one of his old Prince Alberts. He also wore gloves. They were old and torn and his fingertips showed through them. He carried a cane, but it was only the skeleton of a worn-out umbrella. Behind him walked one of his innumerable kin, a dark young man with eyes like a gazelle.
The old man bowed to all of us in the room. Then he removed his hat and gloves, slowly and carefully. Chaplin once did that in a picture, in a bank he was the janitor. Then he handed his things to the boy, who stood obediently behind the old man’s chair.
There was a great deal of conversation, about rain and about this family. He was very proud of his large family. Finally we got down to business. Yes, he would sell, as he had agreed, for twelve hundred dollars, in cash. We would buy, and the money was ready. Don Anselmo, I said to him in Spanish, we have made a discovery. You remember that we sent that surveyor, that engineer, up there to survey you land so as to make the deed? Well, he finds that you own more than eight acres. He tells us that your land extends across the river and that you own almost twice as much as you thought. He did not know that. And now, Don Anselmo, I added, these Americans are buena gente, they are good people, and they are willing to pay you for the additional land as well, at the same rate per acre, so that instead of twelve hundred dollars you will get almost twice as much, and the money is here for you.
The old man hung his head for a moment in thought. Then he stood up and stared at me. Friend, he said, I do not like to have you speak to me in that manner. I kept still and let him have his say. I know these Americans are good people, and that is why I have agreed to sell my house to them. But I do not care to be insulted. I have agreed to sell my house and land for twelve hundred dollars and that is the price.
I argued with him but it was useless. Finally he signed the deed and took the money but refused to take more than the amount agreed upon. Then he shook hands all around, put on his ragged gloves, took his stick and walked out with the boy behind him.
A month later my friends had moved into Rio en Medio. They had re-plastered the old adobe house, pruned the trees, patched the fence, and moved in for the summer. One day, they came back to the office to complain. The children of the village were overrunning their property.
They came every day and played under the trees, built little play fences around them, and took blossoms. When they were spoken to, they only laughed and talked back good-naturedly in Spanish.
I sent a messenger up to the mountains for Don Anselmo. It took a week to arrange another meeting. When he arrived he repeated his previous preliminary performance. He wore the same faded cutaway jacket, carried the same stick and was accompanied by the boy again. He shook hands all around, sat down with the boy behind his chair, and talked about the weather. Finally I broached the subject. Don Anselmo, about the ranch you sold to these people. They are good people and want to be your friends and neighbors always. When you sold to them you signed a document, a deed, and in that deed you agreed to several things. One thing hat they were to have the complete possession of the property. Now, Don Anselmo, it seems that every day the children of the village overrun the orchard and spend most of their time there. We would like to know if you, as the most respected man in the village, could not stop them from doing so in order that these people may enjoy their new home more in peace.
Don Anselmo stood up. We have all learned to love these Americans, he said, because they are good people and good neighbors. I sold them my property because I knew they were good people, but I did not sell them the trees in the orchard.
This was bad. Don Anselmo, I pleaded, when one signs a deed and sells real property one sells also everything that grows on the land, and those trees, every one of them, are on the land and inside the boundaries of what you sold.
Yes, I admit that, he said. You know, he added, I am the oldest man in the village. Almost everyone there is my relative and all the children of Rio en Medio are my sobrinos and nietos, my descendants. Every time a child has been born in Rio en Medio since I took possession of that house from my mother, I have planted a tree for that child. The trees in that orchard are not mine, Senor, they belong to the children of the village. Every person in Rio en Medio born since the railroad came to Santa Fe owns a tree in that orchard. I did not sell the trees because I could not. They are not mine.
There was nothing we could do. Legally we owned the trees but the old man had been so generous, refusing what amounted to a fortune for him. It took most of the following winter to buy the trees, individually, from the descendants of Don Anselmo in the valley of Rio en Medio.
Sedillo, Juan A. A.. “Gentleman of Rio en Medio.” New Mexico Quarterly 9, 3 (1939). https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/nmq/vol9/ iss3/15
There are many takeaways from this hearty little story, which is why it is included in so many textbooks. Themes like nature, trees, ancestry, family pride, and topics like business transitions with a fair price, culture differences, not living life in a hurry, etc.
I like the story for another reason. A humanity connection.
Rereading the story this week had me pause when I read that the new owners wanted “complete possession of the property.” They did not want the children running about and playing on the trees.
The whole idea of land ownership and “who owns what” reminded me of the song “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band (here) – especially this part:
“And the sign said, “Anybody caught trespassin’ – would be shot on sight
So I jumped the fence and a yelled at the house, “Hey, what gives you the right? To put up a fence to keep me out – or to keep Mother Nature nature in?”
Now I am all for land ownership and I am not a socialist – but I do think sometimes love and community suffer because of the “over protection” of private property. Yes, we need structure, deeds, and boundaries. I do agree with the saying that “good fences make good neighbors” – However, the part in the story about “complete possession of the property” invites us to explore social layers ad the author, Sedillo, leads us through the sale of the property.
Of course they want complete possession – a gift of land ownership – but then it was chilling, and sad, to consider the ancestral connections to the trees. It was sad to imagine the children and their families being paid off to not play on the trees or in the orchard anymore. Why? So the trees can sit pruned and undisturbed with the new owners? Is this what trees are for? Is this what those particular trees were for?
— The story made me ponder the trappings of materialism – the trappings of big bank accounts and property ownership and the sense of power that sometimes comes with all of that in our culture.
— The story reminded me of the little church in our local community that kicked out the local children from their playground and then put up a huge fence with a “no trespassing” sign – to keep everyone out. I understand that their insurance might not cover everyone who comes and goes from their church yard and so maybe they had legal reasons for rigidly sealing off their property – but when “churches” do this it reminds me of “missing the mark.” It reminds that we can caught up in a bubble and forget to connect with kindness. And some (most) churches are run like a business and have a corporate feel that sometimes forgets to embrace. And this same church has a cheesy marquis that is used to invite folks to visit them? I drive by it and never have a good vibe from that church. I sometimes remember Philip Yancey’s 1990’s book, “The Jesus I Never Knew” – where a hurting lady was asked why she did not go to the local church for help. “Why on earth would I go there?” she asked – (something like that)
Humans need to guard against being smothered by the oppressiveness that “can” come with “owning stuff” and a feeling of “mine, mine, mine” 😵💫
Humans need to try to embrace more of what it is like to “share” and keep a loose hand on possessions.
I am not into socialism! – – Instead, generosity!
I am into remembering NOT to be greedy, and not letting possessions own you. Be honest and fair in business. It is okay to not always “sell at top dollar” (and not feel robbed if you got a little less than what you could have – that is okay… like Don Anselmo in our story).
There are no U-Hauls parked next to gravesites – and we cannot take any possessions with us. So how do you manage assets now? I think the goal is to not have your assets “own” you – because it can smother your essence. It can cloud what really matters.
One day, all of this will be gone and what will you have to show for your years? Many properties to sell or pass on? A huge bank account to divide among family and charities? Erect libraries with your name? Perhaps the time is now to let the children or neighbors enjoy the trees. Perhaps now is time to share a bit more. Maybe now is time to increase wages for those who work for you (like the great Carnegie could have done that – Carnegie could have paid his workers more when they needed it and then later on Carnegie could have built one less library).
Sure, some fences are needed, and tall ones offer some enjoyable privacy; however, sometimes we need a longer table and we need to make room for each other.
Make room to share and be generous – for “a generous person will receive much generosity” and generous people attain a different type of greatness. A greatness that can lead to some beautiful outcomes.