ALAMOSA — Adams State University Professor of English and Mayor of Antonito Aaron Abeyta is one of three recipients of the 2017 Governor's Creative Leadership Awards, to be presented by Colorado Creative Industries (CCI) at a May 5 awards luncheon in Breckenridge.
"This award seeks out those that are providing selfless service within the creative sector in Colorado, and inspires others by honoring their process and celebrating achievements," said CCI director Margaret Hunt. Maryo Gard Ewell of Gunnison and Damon McLeese of Denver will also be honored. Winners will receive an original work of art created by Breckenridge artist Martin Deegan.
The Creative Leadership Award recognizes Abeyta’s “leadership and commitment to improving Antonito and the San Luis Valley through written word, public service, and community involvement.”
Those efforts are one and the same for Abeyta, who said, “We make each place our own by the things we return to it.”
As mayor, he’s working to upgrade Antonito’s infrastructure. As a board member of Conejos Clean Water, he opposed rail transport of nuclear waste through the San Luis Valley.
Abeyta’s creative work is also award winning. His first book of poetry, colcha, won the 2002 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, as well as the 2001 Colorado Book Award for Poetry. The title poem won him the 1998 Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship for Poetry. He next published the poetry collection As Orion Falls and the novel Rise, Do Not Be Afraid, which was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. Letters from the Headwaters is just that – poems in letter form that reflect on the place he calls home. His work is also featured in Tzimtzum, 5 Contemporary Poets Lend Us Their Hearts.
The bulk of Abeyta’s stories, poetry, and essays draw upon places and memories rooted in the San Luis Valley. “Each place carries a human memory with it,” he said. Those places and memories stretch back to the mid-1840s, when Abeyta’s forebears settled with their herds of sheep in the southern San Luis Valley, then part of New Mexico Territory. His family’s presence there spans nine generations on his mother’s side, eight on his dad’s.
“I’m from here,” he said. “It’s my heart home.”
The Valley’s expansive landscape and sometimes harsh environment are as central to Abeyta’s work as the human characters whose lives and deaths he illumines with details of work, love, and faith. Woven through his poetry and prose are Spanish phrases, Hispanic customs, ranching lore, and Catholic traditions. He conjures beauty even when speaking of loss.
In “story,” Abeyta writes, “Human emotion is the second most true thing on earth; besides family it is the only thing we can always identify. Emotion is our memory . . . a poem without family or emotion is, to me, nothing more than letters upon letters, the sound of hoofbeats without ever having seen a horse.”
Abeyta evokes both family and emotion in the poem from colcha, “the mountains are named after blood,” about his paternal great-grandfather.
the repetition of his name haunts me
like the clear day
when i found his adobe house
crumbling in the shade of a cottonwood...
“I don’t consider myself the author, but the conduit to tell other people’s stories,” he said. That’s the rationale behind his penchant for lowercase type in his poetry and signature: aaron a. abeyta. “These are lives no one would write about, for people no one considered worthy. These are my own people.” – People like Serafin, who is also the subject of Abeyta’s latest work, a novel he hopes to complete this summer. The book grew out of his essay “Wilderness in Four Parts or Why We Cannot Mention My Great-Grandfather’s Name.” In that piece, he writes:
“My great-grandfather was named Serafin; it was also my abuelito’s middle name. My great-grandfather’s name was not a sin, but it was treated as such. . . I know this. He abandoned his family, an abandonment so complete that my grandfather chose erasure, an absolute and collective deletion of his father, as his vengeance.”
During his sabbatical last fall, Abeyta uncovered conflicting versions of the man’s life that he worked to reconcile, sifting through both family recollections and archival records. “It became very complex. I had to connect a lot of dots.”
When he first learned about Serafin, who died four months before Abeyta’s birth, the story was that he had an affair with his boss’ wife; in retaliation, the boss framed him for embezzlement. Abeyta later discovered Serafin did spend time in prison, but had previously been a teacher in Trinidad. Abeyta heard another story that had become legend on the other side of his family:
“I never saw Dempsey fight Tunney or Willard, but I saw him fight your great-grandpa. Jack walked across that platform like a storm and Serafin just stood there, his body caked with the dirt of other men’s fields, his hands balled up and at his waist, like he was too tired to lift them, and I will never forget the way Jack shook his head after your great-grandpa hit him the first time, like maybe he knew he had really been hit and maybe it wasn’t going to be so easy.” (“Wilderness in Four Parts”)
As he absorbed new information, Abeyta restarted the novel twice, first changing the narrator from first person to third person, then finally combining both points of view. That creative process demonstrates, “You never know what you’re going to write until it writes itself.”
As a professor, Abeyta feels education is a form of liberation. “My goal is for students to be able to recognize the trials and obstacles they face. My approach is, let’s study the oppressive forces, where they come from. That way you’re aware of your enemy and might be able to overcome.” In that regard, Abeyta leads by example.
Colorado Creative Industries, Colorado's state arts agency, is a division of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. Established to capitalize on the immense potential for our creative sector to enhance economic growth in Colorado, the mission of Colorado Creative Industries is to promote, support and expand the creative industries to drive Colorado's economy, grow jobs and enhance our quality of life.