arnoldo garcía

Becoming Buddha | Vallecitos Mountain Refuge retreat (July 1993)


Miracles are hard work: because breathing, because calmness, because conscientiousness is required. That is how Vallecitos appeared in Oakland, where I lived.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a letter arrived at our offices in Oakland offering a scholarship to one of us at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to participate in the first-ever group to go on a fifteen-day retreat at the newly opened Vallecitos mountain-top meditation center. This was an invitation to take a break from the maelstrom and a chance to regroup individually, take stock of the soul and the body, in New Mexico.

At the time, I was broke because I was working for justice. My mother had been beaten up by her husband and I had gone to see her out of state and I came back a worse mess. I could barely pay my rent and had no money for anything else. I was working hard just to support my family and not become homeless and unemployed as a community organizer. This is the norm and the daily stress of the communities I have lived and organized in. And I do not complain. I was in a hard place, so why did I accept this invitation instead of looking for more work? My problems and stress would hardly disappear or change in fifteen days; so I accepted the invitation. Vallecitos represented a small opportunity to step back and see what changes I could make. The invitation represented a firm reminder to be whole and not keep my true self spiritually, physically, materially divided.

Because I was not a Buddhist, I did not read the fine print of the invitation. I read the invitation writ large as a space to recompose my self. Vallecitos would be a change of scene to get re-grounded and reenergized to go back into the storm and continue trying to change the world. Vallecitos sounded like an ideal place to rest with like-minded and stressed out individuals. The fine print said that participants would be expected to spend lots of time in a silent meditation. This turned out to be both a blessing and new courage for the spirit that is used to the noise and hiss of urban communities overrun with cars, bad air and toxic relationships that are the flower of exploitation. In the end, the maelstrom would come with me to Vallecitos in a good way. The maelstrom would be there, albeit in a different form but still present.

Vallecitos was a turning point in my spiritual centering. I came to Vallecitos with my own experiences of meditation and consciousness of states of being – where body, mind, hunger, dreams, community, family, organization, love, justice, freedom, faith, self-determination, are interconnected or fighting each other. Vallecitos was fresh air, open space, access to the Milky Way and myriad constellations, wildlife, a history of colonization, a homestead turned into a center for meditation, and a space to awaken dormant dreams with mindfulness.

I took a plane to Albuquerque where a van was waiting for me and maybe a dozen others who had also been invited to Vallecitos. The drive from Albuquerque to Vallecitos itself was exhilarating. After more than a dozen miles, we in the van started talking, breaking ice sitting side by side and infront/behind each other. The driver, a Chicano, kept pointing out the horizon, talking animatedly naming mountains, telling stories and introducing us to communities as we drove past or towards them. The changes and opportunities Vallecitos represented would start with the drive to Vallecitos. We went from the big city airport winding our way into a rural and then a mountain area meant we would have to reorder, a reconnect our senses.

Vallecitos became a challenge to build a mini-community on the spot whose only purpose was to meditate and take in the space. I remember taking many walks and hikes to the nearby pond, river and forest. I remember walking and walking alone on a nearby ridge and then coming back to eat lunch and then go back into the surrounding hills and forests to continue walking and breathing. And you did not have to go far to go far. The main house was beautiful: a huge fireplace, high ceiling, a stillness that was occasionally broken by the zinging wings of hummingbirds, a cough or quiet voices and the clanging of the triangle calling us to meals. I was visited by hummingbirds over and over, which would buzz up and hover right on front of my face and then blast away, a feathered bullet and premonition.

When I wasn’t walking, I was writing. I carried with me a notebook everywhere that I went in the cabins, in the huge cathedral-like living room, on the kitchen and dining room tables. I filled and filled the pages with words, dreams, conversations, poems, drawings that emerged from the small experiences of being at Vallecitos.

One day I was invited by Linda Verlarde, the co-director of Vallecitos, to go riding on horses with her. I called Linda my “curandera” because she helped me understand some of experiences, my own healing powers and refocused my experiences and energy to understand them and be responsible for them in a new way. Here’s what I wrote in 1993:

A tree falls in the forest: her roots have been decomposing, disease has eaten away at the trunk, making her branches brittle, rupturing veins that carry the blood-life from the soil to the leaves to our lungs. She starts shedding bark, flesh to the clawing of ants and termites. She wilts leaf by leaf that stop holding the perfect pitch of green, browning before autumn beckons, exposing the end.

My curandera, who closes here eyes to dream medicine in the folds of Vallecitos (a homestead lost in the mountains of New Mexico), showed me how a tree lives a long life even in death. She brought out two horses, already saddled. She got on top of one, the queer mare, and I on the other. She rode first besides us, laughing at my bouncing greenhorn way of sitting, dodging branches and brush.

Later, we would stop as a herd of deer, maybe as many as fifty, emerged out of the dark edge of the forest. She said that this had never happened before, avoiding sighting. She told me that many forest animals, including deer and hummingbirds, had been visiting our tents during the night. These animals left messages around the tent: hoof and paw prints, droppings, scrapings on the ground.

We rode on. Her voice rising under the cool fronds of pines, as aspens across the meadow were rattling in the wind. She gestured with her hands, the mare stopped: the tree germinates, swells, breaks ground, shoots into the sky with the geology of speed.

The curandera, my healer, pointed out fallen pines here and there, trunks molting, opened, exposed, her red bark going from hardened to dusty merger with the soil. If you leave the fallen trees alone, she said, they will take the same number of years decomposing on the ground as they spent sprouting, growing, reaching into the sky. A fifty-year old tree will take fifty years to become indistinguishable shadow, disappearing in soil.

At Vallecitos, the contradictions of our country were plainly present. During the first or second day, several of us learned that only one person was going to be working the whole time we were going to be there, the cook. We made a proposal that if everyone of us in small teams prepared on meal a day, the cook would have at least a couple of hours free or to prepare the other two meals. Everyone accepted and three of us said we would make breakfast the next morning. This was a quick turning point that brought up how spirituality and community are practiced by people of color.

That morning, we woke up a little bit earlier than usual and started cooking a Mexican-style breakfast. We made hot chocolate, coffee, tasty tortillas, beans, eggs. More than a few opf the members of the retreat were in the kitchen as we cooked. We were talking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company and eating. As breakfast started winding down, Linda and I were washing the dishes and the co-director and other retreat participants had eaten away from the kitchen. The co-director passed by with a very serious look in his face; he and the others had avoided us, too. I had noticed that before but I didn’t think much of it. Then Linda, with her hands in the suds, said to me, “Uh oh, we’re in trouble.” I replied surprised, “For what?” She said that we had violated a condition of the retreat that breakfast and mornings were to be held in silence. Word was passed about that we were going to have an emergency meeting.

We all went into the cathedral-like living room and sat on the floor atop pillows, some wrapped themselves in blankets. The other co-director started a discussion, chiding us, really scolding us, for what I thought was really a minor transgression of sorts. I felt that this was a rigid view of silence, meditation and human practices of spirituality. This was a great opening to reflect and led to later exchanges on different practices and experiences of spirituality and meditations. That there was different ways of connecting with the interiority of one’s life, one’s breathing and that, yes, pigment, race, color, class, impacted and shaped our belief systems. Buddhists tended to be white; whites tended to dominate the spaces, even at Vallecitos, of what alternatives there were to institutionalized religious beliefs and practices. I was not a Buddhist, I still am not one and I have learned and continue learning a lot from Buddhists and other non-Indigenous practices, non-Indigenous to this part of the world.

What connects all spiritual practices, in a word, is our breathing. The gateway to life, to dreams, to struggles for deep justice and deep community begin with how we breathe together. I was very grateful for what happened in Vallecitos; the stay there reinforced my work as a deep justice revolutionary and poet. Vallecitos provided the space to highlight or at elast acknowledge the interconnectivity of our lives, our yearning to be free – free of stress and patient, open to tranquility and conflicts to change the world.

In the end, Vallecitos represents a place to learn to breath deeply, individually and in community. Vallecitos is a space that we need everywhere we struggle for justice and plain old family and community. Vallecitos has been with me for over two decades and is still fresh in my life; I remember Vallecitos every time I breathe and remember to breathe deliberately. Vallecitos is the place where I would like to return, to renew and refresh my human-ness. Below is a poem I wrote during my stay:

Improvisations Meditations

{for the Vallecitos Mountain Refuge}

I breathe in rain

I breathe out green

I breathe in steps

I breathe out journeys

I breathe in wind

I breathe out sky

I breathe in laughter 

I breathe out happiness

I breathe in chaotic talking

I breathe out community

I breathe in her 

I breathe out poetry

I breathe in daughters and sons

I breathe out hope

I breathe in forests

I breathe out shadows

I breathe in canyons

I breathe out wings

I breathe in rivers

I breathe out oceans

I breathe in words

I breathe out mountains

I breathe in sage

I breathe out clarity

I breathe in dust

I breathe out the bones of my people

I breathe in oppression

I breathe out liberation

I breathe in fire

I breathe out clouds

I breathe in a bird crashed on the window

I breathe out glass with wings

I breathe in ink 

I breathe out veins

I breathe in foreigners

I breathe out families and friends

I breathe in cinema

I breathe out reality

I breathe in displacement

I breathe out homeland

I breathe in evictions

I breathe out convictions

I breathe in dot.coms

I breathe out mestizos

I breathe in gentrification

I breathe out the Ghost Dance the buffalo

I breathe in the Mission

I breathe out


I breathe in Bayview Hunters Point

I breathe out the Ohlone accompanying Olin Webb

I breathe in Flatlands

I breathe out the future

I breathe in Israel

I breathe out Palestine

I breathe in indifference

I breathe out solidarity

I breathe in Che Guevara

I breathe out Crazy Horse

I breathe in the Migra

I breathe out no borders

I breathe in the saxophone

I breathe out nature

I breathe in the upright bass

I breathe out migrant fields

I breathe in drums

I breathe out Wounded Knee hearts

I breathe in jazz

I breathe out cúmbias

I breathe in street-vendors

I breathe out ski-masks

I breathe in crumbling schools

I breathe out day laborers


I breathe in Buddha

I breathe out Mexican

[July 1993–October 2014]

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