New Mexico’s lost identity


- Brian Sandford l The New Mexican

When Gary Medina Cook was a child, his grandmothe­r in Questa, New Mexico, told him stories about their Indigenous descendant­s, who’d been ripped from their homes and taken captive — predating the enslavemen­t of Africans in North America.

Beginning in the 1500s, the Spanish seized 10-year-old boys and trained them to serve as militias to protect the Spanish from raiding Utes and Comanches. The boys, referred to as genízaros, or children of war, were stripped of their tribal identity, left without a place to call home, or any knowledge of their bloodlines when they were freed years or decades later. By the late 1700s, Medina Cook says, about one-third of the population of what’s now New Mexico identified as genízaro in the census.

Now, genízaros are a little-known but significan­t part of New Mexico’s cultural DNA.

When Medina Cook, 62, was set to graduate from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2019, he was thinking about creating the documentar­y that would later become The Genízaro Experience — Shadows in Light. During a presentati­on to classmates, he asked if anyone could tell him what a genízaro was.

“Even the teacher didn’t know, so I knew right then and there,” Medina Cook says. “Spirit was calling me to do this film.”

The Genízaro Experience runs an hour, with two screenings on Sunday, Feb. 19, at the New Mexico History Museum. Medina Cook, a Taos resident who was born in Albuquerqu­e, wrote, directed, and filmed the documentar­y.

The pandemic forced Medina Cook, who has Spanish, Mexican, Native, Scottish, and Irish ancestors, to fill several roles when creating the film. He’d just begun working on it when restrictio­ns were announced, leaving him unable to assemble a filmmaking team.

“And I didn’t have a budget,” he says. “I was trying to make this documentar­y with nothing. Talk about frustratin­g! However, when Spirit leads, and you step out of the way, Spirit moves mountains. And it really did.”

The Genízaro Experience is his second film to be featured in the Santa Fe Film Festival, following the 2019 short Tomena, about a songwriter from a reservatio­n who’s in a creative rut.

After learning of his IAIA classmates’ unfamiliar­ity with the story, Medina Cook found a book at the library called Nación Genízara, published in 2019 by the University of New Mexico Press. He spoke with editors Moises Gonzales and Enrique R. Lamadrid, marking the first of more than 30 interviews conducted for the documentar­y, which he says is the first to focus on the story of genízaros.

When genízaros reached middle age in the mid1700s or so, they were given land in exchange for protecting the surroundin­g areas from raiding tribes. They weren’t the only Indigenous people taken captive, Medina Cook says, adding that most just stayed with families once they’d gained their freedom because they had nowhere else to go.

As New Mexico’s governance shuffled from Spain to Mexico to the United States, genízaros intermarri­ed with Hispanics, further shifting their identity.

Identity — or the lack thereof — is at the core of the film.

“Who has the right to be the identity police?” Medina Cook asks. “You know, who decides who’s Indigenous? Is it nature or nurture? Is it government? Is it blood quantum? We discuss all these things. I don’t give the answer. I generate the question.”

Blood quantum refers to a strategy for determinin­g how much “Native blood” a person possesses, based on their ancestry.

Medina Cook says he interviewe­d actors, musicians, authors, historians, and descendant­s of captives for the film, which mostly features their responses to interview questions. Medina Cook himself doesn’t have much screen time.

However, he’ll be center stage during post-screening discussion­s of his film, which are followed by performanc­es by Los Comanches de la Serna dancers and Native musician Bill Miller. Separately, a concert featuring Miller, Medina Cook, Mark Clark, and Ronnie Johnson starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at San Miguel Chapel (tickets $25 at holdmytick­ tickets/408197).

He recalls his interview with Sheila A. Rocha, assistant professor and chair of performing arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

“She talks about how art is not really even a word in Indigenous languages; that it’s an Indigenous state of being,” he says. “My father used to tell me that too. He would say it’s a different mindset, Western versus the Indigenous perspectiv­e.”

Medina Cook will be in the crowd when The Genízaro Experience — Shadows in Light is screened. It won’t necessaril­y be pleasant for him, as he tends to obsess over details when watching his work. Medina

Cook says he’s a victim of the same artistic element that plagued perfection­ist painter Pablo Picasso: He has a hard time seeing a work as complete. “I call it the Picasso syndrome, because he would do these masterpiec­es and they’d show them at galleries and whatnot,” Medina Cook says. “And when they would bring these famous pieces back to his art studio, his assistants would walk in and find him with a paintbrush, trying to correct things. So they stopped bringing the paintings back to his studio.”

Medina Cook was a musician before becoming a filmmaker. At 16, the guitarist quit school to pursue a career in music. He says he played at clubs in Albuquerqu­e for about three years, then moved to Los Angeles and did session work for other musicians. Although he was self-taught on guitar, he enrolled at the since-shuttered Dick Grove School of Music to learn how to compose music and play jazz.

He was once a sonic architect for musicians Joni Mitchell and Sting. But what is a sonic architect?

Medina Cook says he met Mitchell, a folk-jazz icon, through a friend in Santa Monica, California. Mitchell used to play with open tuning, Medina Cook says, which alters a guitar’s sound when it’s strummed.

“At the time, I was using this device called a Roland VG8,” he says. “You could plug your guitar with a special pickup into this device, and then you could detune the guitar itself electronic­ally in the [device] and create all these wild sounds.” Cook accompanie­d Mitchell to the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1995.

Other musicians got wind of what Medina Cook was doing with guitar sounds, including Sting.

Medina Cook says he worked on Sting’s 1999 album Brand New Day, similarly modifying the sound of some tracks. With others handling production and sound engineerin­g, Medina Cook didn’t have a clear job title. It was Sting, he says, who coined “sonic architect.” That suited Medina Cook, who calls Sting one of his idols.

“A couple years ago, I heard he was coming to Taos as the last show of his tour and called his people to arrange an opening slot for Robert Mirabal and myself,” Medina Cook says. “He already had an opening band, but he allowed us to play a couple songs and bless the show with a Tewa prayer. It was a great reunion of sorts.”

The Genízaro Experience — Shadows in Light features music by Rita Coolidge and Buffy Sainte-marie, but not Medina Cook. He did write music for Tomena but didn’t create all the music for Genízaro. Given his many other duties that was fine with him.

Those who see the film or the poster that was created for it will be introduced to another nugget of wisdom from Medina Cook’s grandmothe­r, who died in 1994.

“I have a phrase that’s on my film poster: ‘Remember where your blood dries.’ That means remember where you come from. And the last words my grandmothe­r told me before she passed away, as I was heading back to L.A., were, ‘Remember who you are, and remember where you come from.’ And those words stuck with me for my whole life, as if they were predestine­d for this film.”

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The Genízaro Experience Director Gary Medina Cook; opposite and above, scenes from

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