Revisiting the Milagro Beanfield War

John Ur has just begun a series at Intelligent Travel to highlight the movies that capture the essence of the 50 states. In today’s post he presents films shot in New Mexico that capture a particular essence of its landscape and people. It’s a great list. Being that I’m a movie hound, I can second his recommendations. I was just talking with a friend tonight about 3:10 to Yuma and I think it’s the best movie this year.

Ur’s recommendation of the movie The Milagro Beanfield War reminded me of the book. Sure, the movie is wonderful, but the book is splendid. When I read the The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols I was living in a Gambian village having my Peace Corps experience. I laughed so hard when I read parts of it, I could hardly stand how much I laughed. Great big guffaws. Tears running. I’m serious.The experience of the VISTA volunteer from somewhere on the east coat trying to adapt to living in a small village in Northern New Mexico was so much like my Peace Corps experience I was thrilled. I did not feel quite so stupid and out of place.

The volunteer tried so hard to not be offensive and fit in to the village culture that people around him were perplexed about certain things he did. They assumed his behavior was normal so they didn’t interfere with his comings or goings or offer suggestions. There were many miscommunications. I vaguely remember a guitar as a central force in one instance. One if his friends borrowed his guitar but didn’t bring it back. The volunteer was afraid to ask for it for fear of being offensive, but would look over at the guitar with longing from the inside of his house. This went on for days, as I recall. The friend didn’t know the volunteer wanted the guitar back since he didn’t ask.

Nicols had such a way of capturing the issues of culture and miscommunication that for weeks afterwards I recommended it to friends. I would put this on your list of novels to read that have an important message, but do so in such a sly and funny way that you’ll have good time while learning about how people can interact when the parameters aren’t clear. The part of New Mexico Nichols describes has not changed much either.

By the way, in the movie the VISTA volunteer was changed to a social worker of some sort because it was felt the audience wouldn’t know about VISTA since the program had ended well before the movie was made. VISTA was the domestic version of Peace Corps. Volunteers were generally sent to urban areas, reservations or rural towns that were impoverished in the U.S. to help create solutions. VISTA on a large scale ended with Reagan, however its been resurrected over the years and is now AmeriCorps. VISTA is part of the official name. The emphasis is similar, but it has a different structure from what I understand.