I'm lucky enough to be in the Big
Bend region of the state for any length of time I sometimes
think I catch a flash of light out of the corner of my eye. It could
be anything: imagination, a glint off the corner of my glasses or
something else. Put me in another landscape and I might not even
notice or imagine this almost subliminal flash of light but Big
Bend is, or at least was, the land of avisadores.
Before the telephone or even the telegraph, there were the avisadores,
people who specialized in communicating vast distances by using
a mirror or other shiny object to reflect the sun and use it to
flash avisos -- messages -- to other avisadores, who passed the
word along. Essentially, this might have been the world's first
wireless communication device -- a mirror. It's something to think
about when someone says, "There's nothing new under the sun."
The Aztecs probably used the same method of long distance communication.
It's been around a long time and it's nice to think it might still
exist, thus the hopeful curiosity whenever I think I see light flashing
across those vast distances of Rio Grande country.
Well into the 20th Century at least, avisadores would flash breaking
news -- sudden misfortune, urgent need, help wanted, gossip, a verified
sighting of the Border Patrol -- to other avisadores who somehow
knew to be looking for a message, or else picked it out of thin
air. The nuts and bolts of the system has always been a mystery,
partly owing to the avisadores determined secrecy.
Photographer and writer W.D. Smithers wrote about the avisadores
in his book Chronicles of Big Bend. "Probably the most outstanding
features of the avisadores are their secrecy and their wide distribution,"
he wrote. Smithers learned as much as an outsider probably could
learn about the avisadores by living and working among them. As
that American sage, Yogi Berra, has pointed out, "You can observe
a lot just by watching."
Avisadores were sending messages for Smithers in the early 30s.
During his many forays into isolated mountains, canyons and deserts
of West Texas he often
found meals or fellow travelers or friendly locals waiting for him
when he arrived at a way-station or destination. When Smithers had
goods for sale, avisadores handled all his advertising work.
Even though the avisadores were secretive about their craft, the
avisos they sent were not privileged information. Like the Internet,
the concept behind the avisos was democratic. You only had to know
the codes to be in the know. Still, the whole business has always
retained an air of mystery to outsiders.
| "Perhaps the
most mysterious and inexplicable aspect of this aviso business is
how avisadores know when an aviso is being sent their way," Smithers
wrote. "Avisos gave no warning of their arrival, but I have seen many
avisadores look up, change directions, or drop whatever they were
doing to read them. Many times these messages were sudden warnings,
so their receipt could not have been prearranged. Some uncanny sixth
sense seemed to tell the avisadores when avisos were on the way, and
they would then turn and relay them. Even during work that required
almost constant vigil, such as irrigation, avisadores knew precisely
when they should look up to catch a message. Mental telepathy? Supersensitivity?
Whatever, this special sense rarely failed the avisadores."
The avisadores and their avisos show up, sometimes coincidentally,
in other writings about the Big
Bend area. In Patricia Wilson Clothier's memoir about growing
up on a ranch in Big Bend before it became a national park she wrote
about the difficult task of trying to sell the last of the family's
livestock after her father, Homer Wilson, died. The daunting task
was made more frustrating by the fact that they were at least a couple
of workers short of being able to get the work done in an efficient
But on the day of the livestock sale, men walked out of the hills
above the ranch, ready and able to work. If they didn't save the day,
they at least made it a little more manageable.
"One of the Mexican workers must have flashed a message to Santa Helena,
but none of the hands claimed credit," she wrote. "Avisadores didn't
talk about their message system. My three cousins just offered thanks
for the extra help and didn't worry about who sent the message or
the home base of the laborers."
Maybe knowing about all this kicks off a process where my imagination
merges with a wishful thinking. Even if the message system is still
used, the odds of my seeing an aviso flash across the Chiuhuhan Desert
or through the high passes of the Chisos Mountains would be microscopic
at best. Nobody would go broke betting against it.
But I'm still going to take note if I see or think I see a special
flash of light out there. A lot of people who are a lot smarter than
I am told me I would never see a mountain lion either. I did, but
that's another story. The lion first revealed itself to me as a flash
of light, headlights reflecting off the animal's eyes. I'm no avisadore,
but I got the message.