An Interview with George Mendoza
Part of the experience of making a pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó is to enter the tiny and cramped chamber of the "pocito", the little well holding the blessed soil, which is famed for the healing it has brought to so many. For years now, a poem written on a piece of wooden board and left behind by a pilgrim has adorned the little room. For the pilgrims that enter it to take some of the blessed soil, the moving poem is a welcome and a testament to the peace that a prayerful visit to the Santuario brought to one pilgrim long ago.
Those that have read the poem while visiting the Santuario may wonder what the story is behind the poem and about the life of the person who composed it. The author of the poem is George Mendoza of Las Cruces, NM. Some of you may recognize the name. Mr. Mendoza has become a renowned artist and motivational speaker whose life has been chronicled in a published biography as well as in two PBS documentary films.
In 1974, at the age of 19, he made his first visit to the Santuario. He had been struggling with the loss of his sight which he had suffered at 15 years of age. The visit also followed the tragic loss of his best friend, T.G Gibbs, who died in a traffic accident. He was on his way to visit Gibbs, when he got word that his best friend had died. It was Gibbs that suggested that Mendoza visit the Santuario, and the news of his death became the occasion for Mendoza’s decision to make the journey to Chimayó.
We spoke to George Mendoza to learn about the inspiration for the poem and the profound experience he had as a young man at the Santuario that transformed his life.
Gregory Lee [GL]: Thank you so much, Mr. Mendoza, for taking the time out to speak to us.
George Mendoza [GM]: I’m more than happy to give the interview. The Santuario is so close to my heart. I’m glad to help out.
GL: You had a very powerful experience when you first visited the Santuario. Can you describe that experience for us?
GM: Well, at the time, my best friend in the whole world, T.G. Gibbs, had died in a terrible motorcycle accident, and I was actually on my way to see him in a small town called Blanco, just outside of Bloomfield. I found out that he died in a terrible accident, and I was moved to visit the Santuario in honor of my best friend. I had been fighting it with him about going to the church. I had been in a personal struggle with the loss of my sight and what I had lost as a result of it. I was a good high school athlete; I had been a great runner before my blindness, when I was living in New York. I remember that when I arrived, I was just walking around the grounds and I had planned to camp out that night. I used to do a lot of hitchhiking back then; it was still safe in those days. I remember that I got real hungry. So, I went up to the gift shop where Ruben Sandoval worked. They had tamales and things like that. I had on a backpack and a special pair of eyeglasses so I could see. And, Ruben right away picked me out, and he asked me, "Are you hungry? Are you a pilgrim?" And, of course, I answered yes. He fed me without charging me, and asked me where I was going to stay. I said that I was going to camp out, and he said, "Oh, no, no, no…Let me set up my trailer for you." The trailer was right next to the gift shop; it's not there anymore. He said, "Give me a couple of minutes and I’ll get everything together for you." When I came back, he had made the bed, had toothpaste and food ready for me. It was amazing…it kind of breaks me up now thinking about it. He told me to stay as long as I wanted. You know, I was thinking of T.G. the whole time. I changed the course of that trip to visit the Santuario in honor of him.
GL: What had T.G told you about the Santuario before you arrived? What did you understood about it?
GM: He told me that it was a place of miracles and of legends, and that I might not get my sight back, but I might get my will back to live.
GL: The two of you at the time, when you had the conversation about the Santuario, were you both men of faith?
GM: No. Neither one of us were. I had become a born-again Christian at the age of 15, then I went blind and I completely walked away from the whole thing.
GL: You had arrived with the idea that the Santuario was a miraculous place and you then set yourself to pray, having been welcomed with lodging in the trailer. Please continue the story for us.
GM: I was in the trailer, and Ruben told me that I could stay until I got my sight back, and that really struck me because I didn’t believe I would get my sight back. I would walk to the church, stay in the church, walk the grounds. I had done a lot of praying in the church and outside, while walking around the grounds, around the river that flows in the area behind the church, looking out toward the mountains. In the middle of the week, the third or fourth day, I had made up my mind to leave. I decided to go into the church one more time to pray. All of a sudden, this bright light hit me. I was surrounded by this light. In the vision, there were people trying to touch me: people in wheelchairs, blind people. They wanted to touch me, and I told them, "I can’t help you because I can’t even help myself." Then, in my mind’s eye, I started running toward the light, and as I was running, there were hundreds of people there: people in wheelchairs, blind people, deaf people, poor people. And, I went about trying to gently touch them. All of a sudden, they started walking, they could see, they could hear, and I just kept running through the light. At the very end of the vision, I was, like, this black shadow bursting through the light, and I could see myself. My flesh tones came back. And, it was me running. The interesting thing about it was that I eventually became a world-class runner. Right after that, I joined the United States Association for Blind Athletes. I went to Canada numerous times, ran races all around the United States, went to Europe. And, I set national records in track and field. I became a subject of documentary films and books. I got to travel all around the United States giving motivational talks. And now, I am a painter, and have had my work displayed in art shows….I’ve had success doing art the last ten years.
GL: Did you compose the poem during that same stay, during that first visit to the Santuario?
GM: Yes. What happened was I came back from church, and Ruben said to me, "What happened to you?" And, I said, "I saw this light." And, I explained to him the vision. And he told me that it was a miracle. I responded, "I still don't see." But he said, "Yeah, but it's still a miracle. You don’t have to see visually; you can see spiritually." So, he told me to leave a gift of some type for the church. I had always been interested in poetry and writing. My dad was a famous children’s books writer. Everyone in my family writes. I had been writing poetry, kind of like cowboy poetry, living in New Mexico. So, I figured I would leave a poem. It was done in one writing. I didn’t have time to proofread or edit the poem because it was written on a wooden board with ink. That poem came to me in a stream of consciousness: "I am blind, traveled many miles to Chimayó, the place I love, and its peace and silence, I’ve left my gift this poem…" The poem has become famous because it has been documented in news programs, and so on. Bonnie Raitt and Pamela Pollin did a beautiful song on it. The poem followed me for years. It’s on the Santuario brochures; I’ve seen it on CBS This Morning and in Time Magazine, and also quoted and photographed here and there.
GL: How do you now understand the experience that you had? How do you understand it from the perspective of your faith, your relationship with God?
GM: I think that there are all kinds of miracles, and I think we make a big mistake looking for all kinds of physical healings. I think the fact that I was a kid going blind when I was 15, and my best friend died at 19… I mean, what else could I suffer? My mom and I had a tough life; she was a single parent. I guess you could say my life has been the typical tortured artist scenario. I’ve lived with a lot of tragedy, a lot of loss. But, I really feel that when I saw that light and felt that heat, that it motivated me. I was at rock bottom, and it was like a spiritual awakening, a rebirth. I was on fire, and I’m still on fire. I have so many things happening in my life now with my art traveling all around the world, my book is being published, the documentary film being produced…I’ve been blessed with talents, family, friends, and love. I feel like I went through so much as a kid. I was suicidal; I didn’t think I could do anything as a blind person. And yet, God blessed me with this vision.
GL: Did that experience make it so that you were able make sense of the suffering you had gone through?
GM: I think so. I think that without certain things that had unfolded…it seems like my friend had to die, almost, for me to go to that church, and maybe it was pure exhaustion, but, how do you explain my success? How did I go from suicidal to world-champion runner, painter, writer, motivational speaker? It was a test of faith, it was like putting me through the fire, I guess. You know, the gold got refined.
GL: So, you feel that God had somehow brought you to that moment to push you forward into this life-mission you have undertaken?
GM: Right. It was T.G.’s thing - go to Chimayó, don't knock Chimayó. You might not get your sight back, but you might get your will back to live.
GL: That’s interesting. I’m wondering how you understand that to be, that the Santuario de Chimayó is this particularly holy place. Why is it a place of so many miracles and so much inspiration?
GM: I think it’s the sheer beauty and energy of nature. The rivers were flowing and you had that little stream above the church, and the trees were in bloom. It was beautiful; it was magical. The quiet inside the walls, the solitude…it's a beautiful place.
GL: Do you think that, by the way the Santuario is surrounded by such natural beauty, God had somehow ordained it, that God had arranged this place to be a sacred place between the mountains and by the river?
GM: Absolutely. And, it’s reflected in my poem. "Of all the places I have been, this must be heaven," is the last line of my poem. That’s how I feel about it. As I’ve said to others, there are miracles everywhere. There were miracles happening with the children I met there, and even with the little dogs I played with that week; what Ruben Sandoval did for me, because I was about to leave. I was going to go; I might not have even gone into the church. But, I was so relaxed, and they fed me so well, and they took me fishing, hiking, and into town…I didn’t want to leave. And, well, this is where my lack of faith was, that, I just didn’t think that I was going to physically see.
GL: Describe for us how your life of faith was changed after the experience? Did you pray more? Did you start attending church? Were you more caring with the people around you?
GM: Well, there was a big change in me. I started to pray more. I did a lot of praying running in the desert for my training. I still struggle with some aspects of my faith and Christianity; I still question. But, I believe I have been blessed. I am a man of faith because of that vision. There was a tremendous change in me. People saw that I was motivated, no longer feeling sorry for myself. That was one thing that T.G. was always on my case about, that I was feeling sorry for myself. I was a kid going blind and I didn’t like it. I was into basketball, track and field, and football in school, and I came out here and I didn’t do any sports. It wasn’t until I went to the church….I literally had the vision, came home, and then, there was an invitation to run in the ‘76 Olympic Games, and I started running. It was tough. They say it’s difficult to go blind at any age. But, if you're blind at birth or go blind at a very early age, you don’t know any different. But, to be sighted for 15 years and then lose your vision, it was pretty tough. Like I said, there are still a lot of things I question, but I definitely believe in that church, and it’s been a place of healing for me. It didn’t heal me physically, but I don’t think we should look for physical healings all the time.
GL: You’ve been very active since having had your experience at the Santuario. How did you see your life as a mission afterward?
GM: I think it’s to motivate people, to teach them that…well, if you were to learn anything from my life it would come down to one word: persistence. You could have all the talent, all the education, you could be a genius, but if you’re going to reach all your dreams and overcome all of the obstacles that get in your way, you have to be persistent. I’ve done a lot of public speaking all around the country and have gotten a good reception wherever I’ve gone. I never used to talk about Chimayó; I always kept it to myself. People would ask me about it, and I couldn’t talk about it for years. It wasn’t until I began working with this new director, that we decided it was time. I was ready.
GL: How was it that you were inspired to go into painting as a blind person?
GM: Believe it or not, in the 70‘s, a priest at the Holy Cross Retreat House encouraged me. There were several artists there. I’m thinking especially about Brother Michael Wright, who I named my son after. I told him that I was having these terrible visions: these red colors, blue spots, green pinwheels, eyes looking at me. It was all messed up because of my eye condition - it’s very rare. He told me two things: make designs out of them and paint them. I never paid attention to them because I had started running. He told me to make sense of the visions and paint them. So, about ten years ago, I started painting. My mother helps me out. She’ll mix colors for me and come by and tell me, "That’s a masterpiece", or "That’s a piece of crap". [Laugh] I have a good idea of what I’m going to represent, and I can see colors. When I work, I’m right over the canvas, just a few inches away.
GL: What message would you give other pilgrims to the Santuario, especially those that are not so familiar with the shrine?
GM: I would tell them to go about it the way I did. Hopefully, they won’t be coming under the extreme circumstances that I was in. I would say don’t expect a miracle the way you think a miracle is: getting your sight back, walking out of a wheelchair, being cured of cancer, etc. But rather, they should seek to find inner peace. If you find that, if you can accept your limitations, you’ll become stronger. The fact that the place is so breathtaking, nestled in the valley, and is a place of such energy, the flow of the river and the wind rushing through the trees…. You know, we’re all pilgrims. Whether you’re at a church or in the hospital, or what have you, we’re all pilgrims. Life is this journey we face. Maybe, someone will not receive a miracle when they go there, and that’s OK. Maybe it just takes a while…
GL: How do you understand the blessed soil, how it heals or is miraculous? Do you understand it to be a sacramental sign? How do you understand it?
GM: All of those things. I like to think of what Jesus did when he took the soil and his own spittle and rubbed it on the blind man’s eyes. I can feel that energy. I don’t have to see physically. It’s an insight, an inner vision, and inner peace. That’s the way I see it. When I put it on my eyes, I feel this warmth.
GL: I presume that having been a pilgrim to the Santuario de Chimayó for so many years that you have developed a relationship with Father Roca. Do you have a special story to share with us about Father Roca?
GM: He calls me "the big man" when I come every year. He recognizes me because I’m so tall. I’ve spoken to him many times. He thanks me for writing the poem and I thank him for keeping the poem up.
I am blind, traveled many miles to Chimayó, a place I love, in its silence and peace I left this gift….a poem. If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles in life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a broken heart, follow the long mountain road, find a home in Chimayó. It’s a small Spanish town settled many years ago by people with a friendly hand. Their culture still lives today, they will tell stories about miracles in the land. Since 1813 Santuario is the key to all good, a church built as graceful as a flower swaying in the summer breeze, nested in a valley protected by wild-berry trees. In the dusty roads of Chimayó, little children with brown faces smile, majestic mountain tops rule over the virgin land. When the day is done the sun falls asleep without regret, sleeping in the twinkle of a starry, starry night. It’s that old country feeling in Chimayó I can’t forget. In all the places in the world I have been, this must be heaven….
George Mendoza Las Cruces, New Mexico