by Clay Coppedge
Messengers of Light
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
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
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.