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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Messengers of Light

by Clay Coppedge

When 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 manner.

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.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
February 18, 2008 Column






























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