Spirit Animal

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

The sun is just beginning its evening melt across the horizon. The sky turns lavender; the sorghum fields glow crimson. A maguey undulates its aquamarine leaves like a desert octopus. Somewhere along Chapman Ranch Road, not far from Bishop, Texas, my friend Greg pulls over. “I want to show you something,” he says.

The land before us is overgrown with weeds as high as our knees. We wade toward a cinderblock house abandoned long ago. Spiderwebs mend the shot-out windows. Braids of vine slither up one wall; black and green mold creeps down another. Despite the house’s run-down condition, Greg grins and points out a paint-splattered pattern in the mold. Just like that, what was previously an eyesore becomes art. We circle around the house, marveling at the plant life burgeoning from the rooftop and the wooden door, distressed just so.

Out back is an old warehouse, equal parts rust and tin. We slip in through a door cracked open. Inside is an arsenal of tractor tires. Some are as tall as I am. Greg emits a low whistle, then throws a rock at a tire suspended from the rafters above. Suddenly, there is movement—a chaos of buff and white. Owls! Two—no, three. Five. Eight! The kind that look like they’re wearing opera masks, swiftly exiting their balcony nests. Soundlessly, they circle above our heads. Their wingspan is immense, upward of three feet in length. They render the rafters almost invisible. For a thrilling moment, I see only black eyes and white feathers. Then they swoop out the door behind us.

My paternal grandmother collected owls. Every summer, when Dad and I drove to Kansas for a visit, I would rush to her bedroom to admire her latest acquisitions. Conditioned, perhaps, by years of Winnie the Pooh cartoons, I thought her porcelain figurines signified a fine intelligence. Once I learned to put pencil to paper, we started a written correspondence that lasted until her death my senior year in high school. After the funeral, when Mom, Aunt Jolene, and I sorted through her jewelry boxes, the piece I claimed was a silver owl with green glass eyes that dangled from a chain. It hangs now above my writing desk, a tribute to the woman who first encouraged my efforts there. 

The sight of owls swirling overhead, then, engulfs me in her reassuring presence—something I haven’t felt in years.

A few nights later, Greg and I visit the Kingsville ranch of the legendary painter Santa Barraza. Decking the walls are the life-sized portraits of the icons of South Texas: La Virgen de Guadalupe pulsing a blue-veined heart inside her chest; La Malinche in a field of maguey with a fetus curled at her breast; La Llorona rising from a pool of water; the pop star Selena emerging from a house. Each woman shimmers beneath a spotlight in an explosion of red, yellow, purple, and blue, a monument to heritage and to dignity. In high school, I bought postcards of Santa’s work at an art museum and have hung them on the walls of every residence I have lived in since. Entering her studio, then, feels like stepping into a memory palace, a labyrinthine space that is both fantastical and familiar.

As we gather on her couches, I eagerly recount our avian adventure. At the first mention of owls, Santa gasps. “Lechuzas?! That’s a bad omen.” She goes on to explain how in Mexican folklore witches turn into owls in the dark of night to cast their spells more discreetly.

This is why I moved to Mexico for a year when I turned thirty. As a Tejana writer, I felt obligated to know such cultural markers as whether owls should be feared or revered. For months I roamed the countryside, talking to everyone whose path I crossed, aspiring not only to learn the language of my maternal family but also to absorb some of their mindset as well. I came to realize that internal cultureclashes are actually an intrinsic part of the Mexican experience—a legacy of blending colonial and indigenous bloods (or, in my case, Pennsylvania Dutch and Tejano). Now that I have followed the gravitational pull home to South Texas, after a decade-long absence, I apparently must relearn this peculiarity of human hybridity. One grandmother’s spirit animal is almost by definition another’s demon.

This piece is excerpted from All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the US Borderlands, out now from University of North Carolina Press.


  1. Owls are often seen in synchronistic events, including UFO sightings.

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