Tierra Amarilla, N.M. –
Three Ravens is the coffee shop that drums built. In the economically depressed and deeply traditional northern New Mexican village of Tierra Amarilla, Korean-born drum-maker Paul Namkung is restoring a 125-year-old, 4,000-square-foot, two-story adobe building. He's also restoring a sense of community pride – one latte at a time.
Rio Arriba County and its county seat of Tierra Amarilla, or “yellow earth,” remains remote just as it was 300 years ago when Hispanic settlers known as “Los Pobladores” dared to venture north of the Spanish settlements to farm and herd on the ragged edge of the Spanish empire. One governor for the territory decried, “New Mexico – so close to God, so far from heaven.”
With the establishment of national forests in 1905, thousands of acres that had been communally grazed became federal land in the Carson National Forest. Families had little recourse, so they struggled along as best they could and did not take kindly to Anglo outsiders known as “land grant thieves” who seemed interested in the area's natural resources of timber and grass but not the well-being of area families.
Decades of resentment boiled up in 1967 when Reyes Lopez Tijerina and his followers in the Alianza Federal de Mercedes, or Federal Alliance of Lands Grants, took over the Rio Arriba courthouse firing bullets and exploding bombs. New Mexico's lieutenant governor called in the National Guard with helicopters, tanks and airplanes, and the rebellion quickly ended, but not the bitterness.
Tierra Amarilla continued to decline. In the 1990s, when Paul Namkung found the massive old adobe mercantile store built in 1885 by Jose Martinez, the county had condemned it.
“I assured them my intention was to renovate it,” Namkung said, but no one believed him.
“This building was an abandoned wreck that had not been used in 20 or 30 years, but I'm an artist, and despite the dust and debris I could visualize the finished restoration. I knew it could be cleaned up and made usable again,” he said.
Perhaps he could restore the building, but could he live in the small village?
“I was warned not to go,” Namkung said. “The area did not welcome outsiders. I'd heard that newcomers' fences had been torn down and barns burned.”
But Namkung knows a lot about adversity and human displacement. Born in Korea in 1939, as World War II broke out, his family went to Shanghai, back to Korea and then on to Hong Kong to flee Chinese communists. In Tokyo, he received a Western-style education. For years he directed nonprofit organizations in California. When he retired, he had limited funds, so he began building drums.
On a trip to New Mexico, he saw the crumbling L-shaped store.
“The building first attracted me. I love that it's at 8,000 feet in elevation. I love the coolness, the mountains and the lakes,” he said. “Having been a social worker and a community organizer, I don't want to change things. I wanted to become a part of this small community.”
A decade ago driving south, I had seen Namkung's building and also marveled at it. He was just beginning the restoration. I watched artisan Jim Giesen repairing a place in the long adobe wall frequently hit by cars whose drivers fail to negotiate a tight corner. I'd heard that the building's owner was a famous drum-maker, but I had no idea Namkung's drums had been purchased by Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, rock band Santana, Bela Fleck and more than 600 professional drummers.
The store's expensive and lengthy restoration all has been paid for by drum sales, including handheld rawhide drums, ceremonial drums made from tree trunks, drums made from wine barrels and casks, and a solid wood Cajon drum – a rectangular box with a sound hole, played while sitting on it. Namkung also makes the huge traditional Japanese-style drums that are shoulder high.
At 71, he said, “I still marvel that I can make something with my hands that people want to give me money for.”
Slowly, cautiously, the 400 people in Tierra Amarilla began to take notice. Namkung had to travel nationally to sell his drums, so he wasn't home all the time, but residents began to see progress on the building with its 2-foot-thick walls and 11-foot-high ceilings.
He replaced all 28 odd-sized windows with matching custom windows, and the restoration work is meticulous. Consulting with the New Mexico state historian, Namkung worked on the adobe walls and porches and dealt with an old drainage problem that almost caused one wing of the building to collapse. Early on, he had neither heat nor plumbing and had to use the toilet down the block in the courthouse that Tijerina had held hostage. Namkung became a community member the old way – by dedication, perseverance and hard work.
He's learned stories about his building that once housed a post office, bar, publishing company, Catholic school and doubled as a rooming house. In one wall, he found an IOU from 1937 for a pair of overalls. The worker promised to pay in full after lambing season.
An elderly woman came up to Namkung, poked her bony finger in his face and said, “Young man, I've been watching you for 10 years, and thank you for saving our culture. This building is our culture.”
Namkung knows he's finally arrived because recently, four families invited him to high school graduation parties.
In July 2009, he opened the coffee house in a fourth of the mercantile's main floor. Why attempt such a venture in a tiny community?
“What I wanted to do was create a place for the locals, not for tourists. If you cater to the locals, you'll survive, and then tourists can come or not,” Namkung said.
For 150 years, Gabriel Abeyta's family has lived in Rio Arriba County. At 86, Abeyta says of Three Ravens, “I love the coffee shop, and I take as many people as I can there to introduce them to it. I'm hoping it will be the beginning of a new beginning for Tierra Amarilla.”
Namkung has listened to stories about Tierra Amarilla's bustling years and the importance of dancing as a social event for Hispanic families. So he just finished building an outdoor wooden dance floor. With a live band performing on the well-worn wooden porch, soon dances will begin in his courtyard flush with Rocky Mountain penstemons, purple and yellow flax and native grasses.
Namkung has fostered community pride. In a tight-knit, traditional world, he's the outsider who drummed his way into the hearts of local families. They now bring their cousins to buy his specialty coffees, teas and smoothies.
Three metal ravens adorn the roof over the front door.
“I've always loved ravens,” Namkung said. “Just like me, they have a good sense of humor, and they're smart-ass birds.”
Just like ravens, Namkung has learned to watch and listen. Carefully, quietly, he's brought a new sense of place back to a historic village.
[email protected] Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College.