Larry Torres is usually standing outside in the early morning, waiting for sunrays still pale with twilight to teeter over the craggy cliffs of El Salto Mountain in Arroyo Seco. It is there, on his balcony standing humbly before the mountain he knows as the earthly dwelling place of God, that Torres likes to ponder his place in the universe.
In the course of his life, Torres has become an esteemed storyteller and keeper of local culture, history and ways of healing. Torres is a prolific writer, quirky thinker, world traveler and deacon in the Roman Catholic Church, though he’s long held the untitled role of spiritual leader in the folk traditions of Northern New Mexico.
But among all of his roles in the Taos community, Torres has cemented his place as a one-of-a-kind educator, teaching thousands of young people in Taos over a four-decade career.
It is for these reasons Torres has been selected as one of the 2017 “unsung heroes.”
Torres, who lives on his family’s ancestral property in Arroyo Seco, was born in 1954, the second oldest of eight children. In his early years, Torres — the linguist — was unfailingly quiet.
“I didn’t speak at all for the first few years of my life. I was teased unmercifully,” he said.
It was through many teachers that Torres came to understand the depth, magic and solace of words and sounds. Greek, Latin and Hebrew, French and Italian were among the languages Torres could spit out by the time he graduated from Taos High School in 1972.
It was an exciting time to grow up in Taos, to say the least. Taos was an epicenter of the counterculture, backto- the-land movement and Northern New Mexico was in a period of rapid flux. “The fact that I survived Taos in the ‘60s is a miracle,” he said.
But he survived and went on to keep learning languages.
Torres attended New Mexico State University before enrolling in Leningrad University in the former Soviet Union, where he picked up Russian, a language he still teaches.
“One of the reasons I became a linguist,” Torres said, “is to show people how to get over their impediments.”
Torres eventually moved back to his family’s land in Arroyo Seco not far from the base of El Salto Mountain, a landscape intimately tied into Torres’ personal mythology, family and community history, fable, shared knowledge, holy rites, meditation and prayer.
“I always knew where I was going to live out my life. In fact, I know where my bones will lie when I am gone. There’s something comforting in that. I am centered here. This is where I belong.”
What’s an education?
For more than four decades, Torres has been a teacher across New Mexico. He’s held his current post, as a languages professor at the University of New Mexico-Taos (UNM-Taos), for 15 years. Before that, Torres taught high school both in Las Cruces and here in Taos.
Roberta Vigil, a top manager at UNMTaos’ Department of Instruction who has worked with Torres since he started at the community college, said that Torres is anything but a typical teacher.
“He’s carved out his place in many, many different disciplines. He has a love for the community and a passion to contribute his knowledge. What he has is the understanding of the community – it’s through what he lived. And our students live this every day,” she said.
As Torres tells his students, “You are the textbook.”
“I’d rather know about you, about all your sorrows and triumphs because these are more of an education” than anything a book, film or teacher can teach, he said.
National organizations and associations have bestowed numerous teaching awards on Torres throughout the years because he radiates learning, not merely as a profession, but as a calling.
“I’ve never had a bad teaching day. No, I lie. I had one bad teaching day. And on that day, there was a girl who came up to me and she said, ‘Hey, mister, why are you in such a bad mood? Don’t you know the only reason we like to come to your class is it’s the only place in the world no one’s going to judge us?’
“That’s when I said to myself, ‘Watch yourself before you go into the classroom because they’re noticing your attitude,’” Torres said.
“And I’m watching theirs, too. Students are real human beings with real needs. If the lesson plan we had for that day doesn’t work, too bad. We take care of the child first and teach them to take care of each other,” Torres said.
‘Their place here also’
Twelve stark-white faces push themselves from the wall of the “Great Salon,” what you could call the living room, of Larry Torres’ house, a towering adobe building that’s more museum than home. Nearly every surface is painted in free-hand renditions of saints, local legends, attempts to answer philosophical questions and, on the eastern wall, a family tree branching back to the expedition of Christopher Columbus.
There’s also the faces that Torres calls “life masks.” Made with plaster in the style of London’s Madame Marie Tussaud, it started as a way to get kids excited for their high school French history class. Torres has cast more than 1,000 masks – mostly of his students – though he no longer makes them. It only takes seven minutes to cast a mask, yet they project life through time and, in some ways, push themselves through the veil of death.
As happens across the decades, Torres has seen students and former students die. Parents come up to Torres and say, “I lost my son or my daughter, but I can still touch their face and remember,” he said.
John Worth McAlister Griffin, the man whose once-young face became the first mask Torres ever made, died last year of cancer, leaving behind a wife and three kids.
The masks that are now affixed to a wall in his home – though they seem to emerge from the adobe bricks like faces craning themselves into your dreams – are those of his family. Two of them, a brother and sister, have died.
“You can have photographs, but there is something very peaceful in being able to run your fingers over the faces of the people who are gone,” he said.
If you know where to look, you’ll find images of death in every room of the house. They’re obvious in the kitchen, less so in the other rooms, but the little reminders – of numbered days, the preciousness of life and the immediacy of death – are there nonetheless.
Paintings and symbols of death and nightmares, Torres said, “are there to remind me to do all the good I can today because I may not be here tomorrow to do it.” Or, “It reminds me not every day will be rainbows and sunshine. Some days will be crap no matter what.” Or, it reminds him to “take it even deeper, even deeper into a different reality.”
And like facing death, dealing with the hard parts of life are nothing if not opportunities to do it better.
“Sometimes, we get rid of weeds because we think they’re just weeds. But they’re not,” he said.
“I’ve learned from the folk healers that anything considered evil or bad can be made good, depending on how you use it. All you have to do is discover the hidden qualities, even the ones you don’t understand, the ones you don’t like, the ones you hate, the ones that are distasteful. And you’ll find out that, yes, they have their place here also.”
Following the quest
Aside from being a teacher, Torres became an ordained deacon of the Roman Catholic Church in 2014. He can marry, bury and baptize people. And every Sunday, he gives homilies at the Holy Trinity Parish in Arroyo Seco.
Torres spent decades painting as his own personal therapy, to move on, to “spit out the toads of my past.”
He said, “I’m doing the same thing, but now I use my words.”
Torres said, “I feel so honored when people come to tell me they heard something I was saying … that now they can move past it, the things we need to get over, that we’re not proud of. Once you draw the boogeyman, he no longer has dominion over you.”
Finding healing and helping other people find theirs are seemingly journeys without end.
There is a string of Latin painted below a Moorish-inspired window that means, more or less, “blessed is the person who understands why they are born.”
“This is so important, to ask yourself why you are born. At morning or at night, ask yourself, ‘What is my calling?’ Knowing the answer to that question isn’t a riddle to be solved. It’s a quest,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter if you unravel the impossible dream … but did you follow the quest?”