The nine-year-old had entrusted her best thoughts to a poem copied from a Big Chief tablet into her diary.
“Bonnie Mae Buckley” read the golden letters on the diary’s leather cover.
I could not read it
because diary words
are a secret.
might laugh at me.
The Buckley ranch where Bonnie and her three brothers roamed stretched as close to Canada as a Montana ranch could. After a half century of being a Buckley place, the ranch’s ownership fell to a bank in 1937. The loss scarred the family, especially father Patrick, who found work at the oil refinery a couple of miles down the road and Mama Dorothy, a victim of severe depression.
The family crowded into a four-room house that Mama attempted to rescue from its worn, drear look with white curtains on the windows and calcimine on the walls.
The water in the well
has too much sulfur
for drinking or cooking.
We wash clothes, dishes
and ourselves in it.
The family sent Bonnie to a Catholic boarding high school. She helped pay her way by doing housework.
Assigned to dust
to pay my tuition,
I loved the smell of lemon oil
on dark woodwork,
and the ornate furniture
all green velvet and carved roses,
found in a Victorian convent.
With two courses left to earn a diploma, she met and married a University of Montana student. What followed was a series of new places —Southern California and Missoula again and finally, for five years, Guam.
There was a Norton [cycle] to remind me
of riding one through the jungles
of Guam to view the wild orchids.
Now a mother of two sons, Bonnie had finished high school by correspondence and then earned her associate degree at Guam Community College, gaining a scholarship to any mainland college or university. Meanwhile, her poetry, captured on scraps of paper, was shoved into the backs of drawers or folded into stacks of forgotten magazines.
From among the many colleges and universities where she applied, only Western New Mexico College replied with a hand-written letter, telling her of available housing. Bonnie had settled on studying psychology and post-secondary education. She intended the move to Silver City to endure only long enough for a bachelor’s.
Instead, with some interruption, Silver City absorbed a lifetime. Just as the Guam Community College saw in this young woman a keen intelligence and a steely determination, WNMU found a dedicated teacher, a creative dean, a resourceful maker of good trouble. It was she who introduced classes of Chicano and feminist studies. It was she who sponsored a Chicano student activist group before MEChA appeared. It was she who fought for equal pay. Some administrations respected this Montana rebel, some tolerated her and some found her to be an irritating gadfly.
There was a divorce and afterwards came six years of dating a handsome, young Chino High science teacher whose family was among the first to ranch in the Gila. Librado Maldonado.
“Librado loved to dance,’ Bonnie recalls, “and he knew all the steps—the schottisches, cumbias, the two-step and bomba and plena. We danced to popular orquestas at the Casa Blanca and other bars scattered around the mining district. Many weren’t entirely respectable, but the music was good.”
Her PhD dissertation explored the self-concept in American youth as affected by skin color. Bonnie considers knowledge to be a tool for improving how we live together. The town had no coordinated mental health services until Bonnie joined with others to form Border Area Mental Health Services. So, too, with Bonnie’s participation, emerged a shelter for victims of domestic abuse and a book festival—two organizations representing her wide concerns.
She sat near Madame Millie and her girls at the circus, visited the home and shop of Rebecca Brewer, herbista and philanthropist, chatted with Johnny Banks and when married to Librado, owned the house built by Col. John Fleming, former mayor often credited as one of those persuading the Territorial Legislature to establish a normal school in Silver City. In these later years, raising a glass to senescence, she pictures a nameless Apache hunter losing an obsidian arrowhead.
Later, in six books all these Silver City personages and more, served as frames for poetry:.
Ward recalls his mother’s story
of a USO dance where she was turned away
because she was accompanied by her friend
of Mexican descent.
She returned to E
and announced the dances would be moved
there, where everyone was welcome.
And flowers. In Bonnie’s life, begun in the treeless landscape of a Montana coulee and continued at the northern edge of the Chihuahua Desert, flowers bloom into her words. Four o’clocks. Lilies. Morning glories. A single columbine.
And the Big Ditch, the former Main Street become a city park in an arroyo, serves as a constant orientation.
A Southwestern town
where self-awareness dozes
among the mossy boulders
of The Big Ditch
while the famous Southern Hotel
is torn down to be replaced
by a Hudson Street service station.
For her passion, her honesty and her words Women Writing the West gave her the WILLA Literary Award. Citing her active leadership to advocate and to organize in the community, the New Mexico Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her in 1999. Silver City named her its first Poet Laureate. In addition, Bonnie leaves a legacy of poems, rollicking with humor, scolding with irony, always celebrating the plain language of the American West.
How fortunate Silver City has been to attract the loyalty of Bonnie Buckley Maldonado. How honored we are today to hear her voice and to attend to her words.