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Near Blythe, historian sees solar plants as threat to desert carvings

After a rough ride through narrow desert washes, Alfredo Figueroa came to a clearing and ordered the vehicles to halt.

The giants were waiting.

Figueroa strode briskly across the plain.

Before him, clear lines in the stony sand formed a 200-foot-long image of the flute-playing Native American god Kokopelli. Beside him was Cicimitl, an Aztec spirit said to guide souls to the afterlife.

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“No one has a clue that this stuff is out here,” Figueroa said, picking his way around a massive foot.

The self-taught historian has made it his mission to guard these huge carvings in the earth known as geoglyphs. On this day, he brought in Aztec dancers to do a ritual cleansing of the site.

“Alfredo told me he needed our help,” said Pastel, a shirtless, gray-haired dancer with rattles on his feet. “We are calling up and down in all directions, inviting the spirits to come.”

Just a few miles and a world away from downtown Blythe’s cheap motels and fast-food joints, they lighted a bowl of dried sage, beat the drums and began to summon the spirits under a pitiless sun.

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Until recently, Figueroa’s biggest concern was damage from off-roaders. Now he worries that solar energy plants could do even more harm.

Three major installations are planned in the vicinity of Blythe. The largest, a joint project of Solar Millennium and Chevron Energy Solutions, would spread mirrors over 7,030 acres of public land. Figueroa believes mirrors could be installed on top of Kokopelli and Cicimitl, or the geoglyphs could be fenced off, out of reach.

“That’s completely false. The Kokopelli image is south of our proposed project, maybe a mile or two away,” said Rachel McMahon, director of governmental affairs for Berkeley-based Solar Millennium. “The image is adjacent to our transmission line, but they don’t interfere with each other.”

Others have raised broader objections to proposed solar plants in the desert — as threats to habitats and as visual blight.

As champion of the geoglyphs, Figueroa is largely on his own — battling big business and the state over enigmatic etchings in the middle of nowhere.

“We are the guardians of these historic sites,” he says fiercely. “We will fight tooth and nail to protect this.”

Some geoglyphs, such as the nearby Blythe Intaglios, are well-known and already protected. Those large figures were made by scraping away the top layer of black rock, revealing lighter-colored, powdery soil beneath. One story says they represent giants who once dwelled on Earth and were warned not to fall down. When they did fall, they could not get up and ended up marooned on the desert floor.

Other geoglyphs, including Kokopelli and Cicimitl, are known only to intrepid desert rats and those who view them as central to their history.

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“They are important to us and should be to all Americans …,” said Charles Wood, chairman of the Chemihuevi tribe based on the California side of Lake Havasu. “They go back to the migration stories which to us are history, not myth.”

The figures are easier to see from the air than from the ground. The Blythe Intaglios were discovered only in 1931 when they were spotted by a pilot.

Archaeologists have long debated the origins and age of the geoglyphs. Those near the Colorado River are thought to be perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 years old, while some deeper in the desert may be closer to 12,000.

McMahon, of Solar Millenium, contends that, based on aerial photography, historical maps and satellite imagery, Kokopelli was made no earlier than 1994.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not significant to some populations,” she said. “It is not my intention to judge the intaglio. The point is our site doesn’t interfere with it.”

The Bureau of Land Management, which will decide whether to give solar projects access to public land, has been assessing the geoglyphs and working with the California Native American Heritage Commission to determine their sacred value.

“If a tribe has told us they consider those sites sacred, we will factor that into our decision…" said BLM archaeologist Rolla Queen. “We do what we can to avoid, minimize and reduce harm.”

Independent archeologist Jeffrey Adams, who is documenting geoglyphs in the West for the BLM, said he’s already catalogued 312, including Kokopelli.

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“These geoglyphs are typically expressions of space and native spirituality,” he said. “They tell stories and connect things.”

For Figueroa, the story they tell is nothing short of epic.

Blythe may be a searing desert outpost, but this is his Garden of Eden, his place of creation, and these desert figures are its major characters. He is convinced they are 10,000 years old, made by ancient people who later migrated to Mexico.

Figueroa, who is of Yaqui, Pima and Chemehuevi heritage, goes further. He says the region around Blythe is Aztlan, the celebrated birthplace of the Aztecs.

Though most scholars view Aztlan as a cherished myth, Figueroa sees it as the living, breathing center of the world. The 76-year-old community organizer and former miner has spent decades studying old Spanish texts and Meso American hieroglyphs, matching them up, he says, with mountains and landmarks around Blythe.

“People often want to look to far-off exotic places for explanations of things when you can find the answers locally,” said Kenneth Hedges, an expert in rock art and emeritus curator at San Diego’s Museum of Man. “Whether the valley is home to Aztlan and the origins of the Aztecs, there is simply no way to know. And as far I’m concerned, there is no way to prove it.”

Hedges said ancestors of the Mojave and Quechan Indians who lived along the Colorado River are most likely responsible for the Blythe intaglios. Still, he said: “The ethnographic history of the river is very difficult to follow because there have been so many migrations. It’s hard to say who was involved and at which time.”

Believe Figueroa or not, his boundless enthusiasm is infectious.

In his world, a rocky protrusion is a nose, a pointy mountain a pyramid.

He’s energetic bordering on frenetic, and he quizzes those around him to make sure they don’t miss anything.

“See that mountain? What does it look like?” he asks.

A camel?

No.

A tooth?

No.

“It’s the creator’s chair,” he declares. “And over there are the Mule Mountains. That’s where you go when you die.”

Figueroa grew up in Blythe in a neighborhood he calls the “oldest in the world.” Its true name, he says, is Acacitli, which means “jackrabbit in the reeds” in Nahuatl, the Aztec language.

His grandfather began mining gold, copper and manganese in 1862. His father followed and Figueroa was right behind.

Life was hard in the mines. Tunnels collapsed, but Figueroa learned the landscape.

“That’s how I know all these hills and all these sites,” he said.

Figueroa has nine children and lives in a rambling ranch house crammed with artifacts. A Virgin Mary stands in the living room. The serpent god Quetzalcoatl lurks near the kitchen.

“He is the god who has no name and all names,” Figueroa says cryptically before vanishing into his room to dig up old maps.

His adult children filter into the frontyard, where dozens of birds twitter in a large shade tree. They smile respectfully as he launches into a lecture.

“He eats, sleeps and dreams this stuff,” said his daughter Machi Rivera, 50.

Long before her father got involved with the solar plants, he was a tireless activist, campaigning against the proposed Ward Valley nuclear dump, organizing farmworkers and fighting for Latino rights.

When his daughter Patricia got into trouble in 1972 for showing a movie about anti-Nixon protests at school, he started a new school, Escuela de la Raza Unida, which still operates today. A radio station followed.

Then came the geoglyphs."It was a whole new world,” Rivera said. “He would go deeper and deeper into the mountains and find new intaglios. It’s like a big puzzle for him, and day after day he would get closer to the answer.”

It was a puzzle for the family as well.

“He often spoke in riddles,” Rivera said. “But after awhile I came to be a believer.”

Figueroa had always been interested in his ancestry, but a single incident turned a spark into an inferno. In 1957, an uncle in Sonora, Mexico, handed him a book, “Notions of Sonora.”

The book placed Aztlan about 100 miles north of the confluence of the Colorado and Gila rivers. “I realized that was near Blythe,” he said.

He began reading Spanish codices dealing in Aztec history. He read indigenous histories in university libraries. When he pieced it all together, he concluded that Aztlan was in his own backyard.

“I was thrilled to find this out, but I had to convince my family. I was very fond of Joe Friday from Dragnet, ‘Just the facts,’ so I had to find evidence,” he said.

His wife, Demesia, 73, recalled the early days. “At first when he introduced me to all this, I didn’t understand it,” she said. “Then I started going to the sites and getting this really good energy.”

When he embraced the Aztec religion over Catholicism, however, she drew the line.

“I said I was brought up as a Catholic, so leave me alone with my saints and my Virgin Mary,” she said. “I can’t turn my back on the saints.”

He has self-published his theories in a book, “Ancient Footprints along the Colorado River,” and founded the La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, a group of 14 like-minded people dedicated to the geoglyphs.

Back at Kokopelli, the dancers wound up their ceremony. Some carried sticks covered in wolf skin and dangling eagle talons.

They formed a circle around the smoking sage and spoke of the significance of the day.

“Maybe they have good intentions in pursuing clean energy, but they will erase our history,” a 20-year-old dancer named Netze Cauhtemoc said of the solar project. “It would be like throwing up a shopping mall in the middle of Jerusalem.”

Figueroa took up a staff and walked — a man among giants.

“Our whole effort today is to make sure our creator knows how we much care,” he said.

david.kelly@latimes.com


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