Andrés Mario de Varona remembers and honors the life of Aaron Martin Garcia, also known as Pillar, and reveals the powerful human condition of strangers becoming friends, brothers, and teachers.
[For high-resolution images, please visit Andrés Mario de Varona’s website.]
September 22, 2023, 9 pm.
Octavia texted that a body was found at Aaron’s campsite near the NM 599 Rail Runner Station, under the overpass. Dustin, who was living with Aaron at the time, told her, but he was not near camp at that moment to know what happened. A heavy uneasy feeling overcame me, and suddenly my gut feeling was “Aaron is dead.” I rushed to his campsite.
The detectives stopped me as I arrived and started asking me many questions. They could not confirm who was dead without an autopsy, but after physically describing Aaron to them, they told me the probability was high.
For the next two days, I received calls from detectives asking me many questions, and then suddenly, I heard nothing at all. It was like it had all disappeared and been forgotten about.
The response I got the last time I reached out to the detectives about Aaron’s case was, “Who’s Aaron?” After finally jogging her memory, I was told the case had been transferred to another detective.
When I went back to Aaron’s campsite a month or so after his death, I was surprised to see it exactly how he had left it. Nothing was roped off, no crime tape, and nothing to show a murder had occurred. It did not resemble a crime scene at all; it felt like I was visiting him, and just waiting for him to poke his head out of the juniper bushes and say “hi.”
As I was standing there at the campsite, a random man who seemed to be walking on a trail approached me. He asked me if I was alright, and he asked me if I knew what had happened down here to the homeless man. I told him I did, that I knew Aaron and that’s why I was down here under the bridge. He continued his walk and left me standing there.
On my drive back home, I started thinking about Aaron and I realized that he had never once described himself as a homeless person. It made me wonder how many people have dismissed Aaron for being “homeless” or a “homeless Native” without ever giving him the time to be a person. Now even in his death, I still see him being disregarded, or looked upon as an after-thought, as someone not so important. But the truth of the matter is that Aaron was a special beacon of support.
Aaron got the nickname Pillar for his leadership and protection regarding many travelers, drifters, and people without houses. He cooked for people, provided shelter for them, helped some find work, and brought relief to many. Aaron has a home and family in Kewa Pueblo (Santo Domingo) but chose to live outside because of his experiences at Camp Tule in California where he got to practice his Native beliefs and traditions more deeply. For Aaron, living this way was a spiritual victory against social expectations surrounding living standards.
I met Aaron one day outside an Allsup’s gas station and convenience store. I sat at this particular Allsup’s for hours at a time, multiple days a week, and introduced myself to all the people who came by as well as the workers. I became part of the community through this gas station that is near my home, and it was Aaron who transformed me.
Together, Aaron and I started making a visual record of his life, along with his younger brother Russell, and other men who lived with Aaron and wanted to participate in sharing a part of themselves without fear of shame or judgment.
I have been reflecting on the past three years I spent with Aaron, Russell, their mother Mary, and other members of his family as well as the community at Allsup’s. Until now, I only ever thought of Aaron as a brother and a friend, but he was also a teacher to me as he was to many.
Aaron once told me that he sensed my being when we first met. He told me I had a desperation for spirit; a lack of home within myself. Aaron taught me something about myself that was hidden within me and brought it to the surface, yet he did this while bringing a smile to my face. I don’t think I have ever been understood by someone in the way Aaron recognized me. I realize now that Aaron did this with everyone and it’s because he saw himself in everyone.
Why don’t we see ourselves in Aaron? A lot of my friendship and time with Aaron was spent navigating authority figures and institutions and learning the hard way that you need to constantly fight and put pressure on these institutions/people to get the simplest answers or sense of acknowledgment. Any time I took Aaron to the hospital to get his physical pain checked out, or gave him a ride to the grocery store, to Walmart, or the laundromat, it was the same kind of dismissible inferior treatment by someone who thought they had more power. My question is why?
I need to reaffirm Aaron’s life and legacy as having just as much worth or importance as anyone else’s life. For him, and me. By sharing these images and Aaron’s life over these last three years, I not only want readers to stop and see themselves in Aaron and these men, but I also want to show the value of connecting with a stranger.