by Peter Chase, singer, songwriter, colleague, friend
Ralph Flores’s Tales from La Perla is a collection of short prose pieces about the author’s time in La Joya, NM, which he renames La Perla (The Pearl) for the book. Published posthumously by Geri Rhodes, Ralph’s wife, the pieces recount Ralph’s time in the early 1970s, living in a small community of people who, like him, were searching for a simpler and more meaningful existence, less focused on materialism and more focused on self-sustainability and the rhythms of nature. The residents were varied. Some, like Ralph, were academics who had tired of that life. Some came from well-to-do backgrounds; some were fleeing the law. But all considered themselves “freaks,” not “hippies” (an important distinction) and were searching for an alternative to the mainstream madness.
For readers who grew up in the 60s, there is much here to relate to. For younger readers, it may seem like a magical, mythical time, and, as Ralph tells us, in many ways, it was. But, as he also warns, “living harmoniously with others can be very difficult.” La Perla, he writes, “was a filter which separated those who truly wanted community from those who thought they wanted it, but for their own reasons were incapable of grasping it.” And indeed, among the residents, we see examples of pride, pettiness, jealousy — in short, all of the vices and foibles of conventional, mainstream society. Yet we also see an innocence, a decency, and a sincere belief in the virtues of community that are very attractive in these times. We could do worse than La Perla.
Ralph’s prose is a delight, always lithe and clear, never self-indulgent. Each piece draws us in, whether it focuses on the dynamics of personal interactions or how to build a house. Ralph himself alternates in these tales between being the main participant and an almost invisible narrator.
The last few chapters of the book take us away from La Perla to San Francisco and Silver City, and though curious readers might like to know more about Ralph’s eventual exit from La Perla, they will have to content themselves with what we have: excellent tales, seemingly sprung from a time capsule, and a handful of finely chiseled poems.
At the beginning of the book, Ralph writes that the freaks of La Perla truly believed in forming a community “where people live together, cooperate, and help each other and even learn to love each other.” He adds, “We may seem foolish and naive to the pundits for thinking so, but even now, more than forty years later, I don’t believe we were either wrong or foolish.”
They weren’t, as this book lovingly attests.