Avisadores: Messengers of Life
by Clay Coppedge
Photography by Grace Wilson
Avisadores: Messengers of Light
If you’re ever in the Big Bend region and you think you catch a flash of light out of the corner of your eye, don’t dismiss it—you are in the land of the avisadores and that flash of light might have message, if not for you, then for somebody.
Before the telephone or even the telegraph, there were the avisadores, people who specialized in communicating over vast distances by using mirrors or other shiny objects to reflect the sun and
flash avisos – messages – to other avisadores, who passed the word along. Essentially, this might have
been the world's first wireless communication device— a mirror.
The Aztecs likely used the same method of long-distance communication. Montezuma knew within minutes when Cortez landed near Veracruz, nearly four days away. Other later tribes, including the Plains Indians, used smoke signals and mirrors to communicate over long distances.
The Anglos used mirrors to communicate, too. They invented a fancy word to go along with it: heliography. Some accounts have a form of heliography dating back to the Greeks. They are believed to have fashioned mirrors from minerals, like mica, to flash their signals.
Well into the 20th Century, avisadores in the Big Bend region would flash breaking news— a sudden misfortune, an urgent need, help wanted, gossip, Border Control sightings — to other avisadores who were uncannily aware the messages were coming.
Photographer and writer W.D. Smithers wrote about the avisadores in his book Chronicles of Big Bend. During his many forays into isolated mountains, canyons, and deserts in the early 1930s, Smithers often found meals, fellow travelers, or friendly locals waiting for him when he arrived at a way station or destination. When Smithers had goods for sale, avisadores did his advertising work. “Perhaps the most mysterious and inexplicable aspect of this aviso business is how avisadores know when an aviso is being sent their way,” Smithers wrote. “Avisos gave no warning of their arrival, but I have seen many avisadores look up, change directions, or drop whatever they were doing to read them. Many times these messages were sudden warnings, so their receipt could not have been pre-arranged. Some uncanny sixth sense seemed to tell the avisadores when avisos were on the way, and they would then turn and relay them.” The nuts and bolts of the system have always been mysterious; the avisadores were dedicated to secrecy.
Even though the avisadores were secretive about their craft, the avisos they sent were not privileged information. Like the Internet, the concept guiding the messages was democratic. You only had to know the codes to be in the know. Still, the whole business retained a mystique to outsiders.
In Beneath the Window, Patricia Wilson Clothier's memoir about growing up on a ranch in Big Bend before it became a national park, Clothier wrote about the difficult task of selling the last of the family's livestock after her father died. The daunting task was made more so by the fact that the family was at least a couple of workers short of being able to get the work done in time. But on the day of the livestock sale, men walked out of the hills above the ranch, ready and able to work. If they didn't save the day, they at least made it a little more manageable. “One of the Mexican workers must have flashed a message to Santa Helena, but none of the hands claimed credit,” Clothier wrote. “Avisadores didn't talk about their message system. My three cousins just offered thanks for the extra help and didn't worry about who sent the message or the home base of the laborers.”
Little more is known about these mysterious messengers, and we don't know whether or not they still operate in Big Bend or anywhere else. Maybe that's as it should be, since the avisadores made it a point to keep the secretsof the avisos to themselves.. So, if you’re ever in the Chisos Mountains or the Chihuahuan Desert and you see a flash of light, pay attention. Somebody may be trying to tell you something.
Clay Coppedge has spent the last 30 years roaming the Texas backroads and exploring the back pages of local and state history as a reporter, feature writer, and columnist. He’s published three collections of his history columns, a history of Texas baseball, and a memoir. His work has appeared in a wide range of magazines, including Acres USA, Field Stream, Progressive Farmer, Texas Highways, and others. He lives outside of Walburg, Texas, but his heart’s country is Big Bend.