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.