If you’re ever in the Big Bend region of the state 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. That flash of light might be trying to tell you something.
Before the telephone or even the telegraph, avisadores used a mirror or other shiny objects to reflect the sun and flash avisos – messages – to other avisadores, who passed the word along. Essentially, this was the world's first wireless communication device – a mirror. It's something to think about when someone says, “There's nothing new under the sun.”
The Aztecs probably used the same method of long distance communication. Montezuma knew within minutes when Cortez landed near Veracruz, nearly four days away. Native American tribes of the Great Plains used smoke and mirrors to communicate over long distances. It wasn’t just smoke and mirrors to them.
The Anglos used mirrors to communicate too, and invented a fancy word to go along with it: “heliography.” Some accounts have a form of heliography dating back to the Greeks. The ancients are believed to have fashioned mirrors from minerals, like mica, to flash their messages.
Well into the 20th Century at least, avisadores in the Big Bend region would flash breaking news – sudden misfortune, urgent need, help wanted, gossip, a verified sighting of the Border Patrol – to other
avisadores who somehow knew to be looking for a message, or picked it out of thin air. The nuts and
bolts of the system has always been a mystery, partly owing to the avisadores’ determined secrecy.
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 30s, Smithers often found meals or fellow travelers or friendly locals waiting for him when he arrived at a way-station or destination. When Smithers had goods for sale, avisadores served as his ad agency.
Even though the avisadores were secretive about their craft, the avisos they sent were not privileged information. Like the Internet, the concept behind the avisos was democratic. You only had to know the codes to be in the know. To outsiders, it was hopelessly cryptic.
“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 prearranged. Some uncanny sixth sense seemed to tell the avisadores when avisos were on the way, and they would then turn and relay them.”
In Patricia Wilson Clothier's memoir about growing up on a ranch in Big Bend before it became a national park, she wrote about the difficult task of trying to sell the last of the family's livestock after her father, Homer Wilson, died. The family was at least a couple of workers short of being able to get the work done on time took, tilting the task from daunting to nearly impossible. 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.”
So if you’re ever in the Chisos Mountains or the Chihuahua Desert and you see a flash of light, pay attention -- somebody might be trying to tell you something.