Alfred Jitsudo Acheta: The prodigal son returns home—in robes. Courtesy of Hidden Mountain Zen Center.
Alfred Jitsudo Acheta: The prodigal son returns home—in robes. Courtesy of Hidden Mountain Zen Center.

Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman stands with an attendant before the zendo altar, exuding massive concentration under the burden of heavy formal robes in the heat of an Albuquerque summer. As scores of guests crowded into Hidden Mountain Zen Center for the Buddha Eye Opening dedication ceremony look on, he slowly drops a pinch of incense into a burner. It bursts into a fragrant cloud. Then the new Zen center’s abbot, Sensei Alfred Jitsudo Ancheta, a native New Mexican, takes his dharma brother’s place at the altar to perform a memorial service for their late teacher, Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi. Ancheta executes the ritual movements with exquisite care. “Right here now as this river-mountain-sky-desert-swamp-ocean Roshi!” he declares. “Why don’t we see your body here in this zendo?”

And so, on a July morning in 1996, this 110-year-old brick house on a downtown side street officially became a new Zen center. It was a watershed moment. Ancheta has the rare distinction of being a Hispanic teaching the dharma in America. His decision to take up residence in the land of his ancestors signals a homecoming, the belated return of a native son. At a time when many U.S.-born Buddhists openly worry that Buddhism is becoming too much an Anglo, middle-class phenomenon, Ancheta is sharply conscious of the need to present the dharma to a wider audience. At fifty-three, he has a focused manner and an unexpectedly searching, almost hesitant way of speaking. His deep-set brown eyes, under black, bushy eyebrows, vacillate between penetrating, hawklike intensity and avuncular warmth and humor. Says Ancheta, “I have very strong pioneer roots.”

Pioneering—literal and metaphorical—has defined Ancheta’s journey away from home and back again. He was born in Embudo, New Mexico, a tiny spot along the Rio Grande on the road to Taos, yet like thousands of other New Mexicans of the postwar generation, his father found work in southern California and the family relocated to the suburban sprawl of Long Beach. Young Freddy Ancheta spent summers with his maternal grandparents in the village of Velarde, a quiet place of orchards and hayfields along the river where it spills out of a deep canyon.

Just south of Velarde lies San Juan Pueblo, where Don Juan de Onate established the earliest Spanish settlement in New Mexico in 1598. Chafing under religious and economic repression, the people of San Juan and most of the other Pueblos rose up against the Spanish conquerors in 1680 and drove them from the territory. Spanish dominion was restored only in 1692, when Don Diego de Vargas returned at the head of an army. According to family lore, Ancheta’s mother was descended from de Vargas.

 Jitsudo back in Velarde with Zoraida and Eulogio, in front of the family's chapel. Courtesy of Anna Christine Hansen.
Jitsudo back in Velarde with Zoraida and Eulogio, in front of the family’s chapel. Courtesy of Anna Christine Hansen.

His father’s family came from Silver City, in rugged southwestern New Mexico. An ancestor, Nepomuceno Ancheta, arrived in the territory in 1856 fleeing the Mexican Revolution. His son Joseph, who became an attorney and a member of the Territorial Legislature, was assassinated on the floor of the state senate, the unintended victim of a plot to murder territorial power broker Thomas B. Catron. “He caught a stray bullet,” Ancheta says of his great-grandfather.

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