One of this year's nine unsung heroes

Cisco Guevara, Río Grande advocate, named a 2018 'Unsung Hero'

Man of the river – and skier, dancer, and prolific storyteller

By Staci Matlock
editor@taosnews.com
Posted 10/12/18

He’s run the Río Grande well over 3,500 times in the last 51 years, first as teenager testing his mortality and then as a commercial guide with the company he founded, Los Rios River …

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One of this year's nine unsung heroes

Cisco Guevara, Río Grande advocate, named a 2018 'Unsung Hero'

Man of the river – and skier, dancer, and prolific storyteller

Posted

He’s run the Río Grande well over 3,500 times in the last 51 years, first as teenager testing his mortality and then as a commercial guide with the company he founded, Los Rios River Runners. He knows every inch of the river’s curves, boulders and rapids the way one does any longtime companion. He can read the Grande’s moods. 

While Francisco “Cisco” Guevara’s made a living from the river, he’s also been among its staunch advocates and defenders. He’s a founding member of Amigos Bravos, one of the foremost river advocacy organizations in the nation and chairman of the nonprofit’s board of directors..

Guevara brings a unique perspective as a commercial guide to a board made up of biologists, lawyers and engineers, said Amigos Bravos Executive Director Joseph Zupan. “He’s a very eloquent ambassador for why watershed protection is so important,” Zupan said. “He’s always ready to promote our mission, taking meetings with donors and doing an annual fundraiser on the river. He donates staff and equipment.”

Part of the gift Guevara brings Amigos Bravos is his ability to spin a good yarn, making others care as deeply about the strip of river stretching from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico as he does.  

The river flows through his stories, the ones he regales his clients with while they ride the Grande, gripping the sides as the boat plunges in and out of the rapids. 

He’s gained a reputation as a preeminent storyteller, too, with SOMOS, the Taos literary organization he has supported through the decades as student and benefactor. 

“It’s unbelievable to have a renaissance creative like Cisco Guevara living and working in Taos, a native of New Mexico and tireless supporter of SOMOS, which includes Cisco’s annual storytelling appearance every October at The Taos Storytelling Festival,” said James Navé director of the Taos Storytelling and Taos Poetry festivals.    

“You will undoubtedly be entertained when you hear Cisco unspool his yarns on a professional storytelling stage, or on-air through the radio or casually around a campfire under the stars along the river Chama,” Navé continued. “SOMOS looks forward to many more years of dynamic collaborations with Cisco, the man who wears that big cowboy hat and tells some of the best stories in the world.”

Guevara is the son of a thermonuclear engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a descendent of the Guevara line stretching back to Spain. One of those ancestors bore the last name Ladron de Guevara or “Thief of Guevara.” There’s a tale that goes with the name, something about his ancestor stealing back a strategic castle from the Moors and handing it over to the King of Spain. In honor of his swashbuckling ancestor, Guevara added Ladron back to his last name. “It fit with the rebel I wanted to be and very much was,” Guevara said.

In North America, the European side of his family came in 1540 with the Coronado expedition and returned again in 1598 with the conquistador Don Juan de Oñate. Guevaras married into local Indian families. “We’ve been around ever since,” he said.

He visited Spain and the land of his ancestors decades later with his middle child, Pachin.

As a kid growing up in Los Alamos near the river, “We would run down to the river and jump in. We didn’t know we were jumping in spring flood, strong Class 3 rapids,” Guevara said, adding that several times, “I remember rescuing my buddies, pulling them out bloody and battered after they nearly drowned.”

They floated down the river in inner tubes, flipping when they hit the rapids. “It didn’t occur to us we were risking our lives,” he said.

European scientists at the lab who launched Boy Scouts Explorer Post 20 heard about the young daredevils and tutored them in the art of river running. “They taught us how to canoe, kayak and row boats,” Guevara said. “They were famous nationwide for having a really unique white-water program.”

Many professional river guides, especially across the West, can trace their roots back to Explorer Post 20. 

By the time he was in his late teens, Guevara was in line to follow after his dad into a career at the lab — until they found out he had stolen a police car in one of his more rebellious youthful moments. “They asked me to withdraw my application,” Guevara said with a grin.

He wasn’t sorry. The idea of being stuck in a cubicle working on research related to nuclear weapons didn’t thrill him.

“The river presented itself and I never looked back,” he said.

River guiding alone couldn’t support him in those early years. So like others in Northern New Mexico, he developed a range of skills to survive. He became an EMT, a ski instructor and worked construction. He applied for a job at Taos Ski Valley when its founder Ernie Blake was still master of the mountain. “Ernie told me he would hire me if I cut my hair and shaved my beard, but I wasn’t going to do that.”

When Red River heard Guevara was experienced in skiing the monster slopes at TSV, they hired him immediately, with his beard and long hair.

Here’s the way he tells the story of his seven winters working at Red River: 

He would bike in his ski suit to open the ski shop at 6 a.m. The owners would take over at 8 a.m. Guevara would walk over to the ski area and don his ski jacket. People would be renting skis. He’d convince them to take a ski lesson from a guy named “Cisco." Then he’d put on his ski school  jacket, walk to the slopes and offer lessons. Next he’d put on his ski patrol jacket, because he was a certified EMT, “and I’d pick up the people who were injured coming down the mountain, some of whom I’d taught to ski. Usually they were in so much pain they didn’t recognize me.”

He would take them down the mountain. He’d take off ski patrol jacket and put on his EMT garb and start a drip line on them in the ambulance. 

It all makes for a good tale.

For decades now, when Guevara wasn’t on the river or up on the slopes or rescuing people in an ambulance, he was on the dance floor twirling partners. A fan of rock ’n' roll, it was a pretty woman who got him interested in two-stepping, and by extension country music, one night at the Sagebrush Inn. He became a two-stepping master.

In the midst of his already packed life with business, hobbies and children, he made time to volunteer. 

He was among the early participants in the Taos Storytelling Festival 18 years ago. He’s been a part of the group ever since. He volunteers with Río Grande Restoration and was a charter member of Amigos Bravos in the mid-1980s. They raised seed money and “we took on Molycorp Mine, which was our first issue that we were fighting. It took off from there. Now Amigos Bravos is on the forefront of a lot of national fights – groundwater restoration, wetlands preservation and instream flow.”

He was president of the Talpa Community Center for six years, turning the old elementary school into a public center that now thrives with a library, classes and meeting space.  “We put a lot of time into that place, painting, cleaning, repairing. It was a lot of fun,” he said. 

This summer he came up against his own mortality in a way he didn’t expect. Life on the river and on ski slopes is inherently risky. But it was an infection following surgery that almost killed him. “This was me thinking I’m powerful, I’m different, I have a really great living and people admire me for what I do,” he said. “Then bam, I got knocked down.”

But he’s back up, focused on a different way to approach his life and health. He’ll keep storytelling and dancing and loving the river.

Because the river is part of him.

Their stories are inseparable. 

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