You have seen the jaral in a score of spaghetti westerns. These Italian genre movies made great use of the vast desertlike vistas found in the western Mediterranean landscapes of Spain. As is often the case in the American Southwest, place-names trace the progress of conquest: the jaral became the Texan–New Mexican land where sandy soil supported low, sparse shrubs of the same type found in Spain. Jaral encompasses the famous llanos (scrub plains) that so fascinate Misters McCarthy and McMurtry in their novels. The Chihuahuan Desert is prime jaral territory. In microcosm, a jaral can be a willow thicket on a sand bank. For many, it’s synonymous with chaparral. The root of the word is the jara, a rockrose that grows in tangles; indeed, jaral can also be used as slang for a tangled, confused situation. It is a landscape, like a cactus field, where the vegetation makes progress difficult: it’s hell on horses. Also known as a chamizal: literally, the place where chamizos—traditionally thatch-roofed huts, often with adobe walls—are found. When we see Clint Eastwood riding out of the jaral, he squints at the peones as they hurry into the safety of their chamizos in the great, dangerous, eternally hot chamizal.

Luis Alberto Urrea