Kathy Sanchez and Mikki Anaya
New Mexico is about 121,356 square miles in size. Approximately one-third of our population lives in rural communities. Our tribal lands are found in rural New Mexico. Many of us live in these communities because they are our ancestral homes, the land where generations of our families have lived. Also, many rural working families have no choice but to live here because the cost of housing, whether it is to rent or purchase, is generally much lower than in urban areas.
But there are trade-offs. For working families, living in rural communities and on tribal lands presents unique challenges not faced by our urban counterparts. Few big businesses operate in or near these communities, other than Walmart. Other big businesses that do operate here tend to pollute the environment. Jobs that pay a living wage are virtually nonexistent, so many of us have to drive great distances to earn our paychecks. The price of gasoline, with all of its added-on taxes, is a budget line-item working families must contend with.
Access to adequate healthcare is also an issue. Many of us must travel an hour, or several hours, to receive more than just a basic screening.
Living paycheck to paycheck increases the appeal of payday loans that end up trapping the working family in the predatory lending debt cycle. A simple loan, taken to make ends meet, can snowball, with the borrower paying three to four times what was borrowed. In the area near our Española office, there are loan shops on many streets, competing with the liquor stores.
The system of assistance to those in need is also a repressive one. For example, a teacher receiving government assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—otherwise known as food stamps—or assistance with energy bills cannot get a short-term job during the summer break if that work puts her in another income bracket. Once this small amount of income is reported, she might find her assistance reduced. The result is that working families remain stuck in poverty.
Because rural communities are not heavily populated, our voice in the policy-change arena is marginalized. Tribal communities face the unique situation of dual citizenry: we are citizens of the state of New Mexico and citizens of sovereign nations. We have to work particularly hard to have our voices heard, especially in our battle over what we strongly believe are highly toxic environmental effects created by Los Alamos National Laboratory. “The Lab,” the birthplace of the nuclear bomb, is the largest economic driver in the region. It is situated in the center of the home of the Eight Northern Pueblos and many traditional Hispanic communities. We are very concerned about nuclear toxins emanating from the Lab into land, air and water and continuing to have an effect on our families.
In the tribal tradition, to strengthen our communities’ lifeways, the way in which we make a living, or work to live a good life, means money has to feed the spirit of communal livelihoods in a sustainable way. Therefore, decisions regarding income-generation and the jobs we work have to be acknowledged within the fabric of our communities.
In spite of all of the challenges faced by working families living in rural and tribal communities, we are wise, resilient and self-reliant. We attempt to overcome all of the difficulties and thrive in our own ways.
Kathy Sanchez (Wan Povi) is a founding member and former executive director of Tewa Women United, based in Española, New Mexico. The group works with indigenous women to create stronger communities. Mikki Anaya, whose family has lived in New Mexico since the 1600s, is a lifelong resident of Santa Fe County. She works on community issues.
A version of this article appeared in Equal Voice News.