Upon visiting close friend and colleague, Dr. Tomás Atencio, who currently is battling a neurological disease similar to Alzheimer’s, I am moved to pay tribute to one of New Mexico’s most outstanding Chicano cultural figures of this and the last century. Long the champion of resolana, or dialogue in the plazas, villages and other New Mexican spaces, Atencio has now transitioned into a state in which his abilities to speak and move are almost nonexistent.
Dr. Atencio’s insistence on engendering genuine communication and dialogue between groups and individuals in society is his most profound legacy. In his writings, speeches and intense enthusiasm for every form of cultural expression, and especially for vibrant and highly interactive community, that legacy still inspires many to affirm, cultivate and document knowledge and wisdom borne out of grassroots community living, especially in the diverse Latino communities of the United States. He taught us that the process of spinning the stories and drawing out the lessons embedded in the daily lives of individuals and societies is an immensely important activity. This is so, not because such an activity might represent a vestige of the past, but because by taking the time to be reflective of our thoughts and actions, we can begin to conceive of a world of greater possibilities, meaning, purpose and plentitude.
For the better part of the second half of the 20th century, Tomás, as most everyone lovingly knows him, was the foremost cultural philosopher, sociologist and even the unofficial historian of the lndo-Hispano people of northern New Mexico and beyond. He was also an inspired musician, an ambitious builder in adobe, a sculptor and a compelling conversationalist, constantly switching between his two highly polished languages of Spanish and English. Not surprisingly, this published writer has also been a devoted family man.
Most importantly to his admirers, he was the founder of La Academia de la Nueva Raza (The Academy for a New Humanity), a grassroots popular-education movement deeply rooted in New Mexican soil since the 1970s. Its reverberations have been felt across the Southwest and throughout the nation, with members of each successive generation finding meaning and nurturance in his highly progressive, original thoughts and ideas, which always call for community revitalization and personal realization.
Brought up in the village of Dixon under the tutelage of his “old-school” Presbyterian minister father, but trained in academia and specifically in theology in southern California, Tomás gave voice to the concerns of the common man of the earth who sought participation and validation in an alien urban society but also dignity and justice. Tomás dedicated himself to the exploration of humanity’s most persistent questions: “Who are we?” “Where do we come from and where are we going?”, together with the concerns specific to our time: “What is the nature of human consciousness?” “What is the role of the dialectical process in society?” And, “What are the promises for widespread communications in the digital and global age?”
Certainly, Tomás will always be remembered for bringing to light the age-old practice of resolana or the informal gathering of lndo-Hispano villagers along the sunny side of adobe walls during the winter or cool early mornings of spring and fall to exchange news, dialogue or simply to reflect on life’s comings and goings. He used resolana as the central metaphor for the process of dialogue much like Socrates had done in the Athenian marketplace more than 2,000 years before. For Atencio, as well as for celebrated Brazilian writer and community educator Paolo Freire (his friend), dialogue was the essential element needed to conduct the critical processes required in a democracy (thought, reflection, analysis and consensus building), which enabled a citizenry to consciously shape the social forces and institutions that themselves shape human collective life and interaction.
Tomás began his career working for the Colorado Migrant Council in the 1960s, where he advocated on behalf of the rights of migrant workers and helped provide for their mental health needs. He later moved to Santa Fe where he worked with COPAS, a community mental-health organization. There, he grew more intimate with the social and mental-health problems that plagued many of the native Indo-Hispano people living in the city’s barrios, as well as with their vast treasure trove of life experiences and local knowledge, which he termed el oro del barrio, or the “gold” of the neighborhood.
Tomás came to believe in the need for the creation of a body of knowledge centered on the vital cultural, historical and even personal experiences of this long-lived (and out of necessity), highly adaptive community. He appreciated the values held by this community that arose from an intimate relationship with a rugged epic landscape composed of forested mountains, canyons, deserts, plains, farmlands, woods, rivers and even manmade acequias. Tomás affirmed the local ways of communicating through “cuentos (stories), mentiras (tall tales), chistes (jokes), images, symbols, ceremonies and rituals; integral parts of a community’s foundational knowledge.” This body of knowledge, he argued, would serve to validate the experience of a struggling community in transition, engender a shared understanding of its unparalleled historical processes under various governments, as well as enable it to map out its own future.
To satisfy this need, in the mid-1970s, with a grant from the national Presbyterian Church, he launched La Academia de la Nueva Raza, an association of community leaders and scholars who pooled their collective knowledge, wisdom, experience and sweat equity to give life to a vital, multifaceted process of concientización, or consciousness-raising in northern New Mexico. Working out of his home and later out of an old adobe in Dixon’s historic center, the academiados (La Academia’s members) organized art shows, community fiestas, gardens, service learning projects, forums, gatherings and publications for more than a decade.
One of La Academia’s most important initiatives was an oral history project through which many of the oldest residents from northern New Mexico’s Spanish-speaking villages were interviewed and their stories and insights carefully recorded and preserved. Tomás believed that it was not enough to gather this information from the community but argued that it should be returned to the community and serve as a catalyst for further dialogue, discussion and purposeful action.
The dynamic cycle of “thought and action,” he believed, ought to be directed at nurturing and enhancing what he termed “una vida buena y sana y alegre” (a good, healthy and happy life for the people). Between 1975 and 1977 the asociados, among them, Juan Estévan Arellano, a writer, editor and photographer, produced several issues of El Cuademo de Vez en Cuando (The Occasional Notebook), a scholarly publication exploring the politics of self-determination and consciousness-raising among the Mexicano/Chicano people of New Mexico and the Southwest, and Entre Verde y Seco (Green with Life bordering on Tinder Dry), a compilation of community-derived stories and folk wisdom. Both publications, together with La Madrugada (The Dawn), a pithy community newsletter, were distributed in northern New Mexican communities, where they prompted both dialogue and action among local residents.
In his later years, Tomás taught in the sociology department of the University of NewMexico, doggedly advocating on behalf of the self-determination of the Sawmill working-class neighborhood of Albuquerque, stood up to the heroin trade in Dixon and helped launch the Learning While Serving AmeriCorps program, which had 120 members in northern New Mexico’s Indo-Hispano and Pueblo Indian communities. That project, administered by Siete del Norte of Embudo, was designed to reaffirm traditional agriculture and inspire a new generation of academically and agriculturally proficient young people.
Through the Río Grande Institute, a reincarnation of La Academia, Tomás and his intellectual equal and wife, Consuelo Pacheco, created a forum for dialogue between Native American and Indo-Hispano people that, among other things, resulted in the publication of a joint book of poetry, essays, photos and other artwork titled Ceremony of Brotherhood. Five years ago, just before the onset of his illness, Tomás coauthored with Miguel Montiel and E.A. (Tony) Mares, a long-awaited book titled Resolana, Emerging Chicano Dialogues and Globalization (University of Arizona Press). In it, as well as in the prestigious Ernesto Galarza Lecture that he delivered at Stanford University years before, Tomás developed the kernels of his ideas for individual and community engagement into wonderfully articulated full-fledged treatises that focused on the community that he knew best—the Chicano community. Lucky for us, he took the time to pen this legacy; more importantly, he showed us how to live what he thought and believed, which is yet an even bigger legacy.
Alejandro López is a photographer and writer in English and Spanish. He was one of the original asociados of La Academia de La Nueva Raza and specialized in the gathering of oral history among the elderly of northern New Mexico. He also served as the director of the Learning While Serving AmeriCorps program.