March 2014

Reclaiming Española


Alejandro López


For the last week, I have experienced Española on foot and visited countless sites, including Santa Cruz, McCurdy, Fairview, Riverside, Cuarteles, Arroyo Seco, San Pedro, El Alto de Española, Corral de Piedra, El Guique, Hernandez, El Duende, Ranchitos, El Llano and Santo Niño. As it turns out, Española, a centerless American commercial satellite, transposed to this community of old Native American and Nuevo Mexicano villages in the late 1800s (which, over time, it absorbed) is not one place, but many. Each has its own geography, history, architecture (or lack of), set of old families and new, and of course, its own income bracket with wild fluctuations.


In the process of this walkabout I visited many places I have known since childhood, as well as a few corners and interstices of the valley totally unfamiliar to me. I was profoundly moved by the exquisite silence and solitude of the 19th-century building and grounds of the old morada of my native Santa Cruz. Here I was able to hear the commanding voices of my parents and the old folk who are no longer with us; those whose archaic Mexicano speech will never be heard again—for the language and the values embedded in it, unless we have the will to act, will unfortunately become extinguished.


I was similarly inspired by the beauty and sanctity of the massive Santa Cruz Church, the largest adobe church in New Mexico, dating from the colonial period. It was the seat of missionizing campaigns to the encircling native pueblos on the part of Franciscan priests in the 18th century. Today it serves as spiritual and social hub for a sizeable part of the Nuevo Mexicano and Mexicano communities. What is saddening about Santa Cruz is that many of the old families that had persisted here for hundreds of years have, in recent times, either died out or succumbed to the idea of making money, sold, and moved away, leaving their ancestral homes in a state of disrepair or abandonment. Other properties, especially the old orchards and hillsides, have become featureless subdivisions that have caused the narrow, winding roads of the community to be clogged with traffic. This fountainhead of northern New Mexico’s Mexicano culture, the second oldest and most powerful villa of the Spanish colonial and Mexican periods, is now one of the epicenters of drug use and destitution in the valley. Santa Cruz is deserving of respect, love and attention. It will require careful assessment and restoration if it is ever to become a healthy living community and a symbol of regional self-sufficiency, beauty and vibrancy such as it was.


In nearby McCurdy, I was pleasantly surprised by the sudden appearance of an old East Coast prep school-looking, two-story red brick building now serving as the McCurdy Charter School. It was built by Methodist missionaries early last century. In this and in the adjoining area of Fairview, there are a profusion of Protestant churches established soon before and after Second World War. Their mission was to convert to their particular denomination, the already-Catholic populations of the region, as well as to serve the people who were moving here from other parts of the country. The Anglo populations responsible for building these churches also brought with them businesses, health clinics, doctors, and eventually they built what is now the Presbyterian Española Hospital to provide modern medical services to the area population. Unfortunately, the breakup of the community into myriad Protestant sects was one of the first processes of atomization to be experienced by the local native communities, as indeed was their relegation to the lowest rungs of the economic ladder through the substitution of an agrarian barter economy for a wage earning one.


This population, together with many communities of Catholic nuns from the Midwest who taught in the area Catholic schools, served as the model for la gente’s acquisition of the prevailing English-speaking cultural, linguistic and economic mores. The people of the Espanõla valley learned them so well, that for a least a century now, the valley has been exporting many of its most talented and prepared individuals to urban centers of the country where they exercise positions of leadership.


The residential sections of this area of Española are among the most prosperous and kempt of any in the Española Valley, although numerous other attractive middle-class subdivisions abound in nearly every sector of the community. This not withstanding, both the city and the valley are witnessing a virtual tsunami of closed and abandoned businesses, homes and properties that constitute both an eyesore and a source of demoralization. Addressing this issue certainly ought to be one of the principal challenges that the mayoral candidates and citizenry of the valley should concern themselves with at this time.


As I approached Riverside Drive, the principal artery of the city, leading from one end of town to the other, I was taken aback by the deafening roar of traffic and, in the evening- time, the display of so much neon and so many traffic lights that I have dubbed it “The Tokyo of Española.” It is a blinding and dizzying nightly spectacle. In this sector (near Allsups), with its string of locally owned businesses, national corporate franchises reign supreme. Running north all the way to Walmart in Ranchitos, you can find any kind of fast food, liquor, pharmaceuticals, car washes, auto parts, mechanic services, etc., but nary a clothing or furniture store. For pricier items, residents tend to make the trip either to Santa Fe or Albuquerque. As a result, the city loses out on tremendous tax revenues, and a once almost self-sufficient people similar to the Amish now supply almost nothing for themselves. The few food stores that exist on this route still do not keep Española and indeed all of Río Arriba County from having the official designation of a “food desert.” A locally based community food co-op on Mainstreet (Paseo de Oñate) and a seasonal farmers’ market on Railroad Avenue are helping to ameliorate this situation, together with a slow but steady movement in reviving local agriculture.


Other places of immense interest in the Espanõla Valley are the Camino de Paz Montessori School in Cuarteles, where I witnessed 15-year-old youths plowing fields with gentle but powerful Belgian horses. In fact, of anything that I experienced during the week, it was this school and its activities of animal husbandry, growing and producing food and taking it to market, coupled with meaningful and related academic challenges, which signaled the most hope for Española.


But with a 64 percent graduation rate for females and 45 percent for males throughout Rio Arriba County, it appears that mainstream schools in the area need to radically reinvent themselves and provide some kind of land-based learning and experiences for youth from land-based cultures. The alternative to this is the far costlier permanent rooting of drug use, burglaries and criminality among the growing sector of youth with dead-end lives. The rampant incidence of teen-age pregnancies signals that yet another generation is likely to suffer the same kind of unnatural, constrictive and pointless institutionalization that has so frustrated those who have gone before them. The transformation of the Española Valley from a “Valley of Sorrows” will require the multiplication of “Camino de Paz Montessori School” kinds of grassroots holistic initiatives.


On the other side of town, Mainstreet, the Bond House Museum and El Convento were all very interesting, but for reasons other than those usually cited. On Mainstreet I met the courageous young Victor Villalpando, who, while rapping and dancing hip hop, filled the deserted street with his voice, passion and aspiration for a glorious existence for everyone. At the museum I ran into an old colleague, Senaida Hall, who was only too happy to show me a 19th-century exhibit of elegant vintage women’s clothing, when style and pizzazz were everything! From the Convento I was able to observe the restoration of the old Río Grande Café that, like so many other buildings in the city, had remained empty for a long time but which is now experiencing the promise of a new life.


A stop at the nearby Northern New Mexico College brought me into contact with a wonderful student and professor, who turned out to be, like myself, descendants of the Vigil clan from the cliffside village of Cundiyó, deep in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. When the three of us found ourselves quite naturally speaking in Spanish, we stopped and asked ourselves, “What keeps us ordinarily from speaking our native language?” That engendered a lengthy discussion, which we vowed to continue each week. A generation or two ago, conversation and dialogue were a part of everyday life in this valley, but now, finding ourselves encapsulated in our fast-moving cars and tethered to our jobs when not to our computers, cell phones and flat-screen televisions, we infrequently pursue this social art, which keeps us connected, thinking and above all, sane.


Up the road in El Guique, I stopped to pay my respects at a descanso along the road, one of hundreds erected across the valley where people have met their untimely deaths, mainly through auto accidents. Most have been precipitated by alcohol, a substance imported into the area by the truckload that we have come to accept as a necessary evil. Further north still, I took a secondary road that led me to the San José Church in Hernandez, memorialized as it was by Ansel Adams’ most famous photograph, Moonrise Over Hernandez in 1941, just before Los Alamos was established and its effects in the region felt. Were he alive still, Adams would be incredulous over the piles of modern debris that have covered up the once breathtaking site and made it totally unremarkable, were it not for the architectural power and simplicity of the now mostly forgotten church.


So shocking are the present changes in the landscape and way of life of the people that one must out of necessity ask, “What in the world could have happened in this valley to have created such distortive and surreal juxtapositions that cannot but remind you of the end of the world?” I believe that the answer lies not so much in this land and its people, as in the national psyche and capitalist economy, whose tendencies are to level cultures and peoples it does not understand, sympathize with or whom it merely wishes to exploit. In this regard, the Española Valley and most of northern New Mexico is not much different from the Navajo or Sioux reservations that have undergone similar kinds of prolonged and profoundly painful disruptive processes. Quite often the poor resident of Española feels himself to be but a cog in a coercive, highly bureaucratic, mega-complicated, expensive, impersonal, stressful and high-paced apparatus that generates material glut when successful and when not, just emptiness. It is no wonder that the breakdown in the Española valley is rife and on so many levels, for it is systemic.


This place of brokenness begs yet another question; one which of necessity must be answered within the proximity of our own hearts and hearths: “What can we do as a community to plot the course of our future along healthier lines and not have to wait for solutions to drop down from the sky?” I believe that walking as much as we can through our communities, taking stock of the state of affairs, enjoining others in conversation and dialogue, and pinpointing jobs that need to be done for the enhancement of la comunidad en general is a good place to start. But, the real satisfaction of authoring a different story for our children and their children will only occur when we join hands and do that which we have pledged ourselves to do.


Alejandro López, a native of the Española Valley, is a writer and photographer as well as leader of service learning projects such as murals and other forms of public art.

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