Like many people, due to necessity, I direct most of my time, energy and thought into making a living in northern New Mexico. Northern New Mexico is the place of my birth and probably one of the toughest and most economically dry places in the country. This may not be so for everyone, but it certainly is true for many native New Mexicans or those stubborn enough to stay in a place where the traffic is going the other way. For, as so often happens, many native New Mexicans have been forced to sell their land and homes and move out due to hardship and lack of employment or capital, while wealthy and not-so-wealthy immigrants from the other 49 states, and indeed from all over the world, move in, attracted by the region’s natural beauty and incomparable historical and cultural assets.
This began when East Coast artists, who rented a casita (small cottage) on el Camino del Cañon in Santa Fe from a Nuevo Mexicano family in the early 1900s for $25 per month, created their art and then shipped their canvasses back East, where they fetched thousands of dollars. In time, the artists were able to buy out the families that rented to them and even change the name of the street to suit their own tastes. In this manner, one Indo-Hispano community after another lost most of its original inhabitants or, rather, the original inhabitants lost their economic clout and assets. Such is the story of the economic and demographic displacement that occurred in Santa Fe, Taos, Tesuque, La Ciénega, Dixon, Las Truchas and many other communities.
One thing that I learned from Ferguson, Mo., from the protests that have been staged across the country in response to the recent grand-jury verdict, and from the copious amounts of information that have been generated regarding the quality of life for black people in this country, is that our society is one of tremendous disparities, not only in justice but also in economics. More often than not, the disparities in economics fuel the disparities in justice. In a recent article in The Nation, Carl Hart, a neuroscientist and writer who is especially sensitive to the situations of blacks and other minorities, states the following regarding what has occurred in black communities and which could well apply to northern New Mexico Spanish-speaking communities: “Complex economic and social forces have been reduced to criminal justice problems; resources were directed toward law enforcement rather than neighborhoods’ real needs such as job creation.”
Having spent nearly a lifetime in New Mexico and seven years working in the African-American communities of North Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., I recognize that economic disparities between New Mexico’s native ethnic populations (nearly half of the state) and the more-recent, transplanted mainstream populations are about as dramatic as those between black and white communities in the United States. Although, if the truth be told, there are some wealthy people in the Indo-Hispano community, as well as a semblance of a middle class. By and large, though, in the rural areas of northern New Mexico, there is little of a middle class and a dearth of wealthy individuals arising from within these communities. In general, New Mexico has one of the highest indexes of poverty in the United States, and it is entrenched in its original land-based ethnic communities.
Due to the systematic dismantling of our former, local, land-based economy and way of life, the imposition of a cutthroat, impersonal economy and a general lack of investment by capital-rich mainstream entities in communities of color, a series of corrosive social problems have taken root in northern New Mexico. These are problems wrought from a sense of desperation that one cannot make ends meet, that one’s children have no future and that we are no longer of this place.
Many northern New Mexicans continuously grapple with economic development for their households, as well as for their communities. Many would like to stay here, particularly those who have homes and property or, at least, an abiding love and devotion to homeland and family. For these people, who long for meaningful work but lack capital, an investment in their aspirations by those who have significantly more would be a viable way to counter the current social and economic miasma that undermines the health and integrity of our region.
For all the talk that has gone on over the last several decades, it would seem reasonable that actively stimulating the development of cottage or cooperative industries throughout northern New Mexico, especially in the Indo-Hispano community, is still viable for many reasons. Perhaps the most compelling reason is that northern New Mexico is a greatly historical and culturally rich area that deserves to be cultivated in other than cookie-cutter approaches that ruin the land and divest the community of its traditional land base, the possibility of growing food and the ability to create beautiful and useful items.
The paradigm of a northern New Mexico bedroom community, whose labor force commutes each day to Los Alamos or Santa Fe, is not sustainable over generations. A trip that today takes 40 minutes will likely, as the population increases, take an hour and a half. New Mexico is one of the five fastest-growing states. Already, the commuter traffic on our most traveled highways has become frightfully dangerous and has resulted in a significant loss of lives. And how vital are bedroom communities, anyway?
A third rationale for investing in cottage industries has to do with both the current ease of shipping locally produced items to other parts of the country and the world, as well as the accessibility of once-distant locations that previously prohibited visitation by potential buyers of products or experiences. For those who generate information or literature, the Internet has become an efficient medium for getting work out into the world.
It may be that creating think tanks combining local people with people and institutions willing to invest in this alternative way of enhancing our communities and transforming them into vital places is a sensible place to start. The creation of many models of viable cottage industries and cooperatives might be a good second step in this community-strengthening process. An apprenticeship system might be built into the design. In this way, this approach would also fill the bill of community learning centers, few of which now exist.
Because much of northern New Mexico’s tourist industry—one of the largest and most lucrative in the state—relies on endless interpretation of the past and the region’s cultural assets, which year after year are eroded, inventing and creating a living environment that employs the revered elements of the past would infuse local communities and those who would visit them with vibrancy and authenticity.
Certainly, the idea of developing such a plan and the teams of people to build state-of-the-art adobe buildings capable of standing up for the next 400 years is a worthy one. So might be the creation of utilitarian ceramics, textiles and pine furniture-making industries. Undoubtedly, the reclamation of farmlands for the production of food and the channeling of available human resources toward this end are wise moves in a region where the population is increasing and where, concurrently, young people, all too often, end up in far less noble pursuits.
Alejandro López is a northern New Mexico writer, artist, photographer and educator. As a former director of New Mexico’s largest AmeriCorps program, Learning While Serving, for Siete del Norte, he helped create 12 youth mentorship programs and community gardens throughout northern New Mexico.