Many people come to northern New Mexico looking to find something akin to the Holy Grail or the philosopher’s stone, and when they don’t find it, they leave feeling disillusioned. Carol Decker, a self-proclaimed “white, overeducated, New England Puritan Yankee female,” who recently passed away at age 87, was originally from Massachusetts, resettling in Santa Fe about 35 years ago. She did not come here looking for anything; rather, she came to give something. As a result of her deep, personal investment in the place, she stayed.
Carol’s cheerful disposition aided her desire to massage points of tension within Santa Fe and northern New Mexico’s body politic, much like a masseuse works to release blockages on a human body. Carol was motivated by her ardent desire for the people of the region’s varied cultures to grow in sensitivity and understanding toward one another rather than resorting to the poisons of racism, disdain and injustice, which she had witnessed on more than a few occasions in her beloved City Different.
Carol reasoned that New Mexicans of all persuasions now live in such close proximity and in such numbers that it is highly unlikely the clock will ever be turned back to a time when Nuevo México—like Tibet or Afghanistan—was at the edge of the world and the Native American and Indo-Hispano people were once again left alone to resolve their own affairs. To Carol, northern New Mexico’s demographics were now so complex that to not work at creating areas of deep commonality was to forfeit the opportunity to create a flourishing culture of mutual respect and compassionate understanding.
Like an iconic landmark, Carol Decker—teacher, writer, cultural interpreter and celebrated Santa Fe Living Treasure—always seemed to “be there,” especially at community gatherings, many of which she planned herself. Through several decades and the comings and goings of an entire era, she worked at the things she loved best: teaching the Spanish language, writing books, talking with people and keeping up with her copious correspondence and a newspaper article-clipping mania.
Most of her time, however, she dedicated to trying to crack the age-old dilemma of how different ethnic groups living side by side can come to value, honor and support one another instead of exploiting, oppressing or annihilating each other, as has so frequently happened throughout the history of the world. To this end, she founded her own organization, Vecinos del Norte (Cousins of the North). Its mission was “to bring people together across cultural lines, to explore and celebrate our respective heritages, to consider current issues, to build personal relationships and to help us all in working together for our common future as more sensitive and caring neighbors and vecinos.”
For years, Carol organized many gatherings of people from the various cultures of northern New Mexico to dialogue on issues that both join and separate us. She formed alliances across the region’s cultural spectrum and often provided direct material, moral support and assistance to individuals and families undergoing hardship. Through Vecinos del Norte, Carol and her co-workers organized visits to Pueblo, Navajo and Nuevo Mexicano communities to dispel prejudices and stereotypes, as well as to forge new relations of trust and respect. Carol participated in many service-learning projects, such as the replastering of the Pajarito family chapel near Black Mesa, and serving as a docent at Pecos Pueblo National Monument.
Just as important, she kept a record of her findings and insights over several decades. Her efforts recently culminated in the publication of Connecting Across Cultures—Turning Neighbors Into Friends and Allies, a 170-page book that delves deeply into the hopeful workings of the intercultural mosaic that is northern New Mexico. This document, now more than ever, can serve as a valuable guide for those wishing to continue her work.
It is likely that had Carol not mastered the Spanish language at an early age and traveled to many Spanish-speaking countries, she would not have tackled the work to which she ultimately dedicated her life. Her associations took her to a world she did not wish to leave, that is, a world in which one continuously learns from all one’s experiences and not just from those in one’s comfort zone with those who are like ourselves.
Carol recognized that, as cultures intersect, there was bound to be conflict. In one section in her book, she describes a series of meetings between Navajo people and Anglo county government officials. Although both groups wanted to work toward the same ends, the meetings had mainly been exercises in futility, owing to seemingly unbreachable approaches to communication. It was not until an elderly Navajo woman took charge and began a meeting by sharing her life and her people’s lives on the reservation that the energy shifted. Following her open sharing, she asked the Anglo officials to do the same. After two shaky attempts, they revealed themselves from behind their titles. The meal that followed was the first the groups had shared that was jovial and full of life. A spirit of common understanding, mutual appreciation and respect marked the proceedings that ensued. Not surprisingly, that day they reached the accord they had been seeking for weeks. Like the elderly Navajo woman in her story, Carol was unafraid to venture into uncharted territory, to take risks that would soften and humanize interactions among groups and individuals, all the while hoping to make a difference. And that she did.
Alejandro López is a writer, photographer and educator.