February 2016

A Proposed Root Cause of Northern New Mexico’s Opiate Problem


Juan Blea. M.Ed., LADAC

While it can be difficult to uncover the root cause of northern New Mexico’s pathological relationship with opiates, there are two facts that provide strong clues about the potential origin of said relationship: 1) opiates are commonly used in the medical domain to treat pain; and 2) language mediates between humanity’s inner and outer experiences. These facts allow me to place my crosshairs upon what I believe is at the core of northern New Mexico’s opiate problem: the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Heroin has been vilified in the region and perhaps rightfully so. However, to look at the drug without understanding its usage creates a red herring that, to me, is at the heart of the War on Drugs. The idea is a basic supply-side myth. That is, if the larger community could get rid of heroin, then perhaps we could reclaim Río Arriba County. However, heroin is nothing more than a symptom of the underlying trauma that the entire region of the southwestern United States suffered as a result of land loss that came about from the enactment of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, on Feb. 2, 1848.

Across the entire southwestern United States, hundreds of governmental bodies arose in the aftermath of the treaty’s enactment that challenged private land-ownership claims in land that had previously been under the jurisdiction of the Mexican government (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California). The vast majority of cases of property loss involved those of Spanish-speaking descent. In California alone, approximately nine million acres of land were lost to the U.S. government in court cases. The same tactics were used repeatedly across the region. Thousands of people became immigrants in their own land.

What was worse, as the United States took over New Mexico in 1850, government that had been conducted in Spanish was now being done in English. Anthropologists have long postulated that it takes approximately three generations for an immigrant family to lose its primary language and adopt the language of the country to which it emigrated. However, in New Mexico, hundreds of families lost both their land and their language, which made mediating their inner and outer realities nearly impossible. Loss is cumulative; when a person can no longer take any more, that person must look for external means of coping. I suspect that the loss of land coupled with the loss of language was simply too much for a region to overcome.

In her groundbreaking article, “The Elegiac Addict” (University of California-Irvine, 2008), Angela García discusses the “Hispanic ethos of endless suffering.” I suspect that generations in northern New Mexico have lived through the veil of this ethos and turned to both alcohol and heroin to cope with generations of suffering. While many people were able to assimilate into the value system that the United States presents, many were not. As a treatment provider, I have long seen clients who were simply the next generation of heroin users in their respective families. García discusses this same phenomenon in her article, albeit from an anthropological perspective. From a treatment perspective, as a region we must treat the region’s longstanding history of trauma and pain and find—or create—new ways to mediate the region’s cultural experience.

If we can’t regain our land, and if it’s too late to reclaim our language, then we must find avenues of cultural capital that we can use to regain our identity. Until we do, we will continue to bury our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and friends who died as a result of opiate overdoses. Heroin is not the problem; rather, it is the symptom that should awaken the region to the need to heal the generational trauma that resulted from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Juan Blea holds a master’s in education and is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor who lives and works in Santa Fe. He blogs at http://jblea1016.com and can be emailed at jblea1016@hotmail.com




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