“After the historically isolated indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego, Chile, South America, were decimated in the late 1800s and their cultures disrupted by waves of invading Europeans, the surviving population succumbed to alcoholism.” – The Pearl Button, a documentary film on the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego (2015)
Northern New Mexico’s incidence of substance abuse, especially among its minority-classified but numerically significant Indo-Hispano and Native American youth, is endemic—at least, five times the national average in many communities. Few are the families not affected by this scourge, which, since the 1970s and ‘80s, has prematurely taken the lives of countless individuals and left a path of destruction in its wake. Within my own immediate family, there remains more than one gaping hole left by those who succumbed to this disease.
No real consensus as to the root causes of this problem exists, even among experts, although studies by researchers such as anthropologist Angela García, Ph.D., point to the loss of land and a land-based way of life. W. Azul La Luz, Ph.D., who has conducted extensive research, describes a kind of collective suicide on the part of an entire promising generation of young, ethnic males. On the other hand, anthropologist Michael Trujillo, Ph.D., turns the conundrum on its head and suggests that addiction among Nuevo México’s minorities is in some twisted way a creative process of transcending the banality, harshness and impossibility of adapting to modern American society by its most marginalized people.
For those of us who have lived here all our lives and have observed the dramatic changes that have taken place over the last few decades, it is not difficult to identify other probable causes that intersect to create a sort of psychic, social, cultural, economic and physical “spider’s web” that many young people get trapped in. It is the weaving and knotting up of multitudes of forces that for some make drug addiction nearly inevitable.
To be sure, among these forces are the dissolution of the extended family and proliferation of single-parent households, the high incidence of poverty and violence, and the, at times, subtle but real devaluation of New Mexico’s original peoples, as reflected in a lack of economic opportunities and the trampling and obliteration of their cultures by a toxic, all-pervasive commercial pop culture. Yet other contributing forces that should not be overlooked include the generally spiritless and dispiriting compulsory educational process, the often rapacious economic system, the frequently unfulfilling and frustrating workplace and the dysfunctional criminal justice system.
The imposition of a capitalist industrial society and a highly institutionalized culture on simple, pastoral, holistic cultures is yet another basic source of conflict and turmoil. Prior to the 1980s, traditional, age-old farming communities of northern New Mexico were, for the most part, sound, although there was, in nearly every village, the occasional wino or marijuano. The problem of alcohol more than likely was introduced from the north. In the first half of the 20th century, there was an all-out exodus of Nuevo Mexicanos to the mining towns of Colorado—Mintern, Salida, Grand Junction, Red Cliff, Leadville, Pueblo and others—where saloons were present on many corners. Bar owners were all too eager to collect miners’ wages, when on payday, after working in suffocating and dangerous conditions all week, they sought relief and distraction from lives of drudgery. In time, many of these people returned to live in New Mexico with the habit etched into their psyches.
But the real problem that we continue to experience emerged in the ’70s and early ’80s, when both New Mexico and the United States underwent radical social changes. The counterculture of the late ’60s had opened northern New Mexico, for all time, to the complexities and contradictions of American society. Hippies brought with them the gospel of back to the earth, communal living and free love, as well as a penchant for smoking marijuana and dropping acid. Many local young men and women joined the bandwagon and went on “trips” of their own, especially at rock concerts, which became something of a second religion, after Catholicism. During the same period, Nuevo Mexicano men signed up or were drafted into the armed forces. Many were sent to Vietnam and some were allegedly given narcotics by commanding officers to get them to go into battle. Upon returning to New Mexico, these men knew two things: that their lives were cheap and that relatively inexpensive drugs and alcohol, at times, could mask the gnawing pain from their experiences and wounds.
Prior to this time of radical change, northern New Mexico had been, for one or two generations, a generally healthy, stable and thoroughly multilingual, multicultural region that still depended significantly on small-scale farming. People enjoyed the rewards of hard work on the land, close family ties and the self-confidence that came from knowing who they were. They enjoyed modest wage-earning jobs and buying power, as well as various degrees of participation in the larger English-speaking world, which, at the time, seemed to make some sort of sense. Many individuals had gone to college, taken up professions and joined the American middle class or otherwise excelled in some honest pursuit, even if it was growing apples or hauling wood.
Soon thereafter, though, the relationship that New Mexicans had had to their land, languages, cultures and traditions, which predated the founding of the United States, began to weaken and crumble as a result of dramatically increased interaction with dysfunctional elements of the dominant culture. As an example, the alienating public school—or boarding school—educational process, when imposed on two or three generations of Nuevo Mexicanos, ultimately succeeded in undermining almost all interest, knowledge and memory of the land that communities had nurtured for hundreds of years. No doubt, the imperative of having to hold down a wage-earning job in what had once been a barter and subsistence economy, together with the assault of media peddling every sort of merchandise, from cigarettes to instantaneous housing in the form of mobile homes, also contributed to this process of alienation.
Thereafter, people oftentimes sold their land for a pittance. For many, it became, at best, but a scenic backdrop and, at worst, a receptacle for beer cans, syringes and old, defunct cars. Capable men and women, who had once been producers of their own homes, beautiful weavings and an abundance of food, became avid consumers at the local Walmart or appendages to hypnotic gambling machines that, in their unceasing racket, promised deliverance from a constricting and unnerving economic system. In other words, some strong and stable cultures of great integrity, though materially modest and even poor, upon contact with the dominant culture of the United States, succumbed over time to a near-total meltdown.
Schooling did much to obliterate the native languages and thus the cultural memory and understanding. As a result, deeply satisfying and informative “soul-conversations” between grandparents and their grandchildren, who now spoke different languages, were no longer possible. Instead, vacuous and vapid television watching took its place. With the failure of schools to engage the whole person in meaningful, culturally relevant ways, many local youths’ interests drifted to cars, phones, clothes, cosmetics, tattoos, popular music, sex, drugs and alcohol. These fixations inevitably led to lives of futility, crime, incarceration and, ultimately, untimely deaths.
“How,” we might ask, “do we find our way back to the sane, healthy and beautiful experience that life once was and which could yet be again?” Dr. Gabor Maté, in a recent issue of Yes! Magazine, states, “We human beings are biopsychosocial creatures whose health or illness reflects our relationship with the world we inhabit—including all the variables of family, class, gender, race, political status and the physical ecology that we are a part of.” The answer then, I believe, can be found in the deliberate weaving by everyone of a protective, life-enhancing mantle that can be wrapped around our youth as they grow up and around those who have lost their inner compass. The mantle’s threads might be the loving, open arms of an understanding parent and the presence of supportive circles of friends, family and community. Other threads might include the possibility of a modest but comfortable home, the availability of nourishing food and opportunities for open, honest and sustained conversations with other people. A life-affirming mantle would also include a dynamic and compelling educational process, meaningful work with decent wages, exercise, engagement with nature as well as a validating relationship with the world at large.
Alejandro López worked for several years as an assistant to therapists from México who employed wholistic, experiential and culturally relevant approaches to healing individuals wanting to free themselves from the web of substance abuse.