A native New Mexican digs for the roots of a tragic epidemic

 

Each spring during Holy Week, the state highway between Santa Fe and Taos blossoms with roadside signs warning drivers to "Watch for Walkers." The walkers in question are thousands of religious pilgrims, who, following Hispanic tradition, make their way on foot to El Santuario de Chimayó, a centuries-old adobe church believed to be built on sacred earth with healing powers.

When I was a child in Albuquerque, I watched the pilgrimage on local TV. I listened in awe to exhausted pilgrims who described miraculous recoveries from illness and injury. I wanted to be a pilgrim, too, to walk and kneel with the rest of the faithful, gathering handfuls of the church’s holy dirt in my hands.

My mother, however, was an ambivalent Catholic, and preferred to avoid the Easter rush. We should visit the shrine when it’s quieter, she argued; it will be easier then for God to hear our prayers. Besides, our occasional trips to Chimayó were about more than just visiting El Santuario. They were about my family’s own pilgrimage: the journey north itself, the wonder we felt upon leaving the city for the storied Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

I remember leisurely drives along winding country roads, the windows of our car rolled down to catch the seasonal perfumes of fresh-cut alfalfa or burning firewood. Local apples and apricots beckoned from roadside fruit stands, and we always stopped to buy piñon nuts from the old man who set up shop on the bed of his Chevy pickup truck on the outskirts of Española.

I was around 7 years old when, on one of these drives, I first announced my plans to live in a northern village one day. I suppose I fancied myself a Hispanic version of Laura Ingalls Wilder in The Little House on the Prairie. In the north, I could escape my family’s violence and addiction; I could find a peaceful refuge in an old adobe house, surrounded by an endless landscape where I could safely roam.

Twenty-five years later, I did move to a small northern village, but not for the reasons I’d once had. I came as a doctoral student in anthropology. The place I’d dreamed of as a refuge was experiencing an epidemic of drug addiction, and I wanted to understand it.

Both the Chimayó of my youth and my current home, Velarde, are located in the predominantly Hispanic Española Valley, in north-central New Mexico. They are part of a network of small, tightly knit villages radiating outward from the town of Española. Many residents trace their ancestry directly back to early Spanish settlers. They consider themselves "Spanish" (or "Hispano," or Norteño) and they speak a unique Spanish dialect peppered with archaisms that date back to the original pobladores, or townsfolk. The Native American residents of the San Juan and Santa Clara pueblos, located within the Valley, trace their lineage back even further. Newcomers from Mexico add to the mix, bringing with them a different flavor of Spanish and new businesses that cater to their growing community.

The Rio Grande snakes through the Valley on a north-south axis, lined by tall cottonwoods. On the northeastern edge lie the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos, whose peaks are snow-capped from October through June. The northwest boundary is marked by the Chama River and extends toward the village of Abiquiu, immortalized in the landscape paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe.

Generations of artists have been drawn to this landscape, painting the same chapels, the same mountains, the same dramatic, sweeping skies. It is easy to see why: The Valley is pastoral beauty incarnate, particularly when one is whizzing by in the comfort of an SUV, or perched with a camera on a scenic overlook. But beauty is never a simple thing; it can also be a distraction, obscuring the suffering that exists along the margins of what one wants, or is willing, to see.

Since the mid-1990s, the Española Valley has had the highest per capita rate of heroin addiction in the country — higher than New York, Baltimore, or Chicago — with a rate of heroin-related deaths that is over four times the national average. Between 1995 and 1998, there were 85 reported heroin-related deaths in the Valley. There were 41 deaths in 2003 alone, staggering in an area with only about 20,000 residents.