Our small town welcomes its newest neighbor

  • Eric Mack


It was the first corporate grand opening this valley had ever seen. On Nov. 4, a Family Dollar store opened here in the isolated mountain town of Penasco, N.M., between Taos and Santa Fe.  Since the recession hit, the retail chain has expanded rapidly across the West, targeting small, low-income communities with few downtown amenities. From census data to the "closed" signs on local businesses, our town fits the bill.

Still, there are mixed feelings about the new store. Most locals who've been around for at least a few years -- give or take a generation or two -- admit they'll pick up a few things there, but they worry about what it will mean for the few remaining local businesses that have hung on. Two years ago, on the same lot where Family Dollar's neon sign now hangs, the rear wall of our town grocery store fell down, and up until last year, there were no plans to fix it. It seemed destined to join the many collapsed adobes nearby -- the forces of time, gravity and nature all pulling them back to the earth.

About the same time the grocery store went dark, the Conoco station closed and then the longtime managers of a local restaurant packed it in; they said they were too tired and the cost of the lease had become too high.  Across the road from that restaurant, the three-story shell of a new home stood abandoned, with large pieces of plywood flapping in the wind. Some out-of-stater's brand-new construction was feeling the downward pull of decay as much as the old adobes.

The thing is, this valley was already in recession, and has been for some 50 years since agriculture became a less reliable way to make a living. But while the past few years have been rough, it takes a lot to kill a community -- especially one that's been around since before the Declaration of Independence. The Catholic church sent off a handful of Spanish families to settle these mountains in the middle of the 1700s, not really expecting them to succeed. But just like the Pueblo people who had already been making homes here in this region for centuries, the Spanish newcomers adapted and survived. More changes have come to this valley since then, including the advent of fences, changes in governments, nationalities and languages, the wholesale theft of land and natural resources, the arrival of cars, roads and the Forest Service, and a series of small invasions by hippies, tourists and Texans, in that order.

Each change seemed to threaten this community's survival as the population ebbed and flowed. Invariably, though, the forces that sought to change this place ended up adapting to it; otherwise, they left.  These days we sport a hybrid combination of languages that seems to fascinate linguists.

Now, change has come again, almost two years after a globalizing economy caused us to lose our grocery store, the Conoco gas station, an ice cream parlor and a New Mexican restaurant.  New management re-opened the restaurant at the end of town, where the red chile is getting better, stimulus funds put people to work on a new Forest Service ranger station, someone finished that three-story eyesore of a home, and then there is the Family Dollar, where everything seems affordable. Its steel structure went up quickly, unlike the months of community labor it took to build the aged adobe theater next door. The store's fresh cement parking lot includes the only proper handicapped parking spots and ramps for miles around.

It's the latest chapter in a long history. The economic forces that most recently threatened to destroy us have come home to roost, and we learn that -- of course! -- all we really wanted was to go shopping.   Most of us will jump at the Family Dollar's bargains while trying to continue to support our local businesses. But I also believe we will approach our new neighbor with a certain amount of skepticism -- as has been the custom for most newcomers here for centuries. We just never know how long anyone or anything will last.

Eric Mack is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. He is a journalist and media strategist living in the Penasco Valley of New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.