Land of Disenchantment

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

  • A detail from the painting "Chiva," (Spanish slang for heroin).

    Nicholas Herrera
  • On their Good Friday pilgrimage to the Santuario in Chimayo, New Mexico, Ernie and Brandy Archuleta of Espanola, accompanied by a good friend, pass Holy Family Cemetery; Ernie says almost everyone buried there died from a heroin overdose. The friend, too, died from an overdose about a week after this photograph was taken

    Luis Sanchez Saturno, from a report in The New Mexican
  • Ernie Archuleta shoots up in his neck because it's the only place left in his body where he can hit a vein, he says

    Luis Sanchez Saturno, from a report in The New Mexican
  • A visiting friend, who has just overdosed, collapses in Ernie's kitchen. Ernie usually keeps the heroin-neutralizing drug Narcan at the house, but he had used the last of his - on this same friend - the day before

    Luis Sanchez Saturno, from a report in The New Mexican
  • A visit to the Holy Family Cemetery in Chimayo, where Ernie visits the graves of several friends, shooting up at the last one

    Luis Sanchez Saturno, from a report in The New Mexican
  • Counselor Polly Meyers leads a women's session in Espanola Valley

    Megan Bowers
  • The hands of a man attending a men's group session for recovering addicts

    Megan Bowers
  • A man's journal entry begins 'Today I have hope about my life getting better...'

    Megan Bowers
  • Ancestral farms in the Espanola Valley are being replaced by development: neighborhoods and towns are bedroom communities for affluent Los Alamos

    Megan Bowers

Page 4

Marta knows what las malias feel like. She began using heroin with a boyfriend when she was 16. At first, her mother refused to give her drugs or use them with her. But within a year, Marta had developed a serious habit, and her mother started supplying her with drugs for the same reasons that Marta had supplied her mother with them. "Lo que pasa es..." Marta starts to explain, then switches to English, as if to set the record straight: "The thing is, nobody wants to see their kid in pain."

She and her mother became "running partners." Frequently, they talked of getting help, of quitting the drugs. "In a way, it was easier to be together," she says. "The drug life can be scary. When you got your mom by your side, you feel, I don’t know, less afraid, less embarrassed … I think she felt that way, too."

Poverty and family ties play a powerful role in this story. But there’s yet another force at work here, one that becomes evident one afternoon while I’m talking to 47-year-old addict Joseph Martinez.

Joseph grew up in Hernandez, a village about five miles northwest of Española, made famous by Ansel Adams’ photograph Moonrise, Hernandez.

I describe the image to Joseph — the brightly illuminated clouds, the glowing church and cemetery. Joseph shakes his head; he’s unfamiliar with the picture. But he knows the cemetery; he tells me that several of his relatives are buried there. "I used to get high there," he says.

At first, Joseph is reluctant to talk about life "back then" — life in Hernandez. But he wants to make one thing clear to me: Drugs, he insists, did not define his life there. There were always so many other things to do: sow the fields, gather firewood, patch the adobe walls, all in addition to odd jobs in town. "When you’ve got a lot of land and you’ve got to heat a house, you’re busy," he says. "But it’s a good busy."

Occasionally, when Joseph talks about the past, he slips into the present tense, as if his deceased relatives are still alive, as if he still lives in Hernandez, on the land. The memories are so alive in his mind. But more often, he emphasizes then and now with authority. His story, like those of many in his generation, is full of signposts, many of them pointing out the way the land has changed. The road back then was unpaved. ... That store didn’t exist. ... There used to be an apple orchard there.

Joseph describes the home he lived in from the time he was born until he was 20 years old, the home his grandfather built. From one of the deeply set windows in that house, he could see a portion of an adobe wall from the original house his ancestors had lived in. Joseph remembers his grandmother nagging her husband to tear down the wall. But his grandfather refused, saying the wall was a part of history.

Joseph recounts a story that I have heard told by other addicts. As in many Hispano families, he and his siblings were groomed for traditional agriculture. But they didn’t see a financial future in it. "Little by little, we had to sell the land," he says. And as the family acres were slowly parceled off and sold, Joseph’s heroin addiction worsened.

Joseph was in the New Mexico State Prison in Santa Fe for burglary in 1998, when his family sold their Hernandez home for "next to nothing," he says. When he was released, the house belonged to someone else, "a stranger."

Today, Joseph lives in a trailer park on the outskirts of Española. He sits on a metal folding chair, face to the sun. The door to his trailer is ajar, the strains of Tex-Mex wafting from the radio inside. His 5-year-old son, Ricky, plays with a plastic ball in the patch of dirt that passes for a yard. "Watch me, watch me!" Ricky shouts excitedly as he bounces the ball higher and higher.

Less than 20 feet away, the telephone rings in the neighboring trailer. We can’t help but listen as a young woman makes plans to meet a friend at a restaurant in town. Joseph tosses his cigarette in a coffee-can ashtray and laments the lack of privacy. Though he’s lived in the trailer park for three years, he hasn’t gotten used to living in such close quarters. "I didn’t grow up like this," he says. "I grew up with a lot of space to run around in, you know?"

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