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 5


For Ricky’s sake, Joseph hopes to again have land, a home, a history. "I want him to have what I had, no? And I want him to stay off drugs. … At the end of the day, that’s really all I want."

Addiction specialists say drug use is frequently precipitated or exacerbated by experiences of loss — the loss of a loved one, or a livelihood, or a home. Every one of the 40 addicts I have interviewed recount such experiences. And for many Hispano addicts, such as Joseph Martinez, the land is the greatest loss. It is so much more than real estate: It is the loss of life and traditions.

The loss of land runs deeper than a single generation. Nearly all of the Hispano villages in the Española Valley were settled as community land grants, first by Spain and later by Mexico. There were different types of grants, but most provided settlers with enough land for an individual home, an irrigable plot for personal farming, and the right to share common land for pasturing livestock, gathering firewood, hunting and fishing. According to the specifications of the grant, personal allotments could be sold as private property, but common lands could not. The common lands were owned by the community, to be used and preserved for the community’s well-being.

The notion of collective, un-sellable land runs contrary to the American obsession with private property, and it is precisely this obsession that has pushed Hispanos off their land. It began shortly after the end of the Mexican-American war, with the "adjudication" process in which American government authorities — colluding with speculators — determined the "validity" of hundreds of land grants in the state. Only a small percentage of the original grants survived; most fell into the hands of real estate developers and speculators, or eventually ended up with the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management (HCN, 12/4/00: Road Block).

Today, the Valley’s residents, many of whom are land-grant "heirs," complain that their land was flat-out stolen. Decades-long battles to reclaim that land are still tied up in the courts. (Of course, these lands were also stolen from Native Americans by Spanish conquerors. And the Pueblo tribes in the Española Valley suffer a similar rate of addiction.)

The cruel irony is that the land that was "lost" is still there. Every Hispano can see it. It is upon the land grants that Los Alamos is built, that developers build adobe chalets for the upper middle class. And this is the land that is endlessly subdivided for mobile homes, the only "affordable housing" for the working poor in northern New Mexico today.

Mikey Mascanares understands the irony all too well. The 36-year-old land-grant heir is homeless.

"I lost everything when I got hooked (on heroin)," he says, sitting in his girlfriend’s trailer in Española. But, he says, things were changing even before he started using. Mikey is from Truchas, the once-isolated mountain village that saw an influx of artists from coastal cities beginning in the late 1960s. The newcomers bought and refurbished crumbling adobe houses and set up studios with sweeping views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains — the mountains that generations of Mascanares’ family had depended on, not as scenery but for survival.

According to Mikey, several of the newcomers left after the first harsh winter. Others were persuaded to leave when the locals burned down their houses. "When push comes to shove, you do what you’ve got to do," he says. But some of the newcomers stayed on, and, over the years, many more arrived.

Now in treatment for his heroin addiction, Mikey is more resigned than angry. He can’t help but laugh at his status as a land-grant heir with no land, no job, and no home. "It’s like being clean (off drugs). You either got it or you don’t," he says. "One day, I’ll have it all again."

Local law enforcement’s response to the region’s heroin problem has been piecemeal at best, complicit at worst. Arrests center on small-scale dealers and addicts, many who are caught in a cycle of incarceration and court-appointed recovery programs. Police say they are overwhelmed, that understaffing and lack of funds impair their response to the problem. But many locals say that enduring familial and political allegiances mean that police often turn a blind eye to the heroin-related crime.

There are a handful of treatment centers in the valley, including a program that provides the medication methadone for the treatment of heroin addiction, a facility that serves addicts under 18 years old, and a few that provide counseling for addicts and their families. The San Juan Pueblo also has a recovery program.

But the treatment centers struggle mightily to meet the need, says Ben Tafoya, executive director of Hoy Recovery Program. The Valley’s oldest treatment center, Hoy has been serving locals since the early 1970s, out of its offices in Española. Initially, the staff saw mostly alcoholics, Ben tells me, but these days, over half of their patients are heroin addicts.

Recognizing the changing nature of addiction in the Valley, Hoy recently opened a residential drug detoxification program in my town, Velarde. But Ben puts his hope outside the clinic: in the 31 acres of land that surround the new building.

High Country News Classifieds