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 6


Service providers and community activists frequently talk about getting addicts "back to the land" as a form of therapy. They suggest that raising crops and cutting wood will help addicts feel more connected to their history and culture, and less apt to use drugs. But even though there is some evidence from urban addiction programs to support this claim, few rural drug programs are presently applying land-based techniques for treatment or prevention.

"That’s exactly what we want to do," says Ben, sitting in his modest office. Through his window, I can see a thick swatch of cottonwood trees. "I want to build a model for recovery that uses our natural resources, that uses the land. I want to build on people’s natural desire to create and to see things grow."

He foresees resident addicts growing and marketing medicinal herbs, among other traditional crops. "That’s what people here did one or two generations ago. They grew their own food, own medicines, worked on the land." There’s a lot of local expertise, Ben says. It just needs to be tapped.

For the moment, however, the acreage surrounding Hoy remains unused. The only visible vegetation is the giant cottonwood trees which pepper the hard, unturned soil. It is still unclear just how "the land," which is so frequently evoked by heroin addicts and their caregivers, will shape responses to the addiction problem.

Still, addicts residing here consider it paradise. Outside the building, residents sit at a picnic table. "It’s nice to be back out here again," Marisa Perez, a detoxing heroin addict, says between drags of a cigarette. "It’s nice to see the trees and the sky, to feel the sun."

Three days before Christmas, my husband and I drive down Highway 68. We are headed south to Albuquerque, to join my family. This is not a holiday gathering. My Aunt Sally, after over 30 years of alcohol and heroin use, has died of liver failure. We are gathering for her cremation.

Only weeks before, my mother says, my aunt called her and invited her to lunch. It was a message that she was getting back on her feet. My mother called me from the hospital, after Sally died. She could not reconcile her sister’s recent invitation with the state of her corpse. "I don’t even recognize her," she said, voice trembling. "She is bloated so — just like Grandma." My grandmother’s life was also defined by her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, what she called her "painkillers."

As we wind south, rose-colored hills unfurl before us. The familiar roadside vendors are there with their wares — truck-beds full of cut firewood, piñon and carne seca. This is the road I traveled with my mother 25 years earlier, I tell my husband. The road I took to get away from home is the same one that takes me back.

Then we roll into Española, and it hits me how much time has passed, how much has changed. Riverside Drive is crowded. Last-minute Christmas shoppers vie for parking at the Super Wal-Mart, and long lines of cars wait at fast-food drive-up windows. The traffic thickens as we head into Santa Fe, becoming bumper-to-bumper on Saint Francis Drive.

In Albuquerque, my mother’s trailer is crowded with relatives I haven’t seen in years. Cousins I barely recognize hold new babies across their hips and try to fill me in on the details of their lives. We gather around the ceramic urn that holds my aunt’s ashes, and eat posole from styrofoam bowls.

My cousin Crissy, Sally’s daughter, says that at least her mother is no longer in pain. I wonder, as I listen, about Crissy’s own, unspeakable pain. She says, at least we are all here together again, two days before Christmas.

"Family is everything," I hear someone say from the corner of the room. Or maybe I imagine it.

Angel Garcia is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Harvard University. She lives in Velarde, New Mexico. Some names in this article have been changed to protect confidentiality.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation in Santa Fe.

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