Digging deep

Addicts get back to the land in northern New Mexico

  • Katharine Kimball
  • Katharine Kimball
  • Katharine Kimball
  • Matthew Maestas and Robert Espinoza, Hoy farm manager, sell vegetables at the Pojoaque Farmers’ Market, where Audre Gutierrez of Nambe stops to look.

    Katharine Kimball

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When I visited northern New Mexico in April, everything seemed to be brushed in gray: the sky, the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the retail strip along Espanola's Riverside Drive, the runoff-swollen Rio Grande. Even the air was gray from chimneys releasing smoke, perfuming the Valley with the scent of pinon. It was a typical early spring morning, with a pervading sense of melancholy that reminded the locals that winter was not over yet -- not by a long shot.

I was returning to the Espanola Valley to follow up on the region's ongoing struggle with heroin addiction. After almost two years away, I wanted to see if things had gotten any better, or if the region's heroin problem was, like this year's winter, unrelenting.

Since the mid-1990s, this network of Spanish-speaking villages has had the highest per capita rate of heroin-related death in the United States -- more than New York, Baltimore or any other U.S. city. Out of just over 30,000 residents, nearly 70 people died from heroin overdose in one recent 18-month stretch, which is to say that everybody knows somebody addicted to heroin or someone who has died because of it.

I wanted to understand why. So, in 2004, I started conducting ethnographic research in the region. I interviewed heroin addicts during the day, cared for them at a local recovery clinic at night, and observed the countless drug-related tragedies that unfolded in my community. Over time, I understood that Hispanos' broken ties to the land were at the root of the problem.

This was not a new proposition. Many Hispanos told me how their historic claims -- communal rights to land and water that reached back several generations -- had been stripped away, disrupting their livelihood, traditions and sense of self. This history of dispossession is part of what has made so many Hispanos vulnerable to drug use.

Ben Tafoya, the executive director of Hoy Recovery Program, understands the connection between this history of land loss and drug use. Among Hoy's programs is an inpatient drug treatment clinic in Velarde, a small farming village 10 miles north of Espanola. From the beginning, Tafoya envisioned the clinic as a sustainable community where addicts could cultivate the dozen or so acres of land that surrounded it. But given Hoy's mounting struggles -- including the bottom-line mentality of ValueOptions, its new out-of-state (and out of touch) managed care administrator -- it was hard to imagine the land ever becoming anything but a tangle of weeds, another missed opportunity.

Fortunately, Tafoya saw it for what it was: prime bottomland ripe for sowing and reaping. He didn't need much money or anyone's permission to begin cultivating what was already there. And he knew he had perhaps the most valuable asset -- Hoy's clients, most of whom had grown up tending the Valley's fertile soil.

When I turned down the rural road that leads to Hoy, I was immediately struck by how naked the landscape looked. Its cloak of weeds was shorn, and the earth tilled. I drove closer, my rental car bumping and skidding along the icy dirt road, and saw a tractor-trailer. Resting alone beneath a giant cottonwood tree, the tractor's yellow hue broke the monotony of the cold gray day.

It was like a sign of spring, a sign of hope.

I returned to northern New Mexico a few months later, during the typically hot and bright month of July. In Espanola, roadside stands selling peas and corn beckoned. I was eager to see what, if anything, Hoy Recovery Program's garden had produced. Row upon row of bright yellow squash blossoms spread before the clinic, and corn stalks reached a few feet high. The clinic, which housed so much anguish and frustration, looked like a vibrant scene from a Van Gogh painting. It was beautiful.

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