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Know the West

Digging deep

Addicts get back to the land in northern New Mexico


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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.

Most of the addicts at Hoy are court-appointed to 30 to 90 days of treatment, and many have a history of incarceration. One of the goals of Hoy's gardening program is to reacquaint them with what it feels like to be outside, to get them out of an institutional setting and back onto the land.

A few studies and programs have shown the therapeutic effects of working the land for recovering drug addicts. But these have focused on addicts from urban settings, not those whose families and communities have depended on land for economic and cultural survival.

"This is the land they are from," Tafoya said from his small office. A framed Malcolm X poster hung on his wall, and a window offered a view of the cottonwoods that line the Rio Grande. "We need to bring back the cultural aspects that are central to this region."

Tafoya is both a supporter and a critic of what is called "culturally competent care" -- a vague term for a kind of treatment that requires its caregivers to understand and respond to the cultural differences that shape patient health. For him, providing "culturally competent care" means understanding the local history of northern New Mexico, and the central place and value that land holds for Hispano culture. "Our culture is rooted in this land," he said. "By getting our clients outside, by getting them to work the land -- well, we're just re-educating them to what they already know."

Tafoya hired Robert Espinoza, a retired farmer from Espanola, to work as garden manager. I followed Espinoza through the rows of peas, squash, corn and native chile. "This land was a mess when I first got here," Espinoza said. Someone with little or no experience had previously tried to plow the uneven fields into submission. They eventually gave up, but not before tearing up large segments of the land, leaving it in worse shape than it had been. Espinoza had a lot of work to do.

Even though an acequia, or irrigation ditch, cut through the property, running water through it in the traditional way would have caused flooding. So Espinoza brought in a pump and hooked up drip lines. He decided to work one or two areas and eventually expand for Tafoya's imagined orchards of native apples and apricots. The slow approach was a wise one. The clients were supposed to work the land as part of their recovery process, but Espinoza's willing labor force turned out, in fact, to be not so willing.
"The men stood around smoking cigarettes and flirting with the ladies," he said. "They were lazy and mad at having to work." Espinoza pointed out fresh scars on a cottonwood tree: The clients had taken out their frustration with gardening tools.

The work crews were quickly segregated along gender lines. The good workers tended to come from families who farmed, and among them, the women excelled. Espinoza thought the women were more committed to farming, because, as he said, "they're used to this kind of work. To growing things."

Espinoza plowed a separate plot for them to plant whatever they liked. We walked to the women's garden. Tiny corn shoots the size of pencils peeked out of the dirt. It was native white corn, which would be dried for chicos, a regional staple that is stewed alone or with pinto beans. "They get all excited," he said, pointing to the corn. "First thing the women do in the morning when they come outside is check in on them."

Inside the clinic, I sat at a table with a group of six clients and talked about the role of gardening in their recovery. I knew that they would talk up the program, especially the garden, in order to be in the counselors' good graces. The clients fidgeted with sunglasses, coughed cigarette coughs, laughed and smiled. Sometimes they seemed natural, and sometimes they did not. They all told me which drugs landed them at Hoy, how many days they had been there, and how many days remained. They told me where they were from and where they hoped they'd be going next.

"When I got to Hoy and found out I had to garden, I was like, I don't want to do this again!" Ana said. Growing up in the village of Chimayo, Ana sowed, weeded, irrigated and picked vegetables on the land gardened by her family for generations. "I did this work all my life," the 30-something woman said -- that is, until she got hooked on heroin.

Chimayo is among the villages hardest hit by the heroin crisis. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in northern New Mexico (famed, ironically, for the "healing dirt" at the Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic shrine). It's also been the notorious focus of drug-related media coverage. Ana couldn't even count the number of family and friends she has lost to heroin -- too many to recall. She was not the first person from Chimayo to tell me this. The other clients shared similar stories.

Their stories aren't just about losing other people. Andy said he lost all sense of who he was because of his addiction to drugs and alcohol. Sixty-one days into his program, Andy now grew the very food he ate. He was helping to build a temescale, or sweat lodge, on the property. Andy proudly showed me the blisters on his hands. "Energy goes into these hands," he said. "These hands are making something."

The implementation of the pre-Hispanic healing tradition of temescale couldn't come at a more critical time. One of ValueOptions' first decisions was to close Hoy's medically monitored detoxification program. When it opened, it was celebrated as the first program of its kind in northern New Mexico, a huge step forward in the Valley's fight against drug addiction. Its closure was seen as another loss in a drug-weary region, and a harbinger of more losses to come.

Undeterred, Tafoya forged ahead with his plans to incorporate traditional healing into Hoy's services.

"When I first got here, I would pull weeds for one hour and be sore for two days!" Ana said. Now, 36 days into her program, she was looking forward to the hard work of gardening and to eventually tasting her crop of green chile. "It just tastes better when you grow it yourself," she said.

If Tafoya's goal is, as he says, keeping clients so busy that they don't have time to crave, he seems to be succeeding. In addition to the gardens and temescales, there are also chickens and llamas to tend to. Eventually, he imagines orchards and pigs, maybe even buffalo. In the meantime, the clients sell their crops at the weekly Espanola Farmers Market. Jose, a counselor at Hoy, is a recovering heroin addict. He grew up "just down the road," in the village of Los Luceros. "The last thing you expect around here is to see is an addict at a farmer's market! You'll see 'em at a casino or a bar, but a farmer's market, selling vegetables? No way!" But there they were, on a hot Monday afternoon, sitting proudly behind a table exhibiting squash, corn and melons.

Towards the end of my visit, I accompanied Ana to a private meditation garden the women were building. It's not much yet -- just a circular patch of dirt with a yerba buena, or mint bush, at its center. Ana wasn't sure what the future holds for the meditation garden, or for her. She planned to leave the clinic in a couple of weeks, and hoped to go to Hoy's residential recovery program in Espanola. In the sunlight, I saw the track marks that line her strong brown arms. Hoy and its gardening program have helped her in ways she never expected. "I didn't expect I'd be doing this again," she said, gesturing to the land that surrounds Hoy. "I'll keep coming back. I'll volunteer, just so I can keep growing things."

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