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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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.

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