Friday, April 07, 2006

Heroin in the Española Valley

Kudos to Angela Garcia's superb article, "Land of Disenchantment" in the April 3 edition of High Country News (subscriber only unfortunately--check your local library). Garcia discusses one of New Mexico's biggest problems--heroin addiction in the Española Valley. I have some familiarity with this area, and there is no question that this is one of the most disturbing areas I have ever seen, either in this nation or abroad. Garcia, a PhD student in anthropology at Harvard and native of Albuquerque, takes a pretty interesting perspective on why this problem is so bad. Ultimately, she argues that the heroin problem comes from the alienation of locals from the land. This alienation came about in part because of two phenomena--the discovery of the area by artists and tourists during the 20th century, driving up home prices and forcing people off lands their families had lived and worked for hundreds of years and more importantly, the establishment of Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Jemez Mountains west of the Valley.

Los Alamos (or as I refer to it as, "The Center of All Evil in the Universe," and not for reasons of the work done there) is an interesting explanation for the problem. Here's the deal with Los Alamos. It's an awful place. Without a doubt the worst place I have ever been associated with. The town still wishes it was 1953, that Joe McCarthy was still in the Senate, and that "My Three Sons" was among television's most popular shows. This town is so soul crushing that many LANL workers choose to live anywhere but there. I don't blame them for doing this. In fact, that someone actually lives in Los Alamos pretty much tells me that I don't want to be their friend. But what this has done, and continues to do at an increasingly rapid pace, is turn the Española Valley into a bedroom community for Los Alamos. That LANL workers live in Santa Fe is fine--it would be hard to make that place less desirable. But the increasing movement of LANL workers into Española, Velarde, Alcalde, Chimayo, Las Truchas, and many other traditional Hispano/Indian villages has gone a long way to changing those cultures and ways of life. Housing prices have skyrocketed in the area. Los Alamos is pretty much the only good employer--for those lucky enough to both get a job at the lab and avoid the drug epidemic, it can be a pretty good middle-class life. But if you don't have those jobs, it's the service industry or nothing. And the service industry isn't going to pay for homes in this area.

The alienation from the land coming out of all of this results from families, often in desperate economic times and turning to drugs, selling their land. Who are they selling it to? Anglos almost exclusively. Here's an older 3 bedroom home selling in Chimayo, the center of the heroin epidemic, for a mere $158,500. Or here's a home in El Rito, a Hispano community in the mountains above Española that is clearly an old farm--older house, over an acre of land, El Rito creek running through--for $235,000. It's not going to be a Hispano buying that one. That's either going to Los Alamos workers or migrants from the East Coast, California, or Texas. What happened to the people who lived in that El Rito house? We can't know, but the chances that they are living in a trailer in Española, in prison on drug charges, or prematurately dead is hardly impossible. In fact, it's quite likely.

How likely is it? Garcia cites some frightening statistics. In an entire area that has only 20,000 residents, 41 people died of heroin overdoses in 2003. 85 died between 1995 and 1998. Heroin related deaths are over 4 times the national average. Since the 1990s, the Española Valley has had the highest rate of heroin addiction in the country. In 1999, a police raid in Chimayo arrested 31 different dealers. In 2000, Chimayo had 2,924 people. That means that about 1.1% of the population was arrested in one day--just for dealing.

It may be hard for urbanites to understand the connection between people and land. We move all the time. We change careers at the drop of the hat. Most of us have lived in multiple states. But this is a function of a modern culture that has left a lot of people behind. There just is no tradition of alternatives to farming in the Valley. Sure, some people have got out, or stayed and been successful. But a lot of people are unable to overcome the fact that English is a second language, that their schools are third-rate, that they don't have the economic resources that Anglos do, or that they are tied so closely to family. Garcia shows how these tight-knit New Mexican families are both a good and a bad thing. Many of us talk about how we wish we had traditional, tight-knit families. But we romanticize families. In the case of New Mexico, you see families scoring for each other, passing addiction down through the generations, protecting each other from getting caught for dealing, keeping issues in the house until the addiction and the user are far gone. Families facilitate these problems while at the same time working together to fight for their traditional cultures slipping through their grasp.

Neither Garcia nor myself are romanticizing traditional Hispano lives. This is rife with problems as well, problems that need to be overcome. But the transformation of the Valley has taken power out of the hands of its long-term residents, leaving them lost, alienated from their land, without job skills for the high-tech Los Alamos economy or the artist-dominated Santa Fe economy. In addition, it is quite possible that young people, seeing the extravagent wealth of Los Alamos kids, have become both desirous of that wealth and bitter at their own isolation. This thesis is convincingly explained in John Cassidy's "Relatively Deprived," from the April 3 issue of The New Yorker. Cassidy discusses new ideas of poverty and happiness in America, showing that relative poverty may mean much more to society than absolute poverty. Thus, people in Bangladesh, knowing mostly people only like themselves, often have higher rates of happiness in their lives than residents of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, who know how miserable their lives and opportunities are in comparison with the dominant society. While it may be hard to argue that members of the Lower Ninth are alienated from their land in the same way that the Española Valley are, there is no question that both groups are relatively powerless in comparison to white society, that they are educationally, socially, and physically isolated in their communities, and that both groups face severe drug problems.

What is the solution? I have no idea. Drug problems are always hard to fight. Ultimately though, we have to help Española Valley residents have some hope in their lives. While all the people who live in the Valley, including several close friends, by no means have intentionally changed the Valley, nor do they express glee at alienating Hispanos from their land, they have done so nonetheless. Until we start looking at the area's land as something other than a commodity and preserve at least some areas from the real estate developers, retirees, and Los Alamos commuters, I have a really hard time seeing that this problem has any easy solution.