Yeah there’s something about New Mexico that really resonates with me. We came out here, my husband lasted about – definitely a much bigger culture shock for him, he had been in East LA his whole life- and it just didn’t work for him so we got divorced. And we’re still friends. He moved back to LA and I stayed here.
Now I work for Kitchen Angels and we provide meals for people who are ill and home-bound, don’t have resources, family structure. So I’m the client services manager. I go into people’s houses when they’re in hospice care, or coming out of the hospital, and I talk to clinicians and service managers, then go in, interview them, figure out if they meet the criteria, then we deliver free meals to them. But before that I was working for 2.5 years for Lifeline with human trafficking victims and then also with people who were experiencing homeless co-occurring with disorders; re-housing them and providing client services for them. And I also managed Michael’s, the crafts store.
It was interesting, I learned so much going to the community college for the art classes [at Loyola]. I hadn’t made art from my teens to about age 40. And my friend who had encouraged me, and who had asked me to come out here for a ceremony… it’s funny because when I first met him, I met him at some friend’s house in east LA. And as I was leaving here and I got into a conversation and he’s like “oh, I’ll be reading poetry over at East Side Love” at Mariachi Plaza. So I went and he blew me away. Because he had this astonishing narrative, fricken amazing poetry. And it was so impressive that I could not help but write the first poem I had written in decades TO him about what. I was like, “you move things with your words”. And he said, “Do you mean that physically..?” I said “I mean in both ways. I said you can move so much and I feel that”. So he and I started writing poetry to each other on instant-messenger. And at some point he goes “are you writing any of these down?” and I’m like “no.” he’s like “why are you wasting your time? And why are you wasting mine?” he’s like “you’re a poet right?” I was like “okay”. And he’s like “commit to me that you’ll perform at East Side Love.” So I said sure. I had no idea I would be performing in front of Richard Montoya and toda la gente and all of these people from this group called “Culture Clash.” They are really important, seminal within like Chicano pop culture, and one of their guys, Richard Montoya, at the time he was a pain in the ass. He would come and get drunk as hell and heckle the shit out of the poets. And that was the first poetry reading I ever did.
And it was funny because my friends had had a commitment ceremony and some people crashed it and I made the mistake of asking…you know the white person’s questions “where are you from?” Because it’s something that white people say. “What do you do? Where are you from?” It’s something we ask right? In some places it’s not what you ask because “Where you from?” is calling you out. “Where you from, why you on my street?” and it turned into this huge thing. So that was my first poem. It was called “Where you From? Where you Stay? Where you at?”… But he’s a very talented man and he does these beautiful line drawing and coloring books now and stuff. At the time he was doing the drawing and I was like “dude these are dope, I want to color them in!” he handed me a pile of drawings and he goes “go ahead” and I was like “you’re giving me your art to color in? I kind of don’t…okay” and I did and it felt really really good. And then he was having an art show and he’s just like ” you gonna put some pieces in?” and I was like “oh yeah I have those pieces that I colored in that were yours” and he goes “yeah they’re still mine. Do something. Draw something.” [Laughing] And I was like “oh shit, oh shit, okay. I’ll draw something.” So I did. So I started taking some art classes: a watercolor class, a silversmithing class, and a printmaking class. Silversmithing, I’m not precise for it. But being here in New Mexico, I went to the O’Keefe and had only seen her oil, I had never seen her watercolors. And there’s a show right now that’s not to be missed. They brought up all the Marfa watercolors from 1916. And I walked in and she changes what watercolors can do. Most people still paint them in the exact same way, it’s like a photo with super precise, it’s only if you know that it’s a watercolor that you think it’s not a photo right? O’Keefe doesn’t paint like that, she has like a whole….she has lots of, what they would consider mistakes. Blooms in the paint, you know washes, and you can see grains of salt. As a painter, now I can walk in 8 years later, and be like, oh yeah she did this she did that pulled color from there. So seeing her paintings changed something for me. I took the watercolor class and I was like oh shit, this is mine. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. So moving out here was understanding that I needed to be in a space where I could paint, where there was something I wanted to paint, and New Mexico gives me a lot of that.
El Valle Women’s Collaborative
Well it started with some of my neighbors about 3.5 years ago. They just wanted a place to hang out so one of the women had a farm. So they hung out, and it was like that for two or three meetings and then they just all decided that everyone was an activist. And everybody was a doer. And they were like, we should do something around that. I don’t like the way that thing is in our community. And it just took off from there. We had rented a building, and even though we had that, Martha was talking about, the pay what you want thrift store. We had that open for over two years. With pay what you want. We were spending a thousand a month out here to be open and we were still managing to be open out here where the average per capita family income is $16,000. And we had lots of, originally the thrift store was in the house, which was this little tiny house right across from La Risa. And there’s a bigger building in the back. And we quickly got so much stuff that we had to expand… But we did a bunch of things. We worked with WEST which is the Women’s Economic Self-sustainability Task-force. We opened up a class where we actually had a wait list, we had 20 women come in who got a stipend for attending all of the classes. You got money for the materials of your choice. We had sewing classes and then we had classes in marketing and product development with their people overseeing it and you would come in and you’re like “I make these cups, and you see the design is like this, and this and this”. They would do a presentation, unit cost breakdown, and an analysis of like, “do you want to be doing this? How would you?” We also opportunities if people wanted to farm out their projects, there were ways we could grant writing that would allow aid and money for the materials….and we were running a little farmers market for a while.
But the thrift store was the one that brought the most of the community in…I would think in the entire valley you’re looking under 5,000 people, and that’s if I’m including…some of them are super small and tucked in, there’s something like 17 little pueblitos in here. And that’s including the people who are quasi seasonal almost, who come in from the weekends. Or help their grandparents out. And a lot of the conversations that worked really well for us was that we had like sofas and stuff set up in the thrift store and people would come from church and plop themselves down. And my friend’s mother would come in very often and she’s like queen of chisme – time for chismosas and stuff. Time for finding out all the gossip and stuff. [Laughing] But it was also good because, when we first had the thrift store we were pricing things. And then we would get into arguments over subjective value. Like, “well that’s a $5 dollar hat” “that’s a $1 hat” “that’s a $20 hat.” And we’re like, why don’t we just make it like alternate economy, “pay what you want”. And then you have to explain why you’re doing that to people and what that means. And have somebody come in and go “I’m gonna give $1 for the whole store, how about that?” I’m like “take it today.” They’re like “what do you mean?” I’m like “take the whole store, take it for a dollar, but you got to have it out today. As much as you can carry out today and I’m good with that”. And they’re like “you don’t mean that.” I’m like “try me, watch me. I said I’m not worried about the scarcity. I’m gonna get more stuff. Stuff comes so easy, take it.” People would come in, some folks would give us $10 for a $1 hat and some folks would give us $1 for five garbage bags full of stuff. And some people were reselling it in Las Vegas in the flea market and there was a lot of conversations around that, like, is that okay? And I’m like, yeah, their making a living off of it right? Part of this is supporting people to survive too. So if they take that to Vegas they are just like a local version of a picker. Give them that power. So it worked out really really good.
That in and of itself gave us more inroads. If I go into Las Vegas, in many ways, as like a giant 6’3” blue haired white woman, who’s not so much the cultural norm, but still if I walk in the flea market or the stores or something people are like, “Hey how are you? Hey did you bring your thrift store back yet? I miss that place eh.” People would drive in and we were only open 5 hours a week on Sunday. That was it. Because we couldn’t get permitted and that’s the reason ultimately we gave up the space. We couldn’t…we had to do the repairs to do the permit but it was very expensive. We were like okay we’ll be $200,000 in the hole to open up a pay what you want thrift store. So now everything we do is more through like internet or spaces like our homes. We haven’t gone anywhere we just don’t have an operation.
Because with grants you also have to fit a very narrow window. And we found that too because we’re very good grant writers….but the whole part too is understanding that you’re not there just for yourselves. Right? That you’re like “I’m inviting you in but I’m inviting in for your mutual benefit”. I used to be a corporate negotiator. I want to solve the problem. I don’t want to have to sit there and have to come back to the problem in three months, I don’t want to come up with a temporary solution unless that’s really the only way we can get through this moment. What’s it gonna look like in 5 years? What’s it gonna look like down the road? And you know, for us, when we talk about like the Lavender Project out here. You know were saying like the lavender, if we had it, if you could see it, you know like the whole road you drove in, the whole ditch way, nothing but milkweed, lavender, and wild flowers, the entire way. Sustaining everything that moves through this valley as nature, right? Getting rid of the invasive species, healing the soil – oh and hemp too because we’re also backing hemp initiatives. And then having the folks who live here, there’s astonishingly good crafts people here. Some great people who make beautiful beautiful things. so I was like why can’t the church be given a whole big bunch of lavender and make lavender crosses and wreaths that allow the church to fund the keeping of the tapestries, maybe to expand and have like a DVDs, a narrative histories of how those tapestries were created. So that people really understand that they are quite quite good.
A friend of mine, she has a hotline. She has these little bears. And the bears have phone numbers embroidered all over them. So the people, the kids can always have the bear, but if they need to talk to someone about various levels of trauma all the numbers are embroidered on the bear. And for me it would be a natural step, “hey, can we provide you with the lavender to fill the bears with lavender.”
Well Nazca, who lives down the road, she’s doing the herbal school right now. And we did a micro-grant with her. She needed to be able to put some money down right away for it. And part of it is that we have friends who have property that have amazing plant like on it. And you walk in with someone who in knowledgeable and they are like “that’s, that” etc. and part of it too is to have our own expert. Because if we have an expert that walks Yvonne’s field and says “you have these fifteen species here that we could do that following things with”, right? Well why aren’t we going to make our own tea? You know what I mean? It’s interesting, there’s a little store across from the Church, Danny, and he’s expanded. It used to be a little cafe. He’s expanding it into a commercial that’s going to be available, funded through grants, for anybody in the community to have real big space. So they’re not going to have to can in a little tiny old kitchen that’s 100 years old. They’ll be able to can in a commercial grade kitchen. If they have surplus, there’s going to be space to sell it right at the store. So they’ll be able to just like do bigger batch cooking than they’ve ever been able to do.
Then we have a couple people out here, who, Nazca is one, she’s on the WWOOF’er network…WWOOF’ers are traveling farmers, often youth…[who come and say] “teach me your processes, you teach me about your land.” People forget that what is regarded as labor in some places is also regarded as artisanal experience by others. You know what I mean? [Laughing] like other folks are like “really? I can come learn how to plan chiles?” and you’re like “yeah, sure”. Other people are like “hell no” and other people are like “whoa that would be super cool”. So to continue to foster to continue to building those spaces is the longtime vision of the collaborative. And all of us have our own thoughts about the trauma histories and the healing stuff that needs to go on but that’s not what we’re pushing. Right more it’s more about health and economic self-sustainability. And if you open up those spaces, it takes a while to get people to trust you, even if you are actually trustworthy. So you have let folks come in their own time. And communities here are so rural they’re really insular. It’s protecting, protecting the family, protecting the resources…
It’s been a challenge, and it comes back to trust. Just comes to trust and understanding that things move in their time here. You have to understand that you’re coming in no matter how good your intentions, your ideas are – and this is any community it’s not just New Mexico – you have to have buy in or you’re just over laying more imposition on other people. You have to ask and then listen for the response and truly hear it. And it really may not be the one you want. And then you have to see “can I go forward or not? What’s the best work I could do?”