By Michelle Otero, Writer and Community Artist, Valle Encantado, Littleglobe Affiliate Artist
Two months after graduating from Harvard with a Bachelors degree in History, I landed in Belize, Central America, to begin my two-year stint as a Jesuit Volunteer, living and working in Saint Martin’s, one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in Belize City. It was 1994. I was 22 years old.
It was in Belize that I began keeping a journal, waking at 5:30 every morning—the only cool part of the day—to write. Often it seemed my hand could not keep up with the images and reflections in my mind—navy- and sky-blue-uniformed children sucking on Kool-Aid frozen in a plastic bag, the yellow and green swing bridge in downtown Belize City that sinewy men hand-cranked twice a day to allow tall-mast boats passage along the Belize River, Lázaro’s call up to the Saint Martin’s rectory across Patridge Street from our house, “Fadda, Fadda,” until one of the Jesuits would appear at the foot of the stairs and hand him a few dollars through the iron gate to chop grass with the machete tied at his waist.
My formal education was expensive in many ways. For my parents, it meant a second mortgage on their home. For me, it meant wondering if only my skin color and last name shone through SAT scores that seemed to reflect scant intelligence. It meant having to graduate because I was a working class, brown girl (“woman,” a term I never applied to myself until the young man who lived across the hall corrected me after I’d referred to myself as a girl), an 18-year-old sacrificial ambassador from Deming, New Mexico, the first person from Deming ever to get accepted to Harvard. When the letter came, my mom said, “Your going there isn’t just important for you; it’s important for all of us.”
I knew that when I packed my bags, I would also take my grandmother who left school after sixth grade because her family was poor and she had to work. I, too, would carry my mom’s class of first-graders, all Mexicano and Chicano kids, whose parents had not gone to college. I would carry all the brown girls who would come after me; and I believed that if I screwed up, the door would close for all of them. So when my dad put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Mija, if you get there, and it’s not what you want it to be, you can always come home,” I couldn’t hear him. I thought he was telling me it was okay to fail, something fathers are supposed to say because they are supposed to love their daughters even if their daughters are losers who flunk out of Harvard. It was only years later, after Harvard and Belize and writing a book and living in Mexico and learning Spanish and coming home to New Mexico that his words finally made sense. He was asking me to remember where I am from, to trust that I had a home and that it would always give me what I needed in life, just as it had given to my parents and their parents and to the generations of Oteros who had lived on this land before them.
Home was four brothers and me. It was watching my mom grade her first-graders’ papers on nights and weekends and my dad always having a work shirt with his name stitched in red thread over his heart. Home was both sets of grandparents in the same town, picking up Grandma Rosie for Church because she never learned to drive, and sitting with Grandpa Tino and Grandma China while they read the Deming Headlight with their comadre, Angie, adding comments and mitote (gossip) to the headlines and obituaries. Home was girls who got pregnant before finishing high school and losing half of my classmates from freshman to senior year because they dropped out. Home was parents who spoke Spanish to each other, but never to us because kids who spoke Spanish in school got punished.
When I was a little girl, home was mesquite bushes, my bicycle, beans, Grandma Rosie’s tortillas, dirt clod wars with the neighborhood kids, mass at St. Anne’s, catechism at Father Stanley Hall, horned toads and lizards in the alley, drives to Las Cruces for school clothes, nice teachers, singing in my bedroom and long days outside.
When I was in high school, home was a place I could not wait to leave. Deming was Cinema 3 in the Village Square Shopping Center with screens the size of world maps Mr. Taylor would pull from a chain above the chalkboard in ninth-grade geography. If you sat in the middle theatre, you could hear the movies on either side. Deming was one high school and football players who mocked the marching band as we shared a field during practice. It was counselors and teachers who thought the best most of us could do was graduate from high school. Deming was a few wealthy families that owned ranches south of town and chile fields and the chile processing plant where my grandma worked when my mom was in high school; they were the same families that owned everything when my parents were my age. High school was stupid boys who laughed at my jokes, but never asked me out. It was keg parties at the riverbed, but I didn’t drink, and wasting gas as we cruised up and down Main on Friday night.
It was in the leaving that I began my long journey back to New Mexico, to the place that my father’s family has called home for ten generations. I found my way through stories, first in college classes where I read the work of writers and poets of color for the first time in my life, then through my journal. It was in writing my own story, first on those journal pages in Belize, and later in the pages of my essay collection, Malinche’s Daughter, that I realized the people and the place I am from gifted me with something far greater than a degree; they gave me stories. I come from storytellers.
There is a tree Belizeans call the “Give and Take.” It is protected by spiky thorns, which emit a powerful toxin that causes the skin to swell and throb if pricked. Beneath the thorns, lining the inner bark of the tree, is a fluffy pink layer that, when applied to the skin, absorbs the toxin, reduces swelling and eases the pain.
The source of our wounding is also the source of our healing. When I got to Harvard, I thought I came from less than. I thought I had to prove I belonged there because “there” was better than the place I had left. When I graduated with honors from Harvard, I finally believed I belonged there. More important, I felt I could choose where to go next. I chose Belize. I chose a place with lots of sun, a place where people took time to talk to one another, a place where people lived simply and knew their neighbors. And still, a complicated and messy place, where young people had deep roots and an equally deep desire to leave for something “better.” A place like home. After four years of classes and papers and reading academic works, I could finally read and write what I wanted. I read Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. I read the lives of saints. I read stories. I filled journals. I wrote letters home.
There was a time when our people did not have to leave to discover the value of their stories. That is the reality I am trying to recreate through my writing and through my community work.
New Mexicans understand give and take. In the challenges, we find the tools we need to heal our communities. I do not wish poverty or cultural loss on anyone. But I do believe that because of the many challenges we New Mexicans have had to face, we are some of the most resilient people I know. We don’t give up. We are committed to place. We take the long view. Taking the long view might mean we don’t sell the land our grandparents gave us because we understand that the money might run out, but if we give to the land, it will give back to us. In my neighborhood of Atrisco in Albuquerque, it means investing in Frankie, the gangbanger, because even though he’s 18 and sometimes wild and might tag my fence, he will always be my neighbor, and when he is ready to earn an honest living, my family and I and the nonprofit my partner and I cofounded (Valle Encantado) will be here for him.
Valle Encantado is a community-based organization dedicated to sustainable economic development in the Atrisco neighborhood in the South Valley of Albuquerque. Valle Encantado is a community, a story, a community of stories and my home.
Many New Mexicans have roots in cultures and communities with strong storytelling traditions. Giving people an opportunity to tell their stories through creative expression returns them to these roots and fosters a deeper connection between individuals and communities that might not otherwise be able to find common ground. I have dedicated my life to helping others tell their stories, and to telling my own.