EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been made available to the Sun by our content-sharing partner, Searchlight New Mexico, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico. All photographs are by Don J. Usner.
My family has called Chimayó home for more than 300 years, and I spent most of my summers there with my grandmother in the 1960s and ’70s, surrounded by relatives who lived nearby. Chimayó back then was mostly known for flavorful chiles and the annual pilgrimage to El Santuario, an old adobe church (built by one of my ancestors). After college, I bought some family land and my great-grandfather’s long-unused weaving studio in the village; I went on to write three books about Chimayó and helped create a museum there, to celebrate my love of the place. But in the backdrop, I saw heroin addiction creeping in—a scourge that has been relentless.
Like many people who appreciate Chimayó’s particular charm, I managed to ignore the specter until it began knocking on my door, taking a life in my own extended family and subjecting us to repeated burglaries. Widespread drug dealing eventually led to the “big bust” of 1999, a massive raid on suspected heroin dealers, most of them low-level peddlers who were struggling with addiction. The bust shattered families. And for years, local residents have been cast as villains in a story of drug abuse in Northern New Mexico, a trope that has been repeated too many times. Even 22 years later, there is bitterness about the stigma cast on the community.
I was determined to tell the story in a more personal way. Working with reporter Alicia Inez Guzmán, whose own roots reach deep in the valley (and prompted her related story on the lasting impact of the 1999 bust), I spent weeks tracking down residents who were trapped in addiction or freed from its embrace. It wasn’t easy getting people to talk or consent to photographs. But it helped that people had heard of me or knew my family. (“Oh, Benigna Chávez was your grandma? Your mom is la Estela?”) Once we passed that hurdle, the stories poured out, and I entered a world of profound social dysfunction that is paradoxically filled with human kindness, affection and care. It’s a landscape littered with the casualties of long-term trauma amid unwavering resilience.
No one in America is immune to the allure of drugs and alcohol. But in Chimayó, addiction has festered for generations in a distinctive trajectory. Here, drug use takes place in deeply intertwined family networks that can either foster the spread of addiction or provide support for people in recovery. And many people are indeed recovering, drawing strength not only from family but from religious traditions, medical interventions and spunky, local nonprofits. Addiction to drugs and alcohol still ravages the region. But for decades, people have mounted a passionate, heartfelt battle. These are some of their stories.
I was raised around it. I had an uncle, cousins that were doing heroin, selling heroin, and also drinking alcohol. All the family, all the males, suffered from addictions. And I started out doing just pot and alcohol, and the party pills—Percocets, the 543s [Oxycodone]. My step-grandfather would get them prescribed for pain, and Grandma would help me get five or so, so I could sell one or two or three and have two for myself—she thought I was just going to trade them for gas or something—and that’s how it started, the cycle. And then I started snorting heroin, then little by little I started smoking it. And one day I was really frustrated with work. I was driving home with my cousin, and I said, “Today you’re going to shoot me up with it.” He looked at me and we’re driving down the road back home by the acequia, and we pulled over and he shot me up. That was the first time. And I liked it.
But it don’t matter how you start off with it. With time, you’re not doing it, it’s doing you. I was living the party life: heroin, alcohol, the weed. I was lost, I guess, in that state of mind.
But now I’m blessed. I’m here today and been clean—eight years off of heroin and two years off methadone. I don’t have the desire to use anymore. Now my life has value. Being addicted, I wasn’t a motivated person. The outcome of it all is that I’m blessed to have this wonderful mom that didn’t throw me out. I am clean, I am working. And I’m a father of a 17-year-old that wants to do the same thing that I do, work on vehicles. And I made this child a promise that I would never leave him abandoned how my father left me. That I would do whatever it would take to protect him and to guide him to the right path.
My father, he passed away, about a year and a half ago. He was in and out of my life. Even in the two months before he died, I would look for him every day. He would be home, but he would never answer the door. I would beg him—beg him not to do drugs. And he would still do it. So yeah, I pretty much lost my dad a long time ago.
I’ve never tried heroin—I’m scared. I already know I’m going to like it. You know what I mean? It’s like, it’s in my blood, in my veins. It’s like, my whole family does it, so I know if I try it, there goes my life. And I have a five-year-old son. And I don’t want to live that lifestyle. Like, you’ve seen their arms and stuff. I don’t need to be like that. Like my cousin, he’s almost 30 and he lost all his teeth, his arms are pretty much gone, and I wouldn’t want to live like that. I’d kill myself, honestly: I don’t care how many people it would hurt, I wouldn’t want to wake up and do drugs and have to hustle just to get high—not even just to get high. Just to feel normal.
A 12-YEAR-OLD BOY
When I was a kid, I knew what was going on, and I was sad. I had no help. And you can’t do anything about it. You can tell them [your relatives]: “Hey, stop doing drugs.” But nope. Look at my dad. He’s an idiot. Went to prison. I tell him, “Hey, stop drinking.” Because he’s the worst kind of drunk, and once he drinks, he goes to meth, and if he does meth—that leads to other stuff, and then he doesn’t become my dad. Drugs turn someone’s entire personality—their face, their body, everything. That’s why I moved to my grandma’s. I live with my grandma because I don’t like seeing the drug use. You know, if you grow up around it, what are you going to do? I mean you start doing the drugs ’cause that’s all you know—just repeat the cycle.
It’s very selfish to do drugs. You just overhear people doing drugs, and it’s not something that is comfortable. You hate it. And then you become numb to it. It’s bad. For me, it’s not like, “Oh my God, drugs! What am I ever going to do?” I see it, and it’s like, “Whatever!” And death? It’s nothing to me. I mean, I have seen so many people dying. Seeing both my uncles die in my house.
Oh yeah, a lot of friends have died from overdoses. I lost my uncles, my aunties, even a lot more people. My mom’s friends. Cousins. My brother Carlos, then Tommy, Ricky . . . if you go to the cemetery, it’s a whole row of my family, dead. I mean close family. Family friends. It just happens so common. It’s a cycle. And I don’t want my grandkids ever trying it or doing it. So I tell them a lot about the drugs and the alcohol, and what are the side effects, and that before you know it, you’re strung out and you ain’t got shit. You ain’t got no trust with your family, nobody wants to talk to you. You get strung out, and in the blink of an eye, it’s gone.
How do you get started? You just do. I mean, I don’t know, you just get depressed, or curious—but no, I can’t even say curiosity. Anyway, I just started, and I’ve been using ever since. But the dope’s not as potent anymore, it’s not as good. It’s a lot of cut dope. And a lot of it has fentanyl now, and a lot of people are dying from the fentanyl. It’s a lot harder to bring people back when they’re on fentanyl than it is to bring somebody back on heroin.
They call fentanyl pills the blues—little tiny blue pills that look like the Oxycontin. I mean, heroin is not selling as fast as the blue pills are. I just make sure I get my dope without fentanyl—just heroin. And do I want to stop? Yes, I really would like to. I’m tired of it. But like I say, it’s a hard job to break it. I wish one day there wouldn’t be no drugs here.
We were poor, and I had a friend— well, she passed away—but we were good friends, and she was already dealing. And a lightbulb turned on: “Oh, wow. She’s making money.” So I started selling. And it took off from there, man. The heroin, it was coming from Mexico. There was black tar, but when I was in the picture they had la güerita—it was blond. Almost like coke. It was so pure, and I was selling it without cutting it, cause I wasn’t a user and I didn’t care if I cut it.
So I was selling my stuff so pure, I think that’s why I came up so fast. I just let it go straight out of the kilos I was getting. People loved it. Everyone just started learning about it, and they said, “Hey this guy has some good stuff!”
I was 14. Real young. I remember my brother would tell me—the one that passed, he was actually pretty much the ringleader—we would go and pick up the heroin, me and him, and he would tell me, “If anything happens, you’re still a kid. You take the blame.” Which, to me, yeah, it’s my brother, of course I’ll take the blame.
I never finished high school. I was a little kid driving a nice car, and I had big old wads of money in my wallet—eight, ten grand in my wallet. I was partying, too. Like any other teenage kid that had the resources would do. But I never shot up. Pills was my choice of drugs. I used to think I was better than other drug users because I wasn’t shooting up, but in the long run, I was hooked. I was just as bad a junkie as anybody else. I didn’t see it that way, but I was. And when I got thrown in jail in the bust in ’99, I went through sickness, and oh yeah, I detoxed and everything in jail.
All the vatos got introduced in Vietnam, you know what I mean, to coke and heroin. But I got introduced in prison. I went in in ’98, before the big bust happened. Voluntary manslaughter. You could get drugs easy in prison. But I didn’t do it before I went in. It was crazy around here with drugs, but I didn’t use then. A beer here and there, no más. Once I went in, I got hooked.
I just kept on with the drugs [when I got out]. Because all my cousins used to do it. Drinking and drugs. And they all died of that. All my cousins.
But I don’t use now. I’m on the methadone program, but I still have my traques on my arm. My daughter was three years old when I went in. Y luego cuando salí [and then when I got out], she was a teenager, and my life had gone by, just like that.
I spent six years on the streets in Española—sleeping in empty buildings, under bridges and in wrecked cars—after I lost my home and family because of my severe addiction to cocaine and heroin. Today, I celebrate nine years of sobriety and count each day as a blessing to be alive. And I think that we’re in a whole different time now. Our community is seeing issues other than just the heroin epidemic. We have fentanyl all over the streets, taking people left and right. And we have meth, that kind of crept in the back door somehow—and that’s a whole other demon to fight. But I believe that the people that are here fighting the good fight have been doing a wonderful job. And there’s no doubt in my mind that as long as we keep fighting the good fight, we can get through it.=
PLACEDES “PRAX” MARTINEZ
I come from a big family. I had eight sisters and seven brothers. The majority of them are dead from drugs and alcohol. But it was a family traditional thing, selling heroin. We knew my uncle Manuelito was one of the main sources here in Chimayó, to distribute heroin. He was a Vietnam hero. My brother, Jimmy, he was a big distributor, and I was part of it, too. We went to prison, all of us: my brothers, my aunt—we went to prison after the Chimayó raid in 1999.
But I changed my life, to heal the people that I love from our community. I got my certified nursing assistant certification. But when I got out of prison, I couldn’t get nursing work. Then, Mrs. Jaramillo, the owner of the Rancho de Chimayó Restaurant, she really had confidence in my life—that I would change, and she gave me a second chance when I got out of prison.