When we at Searchlight New Mexico asked the four gubernatorial candidates to talk about the well-being of children, we weren’t looking for pro forma policy statements. We wanted to hear about their childhoods. We wanted to understand how those formative years shaped their thinking about what we regard, hands-down, as the most critical issue confronting New Mexico. How will the next governor approach the intractable problems facing the children and families who call this state home? How will he or she elevate the state from its ignoble ranking — as one of the worst places in America to raise a child?
Room No. 30 in the Tewa Motor Lodge was the only home 3-year-old C.J. Preece had ever known. The $30-a-night motel, on a seedy stretch of Albuquerque’s east Central Avenue, was what her parents could afford. The Preeces were struggling with drug and alcohol abuse when, in 2015, a caseworker from the Children, Youth and Families Department knocked on their door to investigate an allegation of neglect. “I was really mad,” recalls her mother, Carlotta Preece.
The 11-year-old boy’s explanation didn’t make sense. He had shown up Sept. 25, 2017, at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington – purple bruises covering his body, ligature marks on his neck, a patch of hair ripped from his head and black eyes so badly swollen he couldn’t latch his glasses behind his ears. Doctors feared he had a skull fracture. He insisted he’d tripped in his front yard while practicing soccer.
EDITOR’S NOTE: When Diego Gallegos was named executive director of Youth Development Inc. in 2015, a staff member boasted to him about how well the organization had served families over the course of several generations. “‘We’re so excited because we’re serving the grandchildren of kids who used to be with us,’” Gallegos recalls being told. “I said, ‘And that’s a good thing?’ No, no, no, it’s not a good thing.”
Breaking the cycle of poverty and all its associated ills — poor schools, high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, incarceration — has never been easy. In New Mexico, it has met with decades of resistance, despite the efforts of dozens of state agencies and hundreds of nonprofits. What does it take to break the cycle?
Tyler Bennallie, 11, sprawls on the floor of his family’s mobile home on the Navajo Nation in Fort Defiance, Arizona, while his baby sister bounces on his back. He doesn’t mind when 1-year-old Emily plays horsey on him, or when she babbles loudly in his ear, or when she interrupts his efforts to talk about his favorite things, like Iron Man Legos. A tall, kind-faced boy with dark-framed glasses and a buzz cut, Tyler doesn’t even object when Emily grabs his prized “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books. His brothers, Conner, 4, and Bryson, 6, meanwhile play with his Lego Super Heroes — his most treasured possessions — which could be headless, legless or MIA by the time the two get done. “They usually destroy all my stuff,” Tyler says calmly.
“I have two cars — one’s a VW Bug, one’s an Impala,” 7-year-old Heaven Chacon declares from the driver’s seat of a red 1961 Chevrolet Impala. And it’s true, her parents, Bobby Chacon and Pam Jaramillo, affirm: Heaven has chosen a Volkswagen and the Chevy as hers, while her sisters, Angel and Bobbie, have cherry-picked others from the dozens of 40 old vehicles (some restored, others waiting for renovation) that surround the family’s double-wide trailer in Chimayó. These are no ordinary cars. Bobby, a co-founder of the Los Guys car club, is an aficionado of the custom car style known as the “lowrider.” Although Chimayó is more widely known for its ferociously flavorful chile peppers and for the Santuario, a 19th-century church that draws thousands of visitors to the Chimayó valley each year, lowriding is also a distinctive element of the cultural scene here. Heaven has been “cruising El Norte” as a passenger since she was an infant.
ALAMO-HUECO RANCH — The boys wake before dawn, eat sausage and biscuits in the cookhouse and saddle their horses at first light. James Hurt is 12, a month away from becoming a teenager. His brother, David, is 11. They wear Wrangler shirts, jeans and cowboy boots and move quietly in the dark corral, lit by a single bulb. It’s an autumn Sunday in 2017.
Santa Fe – She was 3 years old when her father died in a car crash and 17 when her mother committed suicide. In between those bookends of loss, she lived with the man she refers to as “my evil stepfather.”
He demeaned her, her two older sisters and her younger brother, and punished them with a belt when they didn’t meet his exacting standards. At night, he crept into her bedroom. “He would reach under my pajamas and start,” she says. Decades of therapy after a nervous breakdown have led Mimi Stewart, at age 70, to a place where she can talk about her childhood trauma.
The car tire blew. The 1948 Ford sedan rolled off the highway from Columbus, throwing the 16-year-old driver nearly to his death. For eight years, he lay comatose in the Deming house where Sen. John Arthur Smith — today, arguably the most powerful man in the New Mexico Legislature — grew up. James “Jimmy” Franklin Smith was a star athlete and John Arthur’s big brother. The accident on March 30, 1952, shattered his cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that’s responsible for thinking and language.
ANTHONY — A tall chain-link fence splits the preschool campus behind Anthony Elementary in southern New Mexico: federally funded classrooms on one side, state-funded classrooms on the other. The fence serves as a literal and symbolic divide segregating two sets of classrooms outfitted with the same child-size tables, chairs and toys; two sets of highly trained teachers; two separate playgrounds — and a bitter competition for 4-year-old children. As New Mexico has expanded early education for toddlers over the past decade, the state has created a system that bars providers from mixing state and federal funds in the same classroom. It’s a policy – not a law – that effectively separates kids into rival programs, often divided by income. Head Start serves the lowest income families in New Mexico; the state programs serve families from a range of income levels.