This piece was written by SWOP Lead Organizer Emma Sandoval, a firme hyna from the South Valley and staunch advocate for New Mexico’s youth, women, and families. Follow her on twitter at @Nemmajean for more #CholasoftheRoundhouse stories. The post is shared via El Grito de Nuevo Mexico.
Growing up in New Mexico
I grew up in a small barrio called Sunburst Ranch, right in the corazón of the South Valley. My neighborhood was nestled just below the Pajarito Mesa, a community called a colonia, which lacked basic infrastructure like running water, electricity, or paved roads. Third world conditions right in our backyard. Growing up that way wasn’t out of the ordinary, it just was the way things were.
My familia was close enough to working class, but growing up I thought we were rich because a HUD voucher allowed my parents to affordably own their own home when they were only in their twenties. A triumphant feat for two young parent from Martineztown who had both grown up in huge single-parent families. They had basically come from nothing but tortillas and fried papas, so homeownership was a pretty big deal. It was something capitalism had told them was a sign of pride. Earned only after pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. So even though their new home was in a barrio, it was still something to be extremely proud of.
My father is the most hard-working man I have ever met. With nine brothers and sisters and a father who walked out on my abuela when my pop was just a kid, my dad knew struggle. He learned quickly that hustling and hard work were equivalent to survival in the barrio.
He taught me that, too. When I was a kid he would buy me these big bags of Mexican candies from the flea market and make me sell them at school to help me pay for my lunch. I always felt all proud eating my Amadeo’s pizza at lunch because I had earned it and otherwise it would be free lunch or go hungry.
My pops worked nights at a factory packaging bread, and also had a side hustle of recycling metal at the local junk yard. Both of those jobs were extremely physically demanding. My dad would only sleep around 4-6 hours a night to make sure he could do both. He did that for 35 years and never complained or took time off. Capitalism has taught him his hustle was his pride, and he needed to do whatever to took to keep making the payments on that house of ours.
Despite the grueling work, my dad was still just barely working class. A union man who worked for the same job for 35 years, he finally retired in 2008. At his max he earned no more than $38,000 a year; a wage that lead me to believe that capitalism was bullshit. If someone like my dad could bust his ass his whole life, play his cards by the book, be respectful, hardworking, God-fearing, and would still never make enough money to stop us from going hungry, or eventually being homeless – then the idea of “hard work paying off” in a capitalist market was nothing more than a bogus myth that kept us working hard for someone else’s profit.
My dad was and still is an angel, and that’s why I could never understand why people would want to make laws that criminalize or demean poor people. I never could understand why the establishment would want to put limits or restrictions on things that help the poor or people who are hurting. Don’t people understand they are only further hurting people who are already broken? Don’t they know innocent children are the ones who bear the brunt of that pain?
Family secrets, community trauma, and community healing
My mama taught me the most about the consequences of hurting people who were already broken. She was the oldest of 6 kids, and she was the caretaker of her familia. She was taught at a young age that in a Chicano family, women have to do what they have to do. That usually meant we were the “take care of everything” crew. Women took care of the family, the community, and they bore all of the family secrets while silently weaving little miracles out of thin air.
My mama was a nurturer, a beautiful soul who cares so deeply about others she often put her own emotions, fear, and personal self on the back burner. She was a little brown tea pot on the back burner, slowing warming up until it would whistle.
She took really good care of us when we were little. She taught me how to read really early and people always praised me for being really smart because of it. The gift of gab, everyone would say. They’d say it was because my mama read to me. Even though her lessons were always hard ones, I think I learned way more from watching her struggle than I did from her reading books to me.
When my mother was a child she was victimized by a family member in front of her sisters. True to what she was taught, she suppressed that shit so far down that she convinced herself it never happened. Buried under the piles of secrets she was expected to burn she eventually burned herself. Homeownership, finally being out of poverty, a husband, and three beautiful babies wasn’t enough to fill the little bitty pieces of her that were broken by people who took advantage of her as a helpless child, and countless other traumas that she had experienced as consequences of growing up in extreme poverty.
It was the same kinds of trauma that happen way too often to poor children and even more often to poor kids of color. But don’t get it twisted, my mama would never let you call her a victim. She would never admit those deep wounds were not a consequences of her own doing but instead were a consequence of a cycle of systemic oppression and trauma. That’s not exactly the kind of women she was. Instead she always took the blame for it, always carried the guilt, the burden, and around the time I was 5 it finally all caught up to her. The kettle got too hot, she started to whistle and the cracks began to show.
She was running a childcare center out of our house and was also a top sales representative for Avon in the state of New Mexico at the time. My parents were still married and the double income from the constant hustling was starting to pay off. My mom got this little booth at the indoor Mercado to help make her business more profitable. It was there she met a bunch of young entrepreneurs like herself. She started partying with these people pretty regularly and she eventually picked up a drug habit that would serve to mask her trauma for the next 16 years.
My parents divorced not long after. My mom’s addiction started to spiral. My mother got custody of us because my dad was always working. We’d see less of him, but nothing could ever stop him from seeing us. Even though my dad never slept he always found a way to take us out regularly. Even if it meant going to a dollar movie and pretending he wasn’t asleep through half the movie. He always tried to give us a sense of normalcy as our lives started to spiral into something out of our control. Something that would eventually become all too normal.
One income was not enough for us to be working class anymore. My dad would give my mom most of his money in child support, while he lived with my abuela, because he didn’t have enough left over for himself to get his own place. As the money left so did my mom’s friends and so did her sanity. All they had built was crumbling, all of that guilt broke open her wounds, and fueled her drug addiction.
Shit started to get weird when my mom started dating other junkies. She stopped the Avon business, things started to go missing. She would not come home for extended periods of time, leaving us alone. There was hardly ever food in the house, the lights or phone would be disconnected and we’d always have to call my dad for more money.
My poor dad was always stuck between a rock and a hard place. There was no way we could have lived our lives without his financial support, but there was also no way we could physically live with him either. He simply worked too much. He would keep getting in these situations where he would have to choose between taking us from her, or helping her. Knowing he probably couldn’t really take us, and maybe also because he still loved her, (which he’d never admit) he always opted for helping her.
My mom made constant financial mistakes, including completely screwing over my dad on those taxes she never paid from Avon. All the while we lived off foods stamps just to eat. Sometimes we would get kicked off food stamp for whatever reason. Usually it was because my mom wasn’t around to go to the welfare office around renewal time. My mom had a habit of going missing for weeks on end. So we would just go hungry until my dad could come by or some kind neighbor would notice and invite us over for dinner. You can never forget hunger like that.
The people of the South Valley always get this bad rap because the news always highlights the killing or the gangs, but my neighbors were barrio angels, and without them I don’t think I’d be alive or where I am today. My friends’ parents were always the kindest. Even though I was usually a little asshole, so angry from feeling so abandoned, my friends’ parents would always take me in. They would briefly mention things like, “I saw your mom walking early today, have you seen her lately?”. I’d snarkily respond with something like, “Well, you’ve seen her more then I have.”
Instead of being angry with me, they’d feed me. When I’d eat like a savage, because it was usually the only home-cooked meal I had eaten in awhile, they’d say things like, “Mija you’re a good eater, want some more?” I could never thank them enough for their kindness and constant generosity. Their love taught me above all else it takes a village, and it is our duty to care for all of the children in our community, even when we are struggling too.
Fueling a commitment to Social Justice
These are the basic principle of loving and caring for one another, acting with selflessness and kindness, and not judging other because you don’t know what they’ve been through… That has fueled a passion and commitment in me for social justice.
Many of you reading this might say why fight for social justice? Your pain was your mom’s fault- others shouldn’t have to pay for her actions. At some point in my life I may have agreed with you, but as I grew up, and eventually as my mother got sober, I learned that she was trying so damn hard to mask her hurt that she hurt others in the process. She never wanted to be a drug addict, she never wanted the guilt that came with some of the things she did for a fix. She is 9 years sober now and she still has to carry around the guilt of the pain she caused her family. Guilt she tries every day to make amends for, but once you’re an addict you don’t really have a choice, and as your life and purpose leave with your habit, any hope for change usually leaves too.
My mom always tells me, “People on drugs have so much hurt, so much pain. Nothing you can do to hurt them is worse than what they are already doing to themselves when they use drugs.” Yet we spend millions of dollars trying to criminalize and hurt addicts into not wanting to use drugs anymore. It’s a pretty stupid way of trying to fix the problem. Especially when the root cause of why they use is rooted in the same pain that usually makes them want to use drugs in the first place.
These often untold stories just begin to scratch the surface of the many deeply rooted values and beliefs that have been ingrained in me through personal experience. These things give me a strong sense of urgency to fight for social justice. They are the coffee that wakes me up in the morning ready to fight every single day of my life for something better for my community. They are why a 28-year-old self identified chola would wake up every morning, and put on a suit that makes me feel hella uncomfortable, and go to lobby at the state legislature. Not because I make a big check at my nonprofit job, but because I fucking care. I care so much it eats me. It’s the tears that swell up in my eyes when I look at my child and want just so bad to one day see a better world for him. Not just for my own son either, for all the children in my hood.
The laws that are created by our government impact our communities first hand but most of the people making the laws are hella out of touch with the realities our communities face. Don’t get me wrong, some of them may have kind hearts and good intentions, but for the most part they have no clue how to fix our state’s problems, because most of them have never personally lived through them. Good intentions don’t always make good policies. More often than not those bad policies perpetuate the cycles of oppression and often hurt people more than they help.
That why I’m bringing you this blog, in part a personal endeavor and another part attempt to bring the working class perspective into the state legislature. Because the people whose voices matter the most need to be heard in Santa Fe and I am tired of my gente only having biased new stations’ perspective on what really happens in the Roundhouse.
So I ask you to check it out. Share this blog, and join me on my adventure, as cholas take over the Roundhouse…
It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.