Robert Allen

The Lady From Chimayo

A sprawling village, home to about 3,000 people, Chimayo is the spiritual centre of the Río Grande in the upland desert of northern New Mexico. Every Easter thousands of pilgrims trek by foot to the edge of Chimayo where they rest at a Christian sanctuary (El Santuario) to pray. It's a procession rooted in the earthly pagan history of the village.

On a Saturday morning in May 1999, a new date was etched into the spiritual history of Chimayo. The villagers -- despairing that their village had the most drug dealers and users in the county, Río Arriba, with the most drug overdose deaths per capita in the U.S. and increasing numbers of drug-related killings -- came together on an interfaith procession to pray for the end of the violence from drugs and alcohol. Catholic, Tewa, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Aztec, Pentacostal and Protestant marched along the highway to the Santuario, 450 people with a collective voice that screamed, needing to be heard.

Yet the local, state and federal authorities didn't hear the scream, didn't seem to care and didn't appear to want to do anything about the drug culture in Chimayo -- the drug-related robberies, the deaths, the murders, the fear. Then, out of the wide blue sky beyond the desert -- four months after the procession, on Sept. 29, 1999, an army of 150 officers -- local, state, Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI -- raided the homes of five drug dealers. Some say it changed Chimayo forever. Some say it was a watershed for drug-culture USA.

Chellis Glendinning, author of the award-winning Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy, lives in Chimayo, with its diverse mountain mix of Spanish, Mexican native, local Pueblo Indian, Lebanese, French, Greek and Anglo-American.

"I fit right into this north New Mexico Chicano world," she writes. "Or at least I do now that I have navigated the inevitable hurdles and the hoops thrust into my face during my first decade [she moved to Chimayo in 1993]. Not the least of these hurdles has been the drug world -- the trafficking, shooting up, syringes along the riverbank, bulgaries, throat-slittings, police presence, and prison culture associated with the abuse of chiva [the street slang for heroin]."

Glendinning fits right in because she counts as her friends in Chimayo chile farmers, community organizers and state troopers among bank robbers, ex-cons and drug dealers. "I have learned to open my heart to a wisdom that does not flee from suffering, breakdown, or error," she writes. "Rather the wisdom of this place knows these aspects of life as inseparable from job, triumph, and communion."

She argues that such wisdom is needed, especially when it comes to dealing with the complexities of the global heroin trade and its impact on the land-based communities that are forced to grow opium, the raw source of heroin, and the rural and urban communities and individuals who are affected by its consumption and abuse.

The author had become involved in the "passions of living" in Chimayo, and then, "as an afterthought" she was inspired to write about what she had seen. Because of her approach to the subject, her consequent book, Chiva: A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade, courted controversy before it hit the bookstores.

Glendinning's approach was to take the local (the victimization of the users and the exploitation of the growers) and place them in the context of globalization. The heroin trade, Glendinning quickly realized, was not a social sideshow on the periphery of society. She writes: "Through a daunting history of collusion between traffickers, business and banking institutions, governments and military dating back to the British Empire, the illicit drug trade has come to be essential to the accumulation of capital that fuels the expansion and plunder we call corporate globalization."

What makes the book instantly political and deeply personal is the way that Glendinning experienced the impact of the global heroin trade in Chimayo. "Chiva," she says, "is the story of the global heroin trade woven into the tale of my love affair with a former drug dealer -- all in the service of the telling of the uprising my village undertook to rout out our heroin epidemic."

That uprising started in earnest with the procession in 1999 to the Santuario and has continued with a program Glendinning insists is community-led, "local people rising up using resources, ideas, values, strengths, and means that are peculiar to their place and history."

If the story of the community response to the drug epidemic in Chimayo is controversial, this is because, she argues, of the entrenchment of drug epidemics in society. "Like that of any imperial system, [it] always has the effect of fragmenting community into opposing predicaments, survival strategies, and factions. What we've done in New Mexico occurred by a convergence of domestic 'drug war' advocates, legalization activists, prohibitionists, police, federal drug agents, a right-wing governor, 12-step recovery professionals, department of health officials, behavioural health workers, drug addicts, former dealers, teetotalers, Aztecs, Catholics, aetheists, mothers of children killed by drug violence, you-name-it. My job was to reflect what the community did and its many perspectives."

Glendinning was able to do this job because she has a history of life in political movements. From an early age she was taken to civil rights demos. Born in 1947, with antecedents in Europe, and brought up in Cleveland, Ohio, she embraced the anti-Vietnam, anti-nuclear and feminist movements of the 1960s, went to Berkeley, San Francisco, and, over the next 20 years in the Bay Area, became involved in the natural foods, holistic medicine, ecology, indigenous rights and no-global movements.

Her books reflect that experience; Waking Up in the Nuclear Age (1987) focused on the psychological effects of the nuclear arms race around the time she completed a degree in psychology in the mid-1980s. She moved on to write When Technology Wounds (1990) -- "a study of people made sick from exposure to dangerous technologies"; My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (1994) -- "an overview of how modern society emerged from the domestication process begun in the Neolithic and how addiction is embedded in the resulting nature/human split"; and Off the Map (1999, 2002) -- "about the friction edge between land-based cultures and empire, with a sub-theme of the practice of child abuse within dominating societies."

As a writer and thinker she has been influenced by Lewis Mumford, Paul Shepard, Emiliano Zapata, A.A. Milne, Che Guevara, Susan Griffin, Subcomandante Marcos, Samuel Hahnemann, Eduardo Galeano, Suzan Harjo, Jeannette Armstrong, Michael Ruppert, Kirkpatrick Sale, E.F. Schumacher and Frantz Fanon among many others. "I've been indelibly marked by all the movements I've been part of," she says, while acknowledging the influence of the Chicano culture of northern New Mexico.

"When I first moved to Chimayo, I asked a local farmer his take on the state of the world. We were riding horses across the badlands at the time, and he took enough of a moment to contemplate that a tumbleweed bounced by in the wind. Then he answered, 'The down-to-earth people are finishing.' People, I think, tend to get fired up to insist on change when our hearts are touched with realization of the most basic insights and goals.

"My friend, the Chicano activist and poet Arnoldo Garcia, says that culture is not adjunct to a political movement; it IS a political movement. Storytelling, song, poetry -- these are the essential ways humans communicate meaning. They are the ways we teach and learn -- and survive. It is only since imperial systems have made society monstrous, fragmented, and complex that sociological, economic, political, psychological, etc language has become necessary to describe what's going on. We are challenged as we protest and as we restore to be aware that we are creating culture -- and to make sure the effort reflects the vision we wish now and ultimately to inhabit."

So Chellis Glendinning gradually found herself writing about the New Mexico community that she lived among. "This book is nothing if it is not for my community," she says. "My hope is to reflect back to the people of northern New Mexico a slice of history in order to encourage us to continue our beating out the encroaching forces of narco-trafficantes, government, and corporations through drug epidemics.

"I wish to hold up Chimayo and northern New Mexico as a model for other communities who wish to stage an uprising against drug epidemics. Or against any insidious penetrations. And I wish to alert us all to the global nature of the heroin trade. I have come to believe that the purveyors of illicit narcotics are as ambitious -- and ruthless -- in their dream of world domination as are Wal-Mart, Citibank, or Exxon. Right now the illicit drug business takes up a whopping eight percent of the global economy. That's more than automotive, tourism, textiles, and legal pharmaceuticals!"

In the face of this seemingly overwhelming giant, the people of Chimayo adopted an adversarial stance, that of David versus Goliath, but the real accomplishment has been their autonomous unity, which Glendinning is quick to acknowledge. "I am awed by what a group of courageous folk were able to accomplish -- from turning the tables on fear and terror, to beating the dealers out of town, to inventing methods for drug recovery and launching healthy venues for youth -- all in ways that spring from and enhance local traditional culture. We have a long way to go -- and more battles to mount as global corporations have discovered us -- but we've made a worthy launch.

"The model of Chimayo does not require that people come to New Mexico to grasp what we are doing. It's reclamation in the face of colonization. At heart it's anarchistic creativity and courage, followed by vision and sustained effort to build a different kind of world from what's been foisted upon us.

"If the humble down-home folks of Chimayo, New Mexico, can do what we did -- and what we continue to attempt -- why not anyone?"

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