This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico and is published here as part of an ongoing collaboration with Rolling Stone.
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 1970s, 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, 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.