Column: Rancheros Con Huevos
By Lauren Reichelt
Rancheros con Huevos is a column written by me where I share some of my memories and experiences of the “old days” in Rio Arriba County (or at least the old days from 20 years ago when I first came to work for the county). The people and places I’ve written about mostly existed and I gave everyone the right names if I remembered them. Sometimes, if I didn’t like a fellow, I renamed him “Dirk.” I hope I have not offended any of my old or new friends, as I love you all. Rio Arriba is my home and my passion. Gracias!
(#1) Having a Field Day in Velarde
It was a beautiful early May northern New Mexico day, mountains still crisp and white against a deep blue sky.
I was at the College visiting Alfredo, the Chairman of our County Commission and Robin Hood to a band of revolutionaries, reformers, political operatives, artists, activists, and delinquents that characterized its newly elected government.
Alfredo was sitting at his desk. He was explaining, in his patient, soft-spoken manner, why he had chosen somebody other than me to direct the recently established recreation department, even though I’d been promised the position. It was one of a handful of departments he’d cut out of whole cloth, along with Roads, Planning, DWI, Finance, and Solid Waste. Previously, everyone in the County reported directly to the Manager.
The majority of County employees were poorly suited to bureaucracy. Attempting to persuade staff to follow the chain of command, or even basic rules, was the part of his job that he liked least.
“I’m looking for somebody who can coordinate ball leagues,” Alfredo clarified. “Really, you’d be bored. It’s a lot of scheduling.” He looked longingly at the phone on his desk, hoping it would ring.
Alfredo’s subtleties were usually lost on me. “I can coordinate leagues,” I insisted.
In fairness, Alfredo hadn’t promised me this position. Another commissioner had. But I intended to hold him to it anyway. I wanted to work for Rio Arriba, and I did not want to be the filing clerk for our purchasing agent, or the County’s recycling bunny.
Alfredo tapped his pencil thoughtfully on his desk. If he could neither convince me nor cajole me into leaving him alone, maybe he could distract me. He knew I liked to banter with him about the BLM. I thought most of the staff out of the Taos office were rude, condescending and bigoted, and in need of a good head knocking.
“In Rio Arriba, we acto out of respeto,” Alfredo often said. “If I treat Henke with respect, he’ll learn to respect us.” Henke was the Taos director. “We’ll try it my way first,” he’d tell me.
“We can’t expand county services without land,” Alfredo was saying. “We’re a community of farmers. Yet we have to hold our biggest event, our fair, in Santa Fe County. We don’t have land or facilities or a fairground here. We don’t even have land for ball fields.”
He paused. “You know that field in Velarde? The one off the Highway?”
I nodded. I knew the field.
“We’ve used it for 50 years but the BLM is shutting it down. They say it’s disrupting the ‘View Corridor.’ The BLM and Forest Service took away all the common land in our llanos. That’s where we used to build houses. Now we have to construct new homes on our prime agricultural land in the river valleys.”
He was referring to the Bureau of Land Management. The Forest Service and the BLM had confiscated most of the lands granted commonly to villagers by the Spanish crown, and hence controlled 70% of the County’s land mass. Commons had been used for grazing, wood gathering, and other traditional forms of subsistence.
Because County government owned no land and no buildings, it couldn’t grow.
“What do you mean ‘View Corridor?’” My interest was piqued. “You can’t even see the ball field from the road. All you can see is a pile of rocks.”
Alfredo perked up. Maybe changing the subject had worked! “The BLM is piling up all those rocks next to the field,” he complained. “How come they block the View Corridor with rocks, but tourists can’t look out their car windows at our children?”
A plan was forming in my mind. If I could prove my skills coordinating ball leagues, and get the Velarde field returned to the community, maybe Alfredo would trust me enough to make me the Recreation Director. And since I was Anglo, I wouldn’t have to be overly respectful to Henke and his crew. I could speak white to power.
“I can coordinate the leagues,” I promised.
“Bueno, then.” I was dismissed. Alfredo looked pleased that he had succeeded in deterring me.
A few hours later, I was in Velarde sitting in a dugout with Steve Stellavato, the President of the Española Little League, and Pam Law, a parent volunteer. Steve worked as a geologist for Richard Cook, the land baron who owned most of the gravel and pumice mines in Rio Arriba, although he looked like an advertisement for muscle-building supplements. His tight tee-shirt bulged against his torso and arboreal biceps. A platinum ponytail cascaded down his back. I’d seen Steve pick up a telephone pole and carry it across a park as if it were a sack lunch.
“I don’t get it,” Steve lamented. “Just look at all those rocks!” We were gazing at the mountain of rubble the BLM had amassed beside the baseball field for upcoming road projects.
“It don’t seem fair,” Pam grumbled. She pushed her square, black plastic-framed eyeglasses up on her nose angrily. She huffed and a few strands of short light brown hair flew skyward.
I pulled out a stack of incendiary flyers I’d composed.
‘CONGRESSMAN BILL RICHARDSON WANTS TO TAKE AWAY YOUR BASEBALL FIELD TO ACCOMODATE ROCKS!’ screamed the flyer. ‘Come to Velarde Elementary Thursday at 7 pm and tell him how you feel. Call his office to inquire.’
I’d helpfully added the phone number of the Congressman’s Santa Fe office in big bold font. I didn’t like his staffer there, ever since he’d left my boss, Norman, and I to cool our heels in his reception room for three hours without even acknowledging our presence.
Richardson’s staffer was overlooking us because Alfredo and his merry men were regarded as political upstarts. I considered it my personal mission to make sure nobody overlooked Alfredo.
“Congressman Richardson’s office doesn’t respond to our calls,” I explained to Pam and Steve. “They ignore Rio Arriba. But maybe the Congressman would be more forthcoming if he got a few hundred phone calls from the ball leagues.”
“Your boss lets you make those things?” Steve asked, arching his eyebrows at the stack of flyers.
“If he doesn’t know.” I answered. “In fact, I don’t know who made them. Probably, it was Pam. The important thing is we have to coordinate the ball leagues. All of them. Little League. Pop Warner. T-Ball. Whatever. Can you get all of them to this event?”
“Hell, yeah!” exclaimed Pam. “They’ll be there. You want us to get them calling Richardson’s office about the ball field?”
I smiled. “It wouldn’t hurt if they tied up all his lines screaming about the BLM. Ask for Dirk.” That was the name of the staffer I didn’t like. “And Thursday Night? I think I’d make an excellent neutral facilitator due to my lack of interest in baseball.”
“Consider it done,” promised Steve.
When I got back to my donated storage closet, the phone was ringing. It was Walt Howerton, my favorite Rio Grande Sun reporter. He covered the County beat and had more info on the status of my job than I did. I usually called him when I needed reassurance.
“Do you know anything about this flyer that mysteriously appeared on my desk?” asked Walt.
“What flyer?” I responded. I didn’t tell him I’d placed it on his desk.
“It says, ‘CONGESSMAN BILL RICHARDSON WANTS TO TAKE AWAY YOUR BASEBALL FIELD TO ACCOMODATE ROCKS!’ There’s a meeting scheduled for Thursday Night.”
“Rocks?” I asked.
“Yeah. Apparently Richardson’s office wants to shut down a ball field in Velarde. There’s a rock pile next to the field.”
“Maybe Richardson’s office knows something about it,” I suggested. “Have you asked them? Try asking for Dirk. He seems pretty knowledgeable.”
Walt called back a half an hour later. “I phoned Richardson’s office but they didn’t know about it,” he informed me. “They’re investigating. It turns out the BLM is trying to shut down that ball-field in Velarde, citing disruption of the View Corridor.”
“What!!!” I was surprised and horrified. “The leagues here have been using that field for decades! What’s a view corridor? It sounds like they’re calling little brown kids playing baseball visual pollution. That is repugnant and it makes me angry!”
“Can I quote you on that?” asked Walt.
“Sure,” I told him. “Have a field day.”
The phone rang again. The flyer I didn’t compose seemed to be generating a lot of activity.
It was the County Manager, Lorenzo Valdez. He sounded suspicious. But then, he sounded perpetually suspicious. Maybe it was because none of his staff ever told him what they were doing. “Do you know anything about a community meeting in Velarde Thursday Night?” he asked. “Richardson’s office called to ask about it.”
“No,” I responded innocently. “Did you ask the guy you just hired to coordinate the leagues? Maybe he knows something.”
Thursday Night rolled around. Lorenzo, Alfredo, and a few of my colleagues watched as hundreds of people packed the auditorium. Lorenzo looked bewildered. He was probably trying to figure out who had put me up to organizing this meeting.
“Did Norman assign this to you?” Lorenzo asked.
“No,” I told him. “Alfredo said he needed somebody to coordinate the ball leagues so I volunteered.”
“¡Y jolé!” Alfredo exclaimed. “This isn’t what I had in mind!”
I didn’t answer because the meeting that nobody called opened. Steve Stellavato stood up and introduced himself. “I’m the President of the Rio Arriba Little League,” he informed the audience. “The League Parents asked for this meeting because we want to know why the BLM is calling our kids visual pollution, and why they are closing down our ball fields!” A general commotion of stomping and name-calling ensued.
“Damn straight!” someone yelled.
Steve continued. “We’re pretty ticked off right now. We don’t trust the BLM to conduct meetings in our community. We want an honest broker. We want Lauren Reichelt to facilitate this meeting between the leagues and the BLM.”
“Yeah!” shouted Pam, loudly. Parents in the bleachers clapped their approval.
Steve Henke, the director of the Taos BLM office, turned dark red. Smoke seemed to be pouring out of his ears. We didn’t know this then, but he would leave the BLM in a decade in order to become a spokesman for the Oil and Gas Association. His retirement would be prompted by an Interior Department investigation into gifts made to him by the oil and gas industry including an $8,000 donation to his son’s little league. At the moment, I considered him Public Enemy Number One for general condescension toward county employees.
Henke’s superior, a beefy, blonde oilman from Farmington, flanked him on one side; on the other sat Charna Lefton, a personable woman from the Albuquerque office
They probably brought Charna in for damage control. Steve, Charna, and the oilman resembled a blonde island in a sea of dark heads.
I stood up to facilitate.
“In 1848, at the close of the Mexican American War, the US Government signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, promising to honor the Spanish Land Grants,” I began.
The oilman’s neck turned dark red. I was pretty sure he was on the verge of breathing fire from his nostrils.
I continued. “But this Treaty, like many treaties, was not honored. Over time, private businessmen and the federal government confiscated most of the common lands used for grazing, collection of building materials, and wood gathering. Today, these Little League parents feel the seizure of their ball field is an extension of Manifest Destiny. They want it back. Plus they’d like additional acreage to relocate the Rio Arriba County Fair here in Rio Arriba.”
Norman and Patricio had joined Lorenzo and Alfredo in the bleachers. They appeared to be snickering.
Dirk stood up and introduced himself. “The Congressman asked me to convey his extreme regrets that he couldn’t be here. He had absolutely no knowledge of any BLM plans to close down your ball field. This is a travesty! The Congressman stands with the people of Rio Arriba! We have brought with us Ms. Charna Lefton out of the Albuquerque BLM office. She will meet with local government leaders to find ways to work together.”
Charna rose and waved to the crowd like Miss America. “I am so excited to work with you all,” she declared. “Nobody is going to shut down your ball field. That’s a promise!”
After the meeting, Alfredo disappeared into the crowd, shaking hands and accepting praise for a job well done.
I noticed Lorenzo, Patricio and Norman looking in my direction.
Wisely, I decided to head home as quickly as possible in order read my children their bedtime story.