New Mexico’s future

To better understand the challenges and circumstances our children face, Searchlight New Mexico is spending a year visiting and profiling kids from every corner of the state.

In tiny Mosquero, ‘brilliant’ Kate is one of district’s 40 students

She lives in the least populated place in New Mexico — fewer than 700 people spread across 2,100 square miles in Harding County in the northeast quadrant of the state.

Her house — the same one where her mother grew up — is a block from her school, where she and 40 other children make up the entire student body from kindergarten through 12th grade.

She loves the Future Farmers of America and can talk at length about her passion for the organization. She hopes one day, when she’s older than 7, she can raise chickens.

For reasons only she knows — and she’s not telling — she likes to speak in a British accent. Last Halloween, she dressed as the queen of England.

Kate Green, 7, attends school in Mosquero, the least-populated place in all of New Mexico. Don Usner for Searchlight New Mexico.

Kate Green, 7, attends school in Mosquero, the least-populated place in all of New Mexico. Don Usner for Searchlight New Mexico.

Who is Kate Green?

If you ask her to describe herself in two words, those words will be “weird” and “weird.”

Weird is a popular concept with Kate, almost as dear to her as her Barbie dolls, her shelves of books and the time she spends working alongside her dad, Jake, in his woodworking shop in the family’s garage.

“Brilliant little kid,” says Tommy Turner, superintendent of the Mosquero Municipal School District, who pastures his horses on a plot of land that abuts Kate’s backyard and works with her mother, Margaret, the school secretary. “She’s so analytical. Those wheels are always turning.”

Kate’s is a middle-America life where mom, dad and daughter walk across the street to church every Sunday morning and gather each evening for dinner and talk.

And Kate can talk: “I help my dad work all the time. We work on the fence. He bosses me around. I work in Daddy’s workshop a lot. In the winter it’s always warm in there and I like the way it smells.”

Mosquero is perched all alone on the flat, grassy northeastern plains. Its population in the 2000 U.S. Census was 120. Ten years later, it dropped to 93. Children here are similarly spread out; Kate’s best friend lives a mile away down a dirt road.

Kate spends a lot of time with adults, and a lot of time in her room — reading, writing stories and playing with her toys. She’s content with her parents and grandparents, her vegetable garden, her bike and her replica John Deere tractor.

The best part about living in Mosquero?

“It’s a small town, “she says. “And I also like that bad guys rarely come here because there’s not like a jewelry story or a gold shop.”

Margaret, who grew up in Mosquero, and Jake, whose father is a cowboy on the nearby Bell Ranch, waited five years after marrying to have a child.

“Very planned,” Jake says. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect it to be this easy or this fun.”

When Kate was born, she almost immediately signaled she would be unique.

“She was very alert, very observant,” Margaret says.

When she started talking, her personality started to bubble out.

“I don’t think she has ever had a bad day,” says Marcie Pergeson, the teacher in the combined second- and third-grade classroom at Mosquero School. “She’s very blunt. She’s very opinionated. And, oh my goodness, she has the best sense of humor.”

Margaret, who went away to West Texas for college and loves books, started reading to Kate almost as soon as she was born. The first book she read aloud was “Pride and Prejudice,” begun when Kate was just 3 days old. Seven years later, Margaret has found an unexpected pleasure in motherhood.

“I love that I can carry on a conversation with my child,” she says. “Just talk with her. It’s fun.”

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In Chimayó, Heaven thrives amid lowriders

“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. She looks forward to the day she’ll be able to drive the cars herself.

Heaven sits back in her very own Chevy Impala. Don Usner for Searchlight New Mexico.

Heaven sits back in her very own Chevy Impala. Don Usner for Searchlight New Mexico.

“My favorite things to do are to play outside with my friends, and go horseback riding and go fishing and go hunting,” she proclaims. “I like hunting because I get to shoot a .22, and I love to ride horses because the horses go fast and I don’t slip off — and I also like to go lowriding. It’s my most favorite thing because I get to ride in so many cars — and I don’t have to walk!”

Chimayó is home to some 3,000 people, most of them descendants from Spanish colonists who arrived in the early 1600s, though most families can also trace Native American ancestry. The traditional arts — weaving, wood carving, tin work and retablo-painting — are still practiced here. Many regard the art and craft of building lowriders, which are often decorated with murals derived from traditional imagery, as a natural extension of the people’s knack for self-expression through folk art.

Heaven’s family lives in one of the many mobile homes that now greatly outnumber the old adobe houses in Chimayó, in the middle of a patchwork of largely disused farm fields that spans the valley. Chimayó has never been clearly defined as a distinct town but rather comprises a loose collection of neighborhoods known historically as plazas or placitas.

Fifty years ago, Heaven would have said she was from the Plaza Abajo. It was only with the arrival of the U.S. Postal Service that the distinct barrios were grouped together under one moniker.

The spread-out nature of the community remains, as Chimayó is unincorporated and split between two counties, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe. The lack of public administration and authority leaves it in a kind of “in-between” place, which is both a blessing (taxes are low; rules and regulations are few) and a curse (public services are scarce).  

Heaven revels in the rural life, though she acknowledges it has its rigors and challenges. Every year, she and her sisters pile in a big pickup with their father and uncle to drive for hours, buck up ponderosa pine logs and haul them back home to split into firewood. The work is but one of the many chores that Heaven helps with to keep the household going.

“I have to do everything,” she bemoans. “I have to get firewood, I have to get the trash, and I have to do the laundry, and I have to feed the cat … and sometimes my sisters help me, but sometimes they don’t!”

Even though the local grade school is only a mile away, her father takes her seven miles to James H. Rodriguez Elementary in Española. “We chose to start Heaven in kindergarten in Española because that’s where her older sister, Angel, and her tios went,” explains her mother, Pam. “And besides, it’s close to Bobby’s work.”

All schools in Rio Arriba County accommodate a large number of children facing learning difficulties, partly attributable to the tough socioeconomic conditions that are prevalent in the region.

In the state with the highest poverty rate in the nation (20.6 percent) Rio Arriba County sits about midway in the county ratings, with 22 percent of its residents living beneath the poverty line. Over 70 percent of K-12 public school students in Rio Arriba County participate in the National School Lunch Program. Circumstances such as these have been linked to low academic achievement and slow rates of academic progress.

Heaven, however, is doing well, earning As in all subjects.

“My favorite subject in school is PE, and math,” she says. “And my favorite thing to do in school is word searches.”

Heaven’s success is no doubt thanks, at least in part, to her stable and supportive family situation.

“I have a big family,” she says, “a lot of cousins and god-sisters and god-brothers and godfathers and a bunch of cousins and ninos and aunties. I like being the middle child, and what I like most about my family is that they help me, and they always take care of me, and they take me places.”

Heaven’s resilient, bright personality helps, too. When asked to pick a pair of descriptors, she doesn’t hesitate: “Two words that describe me are ‘strong,’ and ‘nice.’”

It’s hard to argue with that characterization when you see Heaven in her camo jacket behind the wheel of her Impala or slinging fire wood into the woodstove — always with a playful grin on her face.

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Boys learn the ropes on family ranch between 2-hour treks to and from school

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. Today they’ll help their Uncle Avery Hurt bring in from pasture a herd of hundreds of cattle.

It is a dangerous job, and they know it. They take ranch work seriously and see their future here.

James says he loves “the open land.”

“Like, in this part of New Mexico you can learn about it” — the land, he means. “You can learn from your family and learn about the place. You can travel across all this country.”

David and James Hurt ride their horses across the ranch as they make their way to round up cattle early one morning in the fall. The boys are active daily on the family ranch, and both intend to continue the ranching tradition when they are older. Adria Malcolm for Searchlight New Mexico.

David and James Hurt ride their horses across the ranch as they make their way to round up cattle early one morning in the fall. The boys are active daily on the family ranch, and both intend to continue the ranching tradition when they are older. Adria Malcolm for Searchlight New Mexico.

This “country” is the Alamo-Hueco ranch belonging to the boys’ father, William Hurt, a third-generation rancher in New Mexico’s Bootheel. The ranch — one of the state’s largest, a mix of private, federal and state land — stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border to the south and east, across hills of mesquite and creosote 35 miles north to Hachita.

It is a place of peace and beauty and significant risk: Drug smugglers have used the ranch roads to illegally move dope across the border. Last month, Border Patrol found 61 bundles of marijuana — weighing 1 ton, with a street value of $1.5 million — hidden near a dirt road.

Of living on the border, James says: “You have to be real cautious. You have to always look around you, especially in our southern pastures and also in our eastern pastures because there could be some illegal activity out there.”

Their mother, Lupe Hurt, is Mexican. She has always spoken to them in Spanish, so they know the language and use it to translate between the Mexican and Anglo cowhands who work the ranch.

On this Sunday, the sun climbs higher.

The Hurt boys help push the lowing herd into pens, then let the professional cowhands do the work of separating the bulls from the cows and the cows from the calves. The boys put their horses away and help by standing on a catwalk in the pens, whipping the animals as they push and shove their way into the corrals.

It’s weaning season.

Isolated from cell service and tasked with learning the family business, the Hurt boys have been riding horses, handling pocket knives, shooting guns and driving machinery for so long they can’t remember the first time they did any of those things. Their father is strict about safety.

“Being out here on the ranch out here is really fun,” James says. “It’s probably made my identity. It’s probably helped me become more influenced in this kind of work. It’s probably made me not as lazy as some other people I know.”

Hidalgo County is one of six “completely rural” counties in New Mexico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The nearly 3,500-square-mile county averages just 1.4 people per square mile.

The boys have one of the longest bus commutes to school in the state, nearly two hours each way to and from Animas. The school runs a four-day week to make life a little easier for far-flung students.

James says they try to sleep after the bus picks them up at 6:10 a.m. On the way home, David says, he listens to country music.

“I think I learn more out here, because there is so much stuff I can grasp onto out here,” James says. “But I still need to go to school so I can know mathematics and English and language arts and science.”

James became class president in the fall at Animas High, an “A” school under the state’s grading system.

On the ranch, he says, “I can learn how to ride a horse, how to saddle my horse, how to work on stuff, how to run machinery, how to get a herd to do what you want — which is almost impossible sometimes.”

Lunch, homework — an exercise on pronouns for James, some book reading for David — then shooting practice in the afternoon.

They both want to go to college. James plans to study agriculture economics at New Mexico State University. Then they both want to return to the family ranch.

What is their favorite thing to do?

“Probably riding a horse,” James says.

David chimes in: “Riding a horse and processing calves and sorting and weaning and branding — and that’s about it.”

“You’re just naming it all, David,” James says, laughing.

“Yeah,” David says. “I like it.”

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