It isn’t really my town and, by New Mexico standards, it isn’t really little.
7,500 people live here, but since there are towns of four, six and even just two or three hundred and less in this region, it isn’t as small as it would be in other parts of America. It is also the county seat, which makes it even bigger, but the presence of Las Cruces an hour south, and El Paso/Juarez 30 minutes beyond it, prevents “my” town from getting too big for its britches. Okay, it’s a little big for it’s britches, but that’s good because it’s poor.
Old, small mountains surround the town, covered with tough desert vegetation. The huge sky and the particular quality of the light make the barren mountains seem softer. They aren’t really barren; in fact, they are brimming with life, but they are tough. One doesn’t just go a-wandering up there – desert mountains are nothing at all like the lush mountains of the east nor the practically tropical Ozarks. What grows here is incredibly important – it holds down the loose sandy soil, and deer, rabbits, lizards, snakes, and feral hogs eat it. Coyote and mountain lions eat them.
Most of the rest of the town, ie, the non-landholders, are poor. The city workers earn about a dollar above minimum wage, and it seems as if everyone is on food stamps. There are an amazing five housing projects – that’s a lot of projects for a community of 7500. The case worker assigned to one of them told me that although he works another job, his family of four children is still eligible for food stamps.
The dense political life of the community is complicated and outrageous enough to satisfy any reporter who has covered Chicago politics. People have little patience with those who preach about corruption. As an Irishman from Boston, I’m right at home with this kind of political machine. From a working class perspective, it’s the kind of corruption viewed as equity.
I don’t know what kind of story I am going to tell. I’m just learning the contours of the land and trying to pay attention to everything around me. There’s a story in every shift of the desert light: you just have to pick one.
ALL PHOTOS BY CLAIRE O’BRIEN 2012