When Esther García was young, her grandfather, J.P. Rael, told her there would be fights over water. And at some point in the near future, water would be worth more than gold. She didn’t get it at the time. But as García got older, she understood that he was urging her to “go out there and work to protect our water and land.”
And that’s exactly what García did. From behind the scenes, she built an inspirational conservation and civil service legacy that will stand the test of time.
Northern New Mexicans mourned the unexpected passing of the lifelong, multigenerational Questeña on Jan. 5. She was 74 years old.
Much of García’s life was spent in the public eye as a staunch protector of water and wildlife. She was an advocate for public land grants, an unofficial lobbyist at the state Legislature and former mayor of Questa. Her efforts included serving as a cultural voice that helped secure the designation of both the Río Grande del Norte National Monument and the Columbine Hondo Wilderness. She served on the board of directors at New Mexico Wild and the Questa School Board. During her term as Questa mayor, she successfully fought the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s recommendation that the village’s historic St. Anthony Catholic Church be torn down instead of resurrected — “It was a big, big challenge. I had to threaten [the archdiocese] with eminent domain,” she told the Taos News in 2017.
Driven by love of community and nature, volunteerism was something that — in a sense — came naturally to García. In a Taos News interview in 2010 after being named a Tradiciones Unsung Hero, she said that her father, Max Ortega (an original investor in Centinel Bank), and grandfather instilled in her that, “If you don’t help the people, you don’t exist and nothing happens. My whole family has tended to public service. I have my degree in volunteering; I’ve been doing it all my life.”
From getting Questa a public library, volunteering with the Questa 4-H for 23 years while raising three children to insuring clean water in the valley, García was always up for the fight through tenacity, patience and excellent negotiating skills — and a smile. She relished strategizing, the give-and-take and the chance for a small town to stand toe to toe with the bigger fish in a bigger pond.
And as if she didn’t have enough to take on, García took time every spring for at least the past 10 years to participate in the Taos News’ Unsung Hero Selection Committee for Tradiciones.
“Whenever I called Esther to serve on the Tradiciones focus group she always said, ‘Yes,’ ” shared Taos News Publisher Chris Baker. “She was the first one to arrive at the event and always the most prepared. She had meticulous notes on various Unsung Hero candidates throughout the community — especially people from Questa and the northern part of Taos County. She was quiet but forceful, and when she spoke the other participants took notice. I especially enjoyed hearing about Claire Coté and her work with Wild Rivers in Questa and Max Ortega (Esther’s brother), the former Questa fire chief. Over the years, Esther introduced us to the wonderful volunteers and stewards who protect our public lands. She was a strong voice for those who have devoted their lives to make Questa a better place to live. She will be missed in our Tradiciones focus group this year.”
New Mexico Wild Executive Director Mark Allison expressed in a statement after García’s passing that he will remember her as a “powerful force for her community and for the protection of public lands and wild places. She was involved and instrumental in essentially every conservation gain in Taos County over the course of the last decade … Esther’s kind heart, warm smile and steadfast commitment to public service will be missed by all who were lucky enough to meet her.”
García’s public service is beyond reproach and her tireless efforts will not be forgotten.