How does a city recover after its primary economic driver pulls out, sending it into a decades-long downward spiral? How does it transform from being a “pass-through” city to a destination? How does it overcome economic and social hardships to once again become a vibrant community?
Española residents have been grappling with those questions for years. But community leaders and committed citizens are determined to change the narrative for their beloved town. “When you talk to Española natives, they think they live in God’s country,” says Tomas Romero, director of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area. “And they’re very protective of it.”
The city of Española sprang up and prospered when the Denver & Rio Grande Railway (D&RG; aka the Chili Line) built a station here in 1880. When D&RG abandoned the line in 1941, Española began a gradual decline, hastened by the subsequent loss of a major lumber mill and other large employers. This led to failing businesses, abandoned properties, poverty, few jobs, rampant drug use and other social ills. But Española has been slowly and steadily transforming itself. What has been a slow-motion renaissance may be picking up steam.
Those guiding the transformation embrace the city’s culture and character, from its agricultural roots to its reputation as “the lowrider capital of the world.” They see Española as the hub of Northern New Mexico — and not only in geographic location.
“We are the heart of Northern New Mexico,” says Mayor Javier E. Sanchez. Much of Sanchez’s focus is on the nuts and bolts of running the city, such as affordable housing and refurbishing or removing derelict structures. But he is also looking for ways to make Española a destination city.
Low … Ri … der Museum Coming!
Taking the lead in this will be the new Lowrider Museum opening in midsummer, just a short walk from the Plaza at the Cariños Community Empowerment Center (714 Calle Don Diego).
“We can’t claim firsts (regarding lowrider culture) completely in Española, but it’s certainly a major part of our history,” notes community advocate Roger Montoya, who serves as United Way of Northern New Mexico’s community liaison to Rio Arriba County. “The particular flavor of lowriders in Española is very clear and certainly original.”
The museum grew from grassroots efforts of local lowrider associations. It will tell the history of lowriding in Española through historic and contemporary photographs, memorabilia, slideshows and videos, and of course the lowriders themselves. An interactive display will provide a range of options, which may include constructing a virtual lowrider. Another highlight will be a hydraulic lowrider frame, which visitors can manipulate to discover how lowriders achieve their signature moves.
“Part of the appeal of lowriders is because most vehicles just roll on the street. Some drive faster than others,” says museum board president Fred Rael. “But a lowrider, when you see them cruising down the street, every car is at a different angle or different height. So that’s part of the appeal. It’s almost like a dance, watching the cars cruising on the street, because there’s this motion that goes along with the beauty of the cars.”
Supporters hope the museum will help revitalize its part of town by attracting visitors, ranging from families to car enthusiasts. “Our hopes are riding really high on the Lowrider Museum, because it’s such a brilliant idea,” says board member Don Usner. It engenders so many positive feelings and people are so enthusiastic that it crosses all kinds of boundaries of class. Everybody seems to be able to get behind it. And it hasn’t always been that way. There was a time when lowriders were considered unsavory characters. But that whole ethos of rebuke has changed tremendously. They are really a very positive force in the community now.”
The board is also exploring ways to engender community engagement, such as organizing lowrider cruises and competitions. The museum received a grant from the Los Alamos National Laboratory Museum Foundation to fund production of a coloring book to be distributed to local schools and a presentation about lowriders from museum volunteers. “We want to inspire (the students) to be creative, however that might be,” Rael notes. “If they get obsessed, that’s just one of the byproducts of lowriding.”
The museum’s full implementation is pending the release of grant funding, but supporters hope to open on a limited basis for the Espanola Lowrider Day & Art Show, July 19–21. For details, see facebook.com/lowriderNM, or forthcoming web site, espanolalowridermuseum.com,
The Plaza, Convento y Mas
Efforts to revitalize Espanola begin with city’s centerpiece, Plaza de Española, where the Misión Museum, the Convento Galley, the Española Community Arts Education Center, the Bond House Museum and the Veterans Memorial are located (cityofespanola.org). “I think the heart of Española is at the Convento, and it is the Misión,” Mayor Sanchez notes. “It is a gorgeous building.”
The Misión Museum is a replica of the church at New Mexico’s first Spanish settlement, San Gabriel de Yunque-Ouinge, established just north of Española by Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. The museum’s reredos (altar screens), woodwork, tinwork, colcha embroidery and paintings (all produced by local artists) reflect four centuries of traditional New Mexican church decoration.
The Convento Gallery, a consignment shop, provides an outlet for Northern New Mexico artists trying to survive in a cottage industry.
“We try to help them out. . . . For us, it’s trying to make people enjoy what they do and keep doing it, not just for a craft or a hobby but to make it their passion,” says Northern New Mexico Regional Art Center (nnmrac.org) director Gabriela Silva. “And if they want to do it, we want to encourage that and give them worth.”
Silva also oversees the Española Community Arts Education Center, which offers art and music classes for both children and adults. Visitors are encouraged to join in. “We don’t want to exclude anyone. We have to make everyone part of the community, even if you’re not from here,” Silva explains.
The Bond House Museum is situated in a 1910 Victorian home on the National Register of Historic Places, on a hill just above the Plaza. It tells the story of Española’s transition from frontier outpost to a railroad commercial center.
Another downtown asset is the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center (evfac.org), dedicated to preserving and promoting Northern New Mexico’s textile heritage. The center offers classes and supplies, and promotes members’ work in its gallery. On Aug. 19-21, join eighth-generation Chimayó master weaver Lisa Trujillo here for a workshop covering the fundamental techniques and concepts of Chimayó design.
It will host another major event Oct. 1-6, Churro Week, with workshops, films, field trips and lectures focused on the Navajo churro breed of sheep. Classes will include a natural dye class with former state archeologist, Glenna Dean, and colcha embroidery with Connie Fernandez.
Other Plans for the City by the Rio
Rio Arriba County Economic Development Director Christopher Madrid hopes to tenant the rest of the Cariños Center with nonprofits and government entities “that provide much-needed service to our underserved community throughout Rio Arriba County.” He envisions a day-care center, free Wi-Fi, rooms reserved for educational and community activities and possibly music events outside.
Efforts to revitalize the city center revolve around the city’s 2017 development plan, which was produced through community involvement and “kitchen table” discussions. It won the 2018 award for best comprehensive plan from the New Mexico chapter of the American Planning Association. Priorities include defining and revitalizing the town center and restoring the city’s connection to the natural environment.
Alison Gillette, director of planning and land use for the city, is intricately involved in implementing those priorities, which also include increasing Española’s walkability. “We’re tucked between these beautiful mountains, we’ve got a river flowing through town, but there aren’t a lot of great places to access it,” Gillette points out.
Immediate goals include improving sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes. Gillette has formed a trails committee to map out trails suggested in the community plan, including routes along El Camino Real Historic Trail and the Old Spanish Trail. She also hopes to work out agreements with the city’s acequia (irrigation ditch) associations to develop walking trails along acequia rights-of-way. “Acequias are an important historic piece of the landscape here. One of my commissioners calls them ‘the sacred blue lines,’” Gillette relates.
Northern New Mexico College (nnmc.edu) has been in dialogue with the city about opening the campus to one of the proposed walking paths. “Northern is open and excited about that possibility, because it fits within our strategy of bringing more community members to the campus and reminding them that we are here to serve our community,” says President Richard Bailey.
Bailey is committed to “opening the doors of the campus literally and figuratively. It helps reinforce the mission of the college, and that is to serve this community, our local community,” Bailey says. “I also think a beautiful byproduct of that strategy is that the more community members we have feeling comfortable on our campus, the more they will recognize that there may be opportunities for them in higher education.”
Increased Plaza Activities
Mayor Sanchez would also like to see the number of events at Plaza de Española stepped up. “We’re trying to create a community that gathers,” Sanchez says. “In particular, I will say that what I love about Northern New Mexico is our calling for music and the arts, and that space lends itself very well for that kind of thing.”
The Española Valley Chamber of Commerce has partnered with the 4-H Club to start a Saturday Farmers Market on the Plaza. Also in town is the Española Farmers Market (espanolafarmersmarket.blogspot.com).
The new farmers market is part of the chamber’s Healthy Saturday initiative, which also features Walk With a Doc, Sweat With a Vet and Yoga in the Park. NNMRAC brings out easels and paints for art therapy and also sponsors an Arts & Craft Market on the first Saturday of the month.
One of the Plaza’s main upcoming events is Fiesta del Valle de Española (July 12-14), which is being revived after a year’s hiatus. This is Fiesta’s cincuenta años (golden anniversary). According to Española city councilor John Ramon Vigil, a member of the Fiesta committee, this year’s event will focus on its historical and faith-based origins rather than entertainment and pageantry.
“I’m trying to make where it’s more of a cultural event, and it reminds people who we are as a people, and our faith, which drives and leads us,” Vigil says. “I have my background in history, and I wanted to make Fiesta as historically accurate as possible. We’re trying to recognize the historical attributes of when the Spanish arrived here in July 1598, when the settlers came.”
New this year for Fiesta is El Valle Historical Conference, to be held at the Bond House Museum from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on July 13, which Vigil hopes will include scholars from Mexico. Vigil also hopes to schedule a Saturday morning event in conjunction with local pueblos. This year’s Fiesta tagline, “Celebremos Nuestro Valle” (We Celebrate Our Valley), highlights the character of the small communities that dot the Española Valley. Most events will be free to the public. Find information at (facebook.com/espanolavalley.)
This year’s Fiesta will share the Plaza with the inaugural New Mexico Folk Art Market, sponsored by the Española Valley Chamber of Commerce (espanolanmchamber.com) and NNMRAC. The market will include both traditional and contemporary folk art. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Victor Romero stresses that this is legitimate art, not craft. He sees the event as an economic development tool. “Since we’re limited on funds here, I thought it was a good idea to focus on trying to create economic development through art, because we have such a plethora of beautiful, talented artists here in the valley and the surrounding area,” Romero says.
NNMRAC will sponsor educational activities, including hands-on art-making and presentations by artists about their work, their families and their communities. There will be a re-creation of a 17th-century village, with blacksmithing, leatherworking and other traditional arts, plus bread-making demonstrations in an horno (adobe oven). New Mexican foods will be featured in the food court.
Silva and Romero hope the event will help change the negative narratives about Española. “I’m excited about it,” says Silva. “I think it’s time for Española to shine, and not just be seen as a drive-through. You should stop and smell the roses, because we have beautiful roses here.”
Arin McKenna’s began her career as an award-winning journalist as host of “Art Tour Santa Fe” on KTRC Radio in 2002. She has written for the “Santa Fe New Mexican,” “New Mexico Magazine” and other publications, served as county reporter at the “Los Alamos Monitor” for six years and is currently news editor for the “Valley Daily Post.”
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