Joe Cisneros: The persistent activist

Landmarks in American political history have paralleled milestones in Joe Cisneros’ life.


Landmarks in American political history have paralleled milestones in Joe Cisneros’ life.

The Questa native was born the day after President Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his second term. He hired onto the Molycorp molybdenum mine on Nov. 22, 1963 — the day President John F. Kennedy was shot.

And, one of his personal moments of truth, an instant when an injustice became too much and Cisneros became a true political being, came on the Fourth of July in 1968.

On Independence Day, Molycorp officials, politicians and dignitaries all gathered in Questa to officially open the first molybdenum tailings pond above the village. The mining company had topped off the waste pond with water and dubbed it “Turquoise Lake” — supposedly a fishing and recreation boon for Questa. New Mexico Game & Fish Department stocked the “lake” with 2,000 trout, and all was in place for a classic grip-and-grin public celebration.

Except for one thing: The fish died.

Molycorp closed the pond and hastily sent Cisneros’ crew up to remove the fish: “Some of them were jumping right out of the water. They couldn’t live in that stuff.”

Cisneros made a futile appeal to the governor, asking for the state to take a close look at what Molycorp was doing to pollute Questa’s surface and ground waters. Nothing came of it, and soon he was let go from the mine on what he believes to be a trumped-up charge.

“When I was fired is when I got political,” he says.

Since then, the man known as Little Joe has never stopped speaking up — loud and long — against injustices in his hometown and Northern New Mexico.

The roots of Cisneros’ activism extend back to the early 20th century. His father, Frank Cisco Antonio Cisneros, grew up in Questa on a homestead in Cabresto Canyon. Frank’s German parents taught him the values of religion, discipline and hard work. Cisneros’ mother, Corinne Gonzales, spent her early years on a homestead on Bobcat Pass as the descendant of French-Canadian fur trappers along the Río Grande.

After their marriage, Frank and Corinne began a family. Joe was born on Nov. 4, 1936, in the middle of eight boys.

“My father and mother were very religious,” Cisneros says. “My father was a farmer, a good provider who believed in hard work. We harvested all our food and raised livestock, except for goats. They eat the fruit trees.”

Early on, Frank Cisneros showed his son how important it was to help your community. He was the first in Questa to have a threshing machine, and one of the first to own a hay baler. From Questa to Costilla, he hired out his machinery so that others could harvest their crops.

“There’s was lots of bartering going on during the harvest,” Cisneros says.

During the fall, Joe and his brothers got a chance to earn their first paychecks through, naturally, hard work. They all traveled to the San Luis Valley, to the potato fields of Monte Vista, Center and Hooper, where they picked potatoes for $8 a day.

“Picking potatoes was a helluva hard job,” he said. “Your back took a beating.”

After work, they bathed in the irrigation ditch, went to movies in Center and soaked in the Hooper hot springs. Under his parents’ edict, their hard-earned money wasn’t to be spent frivolously. It went to buy the year’s school clothes at the J.C. Penney in Alamosa.

In school, Cisneros experienced his earliest sense of injustice. Though he was good in math, he dropped out in the 11th grade.

“I saw that people who excelled in school were treated better than others,” Cisneros recalls. “If you had parents that were doing well, there was jealousy. I wasn’t going to take it from any one. So I guess I probably got a little political at that point, too.”

In 1955, he hired on with a Swedish carpenter, Sonny Howard Johnson, who taught him what is was like to learn outside the classroom. Johnson taught precision: He would cut all the lumber for a house to size before he put any of it together. He showed young Cisneros how to mill lumber, how to make fine cuts with a hand saw.

“I loved the guy because he taught me,” says Cisneros, who fashions fine pieces of woodworking in his shop to this day. “When he taught me, I learned. I still have the first hammer he gave me.”

Cisneros likes to say that he, too, is a teacher. For anyone who will listen — and a whole bunch who don’t want to hear it — Little Joe will be there to let them know the truth. To teach them never to give up the fight.

Over and over. Louder and louder. Longer and longer.

“I ain’t going anywhere,” he says with a laugh. “They can’t get rid of me.”

—This story originally appeared in Adventures de Taos.