East Meets West

By Brittany Bernstein

My mother sits in Denver International Airport waiting for her connecting flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is from here that she will journey an hour and a half north to the little city of Española. When she says this to the man sitting next to her in the airport, a former Drug Enforcement Agency agent, he gives her a funny look, as if to say Why would anyone be going to Española? Google searches of Española return results like “Española ranked most dangerous city in NM.” To say my parents were not thrilled I’d be living here for two months, while they’d be back home in New York, is an understatement.

From my brief email correspondence with Bob Trapp, the editor of the Rio Grande SUN, the paper I’d be interning at, I assumed I’d be writing a lot of crime and government stories, neither of which particularly excite me. When people ask me what I like to write about, I give the vaguest of answers: people. I like to write about people. And to me, that makes perfect sense. I like to know what makes people tick, why they do the things they do and why they are who they are. This is why I’ve always preferred “feature” style stories to hard news.

When Mr. Trapp noticed this, he gave me all the feature stories he could find, and I was in my own journalistic Eden.

I spent four hours in the home of a 70-year-old woman who, along with her husband, had cared for 51 foster children in their home. I met a woman who grew up in Española, a town where many struggle to see opportunities. She had a child at 16 but still managed to earn a master’s degree and, instead of leaving the town that she had seen as having given her so much, she stayed and took a job helping the youth in the town to develop their own career skills.

I also developed a peculiar admiration for libraries through writing for the SUN during the stretch of time that the paper ran a series on rural libraries. I visited five libraries, two to write complete profiles on and the other three as part of a story about summer reading programs. In my hometown, my library is so large that it is split between two buildings, so it was a special experience to go into these small libraries that truly acted as a hub for their small communities, where the librarians knew most of the patrons and the history of their communities.

Aside from loitering in libraries, one of my favorite pastimes, perhaps the favorite pastime of most journalists, was people watching. And Española, particularly the McDonald’s where I went to use the free WiFi (the house that I was staying in had no internet access or cell-phone service, but that’s another story), had some of the greatest people to watch. I listened to a pregnant woman tell the story of how she had a warrant out for her arrest but was waiting to turn herself in until she gave birth. Another time, a woman approached me and asked me if I could spare any money to buy her a hamburger, and once I saw a man walk around trying to sell paracord bracelets to the dine-in customers. Perhaps the “no guns” sign on the outside of the McDonald’s should have read “no soliciting,” but then again, no one seemed to mind.

But wow, did I get an education in all things New Mexico. While writing one of the library stories, I received a lesson about paracord (AKA parachute chord) and all of the things it’s useful for (tying a fallen bumper back on to a car, apparently, is one of those things). I learned what an acequia is (but not quite how to spell it) and I learned to appreciate green chile on anything and everything.

New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment, and I was enchanted. My two months at the SUN changed my life. Something about New Mexico—the environment, the local food, the art and culture–was like food for my soul. I occasionally missed the green grass, trees and beaches that I’m accustomed to from living on Long Island my whole life, but that’s nothing to how I find myself missing New Mexico’s mountains and openness—both physically and in its people.

Clearly, problems exist everywhere, but there is something about Española that is raw and honest. It doesn’t try to be something it’s not. The problems are out for all to see.

Maybe that makes it harder to see the good, but that doesn’t mean the good is absent. I was fortunate enough to spend two months finding the good.