Growing up and spending most of my life living on the East Coast, the Southwest is very much a foreign country to me. I am not accustomed to the dry harsh desert and the long open treeless spaces. And I am not accustomed to the extreme poverty of many Native American tribes.
As I walked through Oklahoma I certainly could feel the influence of Native Americans, some 67 tribes were forced by the US government to relocate to the state. But tribes in the southwest are different somehow. Perhaps the poverty is more visible; it cannot be ignored or forgotten. One need only take a train from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to witness the destitute Indian pueblos clustered in the mountains.
Usually when I tell people I am writing a book about poverty they have one of two responses. I am either told that I need to look no further as I’ve found poverty, or I’m told that it doesn’t exist there, often despite obvious evidence to the contrary. I expected those in Santa Fe to fall into the latter category. So, as I walked through it’s monied streets past art galleries where a single work of art could easily fetch more than some people’s annual income, I was surprised to hear over and over again about the serious poverty in Santa Fe. The city is a place of extremes I was told.
Of course the poverty there is not restricted to Native Americans. As I wandered around Santa Fe I chatted with a couple street musicians. It was unclear where they were currently living, but one told me that he had spent a year living in his car in a parking garage in Washington, D.C., before moving to Santa Fe. One woman who worked in a gallery told me that she doubted that teachers in a local charter school were earning more than $20,000. Considering the high cost of living in Santa Fe, “I don’t know where they can afford to live,” she said.
So many times those living in poverty are accused of expecting hand-outs and the implication is that the poor are reliant upon the government and the wealthy. I suspect the opposite is more likely; the wealthy of this nation rely on a vast army of low-wage workers to clean their houses, mow their lawns, provide their food and a whole host of other services.
Ironically, the street musicians working for pocket change that I chatted with seemed to be far happier than some of those with greater means. One guy I spoke with told me that he hated his job. “How do I find a job that makes me happy?” he asked me. Perhaps it is because so many don’t know how to stop and see the beauty all around. Santa Fe is filled with beauty, and not only in the obvious places. The violin music of the street musician was so beautiful I found myself biting my lip to prevent myself from crying. One woman who worked at a nearby shop brought over some pastries for the musicians. “You make my day better,” she told them. But as I stood and listened to him perform so many walked on by. Though my path moves west, I am listening still…