Meet Stefany Olivas, Youth for Healthy Schools Fellow with the Southwest Organizing Project
My parents, Annette Esquibel and Victor Olivas, met at a small church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Just after my sister was born they moved back to California where my father was also raised. They eventually found themselves in Redondo Beach, CA. On Mothers Day in 1990, I first saw the light of day and breathed salty ocean air. Only a few years later my parents split up, and after floating between families in Palm Dale and Denver my mother ended up back in New Mexico. We still saw my biological father all the time, but it was in Bernalillo, New Mexico where I spent the entirety of my life with my mom and stepdad. A small town with two Native American Pueblos to the North and South, the Sandia Mountains to the East, and Intel Corporation’s home- Rio Rancho, to the West.
My mom married again to John Murphey, a young Irish-Mexicano born and raised in New Mexico. It took my biological father until I was about 9 to finally meet a wealthier woman in Colorado, remarry and eventually start a second family in West LA County.
My sister and I travelled between both families several times a year. Many new people we met were fascinated by how “diverse” our family was. I had many awkward conversations with people who couldn’t understand where I was from, or why I had a Mexican-sounding accent yet didn’t know how to speak Spanish.
Rodolfo Anaya’s “Bless me, Ultima” is a Chicano Literary classic about a young boy named Antonio coming of age in rural New Mexico during the 1940’s. A family friend and his mentor Ultima, is a curandera (healer) who goes to live with his family for her last days. His father’s family are the Márez and his mother’s are the Lunas. The novel provides a context for the history and unique culture that emerged from communities surviving hundreds of years of land removal and colonization.
Many people I know share a similar history: “The first pioneers there were sheepherders. Then they imported herds of cattle from Mexico and became vaqueros. They became horsemen, caballeros, men whose daily life was wrapped up in the ritual of horsemanship. They were the first cowboys in a wild and desolate land which they took from the Indians. Then the railroad came. The barbed wire came. The songs, the corridos became sad, and the meeting of the people from Texas with my forefathers was full of blood, murder, and tragedy. The people were uprooted. They looked around one day and found themselves closed in. The freedom of land and sky they had known was gone. Those people could not live without freedom and so they packed up and moved west. They became migrants. My mother did not like the people of the llano. To her they were worthless drunkards, wanderers. She did not understand their tragedy, their search for the freedom that was now forever gone.”
Studies show that young women lose interest in academic and athletic programs after middle school. I did the same thing. In middle school I was in basketball, cross-country, soccer, choir, and excelling in mathematics. But when I turned 15, I couldn’t get along with my parents, school superiors, or the desert any longer. It had been a difficult freshman year; my grades dropped, I drifted from childhood friends and interests.
When I would visit friends and family in New Mexico for holidays, is when I began to miss and appreciate my home. I had a yearning in the pit of my stomach that’s hard to explain. I wanted to be in my room with my old things around me. I still liked living near the ocean, had loving friends and family around- But the yearning was deeper than that. I had to be physically present in the desert, with sandy clay beneath my feet, in order to begin my understanding.
The young boy’s struggle to discover his own identity describes my own: “It is the blood of the Lunas to be quiet, for only a quiet man can learn the secrets of the earth that are necessary for planting—They are quiet like the moon—And it is the blood of the Márez to be wild, like the ocean from which they take their name, and the spaces of the llano that have become their home.” I waited, then said. “Now we have come to live near the river, and yet near the llano. I love them both, and yet I am of neither. I wonder which life I will choose?”
The years I was gone a few friends were lost to gang violence and drugs, (many more recently just as we’re all reaching our mid-twenties) and my dad and step-dad both passed before the age of 50. They all may have had better chances of understanding the barriers they were facing and making it through if they had different opportunities.
Social determinants of health are environmental and social factors in a person’s life that determine the likelihood of certain health outcomes. Facing barriers to proper transportation, or access to real, whole foods significantly affects how prone someone is to disease.
Victor spent practically all of his life travelling between CA and NM trying to get his construction business going. His custom designs were perfect, but his love for his two distant homes was too great but still made enough to supplement supporting my sister and I.
“These were the people of my father, the vaqueros of the llano. They were an exuberant, restless people, wandering across the ocean of the plain.”
In Bernalillo County where Albuquerque is, communities in some areas live an average of 22 years less than others. These communities are most commonly communities of color.
It wasn’t until I began to learn the history of my family and the Chicano culture that I started to understand everything that my family and friends went through. Becoming a member of the SouthWest Organizing Project helped me understand the reasons why my community had lost so much and so many loved ones. Not because it was their time, but because they grew up in a society that had exploited their environments and values all of their lives.
I began as an intern with the Food Justice campaign called Project Feed the Hood, which sparked my passion for food in an entirely different way. I began to learn the importance of reconnecting with the land, the value of growing local, fresh food. And the power of spaces like community gardens to talk about social Injustices we face every day, including hunger, obesity and food access. I learned what it feels like to be empowered to make change in my community.
In 2014 83% of New Mexico households lived in poverty. Our state once again ranked #1 for Childhood hunger. 87% of households with Children are Food insecure, and families almost always are forced to choose between food and utilities, healthcare or education.
Now as a Youth for Healthy Schools fellow, I can continue to work with my community to address root causes of poverty and hunger in my community, and find new ways to build leadership skills and power with local youth. We can continue to share our stories with our partners around the nation, and collaborate with people who are facing similar social injustices in their communities.
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