Chris Cervini

Oh, sad New Mexico, we love, we love you so

The Collapse of the promise of New Mexico and a possible path forward

This is a story about a place that seems to be hollowing out. A great promise dashed on the rocks of low expectations.

This is a story of New Mexico over the past 6 years.

There was a period of about 20 years when it seemed like something big was going to pop here. There was growth, hope and an influx of new people and new ideas. Innovators, job makers, thinkers, creators – they all came to this quirky place from the mid 80s on.

The high-water mark was somewhere around 2004 when Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class listed Albuquerque — of all places – as a top destination and incubator of the creative class.

It bears noting that this period of advancement and growth occurred under both Democratic and Republican leadership and that the fault for its demise does not lay with one political party or another.

In fact, apart from the staggering global economic meltdown, some of the causes for our decline lay in fundamental long-held beliefs by both parties. But I’ll get to that later.

Right now I want to tell a story.

The Exodus

My wife (girlfriend at the time) and I came back to New Mexico in 2002-2003. We had both grown up here, but our parents were getting older and we felt it fitting to come back and spend some quality time with them while we still had it. Besides, I’m a Democratic political operative and communications pro and 2002 was a pretty good time for those types of people to come back to New Mexico.

Upon our return we were in the midst of a New Mexico on the move. Our friends included law students, accomplished grant writers, artists, Web-design people, medical residents, physical therapists, actors and innovators. These were people who wanted to start businesses and generally build out this promising place. It was electric.

But it wouldn’t last.

One by one, people started to move away. The promise did not match the reality. People began bumping up into the age-old New Mexican syndrome of endless handwringing and naysaying about how things can’t be done, rather than what might be possible.

“But we’re New Mexico, we cannot possibly attract company X or industry Y.”

I saw friends beating their heads against walls trying to make something happen but being grinded down by obstacles such as a lack of a real private economy. New Mexico was a place of hope and promise, but there was no real substance to it.

Over time, nearly all our friends left seeking greener pastures and better opportunities.

This is not the “New Mexico losing its bright kids” narrative (though that’s a major problem). It’s New Mexico losing talented people who were attracted by the promise of the place only to find the promise empty.

Here’s a quick rundown of friends who left:

PR executive and entrepreneur; talented photographer and professor; pediatrician; Web-design guru and her engineer husband; nationally recognized business-process and organizational consultant; successful grant writer for national organizations; journalist; attorney; IT person; neurological rehabilitation therapist; retired attorney and arts supporter.

A fairly accomplished group – all gone from New Mexico because they couldn’t make a go of it. To a person, they are all happier in their new places.

Diagnosing the Problem

We can’t lay all the blame at the feet of the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis. That crisis hit everyone, yet New Mexico remains bleeding on the floor while our neighbors are moving forward to what is setting up to be a promising economic 2014.

And therein is the problem. While our neighbors may shoot forward and grow like weeds in 2014, we may see only modest growth. And that will give our politicians and business leaders the excuse they need to proclaim from the highest mountains how we stared down the apocalypse and are now on the rebound.

Nevermind that the basic underpinnings of our state’s economy remain unchanged, leaving us weaker and more vulnerable to the whims of oil and gas prices or government shutdowns.

We can prattle on about combined reporting and tax rates when the basic fact is this: We could likely take away the state’s income tax IN TOTAL and not pry one single company from our neighbors.

Sadly, our state’s economy is almost completely propped up by extractive industries and government jobs. Make no mistake – they have both served us well, but they are not enough.

The “sadly” is this: The permanence and historical success of those two sectors allow our policymakers and business leaders to be lazy.

There’s no need to build a 21st century workforce as long as our state is propped up by 19th century industries (oil and bureaucracy).

So we ride out the bad times, claim victory when things get a little better and ultimately change nothing in New Mexico.

My friends came to New Mexico in a period of historic high energy prices and government expansion – it made the state look rosier than it is. Once there is uncertainty or a hiccup in either of those sectors, the rosy picture evaporates and the ugly truth is revealed. New Mexico is a beautiful place to visit and, if you’re rich, buy a summer home. Otherwise, you’re in for a hard slog to try and get a bite out of a pie that never grows.

The Blame Game

We are all to blame.

While New Mexico is the worst place to raise kids; while people in the Colonias can’t even get running water or electricity; while brutal, senseless violence invades even our safest communities – we all just go along to get along.

Politicians nibble at the edges. Republicans cut some taxes and say they’ve saved the economy; Democrats throw a bone to the film industry and say they’ve helped diversify the economy. Neither side gets it.

The media is obsessed with stabbings, shootings, gore and, of course, pooh-poohing any unconventional idea that might shake things up.

The business community – so weak – panders to whoever is in charge. I was in the prior administration – they pandered to Richardson and now they pander to Martinez. This is partly because we don’t have a strong private sector that can stand on its own, and partly a failing of leadership in the business community.

Average New Mexicans? Well, we sit around and wait for something to happen. We’re resigned to a mindset of “what can’t be done” – because it’s all we’ve ever known.

A way forward – some recommendations

Children go to bed hungry and attend dilapidated schools in a state that has tens of billions of dollars in permanent funds and huge reserves.
To make change, we all have to get sick and tired of being at the bottom and work to do something about it.

Some leaders call the permanent funds a rainy day fund and warn that we should never, ever touch them.

Those people are borderline criminals in a state that is at the bottom of every good list and near the top of every bad list.

If New Mexico is ever to be that place of hope and promise, it needs to shake things up fundamentally. That means doing the following:

1. Create a long-term human-development fund to pay for adult basic education and workforce training. Leverage federal dollars.

Why? Because our current workforce is lacking. Companies cannot find qualified individuals, which makes attracting companies tough for economic developers. Plus, kids will do better if their parents have skills to get better jobs, live in better houses and provide more stability.

2. Diversify the economy.

Renewable energy is where the world is headed and New Mexico has a wealth of homegrown renewable resources that can help develop and diversify the economy. This is a 20-year play, but it’s a critical strategy to give us at least one competitive advantage against the states that have been eating our lunch since 1912.

Also, let’s shut up about pitting renewables against oil and gas. Both can co-exist. This is a falsehood created by the right. Don’t buy into it; it’s not a zero-sum-game.

3. Invest in early childhood – across the spectrum.

From health-care diagnosis to education, we need to do a better job of investing in our kids from birth through high-school.

Some will say: “You can’t just throw money at the problem.”

I say: our most important resource is the future generation of kids who will build us out of our current morass. Every dollar NOT put into programs to ensure we are raising the best and brightest is a dollar wasted.

4. Broadband.

It’s more important in a 21st century economy than roads or ports – so prioritize making New Mexico a statewide high-speed hotspot and haven for data centers and cloud computing.

5. Make Native Americans and traditional Hispanic communities part of the solution.

One thing our competition can never take away from us: New Mexico is blessed with a unique and rich cultural tradition unlike any other in the WORLD. Artisans, craftsman and people keeping community traditions alive make our state special. New Mexico should be a global destination for seekers who want to experience our culture, our cuisine and our rugged beauty.

Not working with traditional communities on how we can respectfully highlight these contributions to global culture is missing a huge opportunity.

6. Finally, don’t pooh-pooh the new.

We live our lives running down what’s new and what we don’t understand. And we’ve suffered because of it.

As a New Mexican, the next time you find yourself saying anything close to: “But that’s not how we did it before” – slap yourself. How we did it before doesn’t work.

Let’s welcome some new ideas and create some of our own.

Happy Trails

We are leaving, for now. My wife has been successful and received a recent promotion, which means we will soon be moving to Austin. We are one of those families Joe Monahan talks about – the ones getting paid to leave New Mexico.

We have both been wildly successful in New Mexico and thank it and the people for our opportunities. Not the least of which is Diane Denish, who took a chance on me and is truly one of the good eggs.

In closing, New Mexico is not without its share of doers and thinkers and creators — all who want to take the state to the next level and turn New Mexico around.

Let’s hope these people don’t get buried in the sea of negativity and failure that has pervaded this place for far too long.

New Mexico will always be our home and we may someday return.
But now, like all our friends who left, we are going to check out those greener pastures for a while and wish all New Mexicans peace and prosperity.

29 thoughts on “Oh, sad New Mexico, we love, we love you so

  1. Nathan Claiborn

    You and I had some good times in New Mexico, but you’re exactly right. Which is why I moved my family away, I don’t want to raise my daughter in Albuquerque. It’s a good place to be from.

  2. Tom and Cindy Greer

    I couldn’t have expressed the current situation in NM any better that Chris did in his letter. Cindy and I are also “Naturalized” New Mexicans, here just about a decade. We came here because we saw a need and thought we could make a difference, just like Chris and his wife.

    We still see the opportunity that is before NM and think we will stick it out. We can still turn this place around, difficult as it might be. We wish Chris and his wife the very best.

    Tom and Cindy Tome, NM

  3. Scott Beckman

    Great essay. Thanks so much for speaking this hard truth so well.
    FWIW, I believe this problem starts at the top. I don’t see any realistic prospect that solutions like this will be seriously undertaken by anyone who is currently occupying or seeking our State’s highest office. IMHO, the only way to address the deepening economic crisis caused by the issues you raise is for someone of stature with the platform you outline here to collect the 18,085+ signatures needed to run for Governor as an Independent on these issues and solutons smack dab in the common sense center between two bought and paid for parties catering to special interests at the extremes. Only with someone who open up and creatively and courageously the status quo with both barrels will the real issues get framed properly and addressed forthrightly.
    Maybe YOU should run for Governor? That’s my two cents worth anyway.

    1. Alex

      Chris, thank you for your sapient words expressed in a most kind manner. I have a much more harsh view of this place. I have lived in NY, Paris, London, Munich, Tokyo and Los Angeles. I had high hopes when I came here in 2008 as an escape from the noise, pollution and vapidness of L.A.. I thought I had found a fertile breeding ground. New Mexico does not breed innovation. New Mexico is backwards, infested in a bucolic culture of corruption, poor breeding and oligarchies.

      1. Nuevo Mexicano

        Alex, you need to study up on your vocab or stick to less fancy adjectives. Sapient means wise (which is probably what you meant, so why not just write “wise” instead?) but it also carries a pejorative connotation of attempting to appear wise without actually being wise. I doubt you were trying to insult Chris or give him a backhanded compliment, so stick to the simple and clear language next time and just write “wise”. As for “bucolic culture of corruption”, if you knew that bucolic means “of or relating to the pleasant aspects of the countryside and country life” you would realize that adding the word bucolic to that sentence made you appear even less intelligent than you probably are. Moral: fewer and/or simpler adjectives if you don’t want to sound like an idiot to anyone who happens to actually know the definitions of the big words you trot out in an attempt to look smart. Oh, and as for the “poor breeding” you speak of? Way to declare to the world that you’re a small-minded bigot in addition to being stupid and insecure. Now kindly improve our state by leaving to go fuck yourself elsewhere.

        1. Rory mcKeown

          Nuevo Mexicano, do you have anything at all to say about the original essay, or did you just chime in to critique Alex’ opinion? You’re part of what the problem in NM is.

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  5. Jane

    I suppose if I saw only what you see, I would feel the same. However, I see a very vibrant subculture of back-to-the-land farmers and livestock raisers from the backyards of Albuquerque to the hidden valleys and mountainsides of Taos south to Los Cruces, and east and west all over the state. I see people saving and raising endangered animals breeds and plants for the love of it and as a mission.
    I see a young dairy farmer battling the system to set up a raw milk dairy in Bosque Farms-and succeeding. Many states do not even have such a fish. I see the coming together of people of all political and religious views to live off grid on solar and catch water as the doughts deepen. I see a state where Lesbians and Gays can marry and a discriminatory photographer was NOT allowed to get away with it.
    This is a confused and torn country right now. No matter where you go, there you are. Larger populations centers do provide more choices; I have lived in both NYC and Philadelphia in my life. Some areas are certainly more progressive than others, have better schools etc. Best to go where you are happiest. But is not so glum as you think. I am no optimist, believe me, but Pete Seeger said shortly before he died, words to the effect “We will be saved by many little things”. In the face of the current Supreme Court campaign finance decision, let’s hope so. Because that is probably the only way. For now, I think I will believe that Pete is right. All of us doing what we can, wherever we can, as persistently as we can. Don’t give up. Maybe at 90 or so he knew something.

  6. JAM

    I have fought this conclusion for most of my 50 years as a New Mexican, but it can’t be reasonably denied anymore that this state is one of the country’s most disgraceful embodiments of an inferiority complex. For all its gifts – of scenery, resources, and culture – the dregs of this place continue to drag it down. This has been going on for at least a century, the idea that if a person strives too hard he or she will make the rest of us look bad.
    Of course well written pieces like this can never go there. We must take our politicians, social beacons, and business leaders to account, because it’s taboo to ask the normal folk to get their kids through high school, if not college, and to do so without beating them, letting them get obese, addicted or pregnant, or without grinding their self esteems to the nub.
    Almost any other state would be embarrassed to be proud of a mantra like “mañana”. Always mañana. Mañana we’ll get off the government chichi. Mañana we’ll realize that the Rio Grande isn’t bringing any more water, and we’d better figure out a better crop to grow than cookie cutter housing developments and petroleum. Mañana we’ll realize that we could grow a robust middle class by just scratching the surface of our renewable energy potential.
    The Lobo basketball team sums it up. They beat up on weaklings, win their weak conference, then fold when they get to the real world. Like them, New Mexico wastes so much of its energy trying to dress up its image so as to appear respectable. Asking, begging, or demanding respect still isn’t working. Earning it is still what’s required.
    We need to call a spade a spade. Our politics and economy may be broken and corrupt – as they have been for generations- but they are completely home grown.

  7. Bill Tallman

    Your op ed piece is very well written and unfortunately all so true. I can not disagree with any of your thoughts or opinions. Your are an excellent writer.
    Good luck and best wishes as you and your family embark on a new adventure in Austin
    Bill Tallman

  8. Mark David

    You are totally right. I became a city planner for the City Albuquerque but after 7 years (1994) I decided to sort of quit the traditional profession. I think that New Mexico and New Mexicans have an identity crisis. We just don’t know what we want to be: Gentrification vs traditionalism, mass transit vs more roads and huge vehicles, higher pay for teachers vs lower property taxes, I could go on. These issues are not endemic to New Mexico but here they just seem more magnified. Truth is, we are a penny wise pound foolish state. Do everything as cheaply as possible and expect platinum results. Presently, Albuquerque is getting a massively expensive but necessary upgraded Paseo Del Norte / I-25 interchange. If we had spent the money when Paseo was first being constructed and done it right then this new construction would have been unnecessary. ABQ is also doing a cosmetic upgrade of the downtown convention center which will cost the taxpayers 3 times the amount that the original building cost to build. I remember that old 70s argument, should it be downtown or uptown and not how can we construct a hallmark building that conventioneers would be clamoring to use. We want good jobs but settle for more Walmarts than cities twice our size. We are the discount Dollar Store city and state of the U.S. We want Tesla to build its battery factory here and maybe they will but will we do what it takes to get them here? I bet Texas, Arizona and California will do what it takes. So, why are young talented people moving to Austin, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle and Denver? Because those are the places where the action is. They are can do places and New Mexico seems to fall in the can’t do category. Our expectations are so low here that most good paying companies stay away from us like we have herpes. It is 2014 New Mexico and you are sleeping through 21st century alarm clock.

    1. Steve

      This guy just hit the nail on the head…After moving to Albuquerque, I’ve never in my life met so many people from a city that hated their city so much. They don’t think their city is good enough for anything new or exciting.

  9. Tom Aageson

    I am not giving up. In ABQ, I feel a buzz as the Innovation Center develops, the Bio Sci incubator has proven itself well worth its time and is expanding. UNM is starting its Innovation Academy. There are VC funds now. My group is starting an accelerator for cultural and creative entrepreneurs that will be in ABQ. We have a small grant to determine the values of Santa Fe’s entrepreneurial ecosystem amongst young adults (IAIA, SFCC, Santa Fe University of Art and Design students plus other young people in town. Arrowhead Entrepreneurial Center at NMSU is exciting.

    There is a strong candidate for governor. He is an entrepreneur, mentor and friend. Alan Webber. Let’s work to put him in office.


  10. Gary Gomes

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts which ring only too true. It will take a lot of action to recreate the lost momentum.

  11. Merle Lefkoff

    Blah, blah, blah, another list of what do about our failures here in New Mexico. Nothing new on the list, but that isn’t even the problem with this piece. The main problem is the old paradigm frame–economic growth. It’s killing the planet, in case you haven’t noticed.

    Second: HOW to accomplish this list that everyone we know agrees with is the problem. So if you REALLY want to get something done, you have to put your ass on the line and make it happen. Visit our web site and look at Bretton Woods 3.0, a global conference in Santa Fe in 2016 that is pulling together the activists around the world who are no longer waiting for you to act. They are doing remarkable mobilization for direct action. Occupy Wall Street is one of them, and they haven’t gone away. They are self-organizing now to occupy the elections.

  12. Justin Bailey

    Wow, this is the most-shared thing on face book I’ve seen in ages. I read every word and it rings true. But something the author neglects to mention is that to some of us New Mexicans, maybe there is an appeal to living in an imperfect place. Struggle and flaws speak to something in us, something that rejects the mainstream narrative of “success” as labelled in Cervini’s lists of job titles of the people, the professional or cultural elites, he deems worthwhile to hang out with. Those of us who live in Taos might tend to appreciate certain carpenters or plumbers or school teachers or restaurant servers as much as high achieving “PR executive and entrepreneur; talented photographer and professor; pediatrician; Web-design guru and her engineer husband; nationally recognized business-process and organizational consultant; successful grant writer for national organizations; journalist; attorney; IT person; neurological rehabilitation therapist; retired attorney and arts supporter… ” Yes, life is hard in NM. The economic pie isn’t growing. Under the Martinez Administration we’ve officially become the poorest and the dumbest state in the country, according to all those best state and worst state lists. But NM is a place where a lot of people come (or stay) to be away from the rat race mentality. If we wanted to live in a perfect place where everything works, we could move to Colorado. But a lot of us who are misfits might actually feel more comfortable where the buildings aren’t perfect and neither are the people or the institutions; flawed people, misfits and outcasts are in the majority here, and we don’t need to fit into the mainstream version of what is normal.

  13. Joanie Kirk ND

    Well put. I appreciate your viewpoints on NM.
    I had the pleasure of calling New Mexico home from 1992 until 2007. During that time I practiced naturopathic medicine in Taos. Perfect timing and placement. In so many ways I was successful. The community that employed me was creative, co-operative, artistic, compassionate, caring and appreciative of their surroundings. I loved the simplicity of life, I couldn’t get everything I though I needed. I loved being a white minority, taking a back seat in the culture. I loved the land and its people, the people and their land. If I could have relaxed into that simplicity and not explored beyond those roads, I would still be there. But I did travel and explore and in 2006, I left. I said I was unable to do the long haul for financial reasons.But there is more. I wanted both, simplicity and a living wage. I was bringing in 30% of what I am making after 3 years in practice in Alaska working part-time.
    There is no right or wrong in this, only choice. I ask myself,” what does it mean to evolve, grow, to create more success?’ ‘What does it mean to serve, be part of, contribute.’ I can do it here or there. Here I feel I can be more a part of a solution, part of the evolution.
    We must all continue to find our place and our role.
    Thank you for your words and your time.

  14. James E Parks

    This article expands on a complaint I’ve had with New Mexican attitude. I’m a retired aircraft mechanic. I traveled a lot during the years I worked my trade. I traveled so much, I started to hate it, so I wanted nothing more than to settle in one spot. That spot was Albuquerque.

    The problem with that idea was the pay scale. Finding a job in the aircraft industry was tough here. We had Eclipse, but miss-management drove that into the ground. (They seem to be making a weak comeback.) Instead, I got a job as a cement mixer driver. That job paid half of what I was used to. When I complained to co-workers about the low wages in New Mexico, they would give me this standard line. “$8.00 an hr. is good for New Mexico.”

    WTF? The way I seen things, $8.00 an hour isn’t a good wage anywhere in America. It isn’t even a living wage. It may be enough to keep one person afloat, but one financial mishap, and the person gets wiped out and is in real trouble. Were taking about being one week to a month away from rune, at all times, even with a job.

    How can people be so brow beaten that they think crumbs are good? Maybe it goes all the way back to when the Spanish were forcing their religion on the natives here in this land. After being whipped, beaten and abused, even the smallest kindness seems great. Same with the money.

    Now I’m retired due to health problems. I get to live in Albuquerque as a retired person now. I get to help prop up the economy with the Social Security check they give me every month.

    Note: Why hasn’t the city government of Albuquerque tried to get a commercial aircraft repair depot here? We have the perfect place for such a business. We have the trained people, and the means to train more people for such jobs. (Program was set up with UNM to train mechanics for Eclipse).

  15. Cathryn McGill

    Chris, I don’t disagree with what you’ve said. I guess I’d add to it that even good folks like yourself still view New Mexico as tricultural. When you give examples you highlight Native American and Hispanic stats as opposed to just speaking about concepts in a way that includes everyone. This, too, is a problem in New Mexico–evidenced here and by many other well meaning folks. The solution? We have got to have lots of multicultural, multigenerational conversations about what ails us as a state and refuse to accept the old way as the only way.

  16. Laurie Dunn

    I agree that this can be a very frustrating place. I’m still a newcomer (only in Taos full time for 4 years), but my husband Craig has been here for over 30 years. His view is that you decide to make a stand, and stick it out, or you leave. Either way it’s an intentional act and not something that the state, or the poor economy, or the corrupt/ineffective politicians (or the mountain, for that matter!) force you to do. Yes, on some days (many days!) both Taos and New Mexico in general make me want to bang my head against a wall. But I’ll take it over my native state of Texas, which has a vibrant economy but some of the most hate-filled, backward politics I’ve ever seen (much, much worse than 10 or even 5 years ago, by the way). So I’ll stay right here in Taos, New Mexico and do what I can to make a contribution to the place, whatever that means. I wish you good luck in Austin, but think of us back here every now and then.

  17. Elizabeth

    Thank you for writing what I’ve long felt and contemplated. I left New Mexico (ABQ & Santa Fe) in 2008 after struggling to make a go of it for 20 years. Why things that work perfectly elsewhere fall flat in New Mexico was a constant bafflement to me. I returned to my home state of Nebraska (of all places) and am about 100 times happier with 2% of the stress. New Mexico, I’ve concluded, was a place to test my mettle and burn off karma…not to bloom.

  18. Iris McLister

    This post crosses back and forth on itself multiple times. What is your mission statement? You title your piece, in part, “…New Mexico, we love, we love you so” and bemoan “people [who] get buried in the sea of negativity and failure that has pervaded this place for far too long” – yet you yourself are leaving for Austin, an admittedly fabulous city that Santa Fe, let alone Albuquerque, will never, ever be. You’re quick to cite your cadre of “professional” friends (attorneys! law students! IT people!) that couldn’t hack it here, who are each content elsewhere; is this supposed to impress people like me who make their living in creative fields?

    The election of Javier Gonzales for mayor in Santa Fe was a community endeavor that was sparked by serious commitment to change and growth. Volunteer! Simple things make a huge difference. One of my favorite organizations is Cooking with Kids, where chefs and non-chefs (like me!) go into public schools and teach kids about healthy, seasonal foods to promote life-long health and wellness in some of our most vulnerable populations. Be part of the community; meeting people and forging relationships has to be the very first way of igniting interest and sharing ideas to make stuff better. Join a chess club, an intramural sports team, learn how to paint outdoors. Hell, have you looked out the window? We live in one of the most flat-out beautiful places in the world! Go for a bike ride!

    In my experience, people who leave places looking for better ones are not always in need of a new place, but a new outlook. You’re defined by who you are, not where you are, right? One of your commenters describes New Mexico as “a place to test my mettle and burn off karma…not to bloom.” Hot tip: If you’re moving somewhere to burn off your karma (what even …?!) you may not be happy no matter where you go.

    Good luck finding utopia. As for me, I’m stickin around.

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