Barack Obama Held a Rally in My Front Yard!
"The last shall be first" just took on a new meaning for me.
Barack Obama held a rally in front of my house in Espanola, New Mexico (pop. 8,700). My community, which is usually ignored, attracts attention for high rates of uninsured (NM is second only to TX), and for leading the nation in overdose deaths. Espanola's citizens go unrecognized for their achievements.
Last Thursday, a crowd bigger than my entire town including upscale neighbors from nearby Santa Fe and Los Alamos Counties, was visible from my roof. I would like to introduce you to some of the people at the rally...friends and vecinos who struggle...friends and vecinos who have changed the way our country thinks about health care and economic justice, though we don't know them.
This is the story of our small community, our struggles, and our one big, wonderful day! (Scroll your cursor over photos).
October Surprise My celebration began the night before the rally. I held an impromptu Obama Pajama Wonderama for my kids.
Parents began dropping children off for the sleepover as the sun went down. Adults talked politics while kids screamed, danced, ran in circles or jumped on the trampoline. Music blared. Across the street, a few workers were setting up fences around the plaza. We could hear their hammers clang. The smell of beans and green chile wafted from my open kitchen window.
Inside my house children screamed. Somebody sprayed somebody with Febreeze.
My next door neighbor, Char, strolled up to the fence. She'd been out of town for a few days. "What's going on across the street?" she wanted to know. "Are they filming a sequel to Men in Black? And what's with the porta potties?"
"Obama's coming," I told her. "Tommorow morning. I got you a sign." I passed an "Obamanos!" sign over the fence. My friend, Case Crenshaw, owned a sign shop. He was selling them to finance a billboard on the Los Alamos Highway.
Char was incredulous. "Obama's coming? Here?" We live on the west side of Espanola, in the middle of the barrio. Our neighborhood is infamous for having some of the highest rates of heroin and multiple drug overdose death in the nation. Char moved into the abandoned house next door a few months ago. Her boyfriend, Will, cleared the property of old refrigerators and other debris, replacing it with interesting yard sale artifacts. He planted tomatoes in halved oil barrel planters, purchased an old van for Char, and rebuilt its engine at night after work.
Char's son, Michaelangelo, rode his bicycle up to the fence. "Who's Obama?" he asked.
"He's running for president, jito," Char explained. Then she said to me, "I gotta go to work tommorow."
"I wanna see the President, Mommy!" exclaimed Michaelangelo. "Please can we stay home and see the President?"
"The roads'll be blocked off," I told her. "You probably won't be able to get out anyway."
Meanwhile, a group of friends had gathered on my patio. They were sitting on steps or walls, or else squatting on the ground. "Sorry I don' have any chairs," I apologized. "This happened kind of suddenly."
"Who made those great signs?" asked Theo.
His eleven-year-old son Raini ran out of the house with Zack, Schaeffer and my own son Ben. They were carrying a bag of fireworks. "We're gonna light off some bottle rockets!" exclaimed Zack.
"No you're not!" ordered his mother, Jessie, who was from Santa Fe. "You're going to put them away." Jessie had just quit her job and didn't know what she was going to do next.
"I don't think the Secret Service will appreciate loud explosions in our yard," I told him. "You kids can light sparklers."
Then I turned to Theo, a potter from Chimayo. "Case made them," I said."
"Case, my next door neighbor?" asked Theo, surprised. "I'll get one from him."
As the sky grew dark and sparklers fizzed, the discussion turned towards politics. "I'm so excited this is happening," said Julie B., a house designer and mother to Schaeffer from nearby La Puebla. "I cancelled a job interview to go. I don't know how I'm going to pay the bills next week but I can't miss this. I'm impressed by Obama's self control. If it were me being personally attacked like that, I'd have lost my cool. He's really kept to the high road."
Jessie said, "I'm amazed by what he has accomplished. I can't imagine Harvard simply opened the doors to him run their Law Review. I never thought we'd consider a black man as president."
"I'm impressed by both Obama and Clinton in that regard," said Julie. "Even if you don't like Clinton's policies, you've got to respect her ability. How did the Republicans ever come up with Palin?"
Theo snorted. "It's an insult...might as well have nominated Wolf-Shooting Barbie!"
"You know," I cut in. "A few weeks ago, all this grass appeared on the Plaza. Everyone on Hill Street has complained about the dust for three years but grass just appeared out of nowhere. And yesterday, somebody came and cut the weeds here. It's as if Barack Obama came to my house, planted grass on the front lawn and mowed my weeds. When was the last time a president ever did that for you?"
My teen-age daughter Chloe stuck her head out the window. "Some of my friends' mothers up in Los Alamos today kept saying, 'Why Espanola?'"
"Espanola," echoed Julie. "Espanola! People are always making jokes about our town. But Barack Obama is coming to Espanola."
My Moment of Fear and Doubt
Later on, after Theo, Raini and Julie left, the three remaining boys were asleep, and the girls had turned off the music to whisper quietly, Jessie and I walked across the street to scope out the scene. The sound system was blaring what sounded like a recording of a jet taking off.
I approached one of the members of the advance team, a young, blonde woman in her mid-twenties. "Hi!" I greeted her. "I live across the street!"
The girl blushed. "Oh! I hope we're not disturbing you with all this noise!" she exclaimed.
"Not at all!" I assured her. "We're really glad you're here," Jessie added. "We just want to know where the Senator's going to speak."
The girl gestured to a stage in a protected corner of the plaza. I realized with dismay that I would not be able to see him from my roof. Suddenly, I felt excluded.
"I'm a little worried about the crowds," I explained. "I have two dogs and three cats and we have a bunch of kids sleeping over. Most of us have tickets. I'm trying to make up my mind whether to get in line, or to stay home and make sure nobody bothers my yard. There are going to be tons of people here from Los Alamos and Santa Fe. What if somebody jumps my fence or lets the dogs loose?"
"Oh, dear," said the girl. "I'm really sorry to cause so much disruption."
"But you're not!" I assured her again. "I want to complement you on your well-run campaign. It's the best national campaign I've ever seen. Your people here in Espanola...Lucas, Maria and Rene...are so humble. They came here and asked advice from everyone and now they have an army of locals supporting them. It's very hard for outsiders to assimilate here. But your campaign staff did. They don't stay in the office and man the phones. They go to peoples' homes. Obama's gonna win by a landslide because he's running his ground campaign like a real community organizer."
The girl's eyes misted up. "That means a lot to me," she said. "Thank you for telling me."The next day I would say the same thing to Lucas. His eyes would tear up as well.
Once the jet landed and shut off its engine and everyone else had gone to sleep, I began to worry. Why had I come to Espanola after graduate school in Tokyo? Barack Obama and I are the same age and we both come from working class neighborhoods in Chicago. We both graduated with fancy degrees. We both became community organizers.
But that's where the similarity ends. He was about to become President, and I had fallen so far behind that I couldn't even offer my guests chairs. My yard was filled with weeds that I could never permanently pull. I can't even temporarily pull them without presidential assistance. I stay up late at night writing diaries nobody reads. I struggle to start up new health care programs only to see old ones shut down. If I'd managed to impact a single policy, despite years of effort, I wasn't aware of it.
I felt as if I had spent my life operating a lemonade stand.
I understood for the first time how an intelligent person could take refuge in racism. Belief in an inferior class protects us from having to confront our own inadequacies. Barack Obama was causing me to acknowledge mine. How uncomfortable it is for white America to actually see the accomplishments of our neighbors in the barrios!
Obamanade: Made with a Sprinkling of Hope
By five a.m., a line was already forming across the street. Red tailights shone in the darkness. I ran through the house shouting "Get up! Get up!" The boys popped out of bed. The girls groaned.
I ground coffee as loudly as possible and clattered about the kitchen preparing a platter of bagels, lox and cream cheese. By six o'clock everyone was up and fed. I logged into Cheers and Jeers with a post about our ObamaPajamaWonderama. Stonepier suggested we set up a lemonade stand.
"That's a great idea!" screamed Jessie, clapping her hands. "We'll donate a portion of the proceeds to Obama!" Eleven year old boys began running circles around the house chanting, "Lemonade! Lemonade!"
Somebody said, "No! It's Obamanade!"
"The secret ingredient is HOPE!!!!!"
I was off to Wal-Mart momentarily to purchase supplies. By the time I got back, guests were arriving. Land of Enchantment(a blogger who frequents ePluribus Media) called, her voice brimming over with excitement. "I just passed Velarde!" she bubbled. "I've got a salad and three tickets!" I gave her directions to my house. "Anyway, you can't miss it," I told her. It's right across the street from a long line of school busses.
In the wee hours of the morning, they had barracaded the east side of the plaza with school busses, blocking the view from rooves of commercial buildings on the town's main artery. People were lining up beside the busses.
Julie B. rushed through the door with a pair of young men. "They're Obama volunteers!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "They're famished! Do you have any food?"
"I have leftover lox and bagels and scrambled eggs," I suggested. "Will that be okay?"
"Lox and bagels are AWESOME!" exclaimed one of the volunteers. They set into the platter with gusto. Julie was hovering over me with anticipation.
"Well???" she demanded. "Do you recognize them?"
"Umm, not really." I was puzzled.
"It's Max and Connor R!" Max had been in my kindergarten class almost twenty years ago. Now he had a beard. His father, Richard R., mounted a successful legal defense on behalf of those who'd been improperly detained after the courthouse raid in Tierra Amarilla in 1967. A group of Rio Arriba County residents, upset over the confiscation of their ancestral lands and over political persecution on the part of a DA, had stormed the courthouse. They planned to conduct a citizens' arrest of the DA. The DA was not present in the courthouse at the time. Police panicked and a shoot-out ensued. The raiders, disappointed by the absence of the D.A. grabbed correspondent Larry Calloway in his place. They released Larry after a few hours and disappeared into the forest. The National Guard moved in, rounded up random residents including senior citizens and pregnant women, and held them without food or water in manure-soaked cattle pens: a short-lived improvisational Guantanamo Bay in northern Rio Arriba.
"I'm disgusted," Richard confided when news of the modern Guantanamo Bay reached us. He sold his house and moved to Canada. But now the Rs were back.
"You look a lot different now," I said to Max.
I learned that he had just graduated from Reid College in Oregon and had no idea what he was going to do next.
A few moments later, Mary, Richard's wife, Max and Connor's mother (she once worked for Larry Calloway, the reported abducted in the 1967 incident), clattered through the door followed by Land of Enchantment carrying a huge bowl of salad. "Can I use your computer?" asked LoE, disappearing into my study.
"Look, Mom, Look!" My son, Ben, thrust a set of papers under my nose before I could answer her.
"See ya!" shouted Max as he, Connor, Mary and Julie clattered noisily back out the door.
"I made signs for the Obamanade stand!" shouted Ben, excitedly.
I took the papers. On one, he had written, "If you're tired of trauma, vote Obama." The second sign was a limerick:
"There once was a man nAmed mcainWho was born without a brain, His polls were failin', So he VPd Palin, And now we're all in pain."
"Those are great, Ben!" I told him.
"What's that?" I pointed at a complicated cardboard contraption he had assembled. "It's a money box!" replied Zack. "We put a 'CHANGE' sign on it."
"Can we have some money to put in it?" asked Schaeffer. I handed them a bunch of singles and quarters. They hooted, grabbed the box and ran out the door.
"I'm gonna go get in line!" shouted LoE, and another door banged closed.
"I'll help with the Obamanade," offered Jessie.
"Thanks," I told her. "I'm going to check out the view from my roof." I ran around the backside of my house and clambered unsteadily up a ladder, camera in hand. I'd never been on the roof. I'm afraid of heights.
"Hey!" shouted Land of Enchantment from my driveway. "What are you doing up there?" I snagged a photo of her photographing me. Then I shot another photo of Kathy P, a substance abuse counselor in my office, carrying a cake into my house. Kathy provides intensive case management to pregnant substance abusing women. She helps them to access prenatal care, substance abuse treatment, housing and parenting classes. She organizes people to throw baby showers. Our first baby was born a few months ago. She was healthy and substance free.
Amber L, our director of case management services, hid behind her coat when she saw me pointing my camera in her direction. She oversees intensive case management for released jail inmates, IV drug users, and pregnant substance abusing women. Amber, Melissa and the rest of the staff have enrolled over 200 Rio Arribans in low cost health insurance in the past twelve months.
"Hey, Lauren!" shouted a voice behind me. I turned to see workers from the methadone clinic next door to my house. "What're you doing on that roof?!!"
Usually I can't see the clinic. It's obscured by a wall. I snapped a picture of JR. "I was trying to photograph the rally," I told him. "But I can't see it. So I'm shooting photos of driveway action instead."
"Can I come over after work?" asked JR. "Sure!" I told him. My phone buzzed in my pocket alerting me to a message.
I listened to Julie B. proselytizing the volunteers. She didn't realize she had called me. "Hey! Hey! You guys!" she was shouting. "My friend Lauren lives across the street in the house with the red roof! You ought to go over to her house and get some breakfast! You don't have to use porta potties! You can use her bathroom if you want to!" She must have been hollering at Max and Connor.
Suddenly, I felt a wave of deja vu.
Special Guest Entrance
By the time I made my way down the driveway, the Obamanade Brigade had raked in $30. VIPs were beginning to gather at the Special Guest Entrance across the street from my house. A few of them wandered over to buy an Obamanade and say hello.
"Did you save me a parking space in your driveway?" joked Alfredo Montoya, Chairman of our Board of Rio Arriba County Commissioners. As a politician, he reminds me of Obama. He ousted the entrenched democratic leadership in Rio Arriba in the early 90s, running a strong door-to-door campaign. He wins landslide elections by incorporating the dreams of disenfranchised voters into the local party platform. Alfredo listens. And, like Obama, the previous regime had emptied the coffers by the time he took the helm. He built a government out of nothing. He would say he had little to do with it...that it was his supporters who did all the work. "These efforts are not about me," he has always said. "They are about you."
When the Federal Government tried to turn Rio Arriba into a poster child for its War on Drugs, Alfredo stood up to them. "We're not going to declare war on our own people," he said. "Addiction is a chronic disease and we are in the midst of an epidemic. This is a public health issue. We need opportunities for treatment, jobs and education. We need to use the principles of epidemiology to develop an effective response." He led an effort to purchase and renovate a residential treatment center. Hoy Recovery Program, which runs the center for the County, has forged a relationship with a university in Mexico. They are testing the use of curenderissimo, native Hispanic healing practices, in treatment. They incorporate sweat lodges and teach work skills through operation of a small organic farm.
"Have you seen Moises?" Alfredo asked me. "He's up the street with Felipe," I answered. Moises Morales is a former County Commissioner and our current County Clerk-elect. He was one of the courthouse raiders in 1967 as well as a founder of one of America's first minority-run community health clinics. At one point, he was wrongly accused of planting bombs in the Puerto Rican movement (he's a farmer from Canjilon, pop 1,901. He had never met a Puerto Rican.) Richard R, Max's Dad, defended him. The case was dismissed.
(A few days later I had lunch with claude, author of Saturday Morning Home Repair Blogging at Daily Kos. "I remember Moises Morales from the 70s!" he exclaimed. "I was an anglo hippie up in Dixon just north of Espanola. He and his friends were starting a new political party. He came to Dixon to recruit us. What was the name of that party?" he asked. "La Raza Unida?" I supplied.)
Now I smiled at Alfredo. It suddenly seemed less important that I didn't have lawn furniture or even a lawn.
Alfredo took off to look for Moises and Joseph Maestas, Espanola's mayor, strolled by, working the crowd of Obamanade customers. "Joseph!" I teased him. "Why aren't you running for VP? Espanola has 9,000 people and you've got good gams!" Later, during his opening address, he would congratulate the crowd, "You've just doubled the size of Espanola!"
State Representative Nick Salazar, who has carried many health care bills for me, stopped to say hello as did Lisa Trujillo, a Chimayo weaver and advocate for mental health parity.
Roger Montoya, a well-known artist and dancer trotted past the stand with an Obama sign. "They tried to arrest me because I had a sign!" he shouted. Roger created Ballet Folklorico, an after-school dance program that involves Espanola children in flamenco, hip-hop and ballet.
("Do you know Dottie Montoya?" Claude would ask me when we went to lunch. "Oh, yes!" I exclaimed, delighted to share a common acquaintance. Dottie, a nurse, is a dynamic health care organizer. She is also Roger's mother. He said, "My brother is married to her daughter." "Well then you must know Roger!" I told him about Roger and his sign.)
Sandy and Jeff, from my African Dance class, stopped by for an Obamanade. Jeff is a map-maker living one block north of me on Bond St. Sandy organized our dance class to adopt a baby whose mother Jamila, one of our dancemates, died in childbirth. Jamila and her husband were Nigerian. Although Jamila's husband lived in the US, Children's Services placed the little girl in foster care. Sandy raised enough money through our dance class to return Jamila's body to Nigeria for burial and hire a lawyer to defend her husband and infant. Now Jamila's baby and Jamila's brother live in Santa Fe. Her widower sometimes visits as well.
Other people from my dance class helped to make this wonderful Obama dance and music video:
Meanwhile, across the street, Patsy Trujillo-Knauer, Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Aging and Long Term Care, was working feverishly to find comfortable protected seats for disabled or elderly rally-goers. Some of them were seated under umbrellas in the parking lot of the Rio Grande Cafe, adjacent to my driveway. I saw Becky A., owner of the cafe and parking lot, and chef extraordinaire, in the crowd.
"I'm gonna go check on the girls," I told Jessie, and wandered down the street. By this time, the Obamanade stand had grossed $60.
On the way, I bumped into Nancy C., another neighbor. Nancy is working with a group of people in town to open up an organic food coop. Unbeknownst to us, at that moment, Secret Service agents were crawling on the roof of Nancy's garage and shining lights in her garage windows to rule out the possibility she might be mounting a sniper attack.
I handed her a flyer for a bond issue. "Vote Yes on Bond C," I informed her. "We're building a new health commons for Rio Arriba Health and Human Services, the Espanola Public Health Office, and El Centro Family Health. It's a one-stop shop." An Obama volunteer handed me a case of water bottles to distribute in line.
Chloe and her friends were in high spirits because they had spots near the front. "We're gonna get right up to the stage!" Chloe exclaimed. In fact, she and her friends from Los Alamos High School, Heather K., Madison B., Chris T. and Dane, did get close to the stage. Heather fainted but Chloe captured some video on Heather's camera.
I elbowed my way through the crowd back to the Obamanade Brigade.
Suddenly, I had an idea! I didn't need a roof! I could use a stepladder!
I carted the ladder around the house and leaned it against a fence in my driveway, beside a the Secret Service van discretely disguised as a U-Haul trailer. Paintings of cacti on the side helped it to blend in. If it weren't for the men in black that kept checking on it, nobody would have realized it wasn't moving day in the parking lot of the Rio Grande Cafe.
I picked up the ladder and trotted off down the street. "Hey! Lauren! Where are you going with that ladder?" someone shouted. Ben Ray Lujan and his campaign manager, Carlos Trujillo had been making their way up Hill Street, pressing the flesh. They were laughing at me.
"Cat stuck in a tree?" asked Ben Ray who is running for Tom Udall's congressional seat.
"Nope," I responded. "But there's more than one way to skin a feline, you know. The porta potties're blocking the view from my roof so I thought I'd make my own view."
I had last seen Carlos about seven years ago. He was twenty then, and furious with me for a political decision I'd made. "I can't believe you are doing this," he had sputtered. "If you were a politico, I'd understand it! I'm so disappointed in you!"
"The difference between being forty and being twenty," I said rather wearily at the time, "is that when you are twenty, you are disappointed in others. When you are forty, you have disappointed yourself so many times that you have no expectations of anyone else. Some day, you'll probably understand."
Now Carlos was a politico. He looked the part with a tie, a sharp suit, dark glasses and a buzz cut. "I want you to know," he was saying, "that we are so glad you want to write about Ben Ray. I was happy you called me. I admire Alfredo Montoya so much. I understand now that sometimes you have to make compromises to get things done. And you folks at the county have done a lot."
I was delighted to heal old wounds. "I always knew you had a good heart," I told him. "I knew you were young."
"Good," he said. We shook hands. I hugged Ben Ray and we made an appointment for the interview. I looked for a place to plant my step-ladder. They shook some more hands.
Before I could find a spot for the ladder, I saw two men obviously not from Espanola walking up Hill Street with cameras. They did not look as if they spoke the same language as my vecinos. Fortunately, I am fluent in bubblehead.
"Hi!!!!" I ran up to them and dropped the ladder noisily on the ground. "You must be from the real press!!! Mind if I take your picture for the blogs?" Too bad Chloe wasn't with me. She would have been mortified.
The well-coiffed of the pair looked at me as if I had offered him a Petri dish brimming with plague bacillii.I snapped his photo before he could object, grabbed the ladder and ran down the street.
I planted it firmly beside a TV truck.
I was looking through my camera at a man seated on a tree stump several stories high, wondering what sort of ladder he had used, when a pair of Udall staffers materialized.
"Are you planning to stand on that ladder during the speeches?" one of them asked. They were the first Udall staffers I had seen in Espanola.
"Yes," I said. "That was my plan."
They conferred among themselves in loud whispers. I looked behind me. There was nobody there.
One of the staffers cleared her throat. "Would you mind moving your ladder a few inches to the left?" she asked.
I climbed down and moved the ladder three inches to the left. Then I resumed my perch.
"Thank you!" said the staffers. They melted off into the crowd.
Soon, familiar faces began popping up around me. Ben, Zack and Schaeffer took a break from the Obamanade stand (they had collected $100) while Jessie walked through the crowd with a tray hawking the drink. My secretary, Tina R. climbed onto a TV truck beside me.
Mayor Maestas, Ben Ray Lujan, Jill Cooper Udall and Bill Richardson all spoke. I have no idea what they said. I was too busy watching the crowd.
While they were speaking, an army of men and women in blue marched up the street. "What sort of police are you?" I asked.
"We're screeners," they answered...the people in airports who check your bags.
At last, the big moment came. I was hungry and thirsty and I'd been out in the sun for seven hours. My hands were shaking.
Barak Obama strode out onto the stage. I captured a photo of his midsection and one of his armpit. Then my camera blinked out. The battery was dead.
"Shit!" I muttered, climbing off my ladder.
"Hey, can I go up there?" asked a stranger with a camera. "Sure," I answered. "How about you?" I asked another woman. Soon, a long line of people had formed. I let them all use my ladder to shoot photos of Barak Obama while he pounded McCain on economic issues.
When they were finished, I moved the ladder to a different spot and invited other photographers to climb aboard.
The speech ended and the boys rushed back to our yard to ring our church bell. I could hear it clanging loudly in the background. "Hey Lauren," yelled a woman's voice. It was my good friend, Annette V.
I met Annette after her daughter was murdered. Venessa had been ten years old. She was diabetic. One day, Annette and Vennessa arrived home early, surprising a burglar, an addict who was searching for Nessie's needles. He shot Annette and then Vennessa. The little girl died in Annette's arms, crying, "Mommy! Mommy!"
I had been organizing our community to build Espanola's first public playground. We held a "name the playground" contest in the schools. The winning entry was "Venessa's Hideaway." Annette joined me then, becoming first the champion of the playground, and later of substance abuse treatment programs. We built the playground together. And when it was finished, we held a huge opening in the park. Two thousand people attended.
It always amazes me to see Annette at rallies. I wonder what sort of faith drives her to continue believing in the goodness of her fellow human beings. "Let's go to lunch sometime soon," she said. And then she added, "My parents are both pretty ill these days. I'm spending a lot of time with them."
I said good-bye to Annette and carted the ladder back to my driveway. Crowds of people were buying up the last of the Obamanade. "We made $130!" shouted Zack gleefully. "We're giving $60 to Obama!"
"Did you get a picture?" asked Jessie. "You waited for hours on that ladder."
"No," I told her. "My camera died just as I got him in focus." I sighed. It was time to begin preparing dinner for the people who would soon gather in my yard.
"What's your email?" asked a woman drinking Obamanade. Her name was Arianna. I had never met her before.
She sent me this: