Northern New Mexico residents saw Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli perform for free during the Rio Arriba County Health Fair on Aug. 17 at Northern New Mexico College. (SUNfoto by Austin Fisher of Rio Grande Sun)

By Austin Fisher, SUN Staff Writer, Aug 24, 2018, Rio Grande Sun

Northern New Mexico recovery advocates are reframing the public conversation around drug abuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal one. During Rio Arriba County’s yearly health fair on Aug. 17, advocates said Española and its neighboring communities are capable of overcoming the area’s problem with addiction.

“What we’re trying to do here is trying to love each other and trying to start a new day,” Pablo Irlando-Wildman, Creative Director and Campaign Director of A New Normal.Life, said. “We’re not judging people who have drug addiction; we’re helping them. We’re showing them the way to recovery. And we’re supporting the people that are supporting them, including all of the recovery workers out there.”

A lot of people that work in recovery are recovering themselves, he said. The expanded version of the health fair, organized by the County Community Health Council, Northern New Mexico College, and local opioid addiction and recovery providers, attracted thousands of students and residents. The decades-long crisis in Rio Arriba County has been marked most prominently by a rate of fatal overdoses worse than almost all of the United States.

The biggest draw of the health fair was a concert headlined by the Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli. Just before the band took the stage, advocates said Northern New Mexico communities will not arrest their way out of the problem.

“We can beat this epidemic, si se puede, Española,” Irlando-Wildman said. Earlier during the health fair, hundreds of elementary and high school students attended a screening of public service announcement videos about opiate use disorder and overdose deaths, produced by Irlando-Wildman and Monica Griego as part of A New Normal.Life, a public education and public health campaign.

Organizers gave away free Naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug, and trained people on how to use it. Students also went to a college fair, and a private children’s concert by Ozomatli. Local lowrider enthusiasts showed off their cars, and more than 60 organizations set up booths to distribute information about services.

“The purpose of the campaign and the videos–we want people to have pride in the community,” County Health and Human Resources Director Lauren Reichelt said. “We used local actors, local scenery, and we dramatized different challenges that are faced by families and by people in recovery. The purpose was to enable people to empathize with them. We don’t want people to think of individuals suffering from a chronic disease as criminals. We want them to empathize and say, ‘Oh, I’ve been there. I’ve experienced that.’ By building empathy for one another, that’s how we’re going to build a strong community, and it’s how we’re going to build a community that supports and encourages recovery.”

Making empathy a common part of local culture will affect policy around treatment and addiction in general, she said. “Once you begin to empathize with people, and realize that they are people suffering from a chronic disease, then you care for them, instead of trying to punish them,” she said. “We’re not going to punish people out of this disease. We have to come together and care for one another.”

Reichelt hopes the event changes people’s perceptions and tells them that the community can pull off big things and build confidence in one another. “I really hope it builds pride in the College, for our community, and they see what a vibrant place it is,” she said. “I hope those kids who are at that concert got really excited, and some of them decide they want careers in music. I hope that bringing people together like this makes us stronger.”

Event co-coordinator Roger Montoya told the concert crowd they need to be reminded of the power of local families and their commitment to overcome anything that comes their way. “If any community can overcome this epidemic, and any other that comes after it, this is the community,” he said. “This disease, this disorder can have an end, an entry point to a beautiful life, a beginning.”

Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham gave a speech as part of her campaign for New Mexico governor. “This community will fight for every family member, everyone who lives here, so that we create a new normal, which is a strong, resilient, drug-free, high education, great job–that this will be the leading community for the entire state of New Mexico,” she said. “You deserve a state government that believes in you the way that you believe in you. So how about treatment centers, and how about real behavioral health, and how about making sure no wrong door has easy access? How about real jobs, how about an education system that supports you, from early education all the way to realize your dreams?”

She honored eight women leading work in recovery in the area, including Reichelt and Barrios Unidos President Lupe Salazar. “We need to stop criminalizing addiction,” Salazar said. “Many of these guys and girls, they’re stereotyped. There is a stigma. They see them and say, ‘Let’s run ‘em in.’ The idea that many of these people get back into town, and they’re not clean. And they go right back. We need to stop that.”

She said a first good step is the launch of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, in which police, County health department officials, and the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office will provide support services to people who have committed non-violent crimes while coping with problematic opiate use, rather than jailing and prosecuting them.