The receptionist handed her a form that instructed her to check a box to identify her race. She checked three boxes:
The principal told her she needed to pick a box—and that the school received federal funding when it
of its “problem population.”
Rangel took back the form. This time, the smartass checked Caucasian. The principal was not amused, but there wasn’t a thing he could do. After all, that’s what Rangel’s birth certificate says.
Despite her birth certificate, Rangel identifies as Native American. But it wasn’t until she moved to New Mexico that she was able to do so without feeling ostracized.
“I was telling my Lubbock High friends that I find the most peace here,” she tells SFR. “I find a lot of comfort here, because I am allowed to be who I am and people don’t lock their doors when they see me coming down the street.”
In Lubbock, she says, people sneered at her on the street. Security guards followed her around stores. Boyfriends wouldn’t bring her home to meet their parents.
Rangel’s life story reflects, in many ways, the modern Native American experience; after years of living in the diaspora, she finally returned to a place connected to her roots, where she feels a sense of homecoming. At the same time, as a single mother with health issues who was recently fired by the City of Santa Fe, Rangel’s life has included the same confrontations with poverty and desperation as her ancestors’.
There are marked similarities between Rangel’s journey and that of Kathleen Jacobson, a Canadian-born
, who traveled coast to coast before settling in Santa Fe as a dual citizen. Like Rangel, she has found a sense of home here. But she also faces losing that home as she battles against the criminal justice system and faces jail.
These women have more in common than heritage, single motherhood, economic status and the fact that both criss-crossed the continent before returning to their ancestral lands. Though their stories are unique, they also betray the frustration common to disadvantaged people when they are defeated by a system that doesn’t always recognize who they are.
Rangel doesn't know why her birth certificate says she's white.
"On my birth certificate it also says that my mother is Maria Linda Cantu and my father is Geraldo Rangel, who works at El Sombrero Restaurant," she says. "And yet everyone is marked 'Caucasian.'''
Rangel's best researched guess is that she's a combination of Apache, Navajo and Spanish, with perhaps a dash of German. Her great-grandfather on her mother's side, the tales tell, was a Mescalero Apache. At 8 years old, the same age as Rangel's son, he witnessed the murder of his family. Little Willito was captured and condemned to a boarding school until he escaped to Mexico. He became a migrant farmer and crossed back across the border to Texas, where he met and married Rangel's great-grandmother, a Jicarilla Apache. They had a daughter who, in turn, married a Spanish refugee and gave birth to Rangel's mother.
Her grandmother on her father's side has a story just as harrowing and triumphant; as a Navajo child, her mother spirited her away from US soldiers, riding horseback down the Rio Grande, and left her to be raised by a Mexican family. Rangel's grandmother married a Spanish Mexican and together they produced the El Sombrero employee.
Jacobson's heritage is vague. Raised in a foster home in Canada until she was adopted by white Baptists, she grew up with an undeniable Christian surname and three conflicting birth certificates. Years later, a reunification service helped her meet her biological mother and she confirmed that she was half-Inuit, half-Diné.
Jacobson's journey to Santa Fe is just as epic as Rangel's genealogy. A medicine man named Wandering Spirit became Jacobson's father figure, teaching her about her native culture. From Spirit, Jacobson learned about natural symbology, how to keep an eagle eye trained for small details of meaning and moments of serendipity. There was the night of her pregnancy, when she waded through blood red waters from a hobbit-town hippie commune on Tofino Island to mainland British Columbia. There was the eagle she saw out the window of the Vancouver to Seattle bus. Then there was July 4, 1999, in New York City. Walking down the street, her eagle eyes spied a shoe box in a plastic bag by the side of a building. Inside the bag, beneath the box, she found a wad of bills in red elastic. The $2,500 got her and her daughter to Kauai.
Even though she was born in Canada, the date became her personal Independence Day.
Valerie Rangel doesn't celebrate Independence Day.
"I just don't," she says quizzically. "I mean, why would I? I might take Alcion to see Wall-E later."
It's the perfect summer blockbuster for the mom and son. Alcion is 8 years old, with an accompanying attention span that's as short as his imagination is wide, and Wall-E is a heart-thumping robot cartoon, as sparse on dialogue as it is fat with eye candy.
But it's also based on the premise that human waste, taken to the extreme, could make the planet uninhabitable for hundreds of years.
Rangel used to be an expert on that subject.
Rangel's son leans clumsily across the glass table to spread out his mother's grad school presentation, but the poster is larger than his wingspan. The lamination reflects a glare from the fluorescent lights in the snug box SFR uses as a conference room. When Rangel gently lifts it from his hands, Alcion waits a moment, then begins pulling out examples of her artwork from a portfolio. She has brought an armful of evidence. Alcion has appointed himself her co-counsel and is attempting to introduce Exhibits P, Q and R while she's still explaining Exhibit A, her letter of termination from the City of Santa Fe.
Rangel offers for inspection the letter, addressed to her, dated Feb. 1, 2008, from City Manager Galen Buller. The missive serves two functions: It dismisses her complaint of harassment against her former supervisor and it informs her that, "in the best interest of the city," they are letting her go. She has not survived her probationary employment period because she is "not a good fit."
This offends Rangel. She's a hard and honest worker with a passion for water and a master's degree in environmental science from the University of New Mexico. She relocated to Santa Fe for the job. If not her, she asks, what kind of match are they looking for in a water conservation specialist?
The city can fire employees during their first six months for any reason; Buller writes it's because she missed work every pay period since she was hired.
Rangel reaches next for her personal medical records, a manila folder of spreadsheets detailing dates, doctors, prescriptions. In December 2007, when she had just started her job, her health changed suddenly and dramatically. Almost overnight, she says, she became intolerant to wheat and corn, put on weight and began suffering severe symptoms of asthma. The doctors ordered a barrage of tests and follow-ups and that's why she missed work. The specialists still don't know what's wrong.
But Rangel doesn't buy the claim about her absences. She believes the city had another motive.
In mid-January, Rangel and her supervisor had a confrontation over her absences, her request to drop from 40 to 37 hours per week and her arrival at 7 am rather than 8:30 am that morning.
That afternoon, she reported to her boss' boss, Water Division Director Gary Martinez, that her supervisor had thrown office items and screamed at her. Because she'd left feeling shaken, threatened and disrespected, Martinez agreed to move Rangel to another building while the city investigated.
Probationary employees with the city are not eligible to file formal grievances or pursue union representation, but they may report incidents under other city policies. For example, all workers are protected by the city's zero tolerance Workplace Violence Policy, which prohibits "displays of force or other act(s) that would give a person reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm." Per the policy, Martinez suggested Rangel seek mediation or other services from the city's Employee Assistance Program. Rangel turned him down, saying she was uncomfortable speaking to her supervisor face-to-face after the incident.
Instead of being investigated as workplace violence, the complaint was handled by the Human Resources Department as discriminatory harassment. Then, when Rangel couldn't identify anything specifically racist or sexist about the incident, the case was dropped by the city's Equal Employment Opportunity administrator. City employees are prohibited from discussing personnel matters.
"I didn't think what was going on with my supervisor was racism at first," Rangel says. "I just thought here was a person who wants to abuse his power and just likes to intimidate people. I didn't feel it was prejudice until they fired me."
When the case was concluded, Rangel was fired not only because of the absences, the letter implies, but because of the problems that went with having her work from a building separate from her department. Under the city policy, retaliation against an employee who has filed a harassment complaint is illegal so Rangel filed another with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That complaint also was dismissed. Rangel has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision.
"You know, the job was great once they moved me to the other building," Rangel says. "I just wish I could have stayed there or transferred to another job in the Water Division."
She gives Alcion the nod that now it's time to show examples of her work. Together they hold down the corners of her master's dissertation, which she's proud to say was used outside academia in a public health presentation for the Pueblos. Alcion leans over the table with designs Rangel drew by hand in her off hours with the hope that the city's Water Conservation Division might use it as its new logo.
The emblem is a pair of praying hands waiting beneath a hanging drop of water.
A few days later, Jacobson sits at the same glass table beneath the same fluorescent lights more commonly used by SFR to grill politicians.
Today, the tabletop is covered edge-to-edge with sandwiches left over from a staff lunch. Jacobson's eyes widen as the plates are split like the Red Sea to make room for the interview. Of late, she's made her dinners using goods from the food bank.
When she arrived in Santa Fe in March 2001, Jacobson and her daughter spent their first nine months in a family shelter. Over the years, she's collected government assistance and moved homes several times, often relying on the kindness of others.
July 4, 2008, was Jacobson's first day in a new apartment paid for, in part, by Section 8 assistance. Jacobson makes money on the side through odd jobs, often house-sitting. Though she's cultivated a repertoire of office computer skills, it hasn't made sense to apply for anything permanent.
How do you tell a prospective employer that you've got a 364-day jail sentence pending appeal?
At approximately the same time the city manager was applying his signature to Rangel's termination letter, Judge Anthony Segura of Santa Fe Magistrate Court was signing a 364-day jail sentence for Jacobson, who was charged with "battery against a household member." It was her first offense and, in her version of the story, self-defense against a man who had already been arrested once for assaulting her.
According to the arresting officer's statement of probable cause: On a summer night in 2007, Robert Medrano, a former acquaintance with jealous tendencies, turned up at Jacobson's home. When he discovered her having beers with Daniel Van Fleet, a local Native American artist, he exploded and began calling her a "slut." He left only to return a short time later and they argued again. Jacobson ordered him to leave and followed Medrano outside.
SFPD officers arrived to find Medrano with two "minor bleeding scratches" beneath his eye. Jacobson admitted to clawing his face, then biting his chest when he grabbed her shirt and pulled her close to him.
"I explained to her that she should have called the police for assistance rather than striking Mr. Medrano," SFPD officer John Van Etten wrote in his signed statement. "Ms. Jacobson told me she does not like to call the police."
Both were arrested; Medrano on a failure to appear charge and Jacobson for battery against a household member.
Jacobson spent two nights in jail. She was convicted in Magistrate Court and sentenced to 364 days in jail, with 334 days suspended and two days credited for time served—a total of 28 days, not including probation and domestic violence courses.
"The night I came out of Magistrate Court, I felt defiled," she says. "I felt raped by the system."
Jacobson isn't as organized as Rangel in presenting her story. She skips around, but always comes back to the public defender assigned to represent her, Elena Moreno (who is no longer with the Public Defender Department and could not be reached for comment). Jacobson says the Public Defender Department rarely returned her calls or answered her letters, even when she asked them to take a statement from Van Fleet, the sole adult witness, who had been hospitalized for a related illness. Van Fleet died shortly after her trial completed.
But in telling her story, she forgets a key event.
Three years earlier, Jacobson experienced nearly the exact same situation with Medrano, who is described in the 2004 probable cause statement as her "ex-boyfriend," though Jacobson denies there was ever a romantic relationship. Medrano became enraged when he discovered a male friend was helping her move into her apartment.
"Medrano came by and began harassing her, calling her a 'whore,'" the reporting SFPD officer Mark Waite writes. "Medrano became more and more verbally abusive, claiming in front of her 9-year-old daughter, Gabriella Wandering Spirit, that she was having sex with the man who was helping her move."
Jacobson, her friend and her daughter beelined it out of the apartment complex. On bike, Medrano caught up with them in an arroyo and grabbed Jacobson by the shoulders. He swung her around, clamped onto her left ear, and made her look into his eyes while he called her a "whore."
Jacobson broke free and ran to the nearby Albertsons grocery, where she called the cops. They arrested Medrano, who claimed he had only tried to give her a hug.
Medrano was never fully prosecuted; the District Attorney's Office dropped the domestic violence charge after Medrano's public defender filed a motion to evaluate his mental competency. In fact, Medrano has several criminal cases on his record, including drug possession, resisting arrest, passing bad checks and smuggling drugs into a prison. All but one of the cases were dismissed by prosecutors or the court because either he was found incompetent to stand trial or because by the time the bench warrants caught up with him, the case was too old to try.
When asked why Jacobson was prosecuted when they let Medrano go, Assistant District Attorney Yvonne Chicoine declined to discuss the specifics.
"We take domestic violence very seriously," she tells SFR, before ending the conversation. "She was convicted by a jury of her peers and so that should say something."
According to Jacobson, all the verdict says is that she didn't get a fair shake.
SFR faxed the paper evidence from both cases to a selection of criminal defense attorneys and women's rights advocates in Santa Fe. While most were unwilling to speak on the record without seeing the full evidence of the case, most also said that Rangel's sentence was extreme for a first offense.
"That sort of sentence isn't unheard of, but it's certainly unusual," defense attorney Mark Donatelli tells SFR. "But I think, because it was her home and he had a history, I think she could've mounted a successful self-defense argument."
Jacobson's case will be re-tried under appeal in First Judicial District Court later this year. The court will have the authority to hand down a new sentence or abandon it. This time, the Public Defender Department has assigned her a lawyer in private practice, Cindy Turcotte, who has asked for, but not yet received, a three-month continuance so she can properly research the case.
Jacobson is by nature upbeat, but she says her experience in the court system has taught her not to hold out hope. She's already making arrangements for where her daughter will live if she's incarcerated; Jacobson is afraid that if her daughter is not in a stable home with two parents the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department will take her away.
As Jacobson packs up her documents to leave SFR, she is offered as many sandwiches as she likes.
"Heck, yeah!" she says. And, with a turkey sandwich wrapped in a napkin, she waves goodbye and pedals off on her bicycle.
"My faith in law enforcement has been restored!" Jacobson announces in an interview a few weeks later.
As if her legal situation isn't difficult enough, a thief stole her bicycle, her only means of transportation, right from the courthouse during her last status hearing. Santa Fe County Sheriff's deputies were all over it; they reviewed the surveillance tape, identified the perp and tracked her bike to Santa Rosa. She picked it up this morning.
She sits cross-legged with her daughter in a comfy nook of blankets and pillows on the floor of her new apartment, obtained with the assistance of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The condo may be bare of furniture, but she has all her memories and property around her.
The walls are lined with boxes, the TV stand with DVDs, including Kauai By Air, and the kitchen bar is cluttered with bric-a-brac. A plastic box of bundled sage sits on the floor, a box set of Smashing Pumpkins CDs on the shelf above it. That's hers, not her daughter's. Gabriella prefers Slipknot.
Gabriella is 13 years old and says Santa Fe is "cool" before flip-flopping and adding that "it kinda sucks, too." Jacobson would love to return to Hawaii when this case is over with—especially if she receives an expected windfall inheritance from her Canadian tribe's oil and gas rights. Gabriella, on the hand, would rather stay with her friends and hang at Warehouse 21. Gabriella gives her mom the puke-face when she's told that, if worse comes to worst and the judge upholds the sentence, she can expect to spend a month in Rio Rancho.
"Rio Rancho? Ugh," Gabriella whines. "Rio Rancho sucks."
Gabriella hasn't attended most of her mother's court dates, simply because she's scared to see Medrano in person. She screws up her face when she describes his "wild eyes" the nights that the police had to come out, first when she was 9 and again when she was 12.
Jacobson says she is suffering from post-traumatic stress. While her daughter sleeps, she's up at 4 am every morning with anxiety about her case and the eventual possibility of imprisonment.
"When I went to jail the first time, I felt like it killed a part of my spirit," she says. "I think a month or a year in jail would hurt me more than the typical person."
Gabriella thinks its "cool" her mom is speaking publicly about the situation. Of course, she's got to play cool about it herself.
"If anybody laughs at my picture in the newspaper," she threatens with a smile, "You tell them, I'm gonna come after them."
While Jacobson settles into her new apartment, a few miles away Rangel prepares to leave her house and the hogan of sticks Alcion is building in the backyard. Since losing her job, she's been rationing her tax refund to pay the rent. If she doesn't find work by the end of July, she will probably move back to Albuquerque where there are more jobs and the housing is cheaper.
Of course, the trade-off is that Santa Fe is more convenient for people suffering from extreme food allergies.
"What color do you pick?" Alcion suddenly asks, dropping a multi-colored assortment of tiny plastic train cars on the table.
"No, we're not going to play a game," she tells him in a voice lower and quieter than it was three weeks earlier. "He wants to play this train game. Let me answer these questions, OK."
The house is dedicated to Alcion. Items around the house are labeled with small slips of paper to help with his sight-reading. An easel mounted with paper stands in the corner, displaying Alcion's spelling and penmanship exercises. Being unemployed has been very good for their relationship.
It's not that other jobs haven't been offered to Rangel. The problem is that the jobs she has been offered require field work and her health just won't permit it. The doctor's theorize that the latest development, her vocal distortion, might be a side effect of her medications. But, if her voice doesn't return in the next month or two, they'll order a biopsy to rule out cancer.
"I feel bad declining these jobs, but I'm just not up for the fight with my health," she says. "I've got to have an employer who is going to be understanding if I'm sick because I had chemo. Can I continue to work at home and get what I need to do done? I need an employer who is going to be a little more reasonable about my circumstances. It's a lot to ask, I know, but that's what I'm hoping to find."
When the interview ends, Rangel sits with her son on the floor with the train game. Alcion has it all set up. The board is a map of industrial era North America, with train routes and destinations that players need to link with tiny plastic cars. Drawing cards from a deck is also somehow involved. Rangel bends the rules to expedite a win because, she knows, he'll be bored with it before they're even halfway through.
The board fills up with the primary colored train cars, from Vancouver to New York to San Francisco and even Santa Fe, until, finally, the plastic pieces are strung like beaded jewelry across the neck of the continent.
This game is over; but there are many miles left in the greater journey.