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The modern Native American experience is a struggle for identity—and justice.

July 16, 2008, 12:00 am

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.

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